Yeah, running down a dream
That never would come to me.
Working on a mystery,
Going wherever it leads.
Running down a dream.
—Tom Petty, lyrics: Running Down a Dream
I’ve had the dream for a long, long time. Far longer than I’ve been blogging. I’ve always known, deep down, that one day I would pursue it. Reach for it and grasp it, one way or another. And either make it, or stumble and fail trying. Probably in a spectacular fiery crash, as most of my failures tend to unfold.
But somehow, after graduating from college and then law school, life took over. And the day to day grind of living it. The dream lay dormant for almost two decades, as other pressing things intervened. Always, I knew that I should revive it. Do what it takes to get there.
But I don’t usually walk through life-altering doorways, not willingly. Not unless pushed by some powerful outside force. Don’t know why. My cautious nature, I guess. Or maybe I’m just burned out from all those experiences of running around and leaving home so many years ago.
And then, almost three years ago, the dream rekindled itself. Came smashing back on its own accord. Triggered by a series of traumatic events.
And when you get slammed by that level of trauma in a deep gut blow, it stirs the true essence of who you really are, deep down. At least it did for me.
My instinctive reaction? I began to write. On this blog.
A litany of pain and fear and rage and sorrow, at first. For some time. Then slowly, tentatively, the stories of my past emerged. My background, my childhood. And over time, my writing voice developed. And more importantly, the discipline of producing something, even when the muse seemed distant. Week after week, for a year. Then two.
And somewhere in that time, the dream, which had flickered so low for so long, was reborn.
My long term strategy was hopelessly naïve. Keep producing good stuff, post it out there for the world to see, and one day someone with connections will notice. I have never advertised this blog. Or promoted myself. Word of mouth, I figured, was the best publicity. I kept plugging on. And my readership increased, through word of mouth and occasional links from other sites, to some pretty impressive numbers.
The dream intensified. And now it has taken one more giant step toward reality. A hugely critical step.
A few weeks ago, I accepted an offer through my agent from Tyndale House. To write a book. Tyndale. Out of Chicago. Big stuff.
I’m very excited. And scared. And pretty much freaked. Glad I don’t have a weak heart.
It was a long process. Frustrating at times. Hopeless at others. And I’ll tell you how it all came down.
First, I tried my hand at self-publishing. With disastrous results. We all, I think, remember how that went.
As a direct result of my reactionary tirade, an email appeared from an old friend, Jerry Eicher. Jerry and I were friends and classmates for probably the first seven years of our lives. I had not seen him in close to 20 years.
Jerry is a very successful author of Amish fiction. His books are everywhere, in book- stores. At Wal Mart. I’ve seen them on Choice Books racks at rest stops along the PA Turnpike.
He had been checking out my writings. And read of my futile effort to publish. Guess he felt sorry for me. He had a suggestion. Why don’t I contact his source at Harvest House, his publisher? Of course, I was all ears. Or all eyes, since we were communicating via email. Jerry sent me the link to his source. And I sent the guy a short message, along with a few of my stories.
Amazingly, the guy emailed back. He was impressed. Would I consider writing a book for Harvest House? Would I? You bet.
I sent him half a dozen of my sketches, and in June, he presented my writings to the Board at Harvest House. He was extremely optimistic. Convinced the Board would accept my stuff. The day came. The Board met. That night, a sad email.
He was very sorry. Some on the Board loved my stuff. But a few obtuse (my word, not his) members thought my Amish stories weren’t sweet enough. Not sweet enough. Think about that for a moment.
Anyway, the vote had to be unanimous. And it wasn’t. So no deal. Just like that.
And there it was. Rejection. Again. I had purposed to keep my expectations to a minimum. And I tried. But it was a blow. To absorb and accept.
My Harvest House champion was devastated as well. We spoke that evening. He was quite sorry and extended his genuine condolences.
But then: “Wait,” he said. “I know an agent. A friend of mine. I’ll contact him. This guy knows everyone in the business. Maybe something good can come from all this yet.”
