February 27, 2009


Category: News — Ira @ 6:22 pm


Bumpety-bumpety-bump went the wheels of the cart, and
the tired old bunny grumbled again.

“What did you say this time?” asked Billy Beaver.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Yes, you did. I heard you grumbling.”

“Well, I just said that this bridge underneath us is bumpy.
It shakes me all around and hurts my tail.”

–Excerpt, children’s story: “A Ride to Animal Town”

I’m in a grumpy mood this week. Generally irritated at life. And since that’s where I am, I’ll be a grouch. And grumble. Be forewarned.

Lately, there’s been lots of drama skulking about, here and there, demanding lots of attention. Stuff going on. Entirely too much. On the peripheral. And, boom, front and center. Real crap, most of it. From old sources, and new. It’s draining. I can’t do much about it. Except vent on the minor stuff. The major stuff, well, it’s currently not vent-able. Might never be, except maybe to my counselor.

My conclusion: problems not faced and resolved in their infancy inevitably expand to vast looming mountains, shrouded by roiling storms and great deadly thunderbolts. Always. Seems to be some sort of law.

I should go to Florida, I suppose. As any sane person would. Where some of my friends are hanging out right this second. Probably some who are reading this, even. Basking in the sun and soaking up the fine warm weather. Pitying us shivering morons up north.

In my running around years, I made it to Sarasota twice. In 1981, I was down for almost a year, staying through the summer. Not exactly a picnic, the summer weather. Hot doesn’t describe it. And later, in early 1987 for a few months. Worked for Dennis Borntrager, the mason contractor, both times. In those days, I lived on a shoestring budget, traveling and working. Existed on that hard thin line of barely making enough to survive. But somehow always getting by, saving enough to move on to the next destination. A rolling stone, I gathered no moss, except in experiences.

I haven’t been down since February, 2007, just over two years. When some pretty ugly stuff hit the fan. Not that the specter of those memories is keeping me away. And not that that I don’t have lots of invitations from my southern friends to come and stay awhile. But I’m the kind of guy who gets stuck in stubborn routine, and if that means waiting out a particularly long harsh winter, so be it.

Meanwhile back here at the ranch, the winds raged for about six straight days in the past week, as the endless winter drags on. One of the longest in my memory, or maybe I’m just slipping in old age. No such thing as Indian summer this year. (Or is that a politically incorrect term these days?) We got blitzed with winter in early November. And it’s hung on since then, vastly overstaying its welcome. Cold, snow, cold, snow, cold, cold, cold. Incessant, day after day, week after week. It’s enough to drive a normally sane person stark raving mad. Stir crazy. Loopy.

Of course, today, the day I post, it was a balmy sixty degrees for the first time in months. But I’m not fooled. It’s a trick. Winter is NOT over, by any stretch. I hear rumblings of a big snow storm this weekend.

So I sit and stew. Feel grumpy. And sluggish. The dry desert season in sports has descended in a great cloud of gloom, as it always does this time of year. The long slog through winter into spring. No football to watch, since the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. Baseball still a distant spring dream. Only basketball remains, and I cannot force myself to watch that awful game. (And all you fanatical Hoosiers, save it. It IS an awful game.)

I usually have a game on TV as I’m writing of an evening. Keep tabs on things out of the corner of my eye. Stop, relax and watch the replays of a particularly outstanding play. In this dry season, I’ve been reduced to watching the Smoky Mountain Knife Works a couple evenings a week. Good ole southern boys, with their lazy drawls, hawking expensive collectible knives. It’s amazing, what’s out there. And actually pretty interesting, although I have not yet been tempted to call with credit card in hand.

To top off my bad mood, Fred the Curmudgeon has retired. Again. This time I think he means it. A huge loss. Whatever anyone thinks of the man and his views, one thing was true. He could write. Beautifully. Concisely. Brutally. Incisively. I’m running out of adjectives here. No one, and I mean no one, could skewer Washington and the fat cat politicians better than Fred. Or anyone else he set his sights on. Now he’s gone. I’ve lost an old friend, feels like.

