November 28, 2008

Early Winter Blahs

Category: News — Ira @ 6:05 pm


To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring.

—W.J. Vogel

Not that I want to grumble or be surly in the dawn of a fresh new holiday season. I’ve got loads to be thankful for, heaven knows. Decent health, good job. Warm home. Family. Good friends. And a whole lot more.

But I do feel grumpy. Because it’s winter. I woke up last Friday with nothing more on my mind than a good day at the office, then the weekend. I bustled about, showered and got ready for work. Mixed and drank my Superfood. Pocketed my breakfast cookies. Packed my gym bag. Approached the front door to leave. And almost fell over backward. It had snowed. Not just flurries, either. Had AlGore happened to be standing in my kitchen at that moment, an admittedly remote possibility, I would have assailed him with some very harsh and unkind words. It’s not supposed to snow this early. Not according to his gospel.

But it had. And still was, in fact. Big Blue sat shivering on the drive, covered with about three inches of solid white. I felt bad for him. I’d let him down. Usually I park him inside the garage if snow is in the forecast.

That was the problem. No forecasters had called it. No warnings whatsoever. Not a word. I grumbled savagely as I skidded around my drive and swept my truck and scraped the windshield. Warmed up the engine, then finally left for work. It was COLD. And I hate cold. The back roads were slicker than snot. All I need, I thought to myself, is to slide around and get Big Blue banged up yet. But the truck held steady, and we made it safely.

It kept spitting snow off and on all day. And the next. Inches. I looked in disbelief. The moronic meteorologists babbled incoherently about chances of snow showers. What’s a snow shower? Never heard of such a thing. Either it snows, or it doesn’t.

Although most of the snow has now disappeared, the cold has not. Or the biting winds.
I am, of course, surrounded by strange people who illogically claim to love the snow and cold. Nothing like it, they gush and coo. Let it snow, let it snow, they bleat inanely. To each his own, but truth is, I am very suspicious of such people. Something about them just ain’t right.

My brother Nate has a pretty sound theory about why most of my siblings abhor winters. Even though some of us obstinately insist on living in northern climes. He claims it’s because when we were growing up, it was always cold. Aylmer had long cold winters back then. Biting winds swept in from Lake Erie. Blew right through you. I can still feel them, piercing to the bone. Our house was cold at night, the barn was cold when we did the chores, riding in the buggies was cold, and school was cold. Of course, we walked to school in the cold. We never warmed up. Not in winter. Just existed in a state of perpetual, incessant numbing cold.

Nate’s theory makes sense. After absorbing so much cold as children, we’re now on a belated, hopeless and endless quest to get warm and stay warm.

The holidays are here. Every year it’s the same old tune. Spring arrives with new life and lots of hope, then fades slowly into summer. Lazy summer pokes along and meanders into fall. Football season starts. And then the weeks begin to roll by in earnest. Suddenly it’s Thanksgiving. You know it’s coming, but always are mildly surprised when it arrives. And the year is pretty much over, as the days accelerate into Christmas. By the time you really grasp that, it’s New Year. And it all starts over again.

I spent Thanksgiving, at least the important part, at Steves. The Thanksgiving meal. Wilma served a huge delicious feast with all the fixings. Just their family and me. Among many other things, I’m thankful to have at least one sibling in the area.

I’ve always admired the old pickups and cars on the road. I mean the old Model T’s and Model A’s you see chugging along, usually when there’s a car show or local parade somewhere. I always think of the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath,” fleeing the Dust Bowl with all their belongings bundled and strapped onto their creaking and overloaded old jalopy. The movie is worth watching for its vintage vehicles alone. The old Tin Lizzies also remind me of what my father must have seen when he was a boy. Maybe even the very same vehicle.

I’ve never ridden in one. Until yesterday. While at brother Steves for lunch. He just bought a 1931 Model A pickup, original, fully restored. After the meal, we went outside and I inspected his new prize. Very proud, he is. We squeezed into the tiny cab, and he choked the engine and pushed the starter. It wheezed to life instantly. Three speed with reverse. Takes some effort to wrestle with the steering wheel, while simultan-eously clutching and shifting. Steve managed OK; I looked out for opposing traffic at all crossroads. Everyone we met reacted, one way or another. One guy stared at us as if he’d just eaten some bad turkey. The next guy almost fell out of his car, waving. We merrily puttered onward at about 30 mph.

Steve took driving lessons when he bought it. Driving the old truck is certainly not like driving a modern one. All he needs now is period clothing. Duster, goggles, old floppy hat.

Steve and his truck. Big Blue sulks in the background.

Ira and the truck. It has no name as of yet.
I’d suggest Little Green. Or Old Green.

Steve opens the gas line on the gravity flow tank.

On the road.

View from the passenger’s seat.

We stopped at an Amish friend’s place to show off. They weren’t home.

