September 14, 2007

Ode to Nicholas: A Song for the Unsung

Category: News — Ira @ 7:08 pm


“……Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the
least of these, ye did it not to me.”
—Matthew 25:45

Every community has that odd family. They’re different. Dress different. Talk different. Act different. The family whose children are mocked and savaged without mercy and without remorse.

In the Aylmer community where I was born, that different family was Solomon Herrfort’s. Solomon moved to Aylmer as a single man. He emerged from the backwater area of the plain and very conservative Milverton, Ontario community. Of his background and ancestry I know little. Herrfort is not a common Amish surname.

In Aylmer, he worked as a hired hand for my uncle, Bishop Peter Yoder. Once, during that time (so the story is told), Solomon was working in a field along the road, building a fence. He hung his coat on a fence post and kept on working. Along came a tramp (I guess there were tramps back then) and took up an axe lying there on the ground and tried to split the post on which Solomon had hung his coat. I’m not sure if the tramp succeeded or how Solomon reacted.

Solomon later married Esther Gascho, daughter of Noah and Nancy Gascho. They settled on a small farm a few miles northwest of our home. He was different, no question about it. He was small, lean and wiry and had a wild shock of unruly orange hair and a stringy dirty-orange beard. He was a bit slow and eccentric and hard of hearing. The children made fun of him and said he had wax in his ears. His typical response to any comment was a prolonged “Ooohhh,” probably because he couldn’t hear what was said to him. A grove of tall trees obscured the dull brick house on his farm at all times, even on the sunniest day. The house itself was spooky, with many sharply-peaked gables. It was always gloomy; no bright lights ever shone from the windows after dark. The only light was the pale, flickering glow of the dismal little kerosene flame lamps that were used in their home.

Solomons never took their turn holding church services in their home like other families. Solomon never led a song in church. They rarely socialized with other families and not at all evenings, as Solomon didn’t like to be on the road with horse and buggy after dark. The family was as close to reclusive as any I’ve ever known.

They were poor. I don’t mean poor as poverty is defined today, but really poor. What Solomon did for a living remains a mystery to me. I suppose he farmed a bit and had some goats. I don’t know what the family ate. It wasn’t much and it wasn’t healthy. Esther, his wife, was always frail and in poor health and could not get her work done. The children wore ill fitting and ill made clothes. They always looked thin, pale and sickly.

And Solomon and Esther had children. Six or seven. Nicholas was the oldest. Nancy was the next child and the oldest daughter. The younger children remain obscured in my mind, as I never was around them much. Aaron and Noah and Katie are three names I faintly recall.

Nicholas was born in 1963, sixteen months behind me. He always seemed much younger because he didn’t start school until he was seven; almost all children from other families started at age six. He was small for his age and always dressed in thin shabby clothes, worn-out shoes some other family had given them, and had a strange haircut. Straight across his forehead above the eyes, then straight back to the ears, then straight down over the ears. It was the old way. Different. And we mocked and scorned him for it.

Children of any age and in any culture are pitiless and cruel and run in packs. And heaven help the ones rejected by the pack. The Herrfort children were taunted and tormented as heartlessly as any I have witnessed, ever. Always, without fail, Nicholas Herrfort provided the perfect defenseless target to be mocked and embarrassed for the general merriment of the crowd.

“Are you a heifer?”

“No, no, Herrfort.”

“Are you a heifer?”

“No, no, Herrfort.”

Repeated over and over to the roars of appreciation and snickers of delight from sadistic onlookers.

His life was particularly harsh at school. He trudged to the little one-room East school house each day or was delivered by his father, scrunched over on an open, unpainted hack hitched to a bony old horse named Ichabod. He was a painfully shy and stam- mering child. I think he failed one grade, a further shameful burden to his already shattered psyche. He was hard of learning. But his first three years at the East school were heaven compared to what awaited him at the West school, where all children attended from the fourth grade on.

We all made fun of Nicholas and his sister Nancy; that is just a fact. They were always the last ones chosen for playground games. Neither could sing; their flat, toneless voices rang in jarring dissonance when it was their turn to lead a song. Nancy once picked a song that no one knew; the whole classroom snickered and scoffed at her mistake. She buried her face in her arms on her desk. The jokes we made, the cutting comments, the scornful words, all must have had the cumulative effect of crushing any seeds of confidence that may have sprouted inside them. I cannot even imagine what their existence must have been like, but they must have developed a dull numbness to the cruel horrors that constituted an average day of their threadbare and joyless lives.

And it was wrong of us, so very, very wrong. All of it; all the mocking, all the tricks, all the jokes, all the hurts, all the laughter, all the torment, all the pain.