I am deeply grateful to him for the influence he’s had on my own writing. Since starting this blog back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say I’ve found my writing voice. No small thing, that. It had eluded me for years, decades even, when I hardly wrote at all. With the possible exception of Thomas Wolfe, Fred Reed has impacted me more than any other person. Now and again I’ll go back and re-read some of his old stuff, just to get a feel for his style again. Perhaps one day I can take up his mantle and be known as Ira the Curmudgeon. I would carry such a title with great pride. But I’d have to earn it first. And I’m not there yet.

So I sit and stew some more and think grumpy thoughts. Which isn’t quite brooding, just a step above. Dream of spring and hot summer days and the thick green carpet of grass growing in the yard. Barbecuing for my friends. And think about what it would be like to hang out with Fred in Mexico, in one of those little hole in the wall bars he loves. Eating chicken wings and quaffing beer.

I think the winter weather is getting to the everyday Joe on the street. Last week one day at work, a regular customer walked in from the cold to pick up some metal he’d ordered. Hot on his heels a tall rangy redneck rushed in, steam practically billowing from his ears. The redneck approached my customer, who was standing just across the counter from me.

The redneck wasted no time on niceties. “Are you the guy driving that pickup and trailer outside?” he demanded belligerently.

My customer allowed that he was. The redneck lurched forward into my customer’s face. Loudly cursed him for cutting off his tractor trailer on the highway, a short distance away from our shop. The customer recoiled, then as stridently defended himself, and the two of them were off to the races. I rolled my eyes in disbelief. This was all I needed. Blows would come next. Whacking each other, right in my office. Seemed like the next logical step, anyway. We’d get sued, if someone got hurt. What with all those hungry shark attorneys out there.

After twenty seconds or so, I inserted myself. “Guys,” I said, loudly and firmly. They quieted briefly and looked at me. “If you have issues, take them outside.” The redneck immediately seized on that and invited the customer outside to fight. So I rephrased my statement. “If you have issues, take them off this property.”

Ignoring me, they went at it again. Blows were imminent. For sure, this time. Again, I interrupted. Pointing at the redneck trucker, I said firmly, “You. Get off this property. Now. Or I’m calling the cops.”

The redneck tried to ignore me, but I persisted. Get out. Now. He finally walked toward the door, but just before reaching it, he turned. The two of them resumed yelling and cursing across the showroom. Fortunately, no other customers were present. One more time, I pointed. “Get out now. Off this property. Or I’m calling the cops.”

The redneck stared at me, then slowly and deliberately lifted his middle finger in a grand flourish. He seemed practiced in the motion. I looked at him in disgust, and repeated my command. Again. He finally stomped out. I calmed the customer and prevented him from running outside after the redneck, who boarded his 18 wheeler and roared away.

I suspect the redneck trucker had good reasons to be irate. Furious, even. But you don’t just go bursting into a business and start yelling at customers. Not when I’m behind the counter.

The long winter drags on.

And the minor irritants roll on. I’m sick to death of the mass media coverage of the Octu-Mom, the poor woman in CALIfornia who had eight babies. Eight. At once. Just unbelievable. A welfare recipient, she somehow manipulated the system and convinced a doctor to fertilize her.

The relentless media instantly circled like wolves, hounding the woman day and night. How could she justify bringing so many more babies into the world when she couldn’t afford to feed or house them? All valid points. But the overkill has been so brutal, so one-sided, that I actually pity the poor woman.

Seems to me everyone is missing an important point. The eight little babies. They are alive, little persons, human beings. Yes, the mother was obviously troubled and misguided in her original actions. But that was then. This is now. They are here. I’m a little disappointed that local churches in the area are not stepping up and offering to help care for the babies. It’s not the State’s job.

The poor woman has received death threats. From people more troubled than she is. The public should stop raging at her and rage instead at the CALIfornia welfare system that allows such expenditures in the first place. No wonder they’re going bankrupt out there.

But all is not gloom and doom and grumpiness. Last week I mentioned that I’d never been to Holmes County, even for a visit. Since then, my friend John Schmid and I have been negotiating a time this summer when he will actually be at home for a weekend instead of gallivanting around all over the world, doing the Lord’s work. If he discovers such a free weekend, I will travel to Holmes for a visit. John has assured me that the entire itinerary will be planned, all I have to do is show up. So I’m looking forward to meeting all the fine people that John claims live there. Ditto for the food. I expect to test his hosting capabilities. And perhaps his patience.

