Suddenly, at the green heart of June, I heard my father’s
voice again…For a moment he seemed to live again in his
full prime…And for a moment we believed that all would be
for us as it had been, that he could never grow old and die…
I fretted a bit as May passed on and June approached, then came sliding right on in. I had to pick a date, soon, to go up to Aylmer. To see Dad. I had told him, back when he called before I left for Germany. I’d come in June sometime. And he was expecting me. It sure would be nice, I thought, if someone could go with me. I figured Janice would be busy, and I didn’t want to pester her. But I texted her anyway. Can’t hurt to try, I figured. Hey, I’m leaving to see Dad next Friday, the 14th. Any chance you’re in the region somewhere, so I can pick you up? Like we did last summer? And she answered what I knew she would. “Sorry, they got me in Houston that week. I would if I could. I just can’t.” That’s OK, I said. It’s probably one of those things I need to do alone, anyway, I thought. It was what it was. I’d go alone.
The next Thursday after work I stopped at Enterprise in New Holland, to pick up my rental car. Something like a Ford Fusion, I’d told the guy earlier over the phone. But I asked when I got there, like I always do. Any Chargers on the lot? “Sorry, not this time,” the nice young man told me. “I got a new Fusion, though, just brought it over from the dealer’s lot. Brand new. You’re the first driver to take it.” Wow, I thought. If I can’t have a Charger, that’s gotta be second best. A brand new car. He went out and brought it up, a sleek silver bullet. “It’s got three miles on it,” he said, handing me the keys. It took me a few minutes to figure out all the glitzy controls. It’s like driving a rocket ship in there, new cars like that. I drove it home, and packed my bags that evening. Ready to leave the next morning for the long slog up north over the border.
And it is a long old slog, especially if you’re alone. The next morning by seven, I was on the road. Heading west and north, up Rt. 11 and Rt. 15. The interstate, then, to Buffalo. There, the border. It lurked in the back of my mind, how long it had taken Janice and me to cross last summer. We had putzed along in clogged lanes for over an hour. The Fusion glided along. Decent car, except for its low headroom. I had to set the seat all the way to the floor to keep my head from brushing the ceiling. But I adapted, and it drove real nice.
And once again, in upstate New York, my GPS insisted on dragging me off the interstate onto two-lane back roads. I’d meant to look at a real Atlas, before I left. To see the layout of the interstate, to see if I couldn’t just stay on it. But I forgot. The GPS led off. I’d better follow those roads. All the way over almost to Buffalo, the back roads led me. I had the time, I thought. This is back country, small towns you’ll never see from the interstate. I stopped for fuel and a greasy slice of pizza at some little hick town place. All the pumps had crude paper signs taped to them. You couldn’t pay with a credit card. You could pump gas, but you had to prepay inside. Amazingly enough, it looked to be a hopping little place.
Less than an hour later, I was looping through Buffalo, toward the Peace Bridge. Different place, from where Janice and I had crossed last summer. And it was a breeze, right through. A two-car wait. I’ll take that any time. I crossed into Canada and headed out to connect with Highway 3 into Aylmer. It was a beautiful sunny day. A few clouds shifted about above. I felt good, but a little strange. I was on a new road, here.
It sure would be nice to have Janice along, I thought. But I don’t. And I just sat back and cruised along and thought of things, back through so many years. How I had so desperately longed to reach my father’s heart after I left the Amish. How I had tried, again and again and again, stories that were never written and never told. How we simply could not communicate, not outside the boundaries of his world. And it’s probably not that he didn’t want to, at least I can think that, from where I am today. He just didn’t know how. And neither did I.
It’s a universally powerful thing, one of the most powerful of things, the yearning of a child for his father’s blessing and acceptance. The heart can be rejected and crushed and rejected and crushed, over and over, year after year. Until that yearning just sinks down, somewhere deep down inside, and you think it went away. And you give up. But the seed of that yearning never dies. Not in the heart. It never dies.