I thanked him and hung up. A few weeks later, the agent emailed me. Could we talk? We could and did. Shortly thereafter, in late July, I signed a contract with him. Sent him about ten of my sketches and some personal info.
And that was it. No news all summer. After Labor Day, a short email, listing all the publishers he had approached. Big names. And then, silence. Nothing. For months.
In the meantime, I kept on doing what I did after the first two rejections. Writing. When things don’t work out, keep walking. Keep doing what you do best with the abilities you have. Sounds a bit cliched and trite, but it works for me. Whatever happens, I’ll always fall back on that.
And then, in January, a terse email. All the publishers had passed. No takers. Except one. A lone editor at Tyndale had expressed some interest in a biographical work. Would I consider that?
Of course. And so, a week or two later, I spoke on the phone with the interested editor. For an hour. About my ideas for writing. And hers. It went well and I was relaxed, amazingly enough. I agreed to send her an overview of what I had in mind. After we hung up, I sent her some links to specific posts on my site.
About a week later, I sent the overview. A few days after that, my agent emailed me that the editor was impressed. And that she would present her idea for my book to her Board at Tyndale.
Oh, boy. Here we go again. Another Board. Looming like the Great Wall of China. You can’t get around and you can’t get through. Now what? It hadn’t worked out with the Harvest House Board. I tried again to keep any expectations quashed. Fought back the nervous tension. And kept writing for my blog.
And about a week after that, a late evening email from the agent. Great news.
Tyndale had made an offer for a book. I couldn’t believe it. After all this time. It seemed like the Lord was honoring my commitment, my dream. I sat there and stared at my agent’s message. Read it over and over again. Absorbed it, soaked it in. Then I made some phone calls. To my siblings and a few friends.
Since then, the editor and I have spoken and communicated via email. As to what she wants. And when. She will fly in sometime in March to meet with me and plot out the story line.
She wants a book based on my life. From birth. A continuous work. Not short sketches. I’ve not written like that before. But I will now.
Tyndale wants the manuscript finished by fall. The book is currently scheduled for release in the fall of 2011.
And that’s how it all came down. I’ve got some work to do. A lot of intense work.
And here, I publicly thank my friend Jerry Eicher. He freely and unselfishly offered to me his connections to the publishing world. Without which I would not be where I am today. I will never forget his kindness.
This summer will be like none I have ever known before. It’s going to take a lot of intense concentration to get the book done on time. I plan to use a lot of the stuff already posted, the stories and the scenes, woven in. But it’s going to take of lot of writing from scratch, too.
I know I can do it. I know I can. But still, deep down, way back, there’s always that gnawing fear, that specter of failure. Just enough, I hope, to hone my creative senses to a finer edge.
I don’t embrace the fear, but I walk toward it. Face it. The dragon will not flee. It must be confronted and slain.
Until November, the blog will have to take a back seat. I’ll check in sporadically, probably once a month or so, to let you know how it’s going and that I’m still kicking. Maybe, with Tyndale’s permission, I might post an excerpt or two from the book, here and there.
And so I leave you for awhile. At least as you’ve known me on this blog. Wish me well.
When the manuscript is finished and submitted, I’ll be back. To tell you of how it was.
And so, once again I stand at one more threshold. Ready to step into a strange new world. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve wanted something as intensely as I’ve wanted this. It’s what I’ve yearned for, dreamed of, for so long. Like the great shining city, always over the next hill, that called to me in the days of my youth so long ago. The city that somehow always faded into the mists, when approached, as the mirage it was.
Now, for the first time, I approach the gates of that shining city. The gatekeeper awaits a battered traveler, ragged and weary from the tough slog of so many long and lonely miles through so many years. A traveler with some tales to tell.
And this time, the great city is not fading away as I approach. It looms ever closer. It’s real.
And that’s a little scary. Intimidating. I’m a simple man, from hard plain roots. I have to fight it sometimes, the urge to turn and flee back to the comfort zone of the land from whence I’ve come. To where I know and am known. But I can’t. The price of getting here was too high to turn back now.
I don’t quite know what’s on the other side of those gates, or exactly how it will go. I think my editor does. And I expect some of it won’t be pretty.
