June 13, 2008

Redundance Revisited…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:50 pm


“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing
over and over and expecting different results.”

—Benjamin Franklin — or not

It never stops. The adventure, that is. Not exactly the kind of adventure I’d choose if given the choice, but one must take them as they come. And roll with the flow. Or the punches.

A new tenant moved in last weekend. Or tenants, to be accurate. Two single women, who work for the same employer, and needed a place to live. An old friend of mine dates one of them, and he approached me about renting the apartment for them. I was dubious, but said if they could come up with two months’ security deposit, plus one month’s rent, I would let them in. With two months’ security, I figured, I could weather just about any potential storm.

They came up with the money. So one night last week, I met with them and went over the lease. Explained every paragraph. What would happen if the rent was not paid. What they could expect for winter heating bills. What I expected as a landlord. No loud noises, loud music, especially at night. No disturbing the neighborhood. And so on and so forth.

Eager to proceed, they nodded happily and agreed to all terms and signed their names with happy flourishes and shining eyes. A place of their own. Oh, my. They were excit-ed. I felt a little puff of satisfaction. Helping them out, I was. For a price, of course. I smugly deposited my money in the bank.

On Saturday, it was blitzing hot outside. They moved in a lot of furniture, and by Sun-day afternoon, were comfortably ensconced upstairs. So far, so good.

As I usually do Sunday evenings, I left to eat dinner with my friends Paul and Anne Marie Zook at their home. We always catch up with the latest on our Sunday night chats. I spent a couple of fun hours with them. Then around 7:30, I headed home so as to be in time to catch The Simpsons at eight. Nothing more than that on my mind, so help me.

It was hot. I cranked up Big Blue’s air conditioner and sped merrily down Peters Road to Rt. 23. Turned right, toward my house on the next corner.

I approached the turn, and my house. Strangely, there seemed to be a lot of vehicles parked on the road outside my house. And a lot of people in my yard. A lot. I looked more closely. These were people I’d never seen before.

This could not possibly be good. Trust me, if you ever approach your own home and the yard is full of strangers, with cars parked about on the road, willy nilly, that can never bode well for anyone. Never, under any circumstances. Perturbed, I checked out the scene as I pulled up to my own drive.

One of my new tenants seemed to be having an altercation with a strange man I’d never seen before. A short, bearded man with red hair and many tattoos. Standing toe to toe, faces inches apart, they were hollering loudly at each other. Screaming. Curs-ing. Gesticulating. Running back and forth across my yard. Others milled about list-lessly, watching the two go at it. A large hard-faced buxom woman off to the side was holding on to two frightened little kids. Redneck city, right in my yard.

I parked the truck. Walked into my house. Their screams penetrated my living room. This was completely unacceptable. I opened my porch door and stepped out. They paused briefly and stared at me.

“If you guys have issues, take it off my property,” I said. “I don’t want this noise and all those vehicles parked around here.”

The short tattooed red-haired man mumbled incoherently. The two of them charged across the street, off my property, and stood there on the sidewalk and resumed their screaming and cursing. Something about kids.

Three or four vehicles were parked on the street. Looked like extended family. The tattooed man’s, no doubt. Supporting him.

I called my friend who had rented the apartment for the girls. Where was he? In New Holland, he said. There’s a situation here, lots of people screaming around out in my yard, and it’s not a good thing, I hollered. I’ll be right up, he said. I hung up.

I walked back out. The two had re-crossed the street and returned to my property. Both in total meltdown. Screaming. Cursing. At the top of their voices. I glanced ner-vously at the neighboring houses. Several porches sported couples sitting side by side on lawn chairs, enjoying the show. Looking curiouser and curiouser, they were.

I groaned inside. This was all I needed. Just unbelievable. I was horrified. What kind of wackos lived in my house now? Get rid of one and now this. And where the (bleep) was my friend who had got them in?