And it was all so real to me in those moments as the miles flowed along, the memories of all those hurts, of all the frustrations and bitterness and rage. How it was for all those long years. And how, at this late date, something had changed. And why. My father is old now, there is no other word for it. And he has been tired for a long time, really, when you look back and remember. Sure, he held onto the fire of who he was for as long as he could grasp it. But then it just came seeping in with age, a certain mellowness. That’s what age does, when you think about it. It grinds things down. All the way down to where I was going to see Dad because he wanted me to come. There was a wall there, once, a wall of solid rock he could never reach through. Now he wants me to come, he wants all of us to come. Now he wants to see his children, all of them, even the ones who left the Amish. Now. And you think back to all those years and wonder what it would have been like, had it always been this way. The thing is, though, it couldn’t have always been this way.
Because it wasn’t. Because it all happened as it did. The wall was what it was. There are a lot of old wounds buried in the rubble of that wall. And not just mine. They are the wounds of all his children. But that wall couldn’t have come down any other way, I don’t think. That’s the only way to look at it. It couldn’t have, because it didn’t.
And it’s not that I was all that tense or pensive, getting close. I really wasn’t. But it was different, this time. I could feel it, a new road rising. And the ghosts hovered, in my head. Memories of what was versus a little glimpse of what might have been. I was eager and excited to see my father, and just talk to him. About a lot of things. About Germany. And Switzerland. And about something I never thought I would. My book.
Because he had read it. He didn’t, for a long time. Refused to, for a year and a half. But late last year, he got a notion to. Well, he got a notion that was fed to him by poisonous whispers in his ear. He’d always bragged about my writing. “Ira will not write bad things about me.” And the poisonous voices whispered. Ira did write bad things about you. Blamed everyone but himself for his problems. He really blames you. He was very disrespectful. And those vicious little whispers stirred in my father’s brain and worked his blood into a rage. He locked in. He wanted to read the book, he declared. Now. They tried to deflect him. My sister Rosemary, to her huge credit, refused to give him a copy. “Not in this state of mind,” she told him. “Not until you calm down.” Which, by some miracle, he eventually did. Calmed way down. Then, when she saw that he was ready, she gave him my book. And my father sat down to read what I had written from my heart.
And it moved me deeply, what they told me happened next. It was the dead of winter, January, when he read it. Bitter cold and snow. He was pretty much housebound. The winter just went on and on, the cold seeped in and dulled everything it touched. And there he was, in his little house, reading. His reaction after finishing the book? They told me. There wasn’t a whole lot of reaction. Just silence, and quiet sadness.
Somehow that hit me hard, and I felt sad with him. Seeing it, feeling it from his perspective. His son had told the whole world some pretty heavy stuff. About a lot of things. I don’t know how you’d deal with that, being confronted with that, from where he was. After all he’d seen and done. After who he had been, after all he had written. And now, when he’s gray and bent and old, now comes this. I just don’t know how that would have been. But I knew he was sad. And that moved me. I felt his sadness with him.
The Fusion sliced along Highway 3, a nice two-lane road running over the rich black flat lands of southern Ontario. Through little towns and villages. I pushed along, pulling out and around lumbering tractor-trailers that clogged the road now and then. The afternoon slipped by as I drove and drove. And shortly after four, I pulled into Aylmer. It was just impossibly small, from the great metropolis I’d remembered as a child. A bare little town, with a little row of shops huddled forlornly around a stop light at a crossroad. I crossed through the light and headed on out west toward St. Thomas.
St. Thomas is a bigger place than Aylmer. I remember the name from my childhood, but I don’t remember the town. Because it was out there, just a bit outside the edges of my world. And I was going there now to find a motel room. I’d looked it up on the web, and knew there was a good selection. And sure enough, right there on the east side of town as I approached, right there was a brand new Comfort Inn. I’ve seen some trashy Comfort Inns. This wasn’t one. I pulled in and chatted with the clerk, a nice lady. I’m here from PA, to see family, I told her. Turned out she was the auctioneer Les Shackleton’s niece. Les Shackleton, the guy who had sold our stuff at the farm sale in 1976, when we moved to Bloomfield. I remember Les, I told the clerk. How is he? “He’s doing pretty good, just getting up there in age,” she said. And I booked a room for two nights. It was late afternoon, past five. I carried in my bag, and settled in a bit, then headed out to my sister Rosemary’s farm to hang out for the evening.
