“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
—W. Somerset Maugham
“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
Recently a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had with his young teenage Amish neighbor. The Amish kid told him about all the contraband he had accumulated. An MP3 Player that could store and play 1500 songs. A laptop computer with wireless card satellite internet access. And a cell phone, the kind you buy off the shelf with prepaid minutes. I asked my friend if the Amish kid’s father knew of these things. He does not. A day of reckoning cometh. Sometime, somewhere, soon, it will all hit the fan. For both the kid and for the culture.
The young will defy and test the previous generation’s boundaries and push them to the limits. It has always been so and will likely always be. This is particularly true in the Amish culture, with its austere lifestyle, where the rules prohibit all things modern, all things sinful such as music, radios, and television. And now the computer and the internet. Like my friend’s neighbor, young people with a spark of life and an ounce of willpower simply will not accept their leaders’ noble vacant admonitions forbidding the touching of “unclean things.” Not without experimenting, experiencing and deciding for themselves.
In my day, we were no different, only the technology was quite primitive. We thought we were really doing it with the little transistor radios. Available in various colors, with a little carry strap. AM and FM channels. Several of my older brothers had them even while we lived in Canada. We would huddle in the hayloft and listen to hockey games, always keeping a sharp lookout for Dad. My brother Steve listened live to the great Canadian-Russian hockey playoff in 1972, which Canada won in miraculous fashion in seven games.
I bought my first transistor radio in 1978, when I was sixteen, at Place’s General store on the west side of the square in Bloomfield. In a time before Wal Mart, Place’s was our most convenient source of contraband, although we had to be very careful, as many other Amish also shopped there, and might witness our furtive purchases. And proclaim the news with great fanfare. Which would create a community-wide scandal. And wouldn’t be good for anybody.
Other than newspapers and magazines, the little transistor radio was my first real window to the outside world. On it, I listened to country music. KWMT out of Fort Dodge, Iowa. 61 Country from Kansas City. 99 Country from Centerville. I hid my radio in the hay loft in the old west red horse barn and often listened for a few minutes when doing chores. Each radio came with a tiny ear plug, which transmitted tinny-sounding music. With this, I often listened late into the night while lying in bed. The old country singers still take me back to that time when I hear them. Johnny Cash. George Jones (who can still make me weep). Haggard. Waylon and Willie. Tanya Tucker. Loretta Lynn. Crystal Gayle (what ever happened to her?). The Statler Brothers. The Oak Ridge Boys. And many, many others.
With the transistor, we became huge college football fans, cheering for the Hawkeyes. They were actually ranked in the top ten a few times back in those days. One of my most memorable football moments unfolded as I huddled behind our old white corn crib with my brother Nate on a fall Saturday afternoon, listening to the closing seconds of the Iowa-Michigan game, probably around 1982. Iowa kicked a field goal as time expired, winning 13-10. “The kick is up, it’s on its way…IT’S GOOD!!!! IOWA WINS!!!
IOWA WINS!!!” We danced and whooped and shouted like maniacs.
During the late 1970s, the 8-track tape player was cutting edge technology for our music. The gang of six guys I ran with had one or two among the lot. My best friend and future brother-in-law, Marvin, was very skilled and efficient in adapting the 8-track players to our large 12-volt buggy batteries. Marvin could also repair any torn tapes with glue and little bits of sticky tape.
Getting caught with such contraband had definite and potentially severe negative consequences. At the very least, whatever was found would be confiscated, and one would receive a good stiff bawling-out. And perhaps be grounded from going to the singing for a week or two. After we grew a bit older, the only negative was the disappearance of the radio or tape player. Once or twice, my transistor radio just disappeared. Nothing was ever said.
One night I got home very late, probably around 2 or 3 AM. I had the tape player in the buggy, and our collection of tapes. We kept them in a fifty-pound paper feed bag, Nutrena Feeds brand. It was so late and I was tired, so I did not hide the bag in the barn like I normally would have, and should have. Next morning after breakfast, when I reached into the back of the buggy to retrieve the bag, it was gone. Dad had been on the prowl bright and early.
He never said a word about it, just smiled a secret little smile. There were probably thirty or forty tapes in the bag, two or three hundred dollars’ worth. An accumulation of much furtive buying and trading. Now reduced to ashes. I was highly irritated, furious, actually, but did not even bother to confront my father. Instead, the following week, I seized one of Dad’s old shotguns, a Savage pump action 12-Gauge with a tendency to misfire. I trundled off with it to Jim’s Auction House in town and sold it for $150.00. And kept the money. And smiled a secret smile. I figured we were about even. And that’s the way it went.