The screaming and hollering escalated. “HE’S TAKING MY KIDS,” she screamed, red-faced and about to pop, her voice ricocheting through the canyon of houses along the street. Kids? I didn’t even know she had kids. No one had mentioned any kids.

The Amish neighbors directly to the east ambled about busily in their yard in their Sunday clothes and tried to act disinterested. I imagined I saw the glint of binoculars.

Pure madness. The whole thing. But it couldn’t get much worse, I figured.

I figured wrong.

Because right about then the cops showed up. In two cruisers. Thankfully, no flashing lights or sirens. They parked in line with all the other vehicles on the street. A real party. Maybe I should fire up my grill. Just feed them all while they’re here. Might calm them down.

All we need now, I thought to myself, is for a leather-jacketed Harley motorcycle gang to show up yet. And have a real rumble. I felt like a character in a cartoon strip. At that point, Porky Pig could have popped out of a car and not surprised me. Or Wile E. and the Roadrunner.

My mind flashed back to a conversation I had with a local detective some months ago. “We used to get called out to your house all the time,” he told me. “All kinds of fights and ruckuses. Haven’t been there in a few years now.” I’d felt proud that I had man-aged to maintain order, so the local cops were unfamiliar with my place now for the last seven years.

Well, they were back.

Two officers emerged from the police cruisers and walked stiffly up to the screaming couple. Separated them. Young guys. I pitied them, walking into a mess like this. At my house, yet.

Several more neighbors appeared as if by magic on their porches up and down the street and stared. Curiouser and curiouser. They must be alerting each other by phone. Why watch TV when the real live show was unfolding right before them?

My friend who’d talked me into renting the apartment showed up, red faced and em-barrassed. Wasn’t much he could do. The girl involved in the fracas was not his girl-friend. The other one was.

Twenty long minutes later the cops finally got everything straightened out and sent the two kids with the tattooed young man and the extended family. The convoy rumbled away and out of sight. My friend and his girlfriend, who had now arrived as well, stood about and we talked a few minutes.

“Your issues are none of my business,” I told them. “But your issues exploding like this in my yard are my business. It better not happen again.”

They assured me it would not. I got in my truck and backed out of my drive. Never got to watch The Simpsons, even. As I roared away, the poor girl who lost her kids sat on the back porch steps, holding her head in her hands, too exhausted to even weep. And so I left them.

And other than that little incident, my first week with the new tenants upstairs was quiet and peaceful.

Anyone interested in a nice two-story, two unit brick house in New Holland, PA? Talk to me.

Well, a real chance for a Triple Crown winner for the first time in thirty years, and he blows it. Big Brown, the horse that couldn’t. Shriveled up like a whipped puppy. Didn’t even look like he was trying.

It’s a rare thing and a tough thing, the Triple Crown. To win three of the big races in a five-week span. It’s hard. Hasn’t happened since I was sixteen years old, back when I thought I knew everything and was, well, pretty ignorant about a lot of things.

I was home on Saturday afternoon in plenty of time to watch. All the talking heads were pretty much crowning the winner already, which made me a little uneasy. Talk all you want. You still have to win the race. Or the game. Ask the Patriots.

During the race, Big Brown lurked on the outside, just like he had on the two previous races. In third place. But when they got down to the last few furlongs, when he should have accelerated, he seemed lackluster. Instead of surging, he lagged. And fell behind. His jockey pulled him up, and he finished dead last. Irritated, I turned off the TV and left the house. I had no stomach for all the talking heads trying to cover their predictions (and their butts).

Gas prices continue to climb. Big Blue’s consumption now approaches close to $100 a week, for local driving. Not quite what I had in mind when I bought the truck. And the winter heating bills, I shudder to even think about them. Of course, we can all rest in the knowledge that Obama the messiah will take care of everything after he gets elected.

Congratulations to Reuben Wagler and Barbara Graber on their wedding Saturday, June 14, in Jamesport, MO. I couldn’t make it, but I send my best wishes.

