April 25, 2008

Old Songs….(Sketch #8)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:36 pm


“Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
A tone of some world far from ours…..”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hear them sometimes still, in my dreams. The beautiful haunting lilt of their soprano voices, echoing through the old farmhouse in the slanting deep-orange rays of the setting summer sun.

The lyrics are clear in my mind. “Come home, come home, it’s suppertime.” “Hold fast to the right.” “I’ll wade right in, to the River of Jordan….” And many, many others.

My sisters singing. They sang always. They sang openly, joyfully. For any reason or none. While cooking meals, doing dishes or doing the laundry. While milking in the barn or raking the yard or working in the garden.

They sang from the heart. To lift their spirits, I suppose. And ours.

In Aylmer, singing in four-part harmony was strictly verboten. Melody only. Because people might become proud and puffed up at how beautiful their voices sounded. That would be a sin. Couldn’t chance it. Wait to get to heaven to hear perfect singing. Meanwhile, bear the cross below without complaint. And stifle your natural voice to conform to the “no harmony singing” rule.

All singing was a cappella. No instruments. So it had always been. The forefathers had rejected musical instruments. What they proclaimed and decreed was gospel, about equal with the real one. Seemed to me that whatever the current leaders didn’t like and wanted to forbid was always conveniently blamed on the poor forefathers, who of course were never present or able to defend themselves. If all I ever heard about them is true, they must have been a dour humorless lot.

But I digress. Back to the musical instruments. Anyone caught with even so much as a harmonica was in serious trouble. No musical protégés have ever emerged from the Aylmer community (with the possible exception of some of the Marner boys, and they moved away at a fairly young age).

Even so, songs and singing were an important part of life. Early on, when very young, we were taught short simple German hymns. We belted them out in our childish voices with gusto:

“Ich bin klein.
Mein Hertz macht rein.
Sol niemand drin vohnin
Als Jesus allein.”

My father, too, sang in his rich mellow baritone. Of an evening, when the smaller chil-dren were tired and drooping, he swept them onto his lap, and rocked them to sleep on the old hickory rocker on the living room floor. His deep, quivering controlled voice boomed the tender crooning verses of “Sweet and Low” as the children drifted off.

He told me once that he had lulled all his children to sleep when they were young, singing “Sweet and Low.” Not a single child ever stayed awake on his lap through the final stanza.

But the most memorable songs, as anyone raised Amish will attest, are the songs sung in church. Mournful, slow, pondering, mellow, beautiful, melancholy, swelling and eter-nally long. And stiflingly boring to the youth.

Kind of like Gregorian chants, but unique in flavor and tone. It takes real skill to lead one.

Most Amish churches use the “Ausbund,” a collection of German hymns in continuous use now for longer than any in the world.

The tradition of long, slow chanting songs began centuries ago, before the Amish church even existed. We listened wide-eyed to the tales. From the time when our Anabaptist forefathers were burned at the stake by the evil Catholics. Guess they had reason to be dour.

They sang hymns as they were led to the public square and later as the fire crackled at their feet. As they sang, the story goes, the wicked worldly bystanders danced to the faster upbeat hymns. Stopping only after the flames and heat extinguished the song. To combat such blasphemy, our plucky forefathers developed the much slower tunes. So slow that dancing would be impossible.

I have never been able to verify that such dancing actually occurred. But it made for fascinating legends. I believed them for years.

Leading a song in church is an honor. All men are asked to lead at some time or other. The gifted lead perhaps a bit more frequently. If a man lacks ability, he is excused.

One Sunday many years ago, when I was very small, a young married man had some serious problems while leading a song. He kept getting stuck, his chant drifting up when it should have dropped down, and stopping abruptly in mid-syllable. The other men all pitched in to help him out. It sounded like the great roaring of bulls. Around the second verse, the young man simply gave it up. His voice faded hesitantly into silence. The house was deathly quiet. He coughed and cleared his throat.

“Maybe someone else can take it on,” he quavered, hanging his head in shame.

Someone else did. It was the only time in my memory that such a thing happened.

For years after that, when my siblings Rhoda and Nathan and I played “church,” the song leader among us would stop suddenly, wavering, and coughing and whooping dramatically.

“Maybe someone else can take it on,” he would gasp, clearing his throat and looking stricken.

One of the two remaining members of our little “congregation” always chimed in, taking the lead. And on we’d go, singing gibberish in loud tuneless voices. Children playing what they had seen and heard.