One housekeeping note. On the Index of Posts page, I’ve finally provided direct links to each title. Took awhile, but I got it done. Should be a lot easier to find specific posts and otherwise peruse the archives. You’re welcome.

February 20, 2009

Running Around

Category: News — Ira @ 7:04 pm


O youth, still wounded, living, feeling with a woe unutterable….
still thirsting with a thirst unquenchable – where are we to seek?

—Thomas Wolfe

Hardly a week passes that I don’t get a handful of private emails from readers of my blog. The occasional virulent screed excoriating me for some imagined slight, or my ungodly world views. But most often just a hello, and a comment about this or that scene, or an observation on something I’d written. Last week was no different.

Except one of the emails came from a college professor. A professor. Wow, I thought to myself. Must be moving up in the world, if even the intelligentsia is reading my stuff. Wonder how that happened. With the world wide web, anything’s possible, I guess. The email was brief, but polite. The professor is teaching a class on the Amish, probably in sociology or world cultures. He had a question. In my opinion, what percentage of the Amish youth are involved in “Rumspringa?”

Ah, yes. Rumspringa. That mispronounced word popularized by the film, The Devil’s Playground. Which, to be fair, was a pretty accurate film, in many ways. The term simply means “running around.”

I emailed the professor a brief, equally polite note. All Amish youth run around. That’s what they do after turning sixteen, when they are considered adults. Run with the youth and attend singings and social gatherings. But if he meant to ask what percentage of Amish youth “run wild” and touch and taste the unclean things of the outside world, either at home or after leaving, my guess would be twenty to twenty five percent. But that’s just a guess. Might be close, might not. It varies greatly from community to community. Some smaller communities have almost no such wild youth. In larger communities, wild youth are much more common.

Despite its unprecedented access to wild Amish youth in Ohio, The Devil’s Playground widely disseminated a huge misconception. And a huge disservice to the Amish. One that’s almost impossible to uproot. The belief that the Amish allow their youth a time to explore, to run wild, to live a mainstream lifestyle. To decide whether or not they really want to remain Amish.

I’m not saying that never happens. It probably does, in some rare individual families. But as a church policy, it is utterly false across the board. Never has been that way. Never will be. The Amish church does everything in its power to maintain its grip on the youth. Including applying some of the most guilt-ridden pressure tactics in existence anywhere in the world. No sense encouraging anyone a taste of outside life. Because there’s always a good chance they might not return, regardless of their good intentions when they left.

And I know whereof I speak, from my own experiences. The first few times I left, I had every intention of returning and settling down. It wasn’t even a question in my mind. Just a year or two, a taste of the outside, then I’d be content to live out my days in the Amish faith where I was born. Calm and settled in the simple life. Marry. Raise a family. Perhaps write some apologetics, as my father did. Watch my children grow.

But it didn’t happen. In fact, it pretty much went just like the preachers always claimed it would. Once the “world” gets its grip on you, the probability of return recedes into impossibility. One can weep and wail and repent at leisure, but it will be too late. You can’t go back. And the gnawing regrets will haunt you all your life.

That’s what they said. The preachers. And all of it was true. Except for one important point. The regrets part. There are none. Not about leaving, anyway. But I do have one major regret. That I didn’t get a grip and save myself a lot of mental anguish and guilt and leave for good long before I actually did. I seesawed back and forth for years, determined to force myself to follow my head instead of my heart. Until I finally decided to quit trying to please others, make my own choices and break free for good. And did.

Could it only have been much sooner, so much anguish could have been avoided. So many tears, so much grief. But I had to travel my own journey, define my own path. In my own time.

My particular expression of regret will never make it into any Amish sermons. Doesn’t fit the template. Not that I blame them. Or that I’m resentful. I’m not. It is what it is.

But I digress. Back to the Rumspringa. I’m not saying my opinion is accurate in every community. I grew up in Aylmer and later in Bloomfield, Iowa. Both communities consisted of a single district at the time. Very small. So I admit there are many nuances in the larger communities that I may not quite grasp. But overall, I think I have a pretty good idea of how things are.