Barbara and Reuben

June 6, 2008

The Shepherd at Dawn: The Early Years

Category: News — Ira @ 6:37 pm


“Someone is responsible to lead and shepherd,
and others are responsible to support and submit.
Otherwise, there can be no godly order.”

—Elmo Stoll, “Community”

The late afternoon sunlight slanted through the yellow-framed windows of our house. Inside, Big Church was winding down. Bishop Pete Yoder, who had recently moved to Marshfield, MO, had returned to preside over the communion service that day. And to ordain a new minister to fill the slot vacated when he left.

The date was April 14, 1971. I was nine years old and had never before witnessed an ordination. A quiet pall hung in the air after the last song was sung. There was some bustling and shuffling as the ministers disappeared into my parents’ bedroom. All church members then filed up to the door to place their votes. The preachers returned and set out the little black books. There were four or five.

Bishop Pete stood and announced the names of those in the lot. And slowly the called men rose and approached the table and chose their books. All except one. He remained seated, stooped over and half hidden on the back bench where he sat, immobile and quiet. A tense minute or two passed. Still he sat. Perturbed, Bishop Pete cleared his throat.

“Those who are in the lot are required to come forward and take a book,” he said quietly, but firmly.

The young man straightened on the bench and rose to his feet. All eyes followed him as he walked to the front, his head bowed. Only one book remained; all the others had already been picked up by the other men in the lot. He picked it up and joined them on the bench.

Bishop Pete approached the ashen-faced men and began the brutally intense process of opening the books, one by one. None held the little slip of paper. Until he finally opened the young man’s book. And there it was.

The young man, quiet and somber until now, abruptly exploded into high, wracking sobs and burst into a great torrent of tears. “Huuuuu, Huuuuu,” he bawled. His shoulders shook, his whole body heaved. “Noooo, noooo, not me, not me,” he wailed. His high rolling sobs swept through the house in sonic waves.

We all watched, frozen. I had never seen a grown man weep like that before. It was a dramatic moment.

Bishop Pete did not long delay. The sobbing subsided slightly, the young man stood and Bishop Pete pronounced him a preacher for life. Then the young man sat on the bench and received awkward gestures of comfort from those around him.

The service was dismissed. We dispersed.

And thus Elmo Stoll was ordained.


Elmo Stoll. The man. The leader. The orator. The writer. The intellectual. The fire-brand. The legend. In his time, probably the most famous and powerful Amishman in the world. Who, at the very apex of his fame and power, turned his back and walked away from it all. Elmo Stoll, whose name has evoked more responses, private and public, than any other on this blog.

He was born in Litchfield, Michigan on March 5, 1944. The son of Peter and Anna Stoll. Anna was my father’s older sister. They emerged from the hills of Daviess County, Indiana, where Peter had inherited the wild, strange Stoll blood from his father, Victor.

Of Elmo’s childhood I know little. Only the stories of my older siblings, who grew up with him. His family moved to Piketon, Ohio, where my parents lived for a few years. They then moved to the new settlement of Aylmer, Ontario in the early 1950s, when Elmo would have been around ten years old.

The Stolls in Aylmer were hard core, but not typical, Amish. They believed in witnessing and missions. In reaching out to the lost and less fortunate in mainstream society.

They were bright, personable brainy people, but mildly unhinged, by orthodox Amish standards. Slightly unstable, now pursuing this theory, now immersed in that. Whatever their hands found to do, they did with all their might.

Elmo developed into a natural young leader among his peers. He was highly intelligent, a deep thinker.

His teenage years were like any other’s, wracked with the emotional turbulence so common at that age. At sixteen he began running with the youth, attending the singings and other youth events.

That year, with his peers, he took instruction classes for baptism to join the Aylmer Amish church. He had some unorthodox ideas and was not shy in expressing them. This caused problems.

