Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol.
—Milton: Paradise Lost
The day began like any other, for the family. A recent Friday morning at the little farm of William and Jenica Keim, in Mansfield, Ohio. William was raised Amish, but had broken away years before. And met and married Jenica. They had two young sons, Malachi (age 4) and Dalton (age 2). After years of dreaming and saving, they had just recently purchased and moved onto the eighty acres that was their new home. A place where they could live in peace, live off the land as much as possible, and raise their children.
That morning, before dawn, William got up and went turkey hunting. I don’t know if it was on his own farm or at some other local spot. In any case, he was successful. Called in and bagged a nice gobbler, and returned in triumph to his home and family. He skinned the bird and his wife put it into a large pot and placed it on the stove to boil. The little boys were excited. Daddy had shot a turkey. And now Mom was fixing it to eat. Oh boy. They couldn’t wait.
After hours of boiling, the turkey was ready. Jenica turned off the stove and turned her back for just a moment, doing something else. And that’s when it happened. Right there, while she was in the room. Little Dalton, eager to see for himself, walked up and tried to pull himself up by the stove handle, so he could peek at the turkey. His weight tipped the stove forward. The large pot slid off and crashed to the floor. Dalton was severely burned by the boiling water, mostly on the front of his legs and feet.
And that’s what happened. A terrible, tragic accident. One of those things that life throws at you, now and then. What happened next is why I’m writing this.
William and Jenica were very familiar with burn treatments. They knew what happens to burn victims at hospitals. The scraping, the screams of agony. The painful skin grafts that would follow for years and years. They also knew very well of the only known natural treatment that heals burns. B&W Ointment. They knew of it because William’s father, John Keim, had invented it. B&W will actually regrow new skin over burned areas, even third degree burns, something the most sophisticated modern techniques cannot do. It has been proven over and over again. They also knew that if they took Dalton to the hospital, he would undergo the painful scraping and grafting. The folks at the local hospital wouldn’t hear anything of B&W Ointment. And they wouldn’t release Dalton, either, so he could be taken to a hospital that allowed the treatment.
And so, because they feared the consequences of state-mandated burn treatments, they made their choice. And rushed their child to a relative 10 miles away, a relative trained and certified to treat burns with B&W. And she applied the ointment. For the next sixteen hours, they watched him closely. He showed no signs of pain. The next day, they decided to take him to a hospital in Pennsylvania, a rare island in the hospital world where the B&W treatment was permitted. And as they were making their plans, it happened. The worst possible thing imaginable. Dalton’s eyes started fluttering, and within minutes he stopped breathing. They immediately called 911 and applied CPR. But by the time the ambulance arrived, he was gone. Their beautiful two year old son. Just…..gone.
The furies of hell were about to be unleashed upon William and Jenica. But here, I stop. Pause. Think about it. The loss of your child. The intense shock, the grief. I’m not a parent, but that’s one fear I’ve tried to imagine, now and then. The fear of such a loss. Maybe you get over it, sometime. Maybe you never do, quite. Whatever the case, you will walk through desolate fields of intense grief for a very long time.
I don’t know William and Jenica Keim. I’ve never met them, never communicated with either of them. But my heart goes out to them both in the loss of their son. Two years. They had him for two years. Ample time for him to develop his own distinct personality. To be his Mama’s “little man.” And now they will know him no more on this earth. Even from a safe emotional distance, it is a harsh and bitter thing to contemplate.
After the ambulance arrived at the hospital, all the corrupt machinery of the state was unleashed upon the couple. Two police officers awaited them and questioned them at length. I would have told them never to speak to any law enforcement investigators without an attorney present. Never, under any circumstances. Never, for any reason. But they didn’t know. They thought they had to, I’m sure. The officers intimidated them, I’m sure, too. And after they returned to their home, the vile vultures of the press closed in. Eager to peck at the carcass of grief, eager for such a sensational story, reporters camped outside the home and practically assaulted anyone who came or went. TV news crews closed in as well. And the headlines screamed from the newspapers. The Keims had not taken their son to the hospital and now were under investigation for negligence in Dalton’s death. Think about that. You’ve just lost your two year old son. And then you are forced to deal with a nightmare like this.