I headed back east to Aylmer, then out through the main road through the community. It’s barely recognizable, from the place I knew as a child all those years ago. Way more built up, with a lot more Amish homes scattered along the way. No one knew me, or knew I was there. I passed through the heart of the settlement, then left on the road to my sister Rosemary’s home farm. They’d be looking for me. I pulled in and walked into her home. She smiled and welcomed me. “I’m so glad you came,” she said. Yeah, me too. And we just sat there and caught up. I hadn’t seen her since last August, when we went up to see Mom. “Joe will be home soon,” she said. “Just stay here for supper, then you can go over to see Dad for the evening.” So that’s what I did. Mom was not feeling well, Rosemary told me. She had a fever now, for the second day. The nurse was stopping by that evening, to check it out. Soon Joe arrived home from Tillsonburg, where he had been peddling strawberries door to door. Some things never change. I used to do that as a child. And we sat down at their little table to eat. A simple meal. Soup and homemade sausage. Homemade stuffed sausage, hickory smoked, just like we used to have way back. Rosemary has kept the tradition, and to me, there is no better sausage anywhere than the stuff I grew up with.
After supper, we walked over to the little house where my parents live. It’s a tiny place, a little shack, really, probably twenty feet wide and maybe thirty feet long. A nice clean little place with a tiny kitchen, a bedroom and a little office in the corner where Dad writes. And he was sitting there, at his typewriter. He heard us walking in and looked up. Hi, Dad, I said. He’s old, but he’s there. You can see his concentration when he listens to you talk. He smiled at me, and we shook hands. “Well, you made it,” he said. His voice cracks, now, when he talks. Yes. And we went through our normal little routine, our normal little dance. “How was the trip?” he asked. Oh, good, I said. I left PA this morning. It’s a long old drag up here, but I made pretty good time. “Where are you staying?” I got a motel room in St. Thomas. As we talked, Rosemary slipped into the bedroom where Mom was. I walked in behind her. And there she lay. Curled up. Unaware. “She has a fever,” Rosemary told me again. And I bent down close to my mother’s wrinkled face. Mom. It’s me. Ira. There was no response, of course. Dad came stumping into the kitchen then, and I sat down with him to visit. And it didn’t take him long to get to it. “How was your trip to Germany?” he asked. It was great. Absolutely great, I said. And I sat there with him and we talked.
Back home, I had printed out a dozen or so pictures of the trip. In color, at the office. And I went and got them. I showed him, as we just chatted right along. Here I’m talking to a crowd at Leuphana University, I said. He took the picture and looked at it closely. “That’s quite a crowd,” he said. Around two hundred, I said proudly. “My, my,” he went on, chuckling. “It seems like there’s mostly girls in the audience, there. Weren’t the men interested in what you had to say?” I laughed. Yeah, I said. Seems like mostly women show up at my talks. But there are some men in there too, if you look close. And I showed him pictures of Muenster and the cages. Do you remember that story, of the violent Anabaptists? I asked him. He seemed fairly vague about it. Yes, he remembered the name, Muenster. But he never paid it much mind, he said. Those were violent Anabaptists, not the real ones. I didn’t argue, just told him the story of the cages. We moved on through the stack. And I showed him the real treasure from Germany. The pictures of Family Life in the little Museum. They were just there, in a glass case, I said. I was completely surprised. He smiled. “Did you tell them?” he asked. “Did you tell them your father started that magazine?” Oh, yes, I did, I said. I waved my arms, like this. Pointed and shouted it, when I saw them. He leaned back in his chair and beamed.
