October 31, 2008

Halloweeners…

Category: News — admin @ 7:00 pm

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“And the great winds howl and swoop across the land:
they make a distant roaring in great trees, and boys in
bed will stir in ecstasy, thinking of demons and vast
swoopings upon the earth.”

—Thomas Wolfe, “Of Time and the River”
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We stood there in the graveled barnyard beside the old concrete water tank by the windmill, dressed in our ragged denim coats to fend off the nippy air. My brother Titus and me, two little boys outside after supper. The shadows of late October crept in and closed around us. To the west, a faint orange glint in the cloud-rimmed skies reflected the last vestiges of the setting sun.

“Yep,” Titus announced wisely, “this week is Halloween. We’ll have to pull the buggies into the shed. Can’t leave’em out overnight.”

Above us bats and nighthawks flitted and swooped about. In the woods a quarter mile to the south, something ungodly, who knows what, screeched and wailed. An owl, maybe. I was probably six years old and had a vague idea of what Halloween was. It was a certain night in late October when we didn’t go away. Stayed inside.

Trick or treating would have been as foreign to me as Easter eggs. No such concept existed in my world. We did get Halloween candy, wrapped in twisted paper, gunky gooey stuff that stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth. Not my favorite.

So I knew what Titus was talking about. But I asked anyway.

“Why? Why do we have to put the buggies inside the shed?”

Titus paused. “So the Halloweeners don’t take them,” he said dramatically.

Halloweeners. I’d never seen one, but the word sent shivers down my spine. Boogey-men. Wicked English people who came around after dark at Halloween and did bad things. They harbored a particular affinity for vandalizing the Amish farms in Aylmer.

We’d heard the stories from the time we could talk. Halloweeners lurked around on the gravel roads at night in pickup trucks or old beater cars. Driving slowly with lights out. They sneaked onto Amish places and tipped over outhouses. (Yes, most Amish farms had an outhouse, even though there was running water in the house.)

They were also fond of hooking a buggy behind their vehicle and taking off down the road with buggy in tow. The buggy might show up in a field miles away the next day. Or it might be burned or smashed. I vaguely recall the story of how one buggy ended up on top of a farmer’s shed. How it got up there is anyone’s guess. Lots of muscle power, I suppose.

From the recesses of my memory, I also recall how one of our neighbors to the west decided to sit in his buggy on Halloween night to guard it. Sure enough, the evil Halloweeners showed up after midnight. Details remain sketchy, but somehow he made enough noise to alert them and scared them off. Stupid thing to do, that. They might have hurt him.

And then of course, there was one other activity Halloweeners loved to do. And not just at Halloween. Year round, especially in the summer months. And that was smashing mailboxes.

They usually clubbed mailboxes with an iron bar, or smashed them with a large rock. Occasionally backed a vehicle into the mailbox post and snapped it.

Halloweeners weren’t a major continuous presence, but they were a fear factor. Not everyone’s buggies were towed away, not everyone’s mailbox was smashed. I can’t remember that our outhouse was ever tipped over. Probably because it was too big and bulky. And placed behind the house, making it hard to get to quietly.

So we did what most families did in the community. We pulled our buggies into the open front machine shed on Halloween eve. Out of sight, so as not to tempt any scouting Halloweeners.

But our mailbox was another matter. It was targeted at least once, maybe more.

(NOTE: The details of the following story may be mildly embellished, as the characters involved may or may not attest.)

At dusk one late summer evening, my oldest brother Joseph glanced out of his upstairs bedroom window to the west. Half a mile away a car approached slowly, lights out, dawdling along. Joseph was instantly suspicious that the occupants might be up to no good.

He quickly called his brother Jesse in the next bedroom. The two of them dressed hastily and ran out to the front yard, carrying a flashlight. One of them snuck out to the road and picked up a hefty rock. They then crouched behind a good-sized bush, conveniently planted in the yard about fifteen feet from the mailbox. Two strapping young Amish boys defending their home turf, waiting in suspense as darkness settled around them.