Today is Black Friday. Locally, the outlets opened at midnight or 1 AM, with huge sales to lure shoppers. From all accounts, retailers are expecting a dismal season. I have never fought the Black Friday crowds and don’t imagine I ever will. I usually wait for the post-Christmas 85% off sales. That’s when I do most of my clothes shopping for the year. At quality brand name retailers, too, not Wal Mart. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Wal Mart, other than you might get trampled to death by stampeding hordes of bargain hunters. As happened to some poor guy in New York this morning.)

I keep getting many bright glossy shopping catalogs in the mail from numerous hopeful companies. All are promptly deposited in the trash, along with the twice weekly desperate reminders from the “New Yorker” that it’s time to renew my subscription.

I had been perusing the “New Yorker” quite faithfully because of its generally well-written articles. But a few months ago, the magazine so blatantly spewed pro-Obama gibberish that I couldn’t stomach it anymore. Fried my brain. No mas, I said. Not now. Not ever again. The last ten issues are stacked on my kitchen table, unopened and unread. I won’t read them. And I won’t renew. Anyone who wants those issues, let me know and I’ll gladly gift them to you. Otherwise, I will trash them all soon. That’s where they belong anyway.

Last week my blog was linked to another high traffic site. Amish America. The blogger, Erik Wesner, linked to one of my old reflections on Amish church songs. I definitely noticed a substantial uptick in hits, and appreciate the exposure to a larger group of readers. I emailed Erik and thanked him. He responded quite graciously. Welcome to any readers who arrived at my site through his link.

By the way, anyone out there who has a blog and enjoys this one is welcome to link to it. It’s the only way I’ll ever get true widespread exposure.

Last weekend I finally nailed that cherry pie. From another Amish source. The kind housewife insisted that I take a whole pie, even though I protested quite vociferously. It was fresh out of the oven. Looked mouth watering. But I can’t eat a whole pie. Not even in a week’s time. Freeze it, she said. She prevailed. But on Sunday night I took what was left of it with me to Paul and Anne Marie Zooks for supper. Where it was polished off. Delicious, it was. Even though not entirely in sync with my regular diet.

November 21, 2008

Levi and Noah (Sketch #11)

Category: News — Ira @ 7:06 pm


Why could not the old men speak? ….Where were the
passion, pain and pride, the million living moments of
their lives? Was all this lost?

—Thomas Wolfe, “Of Time and the River”

They were the patriarchs, the elder statesmen in the Aylmer community. Gray-haired, quiet, both of them. Common men, not particularly leaders. But the years had bestowed upon them the somber mien of wisdom and experience, and they wore it well.

Levi Slaubaugh and Noah Gascho had little in common. One was a blacksmith, the other a retired farmer. Almost exactly the same age, they always sat beside each other in church, pretty much the only place they were ever seen together. The first to head in from barn to house on Sunday mornings to start the services, after the preachers. Slowly and majestically they walked, with just the right degree of gravitas.

They performed no great feats in their lives. As far as I know, little has ever been chronicled of their deeds or their span of years on earth.

Unremembered and unimportant, in the grand scheme of things. And yet the great framework, the vivid scenes, the bustle and flow of the world of my youth would have been incomplete without them.

Noah Gascho was born in 1909 in the Milverton, Ontario area. Gascho is an obscure surname among the Amish, one among many such in Milverton. He grew up there, and in 1931, married Nancy Lichti. They had several sons and daughters.

They moved to Aylmer in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I don’t know the exact date, and it’s not important. Dissatisfied with the dissolute morals of the Milverton settlement, he, like so many who moved to Aylmer, yearned for something purer, something better. For the great shining city on the hill, where one could live in peace and righteousness.

They purchased a farm about a mile west and north of our home. Their sons and daughters in due time found partners and married in Aylmer and started their own families. When I was four or five years old, and entering the fields of my earliest memories, Noah turned the farm over to his youngest son, Joseph, who had married my oldest sister Rosemary. Noah and Nancy moved to a small cottage on a few acres a quarter mile to the north.

The Gaschos were a bit different. Culturally. Rather grim and humorless, by Wagler standards. Used strange and garbled words unknown in our rough and tumble Daviess County roots. Like “kittell” for a light dress coat. Once, Nancy was telling my Mom about pests ruining their garden, raccoons and skunks. Noah couldn’t get rid of them.

“Noah doesn’t have a flint,” she announced loudly to Mom, who properly “vermached” herself. A flint was a gun. He didn’t own one.

We chewed that line for years. “Da Noi hutt ken flint.” (Noah doesn’t have a flint.)