I’ve lived in Daviess County and northern Indiana. In both places, it’s standard practice for young men to drive and own cars and still live at home. Parking their vehicles openly right at home. How it goes in Holmes County with their mishmash of separate groups is anyone’s guess. I’ve never been there, even for a visit. In Lancaster County, many young men drive, but the vast majority do not park their vehicles at home. Usually in a field some distance away, or at a non-Amish neighbor’s place. But even here, many remain living at home while owning motor vehicles.

That was unheard of where I grew up. Dad had an ironclad rule. Own a car, you can’t live at home. And that’s the way it was. I accepted it with no bad feelings. Couldn’t have imagined anything else.

The smaller communities keep a tight-fisted grip on their youth. Or try to. That’s why they’re smaller communities, because the people there usually fled the larger settlements to get away from the wild youth practices. In Aylmer, you look sideways the wrong way, and they whack you hard. Shave your beard, even though unmarried? You’d better not, or the deacon will be knocking on your door. Smoking and drinking? Partying and carousing? Absolutely unheard of, in all its history.

Bloomfield used to have a similar iron grip on things. About thirty years ago. Until a pack of six young men shattered the old molds and forged their own. It’s never been quite the same since.

I remember well the day I turned sixteen and started running around. In August, 1977. I was just a pup, really, a tall spindly beanpole of a kid. The Bloomfield settlement had probably around twenty families then. There were no wild youth.

Feeling quite grown up and important, chest puffed out, I joined my brothers, Stephen and Titus, and my sisters, Rachel and Naomi, and attended youth activities. And the Sunday evening singings. I quickly attached to a little core group of friends. Six of us. We were from fifteen to seventeen years old.

We never named our little gang. Six young Amish kids. The Herschberger brothers, Willis and LaVern, from Arthur, Illinois. The Yutzy cousins, Marvin and Rudy, from Buchanan County. Mervin Gingerich, from Kokomo, Indiana. And me, from Aylmer. Sprouted from extremely diverse communities. Thrown together by random chance, by our parents’ decisions to move to Bloomfield.

We were intelligent and hungry. Read voraciously. Mostly trashy best-sellers, picked up at yard sales and used-book stores. Carefully stashed them away under our mattresses or hidden in little nooks about the house. Occasionally we stumbled on the real stuff. Real literature. And recognized its quality. Somewhere at this point, I grappled with Shakespeare for the first time, painstakingly deciphering the Old English of his age.

We were exclusive. Didn’t hang out with just anyone. Huddled together, protecting each other from the storms that occasionally engulfed us. Intensely loyal to each other.

I can’t remember any time of my life that I felt closer to a core group of friends than I did to those five guys during those few short years. We didn’t consider ourselves “wild.” Scorned anyone who consciously tried to be. And we didn’t necessarily think we were cool. But we were, at least in our own restricted little world.

Those were tense and troubled times. Restless, driven by the pride and passions of youth, unsure of what we really wanted, we set out on a path of our own choosing. Scandalized the poor Bloomfield settlement countless times in untold ways. We weren’t particularly rough or rowdy. But we did like to party a bit and have a good time.

We gathered on Sundays. At church and later at the singings. Sunday afternoons, we hung out at the Drakesville park, or a local schoolhouse, sipping beer that we’d bought from Bea, the clerk at the little convenience store in Drakesville. Smoked cigarettes. (This was in the great golden age before the tobacco and alcohol Nazis unleashed their venomous lies and turned this country into a whining nanny state.) Unlimbered our contraband. Transistor radios and 8-track tape players. Tinny, awful sounding equipment. Deeply absorbed what is now considered classic country and classic rock music. Acted up and told rowdy jokes. Mimicked the preachers with mock sermons, laughing uncontrollably. Dismembered our adversaries with our bold talk.

And sometimes, too, we showed up a bit tipsy at the singings. Made all kinds of unfortunate scenes with our loud hilarity. Much to the horror of the house father and other stodgy guests. One Sunday evening, one of us (who will remain anonymous), piled way too many baked beans on his supper plate. He soon realized his mistake; he couldn’t possibly eat them all. Instead of quietly setting aside the plate, with uneaten beans, he belligerently accosted those around him with the plea, “Viddoo Boona? Viddoo Boona?” (You want beans? You want beans?). The five of us sat there and roared, everyone else looked liked they’d eaten green persimmons. Sour. Oh, my, sour doesn’t even come close.