And he asked me. “How many copies of your book have sold?” Oh, right at 140,000, I said. I wasn’t sure. Last I’d heard from Carol, she’d told me it was in the 130Ks and counting. But that was a while ago. So I figured it was safe to slip it up there to the next level. He grappled a bit with that figure. “How many?” 140,000, I said again. He seemed impressed. Then five minutes later, he asked again. “How many copies?” And I told him again. Seemed like he had to hear the number a few times to grasp it. Or to make sure he hadn’t heard wrong.
And we sat there and talked, the two of us, and it was good. After a bit, the nurse stopped in to see Mom. She disappeared with Rosemary into the bedroom. Ten minutes later, she emerged. “Her vital signs are all strong,” the nurse said. “She has constipation.” And she and Rosemary talked about what to do about that. The evening was moving right along. It was soon time for me to head to the motel. And I told Dad. I’m here to see you. What do you want to do tomorrow? Do you want to go somewhere, to see someone, to visit? And I could see the wheels turning in his head. He knew I knew that he wouldn’t ride with me in my car. He never has. His calculations led to the only place they could. And he asked, looking at me kind of sideways. “Well, will you drive with me in my buggy?” Sure, I said. If your horse is safe. He laughed. “Oh, yes, my horse is an old plug.” All right, I said. That’ll work. Maybe we can go see David Luthy at his historical library. I haven’t been there in a lot of years. Dad agreed. That would be fine. He seemed a little astounded, that I’d ride with him in the buggy. It’s not a big deal, I said. I came to see you, and we’ll go do what you want. I said good night then, and headed back to St. Thomas and my room.
The next morning around nine I headed out to the farm. Stopped in Aylmer at Tim Horton’s and bought coffee to drink and a box of a dozen donuts to take out with me. Tim Horton’s is a Canadian phenomenon. Every little burg has one. And they serve some of the better donuts I’ve ever tasted. Way better than what we have here with Dunkin’ Donuts. And their coffee, too, is just quality. I wish that chain would make it to the US. Anyway, out I drove into the beautiful cloudless day. All day, I’d spend all day out there. Mostly with Dad, but I’d spend some time with Rosemary and her family, too.
I arrived and carried the box of donuts into the house. Rosemary smiled her thanks. Her daughter and my niece, Edna, was flitting about, working this and that. Dad and I are leaving for David Luthys in his buggy, I told her. Can someone get the horse hitched up? We need to leave around ten or a little after. I’ll drive the horse, but I want nothing to do with going to the barn or hitching him up. Edna laughed and disappeared. Ten minutes later, she returned. “The horse is hitched up and tied up, out by the rail,” she said. “Ready for you and Daudy any time.” Thanks, I said. I’ll go over and chat with him now. We’ll leave soon. And I walked over to Dad’s little house. He was in his office. I sat in the chair across from his desk, and we talked. Ready to go soon? I asked.
In the bedroom next door, I heard voices. They were getting Mom up for a few hours. They get her up in her wheelchair, just to change the pressure points on her body. And she sits there and reclines, and mostly sleeps. A few minutes later, they wheeled her out into the kitchen. I heard Rosemary talking to her. “Ira is here,” Rosemary said. “He came to see you and Dad.” And I heard the murmur of her voice, soft but very clear, in the only lucid moment she had while I was there. “You mean our Ira?” she asked. “Yes, our Ira,” Rosemary answered. And I stepped out to greet her. Mom, it’s me. But in that instant, she was gone again. “She knew there for a second you were here,” Rosemary said. “But she’s gone again.” Yeah, I know, I answered. I heard her. I’m grateful for that.
The horse is hitched up and ready, I told Dad. We need to leave soon. We have to be back for dinner (noon meal). He was all hyped up and ready. Grabbed his big old black hat and put it on. We walked out to where the horse was tied up. He hobbled slowly, and I walked slowly. We came up to his buggy, specially built for him. It’s in the old classic Aylmer style, with rubber-tired wheels. But they set it down lower, somehow. It sits close to the ground. So it’s easier for him to get on and off. I untied the horse and took the reins. Backed him up a bit, then turned out onto the lane. And out to the road. There I stopped and looked both ways, for traffic. I wasn’t feeling all that safe right that moment, I have to say. Those buggies just aren’t safe on the roads. Nothing was coming, so I pulled on the right rein and clucked. The horse, whose name escapes me, lumbered out and down the road. And we were off.