Noah was hard-core Amish. Stridently opposed to anything that even remotely smacked of modernization. Or anything outside the boundaries of traditional Amish ways. A slight frail wisp of a man with a shiny bald dome and long gray beard, dressed in plain black broadcloth and battered shapeless black felt hat, he peered through round wire-rimmed glasses. He spoke in a squeaky quavering voice and always emitted the faint stale odor of garlic. He was somewhat overshadowed by his wife’s larger stature, along with her stronger will and personality.

We were fascinated by his bald head. Clean as a whistle, and shiny, it was the exact shape of the round part of a ball peen hammer. One local wag even took to calling the ball peen hammer a “Noi-kupp,” or Noah-head. He didn’t mean any disrespect; he was simply calling it as he saw it. It was a pretty accurate, if unkind, description.

We considered Noah a bit of an eccentric, the people in my world. Kindly enough, in his own way, just different. I can’t remember ever being in their home, although it’s likely I was at one time or another. When it was their turn to hold church services, they always had the service at the home of one of their married children. Their house was too small for the whole church group to gather. Besides, getting ready for church was a bit much for one old couple alone.

They were frugal and self sufficient. Noah puttered about on his few acres and helped his wife in the garden. They were always there when we butchered hogs at Joseph and Rosemary’s place. Bustling about, cutting and slicing, saving even the tiniest scraps of meat and fat for liverwurst. And the bones for soup.

At one such butchering, as they worked, Nancy and my Mom burst into a childhood song they both knew and remembered. “Juanita.” In perfect unison, their clear soprano voices ringing as they sang together. Smiling self-consciously, two plain elderly Amish ladies. The rest of us looked on in wonder and listened, shocked and thrilled. Such trite rollicking songs were unheard of in our world, and sternly frowned upon in Aylmer, for sure.

Noah enjoyed leading songs in church and that is how those who were children at the time really remember him. Long slow dirges that seemed to stretch forever. We always sank down and shriveled a bit when he announced a song number. A moment of painful silence followed, then his quavering voice shivered through the house. On and on, through verse after dreary verse. Particularly annoying was his penchant for leading many verses even after the preachers had returned from the “Obrote,” at which time the singing was supposed to stop. Noah usually paid little attention, or perhaps didn’t realize the preachers had returned, and kept right on squeaking along. Because of him, many a church service was extended by ten or fifteen minutes. And after three plus hours on hard backless benches, every minute leaves its mark.

Levi Slaubaugh moved to Aylmer in 1954, shortly after its founding. With his wife, Elizabeth and their two daughters, Emma and Eva, he lived on the Peter Stoll farm until their house could be built on a two acre corner lot on the community’s main east/west drag, half a mile east of my uncle Abner’s farm. After the house was finished, Levi moved much of his household goods the half mile from the Stoll farm by wheelbarrow, trundling back and forth.

He was born in the sad hungry wastelands of Milo, North Dakota in 1909. The tattered remnants of that doomed Amish community soon moved back east for sheer survival. He grew up in Mio, Michigan, and there met Elizabeth Lambright; they married in 1941. After drifting here and there among various settlements, they finally settled in Aylmer. It would be their home for more than thirty years.

Bald, bespectacled, of medium height with a bushy white beard, he was a stocky powerful man, a mildly rotund hulk of muscle and sweat. Perfectly suited to his humble calling as the community blacksmith. Just west of his house, he built a ramshackle, sprawling shop, running his machinery with a complex configuration of gears and belts and pulleys and drive shafts, powered by a huge diesel engine in the back.

Levi was a master welder, a craftsman of the trade. His shop always reeked with the strong manly smells of acrid smoke and grease and steel and melted welding rods. The diesel pulsed and throbbed in the background as Levi, clad in a stained worn leather apron, the rimless crown of an old black felt hat on his head, peered through his welding shield, the wicked buzzing of the molten welding rod vibrating through the shop, flickering with light brighter than the sun. Long iron bars and tubes and sheets of flat metal lay strewn about. A great solid iron anvil sat anchored to the floor. Occasionally when driving past, one could hear the clang and clamor of Levi hammering mightily on the anvil.

As children, we heard the whispered stories of how, when he was young and single, he cobbled together an old Model A Ford, and with a friend, headed to Florida for the winter. We looked at the man we knew and couldn’t imagine such a thing, but we believed the tales. Respected the adventurous spirit of his youth, and tried to envision the things he saw and experienced in that long ago world.

Lisbet, his wife, kept the house shining and spotless, at least when they had church. Their basement had its own unique odor, of cleaning soap and wax. The children pumped water from the hand pump in the corner and gulped it in great draughts.

One hot summer afternoon, when I was probably five years old, I accompanied my father on his business about the neighborhood. We clattered here and there in his rickety topbuggy, looking for a part for the grain binder or the silo filler, I can’t remember which. Quite suddenly he announced that since he couldn’t find the part he needed, we would make an unexpected trip to town. I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was like hitting the jackpot. Oh, boy. Town.

He glanced down at me, bouncing excitedly beside him on the seat. Frowned.