They heard the muffled growl of the idling engine as the dawdling car crept toward them on the crunching gravel road. As it neared our mailbox, it slowed to a crawl. Then stopped. They heard the passenger’s window squeaking as it was hand-cranked down. In the haze between dusk and darkness, they saw a shadowy figure, a thug Halloweener, reaching out, wielding in his hands a solid iron bar. He lifted it high and smashed it down with all his might on our mailbox. They heard the dull crunch of the blow.

But only once. As the thug lifted the bar above his head to smash down again, my brave brothers emerged from behind the bush. Joseph snapped on the heavy duty 12-volt flashlight. The bright beam abruptly flooded the car. Two men in the front seat, the passenger hung suspended from the window, arms lifted above his head. Two hazy shadows sat in the back seat. They froze as the light enveloped them. Jesse then stepped up beside his brother. He wound up and heaved the large rock with all his might. It arced, spinning through the darkness like a missile of vengeance and smashed into a metal fender with a great crunching thud.

Inside the car, the stunned Halloweeners reacted quickly. The passenger with the iron bar lurched back through the window, falling back onto the seat. The rock probably had narrowly missed him. Then the driver punched down hard on the gas. The car fishtailed as it roared away, spitting a shower of gravel from its rear tires.

The cowardly enemy was routed. The valiant warriors stood victorious, tall and strong and confident. They had successfully defended the borders of their homeland.

Shaking with excitement, my brothers ran out to the road and looked to the east after the fleeing car. They then snuck quietly back into the house and upstairs to their bed-rooms. They had a tale to tell. But they had to be careful. Father would not be pleased with such aggressive resistance to evil. Not in keeping with the Amish tradition of non-resistance, and all that.

Fortunately for them, he never found out. But the rest of us sure did. We reveled in the glory of it and rehashed the story countless times over the years.

But we never told. Until now.

*************************

Those who dislike political discussion may skip this paragraph. It’s now down to the final days, and boy, am I ready for it to be over. I’m sick to death of all the lying blowhards. Meanwhile, I am sticking with my original predictions. The OBAMA! camp seems increasingly skittish with each passing day. We’ll see. And yes, I still plan to vote for Chuck Baldwin. Or Ron Paul. Or maybe not at all.

There was much strutting and crowing about the office all day Monday, as the Phillies took a 3-1 lead over the Rays on Sunday night. I advised my tormentors not to count their chicks before they hatch, that the fat lady hadn’t sung yet. They smirked and said she’s tuning up for the finale.

Sure enough, because of pouring rain, Tuesday’s game was stopped after 5-1/2 innings, tied 2-2. First time that happened in World Series history. Tension was palpable around the office for the next two days. I did my best to exacerbate it, loudly proclaiming that perhaps the fat lady had caught a cold.

But in the end, when they finished that game on Wednesday night, the Phillies pulled it out. With the help of the umps, as was the case all through the series. Had to be by far the worst-umped World Series or any series that I’ve ever seen. But still, the Phillies deserve all the accolades in the world. They won it all. Ultimately, that’s why they play.

The Rays deserve credit. They were young and relaxed and just might have pulled it off, had a few of those atrocious ump calls gone their way. But they didn’t. And no worst-to-first team has ever won a championship in any major professional sport. That fact still stands.

The blog is a beautiful thing, upon occasion. Powerful, too. After my lament for pie in last week’s post, I received a mysterious invitation to dinner at an Amish friend’s house. Nothing too unusual about that, I stop by often to hang out. I sat with the family and we ate a delicious home-cooked meal. And then the lady of the house proudly trotted out two fresh raisin cream pies. I was astounded. And they were absolutely mouth watering. The Amish of Lancaster County don’t know the joys of raisin cream pie. She had hunted up a recipe and baked them for the first time, just for me.

Of course, I got to take the remnants home with me. It pays to have connections, I thought to myself as I left.

Having good friends is even better.

What should I pine for next? World peace, perhaps? The lion snuggling with the lamb? Nah. I’ll settle for something a bit more realistic. And attainable. Like a fresh-baked cherry pie.