The community, the common people, rallied, though. As did the local churches. Support poured in for the grieving family. More than 800 people showed up for the viewing, and around 400 attended the funeral. And people came to the farm and worked. Cut down trees, removed limbs, cut the grass, fixed a broken well, cleaned up and repaired the barn. That’s what real people do, people with a heart. Show up and help. Mourn with those who mourn. But show up with support.
And now the dark cloud of the vengeful state hangs over William and Jenica Keim. Will they be charged? Will their remaining son be ripped from their arms and forced into the jungle of state foster care? Will they go to jail? And it all boils down to one simple question. In a case like this, where there is no hint of any history of abuse, who gets to decide what is best for a child? The parents? Or the state?
I come down way, way on the side of the parents. It’s not even close. Life, and living, includes risks. And it includes choices that can go dreadfully wrong, the choices of parents who truly love their children, and want what’s best for them. Why should the lack of certain actions of such parents be criminalized? William and Jenica wanted Dalton to live. To heal and be free to be the man he would one day be. They bear the loss of their son. They will always bear the regrets, the not knowing for sure whether or not they did the right thing. They were deeply vested in their son. With all the love of which parents are capable. They made their choice. The best choice they knew. And we all know the state cares nothing for Dalton. Nothing. The state is incapable of compassion. In this case, it cares only that its power might have been challenged. And it is all too willing, too eager, to lash out, to crush and punish any perceived dissent. That’s how I see it. And I know no other way to say it.
The Amish have their faults and failures, I know all too well. It took me long enough to break my way out of that culture. But I am very proud of many aspects of my heritage. I am proudest of all of a single, defining Amish characteristic. And that is their quiet, persistent, relentless resistance to the state, when they deem it necessary. They don’t march. They don’t make a lot of noise of any kind. But they refuse to yield. They simply won’t comply. No matter the cost.
In the past few months, the Swartzentruber Amish faced down the state of Kentucky over the simple issue of safety signs on their buggies. (Yes, of course I think they are insane. No, it doesn’t have to make sense to me, what they believe. I strongly support their right to be left alone.) And recently I saw some old film footage of a row of darkly-dressed, black-hatted Amish men walking into the courthouse here in Lancaster. Walking in to be jailed for refusing to send their children to high school. The footage shocked me. These men were willingly giving up their freedom for their beliefs. Quietly. And back in those days, the 1950s, the Amish were far from the media darlings they are today. Back then, they were very much viewed as second class citizens. Looked down upon. Despised. It didn’t matter to them then, how they were perceived. It doesn’t matter to them now. And it will never matter. They will always be who they are, when it comes to conflicts between their religion and the state. They will always stand firm. They will never surrender.
And that’s a beautiful thing. I strive to be worthy of such a heritage. I differ a bit from the traditional Amish resistance, though. I’m most definitely not shy about raging against the machine and throwing my stuff out there. I’m not shy about calling the state what it is, either. Right to its face. And so I’ll just say it here, out loud.
When it comes to our children, the state is Moloch, demanding sacrifice. And those who impose its edicts are Moloch’s priests. As are a good many (not all) of the minions who enforce those edicts.
A rash accusation, you say? Hyperbole? OK. Fair enough. Let’s take a little peek at some of the actions of the state, and see if my claim might hold water. Here goes.