Of all the old slow church songs, the Lob (pronounced Lobe, which means praise) Song is the unquestioned king. It is always the second song sung at every Amish church service everywhere, in all communities. A good honest rendering of the Lob Song will take up to twenty minutes. In some of the more conservative communities, probably longer. For four verses of seven lines each.

“O, Gott Vater, vir loben Dich.”
“Oh, Lord, Father, we praise thy Name..”

The first syllable, “OOOoooOOOooo,” is stretched into a long wailing fluctuating chant by the leader. The congregation joins in after the first syllable of each line.

We always looked with keen interest when a stranger attended church, because he would be asked to lead the Lob Song. It was established protocol. We judged the man, as we judged company at home on ability to lead in prayer, on his ability to stretch out the first syllables of the Lob Song. And on the tone and quality of his voice.

Years ago, before my time, in Aylmer, a stranger attended church one Sunday. At Nicky Stoltzfus, the preacher’s place. The stranger was from a very conservative, backwards community (probably had a mustache, even). No name was ever attached to the tale, so he remains anonymous. As was customary, he was asked to lead the Lob Song. He agreed, quite humbly, I’m sure, and promptly launched into a long, slow drawn-out “OOooOOoo.”

One of the youth suddenly had to “go” out to the barn. He got up, walked out, did his business and returned to his seat on the backless bench where his peers sat, gaping. The stranger was just finishing the first syllable of the first line. He’d stretched it out for the several minutes the youth was outside.

The stranger’s name was not legend, but the story was. I wasn’t there, or was too young to remember, so I can’t testify to the actual truth of the tale. The details may have been exaggerated just a bit. But I’d guess the Lob Song took about forty minutes to sing that morning.

I’ve led it. In church. At least a dozen times. I remember the first time. The elder, David Yutzy, announced the page number, 770. He swiveled on his bench to peer sharply at all the youth seated on the back benches. I knew my time was coming at some point soon. I scrunched over and looked at the floor. David scanned and scan-ned. He knew who he was looking for. His gaze settled on me.

“Ira,” he said in a low voice, but loud enough for all the room to hear.

The time had come. I could refuse. No one would say anything. Or think badly of me. But I could do it, I knew. I’d sung the Lob Song hundreds of times while doing chores in the barn or working in the fields when no one was listening.

I chose to do what most did the first time they were asked to lead.

“Start it,” I mouthed in a whisper.

Not much of a singer himself, David got someone else, either my father or Old Gideon, his dad, to start it. I sweated. If it was too high, I wouldn’t be able to stay on track. I’d “get stuck.”

Whoever started the song got it right. The right tone, the right pitch. Not too high, not too low. Everyone roared lustily through the first line. We reached the end. A split second of silence. My throat was dry, my hands clammy. And then I heard my own voice, strange and a bit shaky, rise and fall and soar again, leading the next line. Stretched out long, but not too long. I’d gotten it right. I didn’t get stuck. I could do it.

And so I did. All four verses. For the next fifteen minutes.

By the second verse, my tremors subsided. By the third, my shaky voice firmed, booming out boldly and confidently. By the fourth, I was an old, experienced hand, adding the occasional ornamental twist and flourish. Could’a done it all day long.

The old church tunes are integral to Amish heritage, history and identity. I don’t miss them, or much of anything else from that lifestyle. But I think of them sometimes. And even hum a line or two.

It’s all part of who I was. But not who I am.

If plans hold, I will once again hear the old church songs this coming Friday, May 2nd, at the wedding of my niece, Luann Yutzy and Larry Yoder. It will be good to hear the old wedding tunes. And the Lob Song.

It will be good to sing along. To enjoy the melody and the ornamentation. I may even get to hear my father lead.

April 18, 2008

Amerika, America…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:30 pm


“The right to be left alone is indeed the
beginning of all freedoms.”

—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

There’s been much fussing lately in the news and on the Net about the remote relig-ious compound raided by authorities in Eldorado, Texas. According to breathless news reporters, police received an anonymous call from a 16-year old girl inside the com-pound who claimed she was abused and raped. They descended in full force and re-moved more than four hundred children. Shipped them out by the busload.

Now the dust is settling on the raid. Seems like that call from the abused 16-year old may have been a fake, and the man the authorities claimed abused her was not in the compound or even in the state, and may not have been for decades.

It’s also come to light that the authorities had a contingency plan in place for some time. A plan to do exactly what they did, swoop in and raid the compound and forcibly remove its inhabitants. All they needed was a call precisely like the one they claim they got. Interesting.