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October 24, 2008

Corn Harvest

Category: News — admin @ 6:58 pm

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“….the sun goes down in blood and pollen across
the bronzed and mown fields of old October.”

—Thomas Wolfe, “Of Time and the River”
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It’s fall again. The leaves are turning late this year. The first frost just fell this week, they will be fading soon. And another season of harvest will soon be past.

Every year at this time I think back, to the days of autumn on the farm. It was the only world we knew. We couldn’t have imagined any other.

September nights began to chill down from the summer heat. The rolling fields of corn, row upon row of whispering green stalks, faded slowly to a greenish brown. Around the community then we heard the high dull whine of the silage choppers, set up beside the great concrete silos. Neighbors gathered and helped each other, teams and wagons plodding to the fields, returning laden with long heavy bundles of corn stalks, flowing over the sides and dragging on the ground. Up the wagons crept beside the silage chopper, a hungry machine with a wide cradled feeder chain and sharp wicked blades. Powered by a tractor and pulleys and a large flat belt.

The corn bundles were thrown into the ravenous chopper and shredded to bits and propelled up the long pipes into the silo until it was bulging to the brim. The air reeked with the wet pungent odor of fresh chopped corn stalks.

And every year Mom warned the children with terrifying tales of the awful things that could happen if one didn’t respect the chopper and got too close. The classic tale of the little four year old boy from somewhere, sometime, who disappeared one fall without a trace. Right at silo-filling time, of course. Nothing was ever seen of him again until the next winter when they were throwing silage down to feed the cows. They found his chopped up remains, in tiny bits, mixed in with the silage. He had wandered too close and fallen in when they were filling the silo and the chopper had devoured him. We listened, wide eyed and appalled. I don’t know if the story was actually true. It seems the stuff of myth.

Nights shifted then, from increasing chill to downright cold as October came. The first frosts, the world white as snow until the sun came up and warmed the earth. The grass in the yard a sea of tens of thousands of tiny white spears, shimmering in the sun. The fields of green turned a dull dead brown, and it was corn husking time.

In Aylmer they husked the corn by hand in those days. They still do, as far as I know. The memory of the method survives only among a diminishing group of hoary old-timers and those who live or have lived in Amish settlements where it’s still done today.

After breakfast, around daybreak, my older brothers hitched their teams to the flatbed box wagons and headed to the fields. One side of each wagon had a higher wall, a backboard. As they husked, they threw each ear of corn against the backboard. Eventually a large lopsided pile of yellow ears accumulated on the wagon bed.

They started at the end of the field, wading into the crackling brittle stalks and leaves, still wet with frost, harvesting one row on each pass. They wore tough white cloth gloves and a husking hook with leather straps on one hand. And down the row they went, in simple rhythm, husking, throwing, husking, throwing, the bright yellow ears plopping onto the pile or plunking against the backboard, the horses moving ahead the length of the wagon, then stopping on their own in direct proportion to the husker’s speed and skill.

The morning passed and at noon they headed to the barn and unloaded the corn, shoveling it onto a creaking clattering elevator that hoisted the ears and dropped them into long narrow corn cribs made of wooden slats and wire. They then fed and watered the horses and ate the noon meal and grabbed a quick nap. Then right back to the fields again, husking until it was too dark to see. Then unloaded again by hand and finished the chores by lantern light. Those were long, hard days.

On a good day, a man could harvest about an acre of corn. And wear out a new pair of tough white cloth gloves. And that’s the way it was done.

We went out too, and helped the best we could, after school and after chores. And on Saturdays. We probably got in the way more than we helped, but it was fun, not work and we wouldn’t have missed it.

In 1975, I graduated from the eighth grade at age thirteen. That fall, when I was fourteen, was my first and only season of husking corn by hand. My brothers, Stephen and Titus and I ventured to the fields with teams and wagons, day after day for weeks. My life revolved around the twist and motion of husking and throwing ears of corn.

