After they are gone, all they have left unsaid will
remain unsaid forever…
—Ira Wagler, At Dusk in Winter
It’s certainly been nothing to complain about, the winter so far. Mild weather, almost no snow. A cold snap now and then. But manageable. By this time, in the last two years, we had been blasted with several massive snow storms. I really detest snow. And we’ll get at least one good whacking at some point, I’m sure.
I should head on down to Sarasota, and hang out with the Pine Craft crowd for a week or two. Especially now that my parents arrived there right around the New Year. They plan to stay for three months.
I’m happy for them. Dad just turned 90 in December. They need to be where it’s warm. And Pine Craft is the perfect place. He likes to putz around and visit with people. He even got a little battery powered cart, to trundle around on. His knee has been bad for decades. Gotten worse, as the years encroached. So it’s hard for him to walk. The little cart should do wonders for his mobility. And, of course, he’ still cranking out his writings and keeping tabs on his numerous business affairs.
Mom is pretty much out of it, from Alzheimer’s. She sits and smiles. And smiles and smiles some more. Maybe she’s enjoying, absorbing her surroundings. Maybe not. And maybe it’s pointless to look too closely at the past. But still, I can’t help but say a few things like I see them.
She never got to enjoy the warmth of Sarasota sunshine in winter back when it would have mattered. Back when she could have lived it, when she could have really soaked in the joy of it. When she could have spent the days with her sister Rachel, and her brothers, Ben and William. And their extended families. Back twenty or even ten years ago.
Because back then, my parents lived in Bloomfield. And it’s against the church rules there, to travel to Florida for a few months or even a few weeks of leisure in winter. Because that’s too worldly. Because there can’t be any benefit in idleness, in simply hanging around every day. No benefit in visiting with others from far-flung communities. And so they forbid it. Ban traveling to Florida in winter.
It’s certainly not unique to Bloomfield. I want to say that clearly, to be fair. I’m not picking on my old home turf just for spite. I’m not. But it’s the only frame of reference that I have. The only scenario I can speak to, from what I saw. The rule is very common, in the many small communities dotted about the Midwest. In all their various flavors of church Ordnungs. In all their plainness, and all their strict living. You do not go to Florida for the winter, or even for a week or two. You just don’t.
I don’t know what they expect their elderly people to do, in those communities that forbid such travel. They sit around, the old people, snowed in, shivering from the cold. Stoking the kitchen fire all day and half the night. And for some of them in those many communities, visitors are scarce. A few rare treasured moments of distraction, over all too soon.
And they settle in for the winter, the old people, and at least some few quietly slip into depression. They have to. There’s simply no other recourse. All because church rules forbid them to travel to a happier clime. Like Pine Craft. Where they could see and meet and visit with all sorts of people. From all sorts of Amish communities, across the land.
A few years ago, my parents moved to May’s Lick, Kentucky. Along with my oldest brother, Joseph and his family. May’s Lick is more advanced in many ways, with more relaxed guidelines. And if you live in May’s Lick, you are allowed to spend the winter months in Florida.
Which is a beautiful thing, for my parents. Each year, Dad can’t wait to head down as winter approaches. Sadly, Mom was already about 85% gone when they moved to May‘s Lick. And now she is allowed to travel south with Dad for the winter. Now. Now, when she has little if any grasp of what’s going on. And I don’t care what anyone says, nothing about any of all that makes a lick of sense.
And I think of her, this woman who is my mother. Of who she was, as a young girl. Of what she saw and felt. And of all that she endured in her 88 years on this earth. Perhaps she’s happier now, in this state, than she’s ever been. Who can know? She has seen so much and endured so much. From the weariness of decades of toil. From her husband. And from certain sons. And still, there she is, smiling and smiling through the dense fog that has enveloped her. Who can really know how much she absorbs from all of life as it flows around her?