On the day before the class was to be baptized, all the applicants were scheduled to meet at our home on a Saturday afternoon. For final preparation and admonition. All were assembled, except Elmo had not yet arrived. Then an open buggy clattered into the drive. Beside his father Peter Stoll sat Elmo, his hair flying in the wind. He was not wearing a hat. He had decided it was unnecessary.

This, of course, was unacceptable to the authorities. Wearing a hat while outdoors was the long-accepted standard of any respectable Amish church. Elmo unilaterally decided to rebel against this standard. And he had reasons. Show him the Scripture where a hat is mandated. Of course, no one could.

Bishop Pete and the preachers were deeply grieved. They admonished Elmo, who stood there boldly before them all and disputed with them. The baptismal service was postponed until Elmo could be convinced it might be in his best interest to back down. Eventually he did, and some weeks later he was baptized with the others in his group.

The young lion had unsheathed his claws. He’d been forced to back down. This time.

A number of the Aylmer youth were concerned for souls, which was quite atypical for Amish youth. These young people would go to nearby towns and cities and pass out religious tracts. More than once, young Elmo the evangelist preached on the street corners in nearby towns. I never heard that they garnered a single convert. But the Word, we are promised, does not return void. So who knows? Perhaps he influenced someone to search further. At the very least, he honed his skills for later years.

(From the recesses of my memory, I recall stories of how these youth would get together evenings and wrap the tracts in gum wrappers. When driving about on their buggies they would throw these pieces of “gum” onto driveways of the houses they passed. In theory, the homeowner would pick up what he thought was a free piece of gum, and presto, unwrap a religious tract. I’m sure that went down well. But the story may be pure hearsay, or my memory might be flawed. But I didn’t just dream it up.)

When my father and Joseph Stoll, Elmo’s older brother, launched Pathway Publishers and later Family Life, Elmo came aboard as a writer. He wrote short stories and a monthly column, Views and Values. He wrote in a folksy flowing conversational prose, connecting with his readers.

He and David Luthy lived together as bachelors in a small place east of us they bought from Nicky Stoltzfus and Joe Eicher, when they moved out of Aylmer in 1969. David Luthy began his long distinguished career as one of the most eminent, influential Amish historians in the world, publishing his research regularly in Family Life.

On June 4, 1970, Elmo married Elizabeth Miller, a quiet unassuming woman, the daughter of Saul and Sarah Miller. They settled on the LeRoy Marner farm in the center of the community. They were married for less than a year when Elmo was ordained.

I remember Elmo as tall (He was of medium height; I was just a little kid.), wiry, balding, with brownish hair and golden beard. Easy to talk to. A ready listener. He always flashed a warm smile and gazed about with piercing, piercing eyes. He could look right into the core of your soul and see you as you really were. Or so it felt.

After his ordination, it did not take him long to exult and flourish in his newfound power. He relished his leadership role. And took to it naturally, like a hound to the hunt. Most people were drawn to the sheer magnetic force of his charismatic personality. Like moths to the flame.

He soon took a sledgehammer to the established Aylmer church rules. Within weeks, it was suddenly decreed that all eyeglasses must be wire-rimmed or rimless. No more plastic frames, too worldly.

And that was just the beginning.

The God he served was a furious, frowning God, who just might possibly be placated if only increasingly demanding and difficult sacrifices were made. In the end, it would all depend on how hard you had tried. How willingly you bore your cross. On the things you had done. And to what degree you had rejected the “world.”

And so he set out on a mad quest, in earnest pursuit of a plainer lifestyle. Paint the inside of your buggies black, wear a broader brimmed hat, with the brim turned down all around, no cowboy wannabes. Make sure the women’s head veils covered their ears, and their dresses practically swept the floor. Girls and boys could no longer play volleyball together. No ball playing at all on Sundays. Carpenter crews could no longer travel to jobs in motor vehicles, but had to drive a horse and buggy, thus limiting their range. Anyone traveling to another community overnight could not hire a taxi driver for transportation, but had to travel by bus or train, unless “business” was involved.