Usually I, as the youngest, tagged along with one of my brothers and took the row closest to the wagon. Although work was paramount, we had fun as well, laughing and chatting as we plugged away, wagon length by wagon length, across the field. Reaching the end and turning right back the other direction. And slowly, so slowly, the rows of corn diminished, almost imperceptibly at first, then more rapidly as we closed in to the finish.

Stephen always stashed his single shot 12-gauge somewhere on the wagon, wrapped in a coat, just in case the odd pheasant or duck ventured too close. Once in a great while one did, and we proudly carried the wild game home to be plucked and butchered.

I remember those days, when the labor of harvest was stripped to the barest elements of man and sweat. The biting northwest winds, the cloud-swept skies, the forest of brown corn stalks in the spongy semi-firm fields. The geese and ducks migrating south in gigantic Vs, sprawling sideways in the wind, their wild harsh cries now clear and close, now faint and far.

And I heard and saw them, sweeping along in great rafts, disappearing into the southern skies. I breathed deep the frigid air, a nameless longing always stirred inside, an undefined yearning for something out there in the vast beyond. Something I knew I would one day seek.

We were young and strong and solid like rocks, our muscles hardened by the endless hours of unceasing labor. At the end of each day after the sun had set, we headed in the pitch black darkness or under the light of the harvest moon to the corn cribs to unload, exhausted to the bone. Wrapped up the chores and fed the horses and stumbled to the house, ravenous. There we wolfed our food (eating way too fast, as always) and fell into our beds, too tired to even read. Got up before daybreak the next morning to do it all again.

I can’t remember any time in my forty-seven years that I slept better than I did that fall.

And the days and weeks passed, we slogged on and on, and suddenly one day it was done. The last ear from the last row in the last field. A feeling of great satisfaction and accomplishment swept over us, we whooped and hollered like little children. But there was little time for extended celebration.

The corn harvest was over. And plowing season had begun.

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Congratulations to the steely-eyed young Tampa Rays for regrouping and defeating the arrogant Red Sox in seven. I didn’t think they had it in them after their historic collapse in game five. Now if they can only take out the Phillies, which seems quite possible after winning one of the first two games.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been around for about ten years, one of the youngest teams in the league. They were awful up until this year, usually finishing dead last. Then this year, they dropped the “Devil” from their name and promptly shot from worst to first. And the World Series. No worst-to-first team in any professional sport has ever won the championship. Ever.

Maybe it’s just me, but one would think there’s a fine stirring sermon in there some-where for some enterprising young preacher. If you happen to be that preacher, don’t worry about crediting me for the idea. Public service I’m happy to provide.

A great gathering of Waglers and Yutzys assembled from all points of the country this weekend in Hutchinson, KS for the wedding of my nephew, Titus Aden Yutzy and Sherilyn Kay Kuepfer. I couldn’t make the long trip. Besides, I was just out there in July. But of course I do wish the young couple all the best and a long and fruitful marriage.

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Titus and Sheri Yutzy (as of Oct. 25, 2008)

On Monday, my father’s older brother, Noah Wagler of Daviess County, IN passed on to his reward. He was 94 years old. His funeral was yesterday. Of my father’s family, only three now remain. Dad, his older brother Abner of Aylmer, and his younger sister Rachel (Mrs. Homer) Graber of Kalona, IA.

This week I chatted with a friend from out of state. He called and mentioned that he’d read my last two blogs and was concerned. I’ve been a bit moody and uptight lately, he thought. I should try to cheer up a bit.

I couldn’t imagine where he got such a notion. Me moody? Uptight? Nah. Not so you’d notice. Except when I write, maybe.

He had a suggestion. “Go get yourself a really prime, well-baked pie,” he said. “Sit down, eat it and enjoy it. Savor every bite. Then write about how good it tasted.”

I couldn’t argue with his solution. Pie is always good, for any situation. I just don’t eat much of it since losing all that weight three years ago.

“Excellent thought,” I allowed cautiously. “Certainly worth serious consideration. One small problem. I don’t bake. Where am I gonna get the pie?”

Any volunteers out there? My favorites are cherry and raisin cream.

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