In August, when I was in Daviess for that book signing, we toured my mother’s childhood home. My brother Nathan and my nephew John Wagler and me. We were accompanied by some friends who had arranged the visit with the farm’s current owners. I wrote a bit about that when it happened. But I didn’t have the time or space to write it all.
The two young Amish couples who now live there were extremely friendly. Took us all about the outbuildings, and the house. And as things were winding down, one of the young men said they have one more thing to show us. Something they figured we would be interested in seeing. And he told us a story.
A few years back, or whenever it was they were fixing to move onto the place, they remodeled the house Mom grew up in. Whacked out some walls, changed the kitchen, and so forth. In the process, they tore off a lot of the trim around the bases of the rooms. And a lot of other lumber, too. Old wood. All of which was piled up outside to burn. And after a goodly pile had accumulated, they lit the thing. Flames devoured the wood, and it all went up in smoke.
The fire burned until it burned itself out. All the old wood was gone, except for a few small remnants that had burned off and fallen far enough away from the flames to survive. And I don’t know why, but one of the men picked up one of those charred little remnants. Maybe he meant to pitch it onto the glowing embers that remained. But before tossing it away, to be lost forever, he happened to glance down, to look at the back of the old piece of trim. And on that tiny remnant, there was some handwriting. In pencil. Written in 1939. By my mother, when she was a young girl of sixteen.
I look at that, and I marvel. And I wonder. What was it like that Thursday in November, back in 1939? Sixteen. She was sixteen. Was it morning when she wrote that? Or later, in the cold dreariness of a Daviess winter afternoon? Did she sneak that writing in, on a stack of trim? Or did she do it openly, as her father smiled? Did her siblings, too, perhaps write their names on that same piece of trim, now lost in smoke? What was going on around her, as she took those few seconds to scrawl some lines on some wood? Did her mother chide her, and tell her to get to stop goofing off, to get busy with the housework? And a thousand other things. I wonder. I’ll never know, but still, here is this frozen moment in time, preserved for all of history. But more importantly, preserved for all her children. And her children’s children, and beyond.
Any way you look at it, the fact that this little piece of trim survived the twin ravages of time and fire is nothing short of a miracle. I believe that. I really do. Look at it. Charred on two sides, almost the flames took it. Should have taken it, by any measurable standards of mathematical randomness. Taken it away forever. In which case we would have been none the wiser, because we would have never known. But against the longest odds, here it is.
Nathan and I gaped. Then drooled. And the kind young man motioned to me. And spoke.
“It’s yours,” he said. “Take it and keep it. It belongs to your family.”
Awed, we thanked him. And I brought it back home with me. And since I have no children, and have pretty much zero prospects of ever having any, I gave the little treasure to my brother, Stephen. He has sons to carry on the Wagler name. Including his oldest son, named after me, because he was born on my birthday twenty-eight years ago. Which is the only reason he was forever saddled with a name like that.
Ira Lee Wagler, when it gets passed on down to you, preserve and value this treasure for what it is.
Alrighty, then. How about the Super Bowl? It should be a great one, but it’s hard to think that it could match either of the League Championship games last Sunday. Both were classics, ending in abrupt, absolute heartbreak for the losing teams. And with one slightly different outcome, one slightly different bounce of the ball at any given time in either game, the Harbaugh brothers could just as well be facing off across the field come a week Sunday.
I’m for Eli, and the Giants. I take seriously the business of despising certain teams in sports, and the Patriots are right up there close to the top of my hate list. Not that I don’t respect them. I do. A lot. Bellichek and Brady are among the very best at what they do. Not just now. But in all of the history of football.
Much of my intense dislike for the Pats was forever cemented a few years ago, on that 18-game win streak. When they went undefeated, all the way to the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. In many of the regular season games that year, the Patriots blew out their opponents. Didn’t respect them. Brady kept throwing touchdowns when the score was 45-10, or some such ridiculous thing, in the fourth quarter.