At the West school, several bullies, who will remain unnamed, took a particularly twist-ed joy in making his life hell. They delighted in torturing Nicholas and actually hurting him. The rest of us did not, but we did stand by and watch. We did nothing to stop it. One particular thing occurred repeatedly at school that still haunts me at times. I can see it as clearly in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

The school had an outdoor privy located across the yard from the school house. When Nicholas needed to go during the noon hour, one of the bullies kept careful watch with his evil eye. When Nicholas took off running down the walkway at full speed, legs churning desperately, arms pumping, hair flying behind him, the bully raced after him. Always he caught up around the swing set, and in full stride, kicked Nicholas in the butt with all his might. Laughing and cackling all the while. I remember many times that Nicholas would lurk furtively inside the safety of the school house door, peeking out and awaiting his chance to sprint to the privy without getting kicked.

In winter, the bullies delighted in chasing him around to the back side of the school house, trapping him there and pelting him with iced snow balls and rubbing his face and hair with ice and snow, belittling and cursing him for just being who he was. It bruised him physically. It had to hurt, bad. I can’t fathom what it did to him emotion-ally. And we did nothing to stop it.

Once, one bully egged on another student, younger and smaller than Nicholas, in the school basement. The younger student ran at him full speed, grabbed his long hair, and actually swung himself off the ground and around Nicholas while hanging onto his hair. Nicholas stammered and staggered, crying, “ouch, ouch, ouch.” The bully whoop-ed and clapped and guffawed and cheered. This happened two or three times; we stood around and watched it until the younger student’s uncle (also a student) finally stepped in and stopped his nephew. The scene still sends shivers of horror down my spine.

Out of the dark tragedy of his dreary life, I have one bright memory. On our walks home from school of an afternoon, Nicholas was himself as much as I ever saw him. On those walks, I often talked to him and Nancy, person to person. (My sister Rhoda was always kind to Nancy. Others were too. I remember that Hank Wagler befriended Nicholas many times.) They were both starved for even the tiniest crumb of human kindness. I can still see Nicholas as we walked along the road in the late afternoon sunlight, stammering his words, smiling hesitantly and shyly, his three front teeth missing, glancing furtively at me now and again to see if I would mock or scorn him. Gaining confidence when I didn’t. On the road, we had many normal and light-hearted conversations. Laughing and chattering as children do. I suppose that was as close as I ever came to seeing the innocent, relaxed child as he would have been in a safer, saner world. At the corner by the print shop, they turned north and Rhoda and I headed on east toward home. So we parted. Until the next day’s torment.

It is no surprise that from the brutal foundation of such a tortured life, Nicholas devel- oped a mental disorder as he grew older. While some of those mental problems likely were genetic, I am convinced that no normal child could have remained sane after enduring what Nicholas did growing up.

I can’t recall seeing him after we moved out of Aylmer in 1976, but I’m sure I did at least once, in church or at a wedding when visiting the community. If I met him then, I don’t remember it. As a teenager and later as an adult, he grew ever more reclusive and erratic and alone. His peers tolerated him, I suppose, with pitying condescension.

The Solomon Herrfort family moved to Bland, Virginia in 1994. What drew them there I do not know. It was poor and remote and plain community. Of Nicholas’ life at this time, I have few details. Some say that after the move to Virginia, he stopped taking medication for his mental problems. Whatever the facts, I do know that his mental condition deteriorated steadily.

In June, 1996, my nephew, Phillip Gascho, got married in the Aylmer community. Solo-mon and his family were invited to the wedding. (His wife Esther is a sister to Phillip’s father and my brother-in-law, Joe Gascho.) His parents decided to take Nicholas along and leave him with relatives in Aylmer. He was becoming a bit much for the family to handle in Virginia.

Nicholas was vehemently opposed to the plan. He did not want to leave Virginia. His parents insisted that he go along with them. At 4:30 AM on the morning they planned to leave, Nicholas got up and left the house. His brother Aaron heard him leave, but did not follow him, as Nicholas had a habit of getting up and walking about at all hours. After the sun rose, he was nowhere to be found. They searched and searched. Some- time around mid-day, or it may have been early afternoon, they found him, lying face down in a shallow pond of sixteen inches of water. He had taken his own life by drown- ing. By the time they found him, the turtles had eaten away his nose and part of his face.

No one can know the depths of his mother’s raw and bitter sorrow for her oldest son, her first born. Or the silent suffering of his father and siblings. The hopeless tears. The infinite regrets. And the deep, biting anguish and guilt they must still feel, as fresh now as it was the day he died.

A few days after Phillip’s wedding, they buried Nicholas in a remote little country grave yard in Pearisburg, Virginia. A bus load of relatives from Aylmer attended the funeral. A simple wooden marker was erected above his grave, and today goats graze over it. Other than the horrible details of his death, which are discussed occasionally in hushed tones, he remains as forgotten and unsung as if he had never even walked upon this earth. Or suffered the cruel injustices inflicted upon him by those who should have known better and should have protected such a weak and defenseless child.