If a splinter Mormon group wants to move to a remote desert area and establish a compound, that’s none of my business. It’s not how I’d live. I figure such people are probably a little kooky, but that’s about it. It’s a free country, in theory, at least. They are bothering no one. It’s their property. They should be secure on it.

So it’s none of my business if people want to establish their own little “heaven” on earth. Even a polygamous one. It shouldn’t be the authorities’ business, either.

Raids like this on religious separatists (and tax protestors) always make me uneasy. These people are obviously different. Very different. And very unsympathetic figures. It’s not hard to shrug and think they probably got what they deserved. That they should be compelled to re-enter the “real” world with or without their consent.

And who knows, perhaps bad things were happening in this particular case. I’m sure we’ll see pictures of all kinds of horrors. Hear solemn recitals of terrible accusations. Released strategically over time, in a trickle to keep our horror levels high.

But who takes the pictures? And who makes the accusations?

All details about the case are released from one source, the government. And I don’t much trust many governmental claims of any kind, let alone claims of this nature. The government surely isn’t going to admit it if a mistake was made. Or admit it if the children inside were not being abused, other than being forced to live in a remote communal compound with their parents.

The stark fact remains that four hundred children have been torn from those most naturally inclined to provide them security, nurture and love, their parents. Especially their mothers, who are heartbroken. Absent hard, serious evidence of real abuse, the children should be returned, and the trauma of separation ended. But I won’t hold my breath, because it likely won’t happen.

The children will be coached to say they were “abused.” Mark it down somewhere. The lurid stories will emerge. Duly recounted by breathless perfectly-coifed newscasters.

They will be medicated and “reprogrammed” into lifeless little model citizens. In the cold strangeness of unfamiliar foster homes. And that’s a shame.

Take four hundred kids at random from a mixed segment of our society and chances are high that a few of them are being abused at any given time. At least by today’s expanded definition of abuse. Whatever abuse happened in that compound, the same or worse is happening every day in the state-run high schools all across the country. Where contraceptives are dispensed to 13-year olds. Think about that.

So why were these particular four hundred children taken from their parents? Because of a single phone call that may have been faked?

It’s because their parents are visibly different. Because they separate themselves and practice a form of religion abhorrent to those who dictate what “normal” society should be.

It’s nobody’s business if people want to remove themselves from society and take their children with them. Certainly not the government’s. The freedom to live one’s life according to one’s conscience must be granted to all, regardless of religious affiliation.

Including separatist splinter-group Mormons. And people like the Branch Davidians, who were incinerated in Waco, Texas by Janet Reno in 1993.

Kooks, nuts, wackos all, in my opinion. But they had the right to be left alone. Instead, the Branch Davidians were burned alive.

If you’re thinking that fringe groups like those in Texas deserve to be targeted and are the only ones that will be targeted, think again. There are other groups out there that might be considered strange by mainstream societal norms. Groups that separate from mainstream culture and keep to themselves. Groups that dress different and teach their children who knows what in their own schools with uncertified teachers.

Like the Amish.

And no, I am not comparing the Amish to separatist Mormons, so don’t even go down that little bunny trail. Except to point out that both groups are different and both wish to be separated from the “world” in their own way. To be left alone.

If an intrusive government can move in, invade remote compounds and carry off the young children of Mormon splinter groups, how long do you think it will be before its agents remove children from, say, home-schoolers or the Amish? Amish lifestyle, romanticized as it is in the major media, could actually be considered pretty kooky by any modern standard.

It just depends on who’s judging. And who’s got the power.

It ain’t us. It’s usually some nameless faceless unaccountable bureaucrat.

The government, or state, wants malleable, compliant citizens. People who dare not resist as the state erodes our rights and freedoms, and confiscates more than half of what we produce through taxation. Taxation to support the very tyranny that oppres-ses us.

That’s why it must go out periodically and produce a show of brutal force as it did in Texas. Ship off kids in buses. Separate screaming, terrified little children from their helpless parents. Demonize groups and institutions considered outside accepted societal norms. To show the rest of us what happens if we dare get too far out of line.

The state wants dispirited, spineless slaves. And it wants your children. And it can take them at any given moment. Simply by launching vague undefined unproven accusa-tions of “abuse.”

It happens every day. It’s happening now in Texas. If you are a parent of a minor child or minor children, it could happen to you.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


Hobbling painfully, she slowly pushed her cart into the checkout aisle as I was walking up with my two small items. I hoped she’d see how little I had and wave me ahead. She didn’t even look up and began unloading her cart onto the conveyor belt. Squelch-ing a mild twinge of irritation, I relaxed and observed.