When you reach the top of such a rare place, the peak of a mountain that very few have seen, you better have some class. Some respect for where you are. And realize how fleeting it all is, and how soon it will all be gone. Sure, there’s all sorts of excuses. Football is football, and teams should play to the best of their abilities all the way through. That’s lame, though. When a team is beaten, pull back a bit. Don’t push faces into the mud when you don’t need to. That year, Brady and his bunch of bullies did just that. Pushed faces into the mud.
And Eli and his boys took them down. In the closing moments, in spectacular dramatic fashion. It was a beautiful thing to see. Ruthless arrogance shocked and humbled by the harsh reality of the final score. Pretty much the whole world cheered, except for maybe a tiny region around Boston. That was definitely the most satisfying Super Bowl in my memory. Just to see it happen. To see the football gods smile and serve some justice.
This time, the Giants will be more respected. But probably still underdogs. I hope it’s a good game. I’d settle for a yawner, though, as long as it’s the Giants winning in a total blowout.
Say not in grief, “He is no more,” but live in
thankfulness that he was.
Tuesday night. After supper. I was settled in at my computer, ready to work on the draft of the blog for this week. My cell phone clattered. Titus Wagler. He hasn’t called much, lately. We connect now and then, but either he was at the phone shack at the end of his drive in Bloomfield and calling to chat. Or there was something else going on.
I answered. This is Ira. And Titus didn’t hem around, or anything. Told me the reason for his call. Chuck Leonard had been killed that evening, an hour or two before.
I reeled. No. I knew the man was old. In his eighties. But still. I just saw him right at six weeks ago. In Bloomfield, at my book signing.
“Was it an accident on the road?” That’s the first thought that hit me. Chuck had trouble with his eyesight the last, oh, decade or so. He worked as an Amish “taxi.” Hauled people around in his old van. I knew he had trouble seeing, and just figured maybe he’d run off the road or smashed into another vehicle.
“No,” Titus answered. “He was changing the oil on his truck, and somehow it rolled down and pinned him to the wall.
Changing the oil on his truck. An eighty-three year old man, who had been a mechanic for decades. Yeah. He’d done that thousands of times before. Still, this time it got him.
“Aaah.” I half groaned, half breathed. “Seems impossible. I guess it was his time.”
And Titus told me of how they had heard the sirens in the distance, heading west. Wondered what was going on. He had called an acquaintance in West Grove. Ronnie Harris, Chuck’s neighbor. Ronnie told Titus what had just come down. Chuck was still alive when the medics reached him. Spoke to them. But then, he just left. And now he’s gone.
We talked a bit more, then. Half-stunned, I thanked Titus for thinking of me right away. And for calling with the news. We hung up.
And I think of the grieving family, and I see them all as they were way back when. Chuck. His wife, Mrs. C. His daughter, Margie. And his sons, at least the ones I knew. Chuckie and Jamie. I see them all in the bustling flow of their lives when I first knew them. And remember so much of who he was. Chuck. Charles Leonard.
During the course of my long and often troubled journey, I have known very few people with a kinder heart. And I have known a lot of people. It wasn’t even a conscious thing, to him. I don’t know if he would even have considered himself kind. But he was. It was just a part of the essence of the man.
I know few details of his background. He came from somewhere west and south of Bloomfield. Appanoose County, I think. From a hardscrabble background. Where you worked, if you wanted to eat. Once in a while, he told me tales of how it was. And it was tough. He joined the Army during WWII, but never saw combat, thankfully. He married. Had children. Then divorced. Then met and married Margaret, a devout Catholic. And the kind and caring woman I always knew as his wife. He practically adopted Linda, Margaret’s daughter from a previous marriage. They had three children of their own, he and Margaret. Charles, Jr., forever known as Chuckie. Margie. And Jamie. I saw them grow into their teenage years. Listened to the tales they told in those turbulent years of their lives.
For years, Chuck and Mrs. C ran a truck stop close to the intersection of Rt. 63 and Rt. 2, west of Bloomfield. By the time my family moved to the area, though, they had opened the little café and repair garage in West Grove.