It is the state that imprisons many of our children in the morass of failing public schools, and then criminalizes them for simply being children. It is the state that assaults and terrorizes four-year-olds at airports. It is the state that sends our sons and daughters to shed others’ blood and too often their own in countless, senseless, endless wars all around the world. All the while trumpeting the preposterous vacuous slogan that they, our sons and daughters, are “protecting our freedoms” by killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people ten thousand miles away. It is the state that persecutes and destroys Amish farmers for producing and selling raw milk. It is the state that criminalizes farmers for making a living, by suddenly redefining as a felony the act of owning the livestock they are producing, and have always produced. And sends its goons right out to farms to kill hogs worth thousands of dollars each. It is the state that blatantly robs its citizens for carrying more than arbitrarily dictated amounts of cash. It is the state that casually and ruthlessly destroys lives, just because it can. It is the state that is trying to gain control of every aspect of our lives, with the vile abomination that is Obamacare. It is the state that has incarcerated more than 2.3 million people in this country, which boasts the highest prison population in the world. The number of people under correctional supervision now totals six million, more than were in Stalin’s Gulag at its apex. And the list could go on and on. It is the state…It is the state…
And as the state’s devastation is unleashed upon the land, the cries of innocent children echo to the heavens. The untold millions of children of the state’s victims all across this land, and across the world. Often, no one is there for them except the state itself, which steps in as the “provider” for those children. As a benevolent father figure, as a “god” to replace the family it has destroyed.
Why, then, should we even listen to Moloch’s priests, as they piously bray about the tragic but accidental death of a child? A child about whom they couldn’t care less, except as a bludgeon to destroy the parents who dared to defy them. What can one do, in the face of such tyranny? How can we respond? How should we react? We can be aware of the true nature of the forces at work here. We can speak out. And as a Christian, I can choose to pray for the oppressors in this case. As counter-intuitive as that seems. Yes. Pray for them. Not that they would have wisdom. But that they would change in their hearts as individuals, and cease their worship of the beast. And cease demanding by threat of raw and brutal force that we worship the beast as well. (To those who would challenge me with Romans 13, consider maybe for the first time in your life what many believe that chapter really means.)
And then, of course, I am called to lift the parents, William and Jenica, in prayer before the Lord in this their time of intense grief and loss. And in this their time of persecution. And you can, too, wherever you are. If you live in the Mansfield area, get involved. Let them know you support them. Help them out where and when you can. Be there for them, provide what comfort you can. And stop the gossip when you hear it. It’s slithering around out there, oh yes, it is. A bane of the Amish culture, it’s pulsing from person to person, from mouth to ear, a poisonous stream of words. Rumors. Told as facts. Stop them, stop it cold. These people are hurting. Rebuke the gossipers. And don’t pass the venom on.
If you just want to keep informed of what’s going on, or send William and Jenica a personal message, check out this web site now and then.
One day, I am convinced, the time will come when the Amish “popularity wave” will crest and crash and recede. And they’ll go back to being what they were when I was a child. Second class citizens. And when that day arrives, the state will be all too ready, all too eager, to step in and declare the Amish lifestyle a crime, a felony. The lifestyle itself. It’s so primitive. And it’s abuse on its face, the way they raise their children. The way they discipline them. The way they make them work, and deny them an education. Such a time will come. Maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe not for a long time. But it will happen.
But until then, and even after it all comes down, the quiet persistent Amish will always stand in defiance to the vile false god that is the state. They will not waver. They will not comply. They will never surrender their children to Moloch’s priests.
And we must never surrender ours.
Had they not set their jaws, made sudden indecisive
movements, felt terror, joy, a numb impending ecstasy,
and waited, waited then – for what?
All right. Things have been a little out of joint, lately. A little skewed. And that’s an understatement. The last eight weeks seem like a blur to me. And I’m a guy that has seen plenty of blurred times, for one reason or another, back through the years. But none has ever come down quite like this.
Since my book went haywire on Amazon in March, I haven’t written a whole lot of anything, anywhere. Except on this blog. From that first day, and the following week, I was intensely focused on the numbers, all through March. And the numbers freaked me out. You don’t get that high in the rankings. You just don’t. But there I was. And it just froze my voice, to think of how many people were buying the eBook version of Growing Up Amish.