All to satisfy one man’s vision, and to appease an impersonal, imperial God who demanded abject obedience and primitive simplicity.

But it was never enough.

A patient populace bore with him, and indulged his whims. But the youth increasingly seethed as the weighted yoke of his ideas and demands choked the life from their few precious rights and fragile freedoms.

It did not take him long to find his stride as a preacher, either. And oh, the man could preach. I’ve heard it said that anyone who ever heard Elmo Stoll preach in his heyday would remember some aspect of that sermon for the rest of his life. This, I think, is true. I know it is for me.

He always finished his sermons in due time. The children did not get restless when he preached.

I can still see and hear him, pre-1976, when we lived in Aylmer, on a Sunday morning, rising slowly to take the floor. Somber, head bowed, hands clasped at his chest. Opening chattily, as if he were talking directly to you and you alone. Usually some small anecdote of something he’d seen or heard, or some conversation he’d had with someone, followed by a Bible verse. And from that small building block the man would weave and thread and stitch, in fantastic vivid detail, in mellow lilting tones, an elaborate yet meaningful tapestry of a lesson to be gleaned and learned and applied. All delivered extemporaneously, with no podium and no notes.

And we all sat there quietly, even those of us who half-despised the man, and listened and drank it in, mesmerized. And in those brief fleeting moments, despite ourselves, despite the deep flaws we knew he had, despite his heavy-handed efforts to single-handedly mold the church into a model of perfection, we liked and respected him because we realized that what we’d just heard was something rare and fine and great and beautifully told.

Even those most stridently opposed to his agenda, among whom I count myself as a minor figure, rarely questioned his sincerity. His methods were another matter.

He knew what he knew without the slightest hint of doubt or hesitation. And in those heady early years, he did not much care who might disagree with him. Whoever did that was wrong. Period. He did not brook resistance or foolish chatter. Any hint of opposition was considered rebellion. And rebellion was a sin.

He freely expressed his opinions when and where he felt they might be needed. Once, right in the middle of a sermon, he paused, and asked whoever might be chewing gum to dispose of it. He felt chewing gum in church was disrespectful and wrong. A sin. He then resumed his sermon. I never was sure, but I thought my brother Steve may have been the culprit. Or one of them.

One Sunday, church was at my uncle Abner Wagler’s home. I was sitting on a bench with my friends Hank Wagler and Raymond Miller. Right in front of the preachers. Elmo delivered the main sermon that day. We boys were restless and fidgety and perhaps did not give our full attention to his words. Again, right in the middle of the sermon, he stopped and directly addressed us. Told us to stop fidgeting and behave ourselves and quiet down. We froze in our seats. And fumed silently, chalking up one more black mark against him.

But he recognized and lauded the good things, too, the little things that might easily have been beneath his wont to notice. One Sunday, my friends and I approached the dinner table for the noon meal. We were hungry and this was already the second seating. The table was filling up. A quick count told me that I would be the last one seated. The ones behind me would have to wait until the next seating, a good twenty-five minutes. I suddenly realized that my friend Luke, a year older than me, was behind me. I had somehow stepped ahead of him, violating the hierarchical “age rule” of our social setting. As I approached the last seat on the bench, I stopped and motioned Luke ahead of me. He swooped into the seat. I turned around and walked outside with a herd of unlucky boys to wait for the next table.

Unbeknownst to me, Elmo had witnessed this small scene unfolding and was touched. He told my father later that afternoon what he had seen, and praised me.

“I remember exactly how hungry boys are at that age,” he told my father.

My father later told me what Elmo had said. And it felt good to know that he had seen and acknowledged my small unselfish act.

He pestered the youth (defined as any single person above 16 years old). Once, the youth had planned to rent a bus and go visit the Detroit zoo for the day. Together as a group. Just the young unmarrieds. The night before they went, Elmo sent word that he and his wife would go along as well. He was told the bus was full. No problem. They would set chairs in the aisle of the bus.