I didn’t hang around the café that much, for the first few years. Stopped in shyly now and then for a Mountain Dew or an ice cream bar. Mrs. C always smiled in welcome. I had no idea that one day she and her family would mean the world to me.
I had my first dealing with Chuck after Marvin Yutzy and I headed down to Florida in 1981. Sometime that summer, I think it was August, we headed back home for a few days to visit. In the old 1972 Cougar with the 351 Cleveland engine. On the way up, somewhere in Georgia, the 351 Cleveland started overheating. We pulled into a gas station along the interstate, a ramshackle place, and conferred with the bearded redneck mechanic.
He found the problem, some sort of hose that was clogged or something. And, of course, he had no parts to fix it. So the bearded mechanic ambled to a nearby tree, broke off a slim branch and sharpened it with his pocket knife. Unhooked the hose from the engine and forcefully pounded in the sharpened stick. Wherever the hose was taking the water, it didn’t matter much if it didn’t get there. That’s what the bearded one claimed. Marvin and I were extremely dubious, but we knew nothing of engines and such. Besides, the bearded one seemed confident, and he didn’t charge us a cent. So off we went. And, miraculously, we drove straight on through to Bloomfield.
That week, I stopped by to see Chuck. Clad in his old green, greasy coveralls, he greeted me cheerfully. And I asked him. Could he possibly rig up something less, well, primitive? So we could make it back to Florida. He opened the hood, leaned in and looked. Exploded in a high-pitched guffaw. “You got a stick stuck in your engine block,” he hollered. “Never seen anything like it before in my life. Oh, boy.” His high cackling laugh echoed through the little shop.
And then, talking all the while in a rambling flow of words, the man grabbed a section of hose and some fittings and got to work. In less than half an hour, he had everything where it should have been. But I had another problem. Marvin and I were traveling on a shoestring budget. Our normal state of living. You pretty much winged it, to get to where you were going. And our cushion of cash was very small. “How much?” I asked timidly.
I forget the total. Maybe thirty bucks or so. Whatever the amount, it wasn’t enough, for what he’d done. Still, I stammered nervously.
“Any way I could charge it and get the money to you later?”
“Sure,” Chuck said agreeably, as I sagged with relief. “But I’d really like to at least get paid for the parts. Twelve dollars.” I’m sure he figured that was all he’d ever see. I gladly paid him the $12, thanked him and left. He wished me a safe trip back to Florida.
And that was Chuck Leonard. Good-hearted. Kind. Even to a relative stranger like me. For all he knew, he might have never seen me again. Yet, he was always way beyond willing to help out, even if he probably figured he’d never see a cent for his labor. He got paid, though, for what he did for us. Marvin and I made sure of that. But how many other forlorn wanderers never got it done? I’m sure there were more than a few, throughout the years.
It was after we returned from Florida, settled in and joined the Amish church, that I “discovered” the café. Began stopping in, now and then. Quietly, nervously at first. But not for long. They all welcomed me, Chuck and his customers, as one of their own. Many a time over the years, Chuck retold the tale of how I had showed up with a pointed stick pounded into the engine of my car. He never could get quite finished without almost doubling over with laughter.
I couldn’t grasp it at the time, how much the café and its people meant to me. I just couldn’t. And the anchor of that place was solid. Chuck and Mrs. C. They held it together. Kept it going. Looking back, I’m sure there was never quite enough money to go around, never quite enough to pay all the bills. But somehow, they managed to make it work. All while raising their three children.
After Titus had his devastating accident in 1982, all my friends at the café rallied around me. Comforted me as best they could. And after Titus returned home from rehab, Chuck decided to step in. He offered to come and get Titus once a week, and take him to the café to hang out for a few hours. Just to get away. And somehow, strangely, Dad didn’t fuss much, if at all. And so Chuck came, every week. Rolled in with his old car. Always cheerful and excited. We pushed a smiling Titus out in his wheelchair and helped him into the car. Sometimes I went along, sometimes Chuck took him by himself. A few hours later, they returned. All that took time and effort from Chuck’s busy day. And yet, he never asked for a cent. And we, of course, never thought to offer.
