I am the man of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my days,
I bid farewell to ol’ Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised.
—Soggy Bottom Boys
I’d been looking forward to it all winter, and that second Saturday in March finally rolled around. That morning, I headed on down to West Virginia to spend some time with my friends, Dominic and Jamie Haskin. I’ve written of hanging out there before, usually at Dominic’s famous Fourth of July parties. On this last weekend trip, he was set up at a builder’s show in the local mall, and, as I’ve done for the last four years, I went down to help out for the day. And to hang out for the night.
Dominic and his father, Chris, own and run Timberline Pole Buildings. When they sell a building, I ship the package to them right from my yard at Graber. We’ve been doing business for a dozen years now, and Dominic and I have become close friends. And after the work’s done, we like to hang out now and then.
I remember a few years back, when I first ventured down to socialize with my West Virginia friends. And how Dominic and Jamie introduced me to their social circles. And how relaxed I felt in that world. They welcomed me, their friends, as one of their own. Unassuming people who work with their hands, mostly, they freely shared what they had with this outsider from up north. I felt instantly and completely comfortable among them.
And they’d wander in with their homemade brews and baked goods and covered dishes of delicious food. We’d lounge around the pool in the sun, just being lazy and talking of all the little things. Once or twice, I joined the horseshoe game out in the back yard. And as I mingled among these people, I listened to the cadence of their talk, trying to absorb their world. Their culture. Some day, I think, I could live in a world like that.
A few years ago, as my book deal came down, Dominic regaled all his friends with this great accomplishment. Ira got a book deal. He’s writing a book. It’s gonna be a good one. Bestseller, for sure. And they all looked at me, slightly awed and uncomprehending. No, no, I said. Don’t be like that. I’m just me. I’ll always be me. Besides, the book’s not written yet. It could be a total flop.
And in time, I got to know many of them on a first name basis. As friends. Many of them have read my book. And they still look at me a little awed. But they always smile when I come down. They always genuinely welcome me. And I always go back.
A few summers ago, I met Larry for the first time. He worked for a local framing company, and was a crew foreman. A lean, wiry man of medium height in his early thirties, he grasped my hand firmly and looked me in the eye. Colorful tattoos spilled down his arms. It was a warm summer evening. I sat with him at the picnic table and we cracked open a couple of cold long-necks and talked.
He didn’t tell me all of his story, not right then. But I learned a few sketchy details later. In his youth, Larry had lived on a wild and dangerous road. And somewhere along the line, he had run afoul of the law. Not uncommon for a redneck in West Virginia. I don’t know what he did. It wasn’t violent. Ran some ‘shine, maybe, or raised and sold some pot. Or maybe it was the harder stuff. I don’t know. Whatever he was doing, he got caught. And nailed. He was convicted as a felon.
He had two children with a woman who may or may not have been his wife at one point. Whatever the case, he was no longer with her. And when we talked, he always spoke of two things. His children. And his love of riding. Larry was a Harley guy. His eyes always sparkled as he described to me the joy and freedom of the open road. On a bike. You should do it, he told me. Nah, those things are death traps, I replied. Well, I’ll have to take you on a ride sometime. Yeah, I’d like that. And that’s how it always ended. We never did get it done.
He was an outstanding and faithful worker, from all I’ve ever heard. And I have no reason to doubt those who told me that. He was dependable. Always on time, worked until the job was done. And just last year, Larry scratched together the down payment on a little house of his own. First time. A little beat-up place. He moved in and patiently began fixing it up. It would be his. All his own.
And when my book came out last July, I gave him a copy. Signed it to my friend, Larry. He grinned as he took it from my hands. Promised to read it. Somehow, though, after that he always claimed to be “almost finished” with it. Just about at the end. I laughed and told him it was OK if he couldn’t get through it. I’m not quite sure he ever even started reading the book.
And on that Saturday as I worked with Dominic at the builder’s show, he told me. We’d go out to eat later, after things shut down. And then he wanted to drop by a little pub close to home. Larry was throwing a good-bye party. He was leaving the area for a while. I wasn’t particularly into hanging out late at any pub, but I agreed. Yeah, let’s stop by for an hour. Gotta give him my best wishes.