So I did what I always do, when my world gets whacked out of joint. Retreat to the blog, and throw out a new post now and then. Telling of how it is, and where I am. I made a few references, looking back, of how maybe I’ll soon be able to get back to some serious writing. Meaning, of course, getting back to work on the sequel. But I never did that, except for some disorganized pecking now and then. I never immersed myself, never went back to relive things. Which is the only way it’s ever going to come out. By going back there in my head, and telling it like I see it when it’s all happening again. It’s not a formula. It’s not based on a “theme.” It’s a thing that roils from somewhere deep inside.
And then March ended, and Amazon removed the book from its promotional discount list. Brought in their next one hundred, for the next month. And Growing Up Amish gradually drifted on down and out of the top hundred. The top three hundred. But it hung in there, in that general area, for a week or two. And I wondered. Oh yes, I wondered a lot. How many copies had moved in March? I emailed Chip. Hey, can you find out for me? He said he would make some inquiries. It might be a while, before the numbers come in.
And then two weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon, a message from Carol Traver. Hey, Ira. We got the March numbers. Rough numbers. But close. Here they are. In March of 2012, Growing Up Amish sold right around 44,000 copies. 44,000. And Carol went on. That brings your total sales figures to approximately 120,000 books sold. 55,000 hard copies. And 65,000 eBooks. Congratulations, Ira. You’re in rare air. That’s what she said. Rare air.
There aren’t a whole lot of books out there that sell 44,000 copies in a month, ever. At any price. Or free, even. Those are some pretty elite numbers. Not for the #1 Bestseller crowd. But for an unknown writer like me, yeah, it’s rare air. And the book’s still percolating out there, right along. You want it when you write it, that kind of recognition. That kind of success. You dream of it. But you don’t think of what it will do to you, if you get there. It’s impossible to imagine or anticipate such a place.
What it did to me was freak me out completely. Fried my brain, pretty much. I stand mute. 120,000 copies sold. And with book sharing, a lot more than that number have read it. Slice off the ten to twenty percent who hated it, the 1 Star and 2 Star reviewers, and that still leaves you with a whole lot of readers who liked it. And Carol told me later that the sixth paperback printing had just arrived at Tyndale’s warehouse. Double the usual printing, 10,000 copies this time. Wild stuff.
Right now, under the weight of 120,000 expectations, I can no more concentrate on writing a sequel than I could concentrate on the most boring Amish preacher’s endless, droning sermon. Which, as anyone who’s ever sat fidgeting in frustration under such a sermon can (but probably won’t) tell you, is just impossible.
It’s all kind of strange, really. I’ve never been in a place like this before. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the coveted writer’s dream. First book does well enough so you have fans clamoring for a second. I know. I’ve read that, too. And seen it now, and felt it. But until you actually live it, there’s no way to grasp what it really looks like. For some, I suppose, it’s a vision of a bright new dawn. Another chance to show the world what you got.
For others, though, it’s something else. A feeling deep inside that it’s gonna be tough, to do it all again. Real tough. And it won’t be a matter of time. It will be a thing that either will come, or it won’t. More likely than not, it will. One just doesn’t know exactly when. But most times, from what I’ve seen as a raw newcomer, it never comes quite like it did the first time. And that’s why there are so many one-hit wonders out there. In music, in writing, and probably in just about every area of artistic expression. Because it’s tough to hit another home run, or maybe even just to hit a single, in the arena where the first one came down. At this level, at least, that much is true.
The money is very nice, and I have nothing against making a lot of it. I hope to make a respectable little chunk from the book. Actually, I hope my agent makes a fortune from Growing Up Amish, because if he does, so will I. But money has little to do with why I write. Because when it comes to writing, it doesn’t matter if I get paid or not. I’d do it anyway. And in the long run, it doesn’t matter that much if the sequel doesn’t come. Oh, sure, I want it, there’s no way to tell you how much I want it, to write and have published what is in my heart. I know the story line. I know what needs to be told. There is so much to be said. And yet, if it doesn’t come, it won’t be the end of the world for me.