There’s only one way to find out.
Housekeeping Note: This week, my webmaster cleaned my spam infested site and installed the latest version of Word Press. He got rid of 22,000 plus spam messages. To protect from future spammers, he installed the CAPTCHA Code system for those who want to leave a comment. Just below the box where you write the comment, type in the letters and/or numbers exactly as they’re shown, and your comment will be posted.
They cry in the dark, so you can’t see their tears.
They hide in the light, so you can’t see their fears.
Forgive and forget, all the while
Love and pain become one and the same,
In the eyes of a wounded child.
—Pat Benatar, lyrics: Hell is for Children
It happened in the late 1950s, a few years before I was born. I faintly remember them in my childhood world. The seven Mexican Mennonite children who were farmed out to various families in the Aylmer Amish community.
Mexican Mennonites were just that. Mennonites who had emigrated from Mexico. With few or no worldly possessions. With their own language, their own habits and customs. In southern Ontario, they were considered second class citizens. Ragged. Uncouth. Shifty. Mean. The hard-faced men with greasy side-swept hair slouched around in tight jeans and shoes with pointed toes. Most smoked. Many drank. The women, dressed in distinctive patterned flowing skirts, fluttered about, chattering in Plattdeutsch, a low German dialect.
Most of them were poor. Some were destitute. They roared about on the gravel roads in great finned cars, ancient rusting hulks.
We never had that much to do with them, except in the occasional course of normal commerce. No one trusted them. And so they existed in a dimension of their own, almost underground, struggling to survive in a strange land and a foreign culture.
And then, somewhere over in the area of Corinth, a few miles north and east of us, a certain Mexican Mennonite man with the last name of Fehr left his family one day. Just up and deserted his wife and eight children. I don’t know where he went. Maybe back to Mexico. Or maybe not.
But his choice of action was pretty much par for the course. Of what we thought of Mexican Mennonites.
His deserted, destitute wife struggled to feed the children. Ranging from toddlers to teenagers. On many a day, her cupboard was bare and there was no food. Her children looked on with hungry eyes. Desperate, she turned to her people for help. None was forthcoming.
And somehow, after the ragtag band of unsupervised children had terrorized their neighbors once too often, the people at the local Social Services office got involved. They decided to remove the children from their mother’s home. They determined that the Aylmer Amish were of similar faith and approached the leaders there to see if the children could be taken in. Meetings were held. And it was decided that five of the eight children would be farmed out to various families that would open their homes. The two oldest sons were allowed to remain at their mother’s home.
And so one day, as the little ragged children looked on in befuddled bewilderment, a long black car pulled up outside the shanty that was their home. Their mother herded them out and told them to get in. She had packed their few meager belongings and placed them in the trunk.
The long black car pulled away from what would be the last shared home the five frightened children would ever know. They shifted around and peered out the back window in alarm. Their mother stood there, receding in the distance, watching them leave. After she disappeared, the children murmured to each other. David was the youngest, probably around a year old. His sisters comforted him as best they could. The long black car rolled on.
And on and on, to them it seemed. Into strange and unknown territory. Then it slowed and turned into a drive leading to a farm. Pete Stoll’s place. There, David was taken from the car. He would stay here. As he was carried up to the house, his siblings watched him go.
On then, to the north and east. Next stop, Pete Yoder’s farm. The bishop. There, Pete and his wizened wife, Martha met them. The two girls, Betty and Mary, were told to get out. This was their new home.
Cornelius and Isaac, five and three years old, were unloaded at Noah and Nancy Gascho’s home. Some weeks later, Jacob, in his teens, was taken to the preacher Nicky Stoltzfus’ home at the east end of the Aylmer settlement.
And so they were taken from their mother, who could not feed or care for them, and distributed among a number of Amish homes in Aylmer.
I wasn’t there when it happened, so I didn’t see it. But it defies comprehension, the new life into which those children walked. Abruptly and unceremoniously, they were thrust into strange and frightening surroundings. In which everyone around them spewed incomprehensible gibberish. Terrified, stammering in their native Plattdeutsch, they were denied even the comfort of each other.