Pretty harmless stuff, really. We weren’t destructive. We didn’t terrorize people. But somehow, we managed to frequently trigger a great flood of dramatic groans and intonations from parent and preacher alike. How could my son act so wickedly? Dee boova sind so loppich. So veesht. (The boys are so naughty. So wicked.) You know better. Why can’t you just be good and behave, like the (name withheld) boys? They are such decent boys, so nice and upstanding. And such up-building members of the church. They were nice and upstanding, all right. And dull, and dense as mud.

We gagged at such drama. Ignored the incessant scolding. Despised the pious (name withheld) boys. Hunkered down and persisted in our wicked ways. The more our parents and the preachers tried to crack down and suppress us, the harder we “kicked against the pricks.” Whatever discipline they designed and threw at us, we resisted. They plugged a leak here, the water slipped through over there. They tried to separate and divide, and it drew us that much closer to each other.

And somehow, when I now look back on those times, I can’t bring myself to be too harsh on anyone involved on either side. Upon occasion, I can still dredge up some mild resentment at a few pious nosy long-bearded busybodies, who made a mission of trying to straighten out other people’s kids. Who stirred up the flames of discontent and disharmony in the community at every opportunity. Who secretly harbored their own dark skeletons in their own hidden closets, secrets later exposed. And who will be dealt with at some point later in my writings. But overall, the years have tempered the rage and frustrations of our youth. And, I hope, softened the deep pain we inflicted on those closest to us at the time.

Although far from perfect, our parents had given up a lot, had uprooted their lives and moved to this little new settlement, in hopes of establishing a community where the youth would be respectful and behave. Not drag in all the bad stuff, the wicked habits practiced in other places. I couldn’t see that then. I can now.

And the six of us, well, we were simply spirited youth. Which doesn’t excuse a lot of the stuff we pulled off. But who can instruct a pack of youth who band together in revolt? At that age, no one. And no one did. We knew instinctively that there was so much more beyond our closed and structured world, so much we could grasp in our hands and feel and taste and absorb.

And we knew, the six of us, that when they were young, our fathers had done the very things they were now denying us. Not that they ever admitted any such thing. But we knew. And they should have known we knew. Don’t do as I did, is what we heard. Do as I say. There was no tolerance for anything less, no attempt to consider our perspective. No respect, no communication, no honesty. And that simply could not work, in the age-old conflict between fathers and sons. Not when the sons have a shred of spirit.

And looking back, not that far from the age my father was at the time, I remember many things. The vast chasm that separated us. I was a hothead, strong-willed, filled with passion and rage and desire. Stubborn. Driven. As was he. I was my father’s son. The harsh, hollow words that echoed in anger and sadness across the great divide. Words spoken but not heard. Words better left unsaid.

And so the battle lines were drawn. The six of us against the world. Or at least our world. Tensions flared and faded and flared again, as confrontation after confrontation surged and subsided. The mental strain escalated to an almost unbearable level.

Until it all reached its inevitable crescendo. On that fateful starless April night, when I got up at 2 AM in the pitch black darkness, left a scribbled note under my pillow, and walked away. All my earthly belongings stuffed in a little black duffel bag. Seventeen years old, bound for a vast new world that would be all I could ever have imagined.

In my eager mind, the great shining vistas of distant horizons gleamed and beckoned. A world that would fulfill the deep yearning, the nebulous shifting dreams of a hungry, driven youth. And it would be mine, all of it, to pluck from the forbidden tree and taste and eat. I could not know that night of the long hard road that stretched into infinity before me. That I was lost. I could not know of the years of turmoil, rage and anguish that eventually would push me to the brink of madness and despair.

And so I walked on through the night. Within a month or so, all five of my buddies would follow. And the shattered little community of Bloomfield would reel and stagger from the bitter blow. From the shocking scandal, the shame and devastation of losing so many of its young sons to the “world.”

My long journey had just begun.

Congratulations to Rosita Beiler and Ken Martin on their engagement. Rosita is the office manager at Graber, and I have worked closely with her for eight years. The guys at the office like to think they run the place, but they don’t. Rosita does. She is an invaluable asset to the company, and we are all excited for her and Ken. And wish them the best, all the happiness in the world. The wedding is planned for July 18th.

Ken and Rosita