Because I’ll always have this forum. My blog. Something previous generations did not have, and could not have remotely imagined. A place to tell it like it is, as it’s all coming down. A place to speak to the world, completely independently. And at this moment, this blog is the only place, the only forum in the world where I can write my voice. The only one. And so I figure if I can’t tell it to be published, I’ll tell it right here for free. Just like I would have told the story of Growing Up Amish, had Carol not somehow magically appeared to claim it for Tyndale. Not in its current form, I’m not saying that. But the essence of the book would have been told, right here, spread over time. As a good bit of it was, at least the early childhood stuff.
So one way or the other, the sequel will come down. In book form, if I can eventually calm myself to get it said that way. And I know I will. But if not, if somehow I can’t, I’ll just tell it right here. In time. Fragmented, sure. It wouldn’t be as easy a read, like the professionally edited first book was. But it will be written, in all its raw reality. At some point. Somewhere. It will be.
For now, I will write where I can speak. And that’s here on the blog. Every couple of weeks or so, I’ll post about what’s going on around me, and maybe throw out a sketch now and then. We’ll see what happens. When the real stuff starts rolling in, I’m telling no one. And I mean no one. Not until a good bit of it gets written. And then we’ll go from there.
And that’s how it is. That’s where I am right now.
In the meantime, the wild and beautiful road rolls on. Last Friday, I set out in a little rented Jeep Liberty for the 12 hour trek to Vincennes, Indiana. Yes, I drove. Some of my new readers out there may not know. I never fly except in extraordinary circumstances. Like a funeral or some similar short-notice thing where I have little choice. Not because I fear flying, but to avoid the TSA goons in airports. The TSA exists primarily to intimidate and harass innocent travelers, that much is not even debatable. We all know, deep down, that the TSA serves no legitimate purpose and that it does nothing to “protect” us. And I simply refuse to allow their goons to inflict themselves into my life. I’ll drive two days instead. Two days one way, I mean. And if I can’t find the time to do that, I just don’t go.
But this trip was only one day, one way. Totally doable. The Jeep bucketed along the interstate, and right at 5:30 that evening, I pulled into Vincennes. Checked in and got the keys to VU’s Guest House, a very nicely furnished mansion on campus. No one else was staying there, so I had the place to myself. After cleaning up a bit, splashing some water over my face, I headed out to meet some old friends for dinner.
My VU professors were my friends, way back when I was a student there. All of them. And this evening, I was meeting Dr. Bernard Verkamp, my first and only philosophy teacher. Recently retired, he instantly invited me to dinner when I called him a month ago. We’ll meet, he said, with some old friends. And indeed we did.
With Dr. Verkamp, Lynn Linkon McCormick, and Kathy Yoder Miller
Lynn Linkon McCormick arrived at the nice Italian restaurant a few minutes after I did. She still looked exactly as she did back in 1989, when I first met her. Young, exuding boundless energy. She is the carreer/guidance Counselor at Vincennes, and her face was the face of VU, back when I tentatively walked through those doors for the first time. Yes, she told me then. Yes. Come on in and enroll. You tested right out the top with your GED. We want you to come. And with her encouragement and assistance, I enrolled.
After an excellent meal and great conversation, I retired to the Guest House. A little ribbon of tension pulsed deep inside me. I was excited about the next day. But also a little freaked. After the honorary doctorate was awarded, I was expected to make a short speech. Three to five minutes, they said. That’s the time you’ll have. Which was great. That much I could do. I certainly didn’t want to drone on and on for twenty minutes. I should be good. But still, it bothered me. And that night, I sat up, scratching words on a sheet of yellow writing paper. Practiced. Timed myself. I’d be fine, if only I stayed relaxed. But I had never addressed a crowd of this size before. Around eleven, I went to bed and drifted off into fitful slumber.
I’ve written before, about my first graduation from Vincennes, back in 1991. How not a single person from friends or family showed up to witness it. This time, though, I wanted at least a few. So I invited my brother Jesse and his wife Lynda. They’d be honored, they claimed. They’d drive up from South Carolina. And I invited some of the Waglers, my surrogate family in Daviess. Dean and his sister Rhoda said they would be there.