“You need to wash up. You’re kind of dirty,” he said. A huge understatement. I was barefoot, ragged, and gloriously grimy. “We’ll stop at Levi Slaubaughs and you can clean up.”

We pulled into the drive, and Dad tied the horse to the hitching rail. Levi was working inside his shop, the large sliding door was open. Dad and Levi exchanged pleasantries.

“I took a notion to go to town.” Dad said. That’s the word he used. Notion. I wondered vaguely what a notion was, but thought it sounded like a fine word. And I was going to town. He continued, “And Ira here needs to clean up a bit.”

Levi sent us to the house, where Lisbet met us at the door. Dad repeated his request. Lisbet smiled kindly, as if grubby little boys showed up at her door every day. I followed her into the sun porch on the south side of the house. Gleaming varnished hardwood floors, everything was spotless. There was a sink with a shiny white wash bowl. I took the wash cloth she gave me and scrubbed up a bit. Good enough. Dad thanked her and we were on our way.

Levi owned the only threshing machine in Aylmer and did custom threshing for all the farmers. On threshing day, early in the morning, he would appear from the west, over the little hill at Neighbor John’s, the great hulk of the threshing machine trundling along, crunching on the gravel road, pulled by an orange hybrid tractor Levi had assembled from scavenged parts.

He set up the thresher by the barn, lined up the tractor and attached the long flat belt to the pulleys on tractor and thresher. As the wagonloads of bundles pulled up and men pitched the bundles onto the ravenous feeder belt, Levi puttered about in the dust and heat, keeping the thresher greased and humming.

At the end of the day, when our threshing was done, he usually stayed for supper, sitting down with us to eat bean soup and tomato sandwiches in our summer kitchen. After supper, he and Dad settled up, and he rumbled out our lane with tractor and thresher. My brothers and I always ran out and hung onto the ladder mounted on the rear of the threshing machine. At the great oak tree a few hundred feet west of our lane, Levi shifted the hybrid tractor into higher gear. The entire bulk jerked abruptly, then lurched forward at astonishing speed. That’s when we jumped off. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our legs.

In the yard around his shop, he kept a scattered array of derelict farm machinery, tractors and truck beds and other fascinating junk. When they had church, the children played on the old equipment.

On the rear of one such rusted hulk, a previous owner had scrawled the still-legible message, “Don’t follow me, I’m lost.” As the men filed past the rusted hulk one Sunday morning on the way to the house for church, preacher Elmo Stoll noticed those words. Later that morning, as he stood to preach the main sermon, he repeated the slogan he had read outside. And the man crafted his entire sermon around those five words, weaving and stitching in his usual fashion to teach the lesson that could not have been forming in his mind for much more than an hour.

As Noah was known for mournful dirges, Levi was known for leading one particular song in church. The classic Lob (Praise) Song. It was by far his favorite. He led it often, his powerful, guttural roar echoing through the house in perfect pitch and rhythm.

In 1976, my family moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, and I soon lost track of the two old patriarchs and their wives. They faded completely from my mind as the passions and pride of young adulthood engulfed me. We heard tricklings here and there, snippets of news from our former home. I probably saw them once or twice after we moved, when visiting the old Aylmer haunts.

Noah Gascho was the first to go. Always frail, he struggled with health problems. He died in 1980, just shy of age 71, and was buried there in the Aylmer Amish graveyard. His wife Nancy, of more hardy stock, soldiered on alone for another nineteen years, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She finally joined Noah in August of 1999, and was buried beside him.

Levi Slaubaugh’s health, too, declined after Noah passed away. Heart and lung problems from decades of breathing in the toxic fumes of welding smoke, and the accumulation of untold days and weeks and years of unceasing labor. With Lisbet and his daughter Eva, who remained single, he moved to Centerville, Michigan in 1988. From that community they traveled to Florida, to spend the winter months in Pine Craft. A thing they would not have been allowed to do, had they remained in Aylmer.

In his final years, the dark tentacles of depression crept in and threatened to envelop him. He shriveled to a mere shell of the muscular blacksmith of my childhood. After leaving Aylmer, he died two short years later, in Florida in 1990, and was buried there. Lisbet and Eva moved permanently to Florida after his death. Lisbet survived him by fourteen years. She died in Florida in 2004.

And so they lived, and so they died. Quiet, solid and unpretentious. Enduring hardships without complaint. Faithful always to the culture and faith into which they were born.

They were unsung, unheralded. The sands of time will soon all but extinguish the last fading vestiges of the words they spoke, the lives they lived and the work of their hands, the legacies they left behind. To all but a diminishing remnant of those who knew them.

There are still a few of us out there. We, the living, who remember. We pause now from the bustle and stir of our daily lives. To recall. Reflect. Reminisce.

Somehow, it seems fitting to simply honor the memories of who they were.