And so, around ten that night, we pulled in, Dominic and Jamie and I. Walked into the “pub,” which was actually just a dive bar. Nice enough little place. On a small stage against the wall, an aging band was tuning up. Sixties guys, from the look of it, gray-haired and old. But after they cranked it up, they belted out some of the best 80s rock’n roll I’ve heard live for a long time. Larry had set up court at a long table, filled with his friends. Already feeling good, he whooped when he saw us. Came over and welcomed me.
I sat at the table beside a lovely lady who had already imbibed a tad too much. You’re Ira? She asked incredulously. Yep, I am. And before I could react, the nice tipsy lady jumped to her feet and hollered at the top of her voice, all the while pointing down at me. THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! I instantly shot up and pushed her back into her chair. Stop that. Fortunately, what with the loud band, no one heard or paid the slightest attention to her. In the next five minutes, she popped up and did it again. And again. Screamed. THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! After the third time, I finally convinced her that I was leaving if she didn’t quit that. So she settled down. It was pretty hilarious, actually. Such a thing could not possibly happen anywhere but in West Virginia.
And we hung out with Larry and his crowd, me and Dominic and Jamie. I bought him a drink, and had one myself. After an hour or so, we took our leave. Larry shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eye.
“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “I AM gonna finish your book.”
“You are my friend,” I replied. “You don’t have to make any promises to me.” And so we left him with his friends. Rocking and rolling with the aging sixties band.
On Tuesday of last week, Larry entered a new normal in his life. He reported to the federal penitentiary in Cumberland, Maryland. As an incarcerated inmate. And this is how it all came down.
As a convicted felon from his youth, Larry was never allowed to own any guns. Never. Not for any reason. But as he slowly rebuilt his life, he couldn’t resist. And on the open, private market, he bought a few rifles. For hunting and such. Maybe for protection, too. And it would all have been fine, except one day, after a furious argument, the mother of his children turned him in. To the law. The cops swarmed instantly, like cockroaches. A felon owning guns, now that’s top priority. Then the ATF swooped in and took over the case. All this clamor and action, for a victimless crime.
And they dragged Larry before a federal judge. Even so, he hoped to get off with maybe probation. And it seemed like that’s what would happen. Because that’s pretty much all the prosecutor asked for as near as he dared to, without actually saying the word. Probation. Larry’s friends all vouched for him. He was a loving father, a productive citizen. Dominic wrote a letter to the court. Larry was a friend. Dependable. Employed, pulling his own weight. His children needed him. Have mercy on this man.
But at the sentencing, the judge didn’t buy it. Any of it. A hard-hearted, heavy-handed man, he sat there and listened grimly. Then, on a whim, or maybe because he woke up cranky that morning, he sentenced Larry to three years in federal prison. Three years. And lectured him. How dare you defy federal law like that? Who do you think you are? Then Larry was dismissively waved away. As in, get this redneck out of my courtroom. I’ve got more important matters to take up my time.
And just like that, it was done. Larry was released and instructed to show up at the prison on March 13th. For three years. Sure, they told him. You can take this program, and do this and that, and with good behavior you might be out in a year or less. Still. Even one year. That’s enough to destroy a man’s life. Or at least set him all the way back to totally broke and ruined.
Larry will likely lose his little house, the one he scraped and saved for. He wrapped up his affairs as best he could. Dominic is storing his Harley. And so he is gone, away to the Big House. For at least a year, maybe three. Gone, deprived of all he knows and loves.
Any way you look at it, this is not justice. This is tyranny. This is the arbitrary destruction of a man’s life. Casual. Ruthless. And so terribly wrong. The law devoid of mercy is not law. It is oppression. Pure and simple. Brutal oppression, grinding its victims into dust. Yeah, yeah, I know. Larry is no innocent pilgrim. He’s far from clean. He’s made a lot of stupid choices and pulled off some really mindless stunts. And yeah, he could have done things better. But three years, for owning guns because he was a felon? He shouldn’t have done it. But I understand completely why he did. It’s that old yearning that always burns in the hearts of those who long to be free.