Within a year, another son was born to their mother. From a man not their father. She named him William. Whether from the kindly dictates of Social Services or on her own accord, the infant child ended up at the home of Levi Troyers.
Over at the Noah Gascho home, things were not going well. Cornelius and Isaac, tireless little live wires, soon frayed the elderly couple’s nerves to the breaking point. So their son-in-law and daughter, Joe and Laura Stoll, a young couple with children of their own, offered to take them in.
They may as well have been bastard children, all of them. Alone. Released by their mother. Abandoned by their father. Of them all, only little half-brother William was eventually adopted by Levi Troyer and his wife. The others all retained their last name. Fehr. An alien name, one that instantly branded them as outsiders and strangers who would not share in the inheritance of the families that had taken them in.
I have faint memories of some of their faces. Of Jacob, the oldest, and William, the youngest, I have none. But all the others I can see in my mind.
The boys were natural tinkerers, mechanics. Loved to tear apart and reassemble lawn mowers and such. Cornelius, or Corny, as he was called, had skilled creative hands. He hung out with my older brothers.
Isaac was a bit of a clown, always acting up. And always in some sort of trouble, it seemed. The clamor of his voice still echoes in the recesses of my memory.
David, always keen, always alert, a lean quiet loner with straight-hanging hair, was constantly absorbed in his own mysterious projects.
Betty, raven-haired, and Mary, a blonde, were about the age of my older sisters.
They were all measured and judged from the context of the worldview of those around them. And inevitably found wanting.
From the start, things did not go so well. Jacob, the oldest foster child, was unhappy with his new lifestyle. He quietly and persistently attempted to escape from preacher Nicky’s home. Each time he ran away, he was located and convinced or forced to return. And Betty, too, when she could no longer take it at uncle Pete’s home, launched desperate, sporadic flights into the fields, sobbing and calling for her mother.
For them all, life was hard. It had to be. And it showed on their faces. They were loud, fractious, uncouth. And the boys were mean. In school, they lagged far behind their peers. For the older ones, their prior education had been sparse at best. Thrown in with others of their age in these strange new surroundings, they were hopelessly lost. And could never catch up. It was simply impossible. Consequently, they were branded as dull, dense, hard of learning. Always slightly different. Separate. Looked down upon. Mocked. Scorned. Rejected by their peers.
And I’ve heard the murmurings, too, from those years. Of the harsh discipline they endured. Constant nagging. The strident incessant admonitions. And harsh corporal punishment. The brutal rod was not spared.
Mary, a quiet shy girl, sometimes did not speak for days. On her first day at the Aylmer Amish school, she was unable to communicate because she did not speak English. Somehow, the teacher found this a sufficient reason to whip her. That afternoon, after she returned to her “home” at uncle Pete’s, she was whipped again.
It’s no wonder she clammed up and wouldn’t talk, then or later, after she had learned the language.
I’m not saying the Fehr children were not loved. I am saying they must have felt unloved. In a foreign culture that tried to forge and mold them into something they were not. A culture that focused almost exclusively on the externals. And crushed the spirit, ignoring the internal regions of the heart.
It seems, even today, after so many years, that common sense was somehow omitted from the equation. In the decision to separate the siblings and raise them in different families. How is it possible for the most well-intentioned foster family to provide even a fraction of the love in the poorest mother’s heart?
But it was what it was. The Fehr children struggled into adulthood. I’m a bit sketchy on the facts, but some, if not most of them, actually joined the Aylmer Amish church. As was expected. This is what you do. And do as you are told.
But it could not stand. Stark simplistic rules and expectations rarely can or do.
Jacob left. He hung around the area for a few years, laboring at odd jobs here and there. Sometimes he showed up at the Aylmer Sales Barn and chatted with James Stoll, who must have had a market stand.
And Betty left too. She moved out of Aylmer in the early 1970s to Milroy, Indiana with the Eli C. Miller family. She very much enjoyed these new surroundings. But after some time, she moved to Holmes County to be near her brother, Cornelius, who had settled there.