Saturday morning. The day. I got up, and puttered about. Messed with my little speech, on the yellow pad paper. Spoke it over and over. Timed myself. Just under five minutes. Should be good. I do very little public speaking, and usually improvise a bit when the time comes. I’d do that today as well.
I will say this. Vincennes University rolled out the VIP treatment for me and my guests. All the way. At 11:30, we assembled for a banquet in my honor. President Dick Helton, members of the VU Board of Trustees, and other dignitaries. And of course, my guests. They showed up, right on time. Jesse and Lynda, and Dean and Rhoda. After the meal, a quick van tour of the campus, most ably guided by Assistant Provost Lynn White. The campus has exploded since my days there twenty years ago. New buildings, new programs. Including RED, a brand new performing arts center.
And then the time was here. Time to robe and get ready for the ceremony. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around academia. Fifteen years since I graduated from Dickinson Law. I’d forgotten how it is. All the pomp, all the seriousness of it. We mingled with the faculty in a side room. I was issued my robe and cap. It wasn’t a mortarboard cap, like I’d figured. Nah, this was a little 6-pointed thing, a doctor’s cap, I guess. And they came up and congratulated me, the faculty. The Trustees. You look at them from a distance, and it’s intimidating. But up close, they were just people. People who seemed quite genuinely thrilled to have me there.
And it all came down then, some of it in slow motion and some of it at lightning speed. Lining up to march into the arena. Waiting for the 400-some graduating students to walk in and be seated. And then marching out in procession up the center aisle to the stage up front. The basketball arena was packed out. Absolutely overflowing with at least 5,000 people. And my brain kind of went into cruise mode. You’re here. You’re being honored. Enjoy this moment.
After a brief opening ceremony, President Helton addressed the students with a ten minute speech. And then it was time to present the honorary doctorate. Mr. J. R. Gaylor, a Trustee, a great bear of a man with a deep, deep voice got up and stepped to the microphone. Whatever I have accomplished in my life, it was all laid out in the most glowing descriptions imaginable. He concluded. For these accomplishments in literature, law and business, we are presenting VU’s 2012 Honorary Doctorate of Letters to Ira Wagler. Everyone clapped as I stood. President Helton approached with the hood. I stooped a bit and he slipped it over my head and adjusted it. It flowed down my back. Then I was handed a huge framed diploma. Doctor of Letters. Then “the microphone is yours,” President Helton whispered. I nodded and stepped up, clutching my little slip of yellow lined paper. My speech.
Photos by David A. Fisher, Vincennes University.
Dean, Rhoda, Ira, Jesse, Lynda
Framed diploma. Doctor of Letters.
In a moment like that, you either freak out, or you don’t. Fortunately, I did not, at least I don’t think so. I looked out over the heads of the graduates and began to speak. Sure, I stammered a time or two, getting started. Who wouldn’t? But as I settled in, my voice was at least not shaking.
It was no great thing for the ages, or anything like that. It was just me talking, for about four minutes. I spoke briefly of my experience at VU and how formative and foundational it was. How frightened I was as I approached my first classroom. Thanked my professors, who had all reached out and befriended me. Spoke then, of the book, and the miracle it is. Of the wild and beautiful road I’m on, and how this moment was a stop along that road. I encouraged the graduates to follow their hearts. And then closed with a short quote from Thomas Wolfe.
So, then, to every man his chance – to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity…
Thank you, Vincennes University. Thank you very much.
And then it was over. As applause rolled through the stadium, I stepped back and sagged into my seat. And realized how tense and exhausted I was, as wave after wave of relief swept through me. The ceremony moved along then, as diplomas were handed to more than four hundred graduating students who marched across the same stage I had walked twenty-one years ago, back in 1991. Who knows where they will end up? Who knows what distant goals they will achieve?
No one knows. That’s the beauty of it. The human spirit unleashed has almost unlimited potential.
And that was Vincennes University, for me, on April 28, 2012. Whatever happens in the future on this wild and beautiful road, there will never be another moment quite like this one.