And that’s where my heart is, with those who crave freedom, whatever the cost. With guys like Larry. Ordinary people who struggle with their personal demons, sometimes. People who have made some really stupid mistakes. And got caught up in the relentless grinding cogs of “justice.” Ordinary people who have no voice to speak of the outrageous abuses they endure. And walk forward in silence and bravely face the heavy burdens the “law” imposes on them. And they know that no one will ever know what they face. No one will care. They deserve what they get. They have no voice. And no one will hear their stories.
Except this time. This time, I will tell of the savage unjustness of Larry’s plight. This time, at least, my voice will speak his story to my world.
One day, the Lord will hold to account all those who inflict such brutal and senseless destruction upon the downtrodden. He will, because He is just. I don’t know anything about the judge who sentenced Larry, not even his name. But chances are he probably considers himself a “Christian.” He probably prays to his big God, as he kneels in his big church (borrowing a line from Peter Gabriel, there). But I’d rather hang out with Larry in a dive bar than sit with that merciless federal tyrant on the soft padded pews in his big, beautiful church.
I hope Larry makes it through OK. I hope he survives the brutal federal prison system without too many scars. I hope he’ll be out by next year sometime. Whenever he gets out, I’ll see him the next time I come around. We’ll sit out by the picnic table, and crack open a few Buds. We’ll talk, he and I, as old friends. And I suspect he’ll probably allow that he’s fixing to finish reading my book just about any day now.
It’s been a rather interesting two weeks since my last post. At that time, I figured it might be a bit of a fluke that the book was ranking so high on Amazon, right up there so close to the top. But it wasn’t. It’s hung in there, held steady, mostly inside the top 20 now for the last week and a half. Stuck on #15 or #16 for hours, even a day at a stretch. The highest slot I’ve ever seen was #13, early last week. As each new high showed up, I snapped a picture of the screen with my iPhone. Proof that I was there. Anyone can claim anything. You gotta have proof. There aren’t a whole lot of people out there who can say their book was 12 spots from The Hunger Games in the eBook bestseller rankings.
The intensity of it all gradually numbed down to a new normal. And that’s where I am today. I don’t have to rush to my computer first thing every morning to check the numbers. They’ll be what they are, when I get there. I probably have not yet fully grasped how many thousands and thousands of new readers have purchased the eBook.
It’s been quite a trip, too, to check out all the new reviews posted on Amazon. More than a hundred of them. They’re mostly pretty cool, although some few don’t hold back their punches. Criticism is never palatable. But it’s all part of a legitimate conversation in the market place, I suppose. If a book’s got all 4 and 5 star reviews, you can bet someone’s friends were posting most of them.
And that brings me to another persistent little misconception floating around out there. I don’t know how often I’ve seen it, both in the Amazon reviews and also in independent blog reviews. A bunch of times. Wagler left the Amish and today he’s Mennonite. Well, no. I’m not. I left the Amish and joined the Mennonites in Daviess twenty-five years ago. Since then, I’ve moved on. Today I have shed the last vestiges of any belief system that would be considered uniquely Mennonite. Or any other brand of Anabaptism.
It was just how it all worked out, on my long and relentless quest for freedom. Freedom within the boundaries of what it is to be a Christian, sure. But freedom from denominational dogma. And that’s where I am today. For the last 8 years or so, I have been a happy camper at Chestnut Street Chapel in Gap, PA. The old church just behind the famous clock tower. That’s the longest stretch I’ve ever remained with the same church since my Amish days.
It’s a beautiful little group, the Chestnut Street congregation. Many are from plain background, like me. And many are from straight out English blood. The pastor, Mark Potter, was raised an Army brat. No plain blood there. But it all fits. And Pastor Mark Potter will one day move on to a far larger group, if he so chooses. He’s that good. It’s amazing that our little church managed to latch on to someone of his quality and character. Some of his sermons are available on the church web site. Check them out.
The end of March approaches. And with it, the end of the Amazon promotion of Growing Up Amish. I’d love to see the book keep flying, of course. But I expect it to return to earth, or at least a good deal closer to the earth. Maybe my mind will even calm down enough to get me back to some serious writing.Share