And the day came when I left Bloomfield for good. For many years, I’d keep in touch with what was going on by calling now and then. Chatting with Mrs. C. Of who was doing what. And who said what. Gradually, though, I drifted away. But always, when I returned to Bloomfield to visit, usually over Christmas, one of my most important stops was at the home of Chuck and Margaret Leonard.
His little shop burned to the ground, around 1990 or so, I think it was. Or thereabouts. From this distance, the years kind of blend together. He had no insurance. Lost all his tools. People from the community, including the Amish, rallied and built a new shop for him. But he never recovered from that loss. It never was the same. He bought a fuel tanker truck and began hauling and selling heating oil and gasoline. Delivered to most of the Amish, at one time or another. He was well known before in and around West Grove. But after he began delivering fuel, he became a legend in the entire Bloomfield Amish community.
And here I want to say that Chuck was widely known and well-loved by the English people in Bloomfield, too. He was simply a local legend. But I come from the Amish world, so that’s the anchor of my perspective. I am in no way detracting from what and who he was to his myriad English friends and customers.
His old fuel truck was soon a familiar sight on the gravel roads around Bloomfield. He puttered about, faithfully making his deliveries. If he ever had a bad day, you wouldn’t know it. Always smiling, always cheerful. Genuinely friendly to all. And in the cab of his truck, he carried a bucket full of magical goodies for the children. A bucket full of bubble gum.
They always waited in small clusters to meet him as his truck rolled in. Most of those children are now young adults or older. And their memories pour forth. On the day Chuck was scheduled to deliver, they made sure to lurk about, waiting. Tousle-haired, and barefooted. And he always rumbled in, smiling and waving. He chatted with them, treated them with respect, took the time for them. Gave them gobs of bubble gum. And they loved him for it.
And as they entered their Rumspringa years, the troubled ones confided in him. Told him of how it was. Of their confusion, of their rage and pain and fear. He listened sympathetically. And he spoke compassion to them. Don’t you think you should wait to leave until you are at least eighteen? Sixteen is really young. It’s a tough world out there. You want to be careful with your choices. I’m sure they didn’t always follow his advice, the troubled Amish youth of Bloomfield. Maybe not even often. But they heard him speak.
I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for certain, but I’m sure his home was always open to those youth. Even after the café was closed and torn down in the mid-90s. That’s just who he was. He never had a reputation of actually helping them leave. He was too wise to do that; he knew their parents, too, and could see things from both sides. But the youth knew he was their friend.
You never really sense it in the moment, the impact a person has. Only in a time like this, in retrospect, does the true measure of a man like Chuck emerge. He never had much in material things. But he possessed great treasures in his heart. And he freely shared those treasures. There’s hardly a person, Amish or English, around Bloomfield who doesn’t have his or her own favorite “Chuck” story. Fondly recalled and fondly told. And there are a lot of Amish and ex-Amish men and youth out there who owe this man a great debt. A debt that can never be repaid.
He’s gone now. But we can honor the memory of who he was, those of us who knew the man. And experienced first-hand his heart of kindness and compassion.
You were there for me, Chuck Leonard. You and your family. Way back when I was struggling in despair through the tough slog of daily life. Searching for something beyond, something I could not find. You opened to me the doors of your heart and your home. You didn’t question the how or why of it, you just reached out and embraced a lost and traumatized Amish youth. Not to guide, necessarily. But just to be there, to offer a safe haven. And here I speak to all the world of my debt, my deep gratitude to you.
The Lord of the whole universe now holds you in His hands. And may you know in all eternity the true fullness of Christ’s love. Which is a deeper measure of the same love you gave so freely on this earth, to even the least of those around you.
Charles (Chuck) Raymond Leonard. 1928-2012. Rest in peace.