It’s been a lot of years since I rode with my father in a buggy. Decades, probably. Maybe longer. Somewhere in there, I’m sure I have since I was a child. I just can’t remember when. We didn’t have far to go. A mile, maybe. And we just chatted right along as the buggy quietly rolled along on rubber-tired wheels. “Junior lives here now, with his family,” Dad said as we passed the old Jake Eicher place. “He had some kind of accident a few years ago, crushed his heel. They have a real nice family.” We passed Pathway Publishers on the left. Then right at the corner, and on past a few more homes, and the old school house where I went for first grade. Well, those grounds. They tore the old schoolhouse down years ago, and built a new one. But the old pump still sits there, right where it was. And the swing set. Still the same one.
Then we arrived at David Luthy’s place. The preeminent Amish historian in the world, David Luthy has assembled the world’s largest collection of old books and other paraphernalia that were Amish family heirlooms. He has written extensively in Family Life over the decades. Real research, is what he does. Historical articles, a great many of which detailed and described failed Amish communities through the years. And it was a special thing, to have an inside track to his library. It’s not open to the public. You have to have an appointment, and then maybe not, depending on who you are. That’s how hard it is, to get in there. But I was with Dad. He can get in anytime, almost. And I could get in with him.
David greeted us. He was there in his office, typing away. He’s older now, his long magnificent beard is no longer dark, but gray. His wife Mary rushed out, too, from the house, smiling. She welcomed me. They knew me as a child. And we walked to a back room and sat around a table. For more than an hour, David told me fascinating tale after fascinating tale of his library, and about some of his acquisitions. He unveiled and showed me an exact replica of an original Gutenberg Bible, complete with gold plated pages and illustrations. We examined ancient copies of the Martyr’s Mirror and the Ausbund. He talked and talked. Just before noon, Dad and I got up to leave. He stepped into his low-slung buggy. I untied the horse and stepped in, too. Then we were off, back to Rosemary’s house and dinner.
Things were bustling at the farm when we got back. It had been wet for weeks, and Lester, Rosemary’s married son who farms the home place, had hay down in the fields. It had been rained on to where it was pretty much ruined, he told me. But he figured he could bale it and get it out of his field late that afternoon. It was junk, but he had to get it off the field, so the next cutting could grow. I spent a few hours in Rosemary’s home, while Dad returned to his desk and his writing. And they stopped by to see me for a few minutes, a few of my nieces and nephews. Eunice came with a couple of her daughters. Philip and his wife stopped by early that evening.
And then, around five or so, I wandered over to see Dad again. He was sitting at his desk, typing away. They got rid of his old manual model. Probably ran out of parts. It’s an electric typewriter he uses now, adapted to a 12-volt battery. It hardly makes any noise. Sure doesn’t clatter and clack and ding, like the one I remembered him using. He stopped typing and leaned back in his chair. And the two of us just talked.
We chatted for a while about this and that. And I knew he wouldn’t bring it up. So I asked him, right out. What did you think of the book? And he leaned back some more and smiled self-consciously. “Well,” and he sat there a bit. “I guess I’d ask this. What do you think the world thinks about the Amish and about me?” So that was it? That was his sorrow? I chose my words carefully. And I told him. They will think you are a talented and driven man, who got a lot accomplished in your life as an Amish person, I said. And they will know you were flawed. But we are all flawed. All of us. You are. I am. It doesn’t make any sense, to pretend we’re not.