Until now. The annals of my memory churned when I first heard the horrifying news of his untimely and tragic death, and I knew that one day I would write of him to the world and publicly call to account all those who rejected and so savagely mocked him and his family so many years ago. Including myself. Not by accusation or in anger, but by simply relating what I remembered and knew of his lonely and anguished passage through the desolate wilderness that was his life.

There are a lot of us out there. And we know who we are. We can mourn and grieve our thoughtless and cruel actions, we can say we were just children, we can say we didn’t mean it, we can say others were worse than we were. We can ask forgiveness from the Herrfort family and from God.

But not from Nicholas. Not ever from Nicholas.

He was of the least among us. His span of years and all that he was or might have been, forgotten. His death remembered only because of its tragic and unspeakable horror. But on this date, on this site, on this post, we acknowledge and honor his life. And belatedly mourn his passing with sadness, regret and deep remorse:

BORN: January 17, 1963 in Tillsonburg, Ontario
DIED: June 19, 1996 in Bland, Virginia
AGE: Thirty-three years, five months and two days

Today Solomon and Esther Herrfort reside in Hillsboro, Wisconsin. Solomon is almost completely blind. Their remaining sons, Aaron and Noah, are married. Aaron has three children. Solomon’s daughters, including Nancy and Katie, remain single and live with and take care of their ageing parents. The family is lonely; almost none of their relatives bother to visit them. And so they exist in the numb, silent fog they have known all their lives, as invisible and ignored now as they were reviled thirty-five years ago.

I like to think that God’s immeasurable grace enveloped and embraced Nicholas as his last breath fled from him and that his weary, wounded soul was gently gathered into the Father’s arms with a tenderness and compassion he had never known. And that he is now forever free from all the suffering and scorn and pain and contempt and sorrow and rejection that defined his life. I don’t know that, but I like to think it was so. And is.

I am glad that I never saw him when he was a mentally troubled adult. He remains forever in my mind the shy, stammering, smiling child, laughing and chattering as we walked along the road in the afternoon sunlight on the way home from school.


September 7, 2007

Random Ramblings

Category: News — Ira @ 6:59 pm


“You will recognize your own path when you come
upon it, because you will suddenly have all the
energy and imagination you will ever need.”
—Jerry Gillies

A few comments on the pony episode last week. First, I do not hate horses, even though I state that in one of the Pictures pages on this site. I just don’t like them. There is a fairly substantial difference there, between dislike and hate. At least to my way of thinking. I have seen many horses, obviously intelligent, rippling with muscles, stepping proudly, in complete tune with the rider or driver, and have marveled at the sight. But I’ve never marveled enough to want something like that for myself. And in my job, I sell horse barns to serious horse people. I’ve seen and dealt with enough of them to know that a good percentage of them are more than half-whacked, off their rocker, coo-coo looney or whatever, and inhabit a world that tempts me not at all.

Every winter, Graber Supply has a sales booth at several horse events, one in Baltimore and one in Harrisburg. Horse World Expo or some such name. Big events. And there I stand and sit for three days, talking exclusively about horses and horse barns. I am very careful, of course, not to let my true feelings emerge. At the shows, I meet all kinds of horse people, from the recently smitten to the seriously afflicted. One year, one nice middle-aged lady announced solemnly to me that she can actually speak to her horses and goats. Actually speak to them and understand them when they speak to her. After this announcement, she paused and looked at me sharply for a reaction. I smiled assuringly, as if I heard this stuff every day and she wasn’t a whacked-out loon. She then said her goat had told her that he (the goat) wants a new barn to live in. Another sharp stare. No negative reaction from me. If you say so, ma’am, I’m sure that’s what your goat said. I politely discussed some possible options with her for ten minutes or so. After she had wandered off a safe distance, I circled my forefinger around my head and whistled silently to myself. Like I said, I’ve seen them all.

Second, from some private feedback, was every single little detail of the pony story true? Probably not, but the main details were. It’s called poetic license, the writer’s prerogative to fill in some of the minor details to keep the story interesting and move it along. Did the wire really “whang” when it broke, and snake back into the field? I wasn’t close enough to hear or see it, but I was nearby other times when animals crashed through single-strand electric fences, and that’s what happened then. So I used that detail in the story. I could have told you the basic facts in about three sentences. But how interesting would that be? If I wrote like that, I expect my hits counter would be hovering around 200 instead of 20,000-plus.

The “sketch” scenes so far have been fun to write, but a lot of work. I probably have about a thousand of them in my memory; after writing one, another one crops up in my mind. I expect to post occasional sketches, although some period of time may go by from one to the next. In my wake is strewn a vast tapestry of experiences and adventures, and I have always known that one day I would write them. Hang in there with me and we’ll see how far along we get.