It was a Friday evening and Amelia’s Discount Groceries was crowded with shoppers. Pay day, and most were loading up on Amelia’s specialty, items that have expired or are about to expire at a steep discount from regular grocery store prices.

She was an Old Order Mennonite of some sort, wearing a dark blue checkered dress and small, angled bonnet. She was old, in her eighties, at least, I figured. Her hands were bent and cracked from decades of unceasing toil. Hunchbacked, tired and worn, she peered through thick heavy glasses as she labored in slow motion to unload her cart.

The cashier greeted her cheerfully. She said nothing. Perhaps a bit hard of hearing, I thought to myself. She struggled to lift a jug of milk. I almost stepped forward to assist her, but thought better. Stay out of it. She might be startled or intimidated by an “English” man abruptly intruding. I observed her items.

Besides the milk, a few boxes of crackers. Bread. Some other packages of this and that. Then she lifted a plastic bag of meat. Cut-off ends from packaged slabs, various brands and flavors. A couple of bucks for what appeared to be three or four pounds. Scraps.

I knew people fed such scraps to their dogs. Somehow, I didn’t think she was buying them for her dog.

She finally placed the last item on the counter. I wondered if she was a widow. Maybe. Probably. No way of knowing, really.

The cashier rang up the total. Nineteen bucks and change. She fumbled with her purse with stiff thickened fingers and extracted a worn little money pouch and withdrew a crumpled $20. The cashier returned her change and helped place the loaded plastic bags into the cart, and pleasantly thanked her.

She replied dully, “thank you.” The only words she spoke during the entire transaction. As I placed my items on the counter, she hunched over her grocery cart and hobbled slowly toward the exit.


Emboldened by my bean soup success a few weeks ago, I have been expanding wildly into the vast exciting world of crock-pot cooking. After the first success, I decided that Ellen’s old crock pot wasn’t up to par. It was tall and narrow and the on/off switch was broken and had to be manipulated with pliers. So I went to the mall and bought a new one for twenty bucks. Oblong and more shallow, at four quarts plenty big enough for my needs.

I shared the second batch of soup with my friends Paul and Anne Marie Zook. They made all the appropriate noises of appreciation and claimed they liked it. Cody, their son, told me flat out, quite honestly, that he didn’t care for it at all.

When I was at their house last Sunday evening, Adrianna, their five year old daughter, leaned over to whisper something in my ear. I bent down to catch her words.

“Cody and me fed your beans to the dogs,” she whispered conspiratorially.

“You did WHAT?” I exclaimed.

“We fed your beans to the dogs,” she repeated, giggling.

“All right, time to ‘fess up,” I said sternly, turning to her mom. Anne Marie looked em-barrassed. Paul was suddenly very interested in how things were going for me at work. But I stuck to my interrogation. What had happened to my bean soup?

Turned out that after serving the beans for two meals, she had discarded the remnants that remained. Sent the children out to feed them to the dogs.

Of course, I made a huge fuss, roaring loudly about the futility of giving good food to ungrateful people who won’t eat it. And feed it to their dogs, yet. Wild threats were made about not sharing any future dishes.

The children claimed the dogs wolfed the beans right down. I don’t doubt it. It WAS good soup. I expressed snide appreciation that something had enjoyed my culinary skills.

It was too funny. We laughed until we almost cried. Out of the mouths of babes….

Summer weather is here. Summer itself approaches. The hiking trails call. Last Saturday I mowed the yard for the first time this year. Unhappy with the new “mulcher mower” purchased last year, I returned it to the young Amish dealer. He cheerfully applied my purchase price to a slightly used but very serviceable Honda. Not self-propelled, with no bells or whistles. And definitely NOT a mulcher. It hummed along beautifully. The yard looks great. Even stripped of the tree out front.

The PA airwaves are clogged these days with Hillary and Obama ads, urging primary voters to the polls next Tuesday. I’m so sick of their pandering tripe that I mute the radio when their ads come on. Both promise to take from the “rich” and expand social programs, a sure-fire recipe for disaster. And a sure-fire expansion of government powers.

I finally lost the five pounds gained over the holiday season. Down to 202 pounds again, which seems to be my natural plateau.

This site has now passed 50,000 hits. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Reminder to those who promised to write out and send me their memories of Elmo Stoll. Please get them to me. I will need them soon.