And Isaac left too, and David. Where they went and what they did, I do not know. Probably they shifted about and survived as best they knew and could. Occasionally they drifted back into the Amish settlement and stayed for a few uneasy weeks or months. Always, they left again. David, it is said, served in the US military and was discharged honorably.
In the early 1970s, Mary moved to Marshfield, Missouri with Pete and Martha Yoder, her foster parents. Eventually she married Jacob Byler and they had a family.
Levi Troyers moved from Aylmer before my time and took William with them.
I have not seen any of the Fehrs since the early 1970s. And they were all removed from my mind, about as far as possible, until recent years. As they began to pass away, and the news trickled though the grapevine. Sparse, tense messages, replete with the heavy underlying knowledge that one more chance to right past wrongs has now slipped away forever.
In 1996, Jacob died in Georgia, at age 50. Where he is buried I do not know.
David, ill from a brain tumor and complications from decades of alcoholism, quietly returned to the Aylmer area where he had lived his childhood days. There he died a few years ago. His body was cremated and returned to Millersburg, Ohio, and he was buried there.
Betty Strait, the divorced mother of two sons, struggled with heart problems most of her life. On December 10, 2008, she went to work as usual. She never returned home. A heart attack struck and she passed silently and quickly. She is buried in Millersburg, Ohio.
Most recently, in November of 2009, Isaac died in Holmes County, where he had been staying with his brother Cornelius. He too is buried in Millersburg.
William and three of the brothers who never were farmed out, Larry, John, and Bill all still live in Canada.
Of them all, only Cornelius remained Amish. Today, he is a respected member of the Old Order Amish church in the Winesburg, Ohio area.
Mary and Jacob Byler today reside in Lexington, Ohio. Mary is the mother of five and grandmother to fourteen children. She has struggled over the years to put to rest the traumatic days of her broken childhood. She has seen much and suffered much.
At Isaac’s funeral, Mary spoke of that day when the long black car came and took them from their home. Into exile and separation and a life of fear and anguish.
It was impossible for her to describe the wounds, the hurts. But she spoke. She tried.
But still, who knows where they would have ended up, had the Amish not intervened? Life might have been even worse. If there were ever children born with the deck stacked against them, it was the Fehrs.
I’ve wondered sometimes, over the years. About how it all came down. Whose idea it was, to agree to take those seven children from their home and farm them out like that. To different families. I figure it was probably Pete Stoll. He was a good hearted man, who always had a soft spot for the less fortunate. Not even a stray dog, they say, would go hungry if Pete Stoll could help it.
There are people alive today who would know all those details. In Aylmer. But I doubt that those people would talk to me.
The Fehr children had it tough and hard. They knew it. They felt it. They lived it. Things most of us could not endure or even fathom. And things those around them should have known and could have made better.
But they didn’t. Or wouldn’t. And so the Fehr children survived as best they could with what they had to face. From life as it came at them.
For all these years, they have been alone. Unheard. Forgotten by most of those who knew them as children in Aylmer so long ago.
Alone. Absorbing the blows. Toughing it out.
They had some things to say, all of them. Of how it was. And how it went. Their quiet hesitant voices have always been ignored.
And now, some of their voices have fallen silent. They will not be heard again.
At the time, all those years ago when the decisions were made to remove the children from their home, everyone involved did the best they knew with the hard choices confronting them. Including the Aylmer Amish families that took them in. Of that I have no doubt.
But sometimes, in the judgment of history, that is not enough.
Sometimes the generation that follows, those who come later and were not involved or even born, those who look back with a heart of human compassion, they are called to pronounce a verdict on the past:
“Even with the best of intentions, it was wrong, so very wrong, how the Fehr children were treated. Something like that should never happen again. And all those, including their peers who mocked them, who can still clean the slate and make things right with the remaining survivors, they should do so now before it is too late.”
There are times when hard and bitter truths must be spoken. And need to be heard. However difficult it might be to speak those truths. Or however painful to hear them.
This is such a time.