Labor Day (Sorry, LeRoy, I call holidays by their names. Including Christmas and Easter) was a beautiful day. And a lazy day. I slept in and putzed around in the morn-ing, then went to the gym for a workout. It was open until noon. Now that’s a gym, one that’s open on holidays. Later I mowed the yard and trimmed some tree branches. Speaking of mowing, the new mower is turning out to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s a “mulcher” mower, which means the grass it cuts has nowhere to go; it just gets mulched under the mower. It’s just a fine-sounding name for being too cheap to install an opening on the side for the grass to exit. And the yard cannot have a drop of dew or rain on it, or the mower will plug up. It does have a little door on the back that I can tie open with a tarp strap (how redneck is that?), but then the grass shoots out straight back and pelts my feet and legs. Not a good sensation. I’ve longed many times for my good old $99 Wal-Mart special and rue the day it died.

About mid-afternoon I took a trip to the mall. Mall walking is a favorite activity of mine. The mall is a safe place for me; I can observe the crowd without being part of it. I like to go Saturdays and people-watch. All kinds. Here a heavy set couple holding hands. There a mother with her teen-aged daughters. Here a group of teenagers with no adult present. There a wildly dressed youth with spiked hair and chains with his nose-or-lip-pierced girl friend. Here a couple of tattooed bikers in boots that could stomp the bleep out of anyone. Young people, old people, in between people, and people like me, watching all the freaks. I wonder who all these people are and where they live and what they do in their everyday lives. Others are probably watching me and wondering the same thing.

Another good thing about the mall; I watch the seasonal sales and load up on clothes and accessories at huge discounts. This year the fall sales were great; I ended up with several short-sleeved shirts, very good quality, for about ten bucks apiece. Less than Wal-Mart, and way better quality. Few things give me more pleasure than buying quality goods at highly discounted prices.

I always buy a cup of coffee at the “Seattle’s Best” coffee stand. Half regular and half decaf. A buck sixty-five. Sit on a bench and sip it. It’s decent, but doesn’t beat my regular morning cup. There are about as many opinions about coffee as there are people. I was arguing recently with a friend about the finer points of a good cup of Java. My coffee habits are pretty simple; I go to the Sheetz convenience store just down the road every morning on the way to work and buy a 16-ounce cup of fresh black coffee. I drink it on the way to work. I like gas station coffee because every pot is brewed fresh from a pack of ground coffee beans that brews only one pot. So every pot is truly fresh. You buy a container of coffee and open it at home; by the time the container is empty a month (or two) later, the coffee is stale. I’ve reached this conclusion after many years of taste-testing and observation. And there’s no way you can convince me otherwise.

Coffee was a constant presence in our home when I grew up. Mom always had a perculator or some other kind of pot on the kitchen stove, brewing a fresh batch. She sipped coffee constantly, morning, noon, afternoon and evening. I started drinking the bitter brew when I was about 15 years old. There was nothing like walking into the house on a cold winter day and smelling Mom’s coffee the instant you walked through the door. Years ago I always stated boldly that if you can’t drink your coffee black, then you might as well not drink it. The bloviating and cocksure folly of youth, such a statement. I now usually drink it with a bit of cream.

College football opened with great fanfare last weekend. I was watching games from Thursday through Monday night. Most of the big schools scheduled sacrificial lamb teams to come in and get slaughtered for the first game. Michigan, the fifth ranked team in the nation, got quite a surprise when the lamb they played on their home turf refused to be sacrificed, but rose up instead and actually beat them at home, 34-32. It is considered the greatest college football upset of all time. I’m not a big Michigan fan, but felt bad for the team because the Michigan quarterback, Chad Henne, is from Lancaster County.

Of course, Pro Football kicked off Thursday night (9/6) and will be in full force this weekend. In Thursday’s game the Colts demolished the N’Awlins Saints. Looks like Payton and the boys are shaping up for another run at the Super Bowl. It’s a great time of year, summer ending, the nights cooling, and football kicking off. Nothing like it. I’m optimistic, but not delusional, about the Jets this year. Their coach, Eric Mangini, is a genius, but it takes more than genius to win it all. It takes a lot of great players as well.

This is your final notice about Graber’s Open House on Saturday, Sept. 8th. There was a great bustle and stir this week as the warehouse was emptied and cleaned, the floor buffed to a shiny gleam, and tables and chairs set up. We’ll have a ton of great food, grilled pork and all the fixings. And a soft ice cream machine. And door prizes. So come one, come all, come everyone. If you attend because of the invitation on this site, let me know so I can brag about it to my boss. I’m angling for some coporate sponsorship here.