And so they went along. After arriving at the zoo, all the youth piled out eagerly, ready to head out for a fun day at the zoo. Unfortunately, most of them neglected to put on their hats and bonnets. Elmo, the man who showed up at his pre-baptismal meeting sans hat, sternly called them all back to the bus. And told the boys they must wear their hats. And the girls their bonnets. They obeyed, seething. What they had suspected was confirmed; he went along only to make sure everyone behaved as he felt they should.

He was not popular with the youth. And yet he reached out to them. He idealistically believed that there should be no generational gap, that teenagers should hang out comfortably with their bearded elders. Socialize. Have things in common. Share hopes and dreams. As if such a concept would have a prayer of success. But he tried.

At one point, he invited the youth boys to his house for weekly readings, and together they worked their way through Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place.” Such an activity was a startling new concept to the group. I imagine they attended somewhat sullenly and did not much participate in the discussion. But they went. I was too young, but my older brothers who attended still speak of those times. They may even still have the very copy of the book they used.

Those were turbulent times. He was a busy, busy man. Writing, preaching, leading, admonishing, improving. Always something going wrong, someone going astray, a brother who needed admonition, church rules that needed tweaking, more stringent guidelines to be implemented.

And here, I think, it should be mentioned that Elmo’s wife Elizabeth, or Lisbet, as she was known, exercised a calming influence over him that tamed his passionate, erratic nature, calmed the savage beast within that would have hurt a lot more people, a lot more deeply, absent her gentle, persuasive influence. Lisbet was always content in the background, always smiling and always kind.

She bore his sons and quietly mothered them while her husband rushed about with all the answers, pouring a lot of heavy concrete, writing and preaching with great authority on the proper methods of discipline and correction in raising children.

In the early to mid 1970s, the Aylmer community expanded rapidly in fame and influence. Became widely known through its publications of Family Life and several lesser periodicals. That golden age saw probably the greatest collaboration of visionary Amish intellectuals ever assembled. They sailed boldly through uncharted waters. What they were doing had never been done before. My father. Joseph Stoll (who lived in Honduras, but continued his written contributions). David Luthy. And of course, Elmo Stoll, whose meteoric rise as a preacher and writer accelerated each year, as he traveled about and preached in many distant settlements.

From the outside, Aylmer was viewed in awe by thousands upon thousands of admiring sheep as the great shining city on a hill. From the inside, it was, well, something less. Striving always to stand tall as an example to lesser communities that allowed such wickedness as tobacco growing, smoking, bed courtship and other horrors, the Aylmer leaders came to believe their own polished rhetoric of the perfect church. And how it could be attained. They felt Aylmer was about as close to perfect as one could get. Never satisfied, they plunged about this way and that, in a chronic state of mad instability, inflicting ever-increasing burdens on their groaning flock.

This state of raw hubris could not stand. In due time, it would crumple to bitter ashes.

In October, 1976, when I was fifteen, my family moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield, Iowa. Although his heart never really left Aylmer, my father realized that none of his younger sons would stay in the faith unless he moved from that place (most eventually left anyway). The Aylmer leaders publicly supported him, but privately they must have wondered why David Wagler could not control his wild, unruly sons.

Our departure date arrived. As the loaded tractor-trailers slowly lumbered down the dusty gravel road toward the highway, Elmo Stoll paused and looked out across the fields from his Pathway Publishers office window. The tractor-trailers turned and headed toward Highway 3 and disappeared behind the woods that bordered the southern edge of the farm that had been the only home I’d ever known.

The next Sunday in his sermon, Elmo described in dramatic detail how he stood there and watched us leave, how the flood of memories flowed in unbidden and the tears suddenly welled in his eyes and trickled in unchecked rivulets down his cheeks.

The shepherd wept. For himself. And for us.

Editor’s Note: The second and final essay on the Elmo Stoll saga will be posted some-time later this summer. Probably around late July or early August.