We hung out at the Drakesville Park on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes at one of our homes or at the local Amish school yards. Listened to music and smoked. Maybe had a beer or two, although I never enjoyed beer much and still don’t. Occasionally we got a bit rowdy and did stupid things. I’m not condoning what we did. Or bemoaning what we did. It’s just the way it was. And history is not undone just because one pretends it didn’t happen, or destroys the evidence.
Late one Sunday night after the singing, a few of us were hanging out at the school house, just horsing around. One of my buddies was somehow pushed into the front screen door. After a choice phrase or two, he tore the door right off its hinges. I don’t know why; to him, it must have seemed like a natural thing to do at the time. Of course, the next day, shock waves reverberated throughout the community. The wild, wicked young boys had torn up the schoolhouse. What would they do next, burn someone’s house down? How can it be? What could be done? Everyone clucked sadly and dramatically.
My friend Marvin and I (considered the two most rebellious boys at the time) were instantly and conveniently blamed, although neither of us had anything to do with it. Tongues wagged from one end of the community to the other. One young Preacher even began spreading the rumor that we had admitted to the damage. Marvin and I were indignant. Things were getting out of hand. Should we just hunker down, or confront the situation head on? After discussing our options, we got together one night and went to visit the young Preacher.
We rattled into his drive and tied up the horse. Although stunned to see us, the very thugs currently the subject of so much talk, he greeted us politely enough, if somewhat stiffly. We visited for a brief strained minute about other things. Haying. The weather. Then we bravely plunged into our subject matter. We told him he had been mistaken, and that we had not damaged the school house door. But we did not betray our friend who had done it. The Preacher was in a bit of a quandary. He was convinced in his mind we’d done it, but there we stood, telling him we hadn’t.
We were polite, but firm and insistent. And innocent. He stroked his long reddish beard thoughtfully, perhaps trying to imagine how he could incorporate this experience into a fire-and-brimstone sermon the next time he preached. But we remained polite and respectful, giving him nothing he could wring his hands over and preach about. No shocking behavior, no backtalk. After some moments of consideration, he gulped and cleared his throat several times.
Then he said carefully and deliberately, “I can believe it and I want to believe it and I will believe it, that you didn’t do it.”
His grim, stern visage did not soften. Not even a fraction. We thanked him and left it at that. He was true to his word, whether he actually believed us or not. I have always respected him for that statement, although in the ensuing years I have respected him for little else.
After I left the area and the Amish, my nephews continued the tradition of contraband. By that time, they could buy little TVs that were as small as or smaller than our old transistors had been. So where we listened to music and football games, they were watching concerts, baseball games and Nascar. I’m sure they had their own music systems as well, cassette tape players smaller and of much higher quality than any-thing we could have imagined.
Today, as exemplified by my friend’s teenage neighbor, Amish youth buy MP3 Players that can store more than a thousand songs. And can play movies on a tiny screen. The MP3 Player is about the size of a credit card. Easily concealed. Easily transported. That, combined with the wireless laptops and prepaid cell phones, pretty much ensures that technology will continue to invade and affect the Amish culture. Deeper and deep-er. I can’t imagine, long term, that it will not have a drastic impact on the continuity of the Amish as a people. The best and brightest and most inquisitive will explore. And taste. And enjoy. Many will not stay, or will keep bits of the technology, like cell phones and MP3 Players, with them even as they join the church. Which, if the church is supposed to be separated from the modern technology of the “world,” kind of defeats the purpose.
Eventually, because of technology, the Amish church itself, or a good portion of it, will not be able to maintain its current identity, as it exists today. That the church will survive I have no doubt; there will always be conservative elements that will hold back. Hard core traditionalists may even retreat into the ever-receding hinterlands and regress ever deeper into the old ways, merely for the sake of preserving them. But overall, the Amish will morph into something other than what we now see. Within a generation or two. This I believe. I don’t celebrate these conclusions. I don’t lament them, either. It’s just the way it is. And will be.
Last Monday and Tuesday, Pennsylvania pretty much shut down for its annual state-wide holiday; the opening of deer season. Many rural schools even close for the day. We had a skeleton crew at work as most of our yard guys, and yes, even some from the office (no names will be mentioned), left for the mountains. There they shacked up in primitive, leaky cabins and cooked their own food. Slept on bad, hard beds and got up hours before daylight.
They joined a million nimrods throughout the state and tramped and stumbled and crashed about in the woods, all in pursuit of the innocent little wide-eyed Lyme-diseased bambis. This year they endured a full ten hours of solid and incessant drizzle on opening day. More power to them, I guess. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, although I do enjoy a bit of deer bologna upon occasion.
Congratulations to all you MIZZOU fans out there. Enjoy the view from the mountain peak while it lasts.
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