Maybe he grasped that. Maybe not. I think he did, a little. And then he talked some more. “People have told me they were impressed, and I agree,” he said. “You tried, you really tried to make it work. I’ll give you that. You came back and tried again and again.” That was pretty huge, to hear him say that. To recognize that. But then he balanced it out. “I still think it was a mistake, to hang around that café so much,” he said. And he talked some more about this scene and that. “You sure got it right, about your horse,” he said. “That’s exactly as I remember it. I remember how beaten down you were, and how I offered to buy you another horse. But you wouldn’t take it. I never could quite understand why.”
I was depressed, I said. I just needed to get out. I knew I couldn’t make it. That’s why I turned down your offer. He seemed to absorb that. And we talked a bit more. I wanted to mention Nicholas, to get his thoughts on that. I just didn’t get it done. And then he talked about Sam Johnson. Dad seemed to understand why Sam cut me off. And he approved of it. Sam had to cut me off, because I didn’t stay. OK, I said. Doesn’t make much sense to me, but if that’s how it had to be, then that’s how it had to be. And he talked about Sarah, too, and how I’d wronged her. He looks fondly on her as a daughter he lost. Respects her a lot. Yes. I said. I did. I did wrong her, very much so. I made that pretty clear, I think. Like I said, we’re all flawed. I certainly am. But I just tried to tell the story. That’s the only way to write a story. Tell it like it was. Be honest about who you were when you tell it. And who you are now.
Rosemary clattered into the kitchen, then, carrying a large tray. Food for our supper. “They’re out baling hay, so we won’t eat until later,” she told us. “So I brought your supper. Come to the table and eat.” Dad and I got up and walked to the kitchen. I sat down. He paused where Mom was sitting, a few feet away, napping. He spoke to her, some lighthearted question. “Every day, I try to say something that makes her smile,” he said. And then he stumped over to the little table and took his seat. This is a remarkable moment, I thought. Not that long ago, he wouldn’t sit with me at any table. He wouldn’t eat with me. Because he was shunning me. I had told him, back then. I’m not excommunicated. The Goshen Amish church where I left was more progressive. And I wasn’t excommunicated. Well, I was, but after I joined the Mennonite Church in Daviess, they lifted it. Made it like it never was. And I told Dad that. But he’d still shun me, he told me, because he felt like that was the right thing to do. And he did. Back then. For a lot of years.
But not now. I uncovered the dishes on the tray. Meat, chips, lettuce, freshly chopped tomatoes, and cheese. And dressing. A taco salad, I said. Dad pulled up his chair then, and we paused and bowed our heads. I wondered if he’d pray aloud. He used to, years back. And sure enough, he spoke it. The meal blessing prayer. In his cracked voice, with that old rhythm he always had. “Alle Augen worten auf Dich, oh Herr, denn Du gibst Ihn Ihre Speise zu Seiner Zeit…” I sat there and drank it in. He finished the prayer, and we took the food on our plates and ate. Just the two of us together, at that little table, in that little room in that little house.
After the meal, I sat with Dad in his office, and we just talked. He’s working on his own memoir, now. Two binders of notes were spread out beside his typewriter. Recently, he sent a few dozen pages of the first draft to all his children. So we could check it out. I liked it, I told him. I learned things I never knew before about you. Keep it up, keep writing. I want to read what you have to say. I liked it a lot. Don’t worry about the moral lessons, though, in your story. Just write it. Trust your readers. And respect them. If there’s lessons to be learned, they’ll pick those up on their own. You don’t need to tell them. He pondered that a bit. I’m not sure he quite grasped what I was trying to say, because he never wrote like that. Just the story. He pretty much always had an explicit lesson poked in there somewhere at the end. Because that’s how he wrote. We sat there, and I looked at him from across the desk as the sun slanted to the west. And I saw the moment, what it held, what it symbolized. I slipped my iPad from my briefcase and quietly snapped a picture.
And later that night, after I returned to my motel room and darkness closed in, I thought about it. The whole day. The time I’d spent with Dad. Especially our meal together at the little table. And hearing him pray that prayer, that was a special thing. It was a gift, all of it, every minute of this day. And at that moment, I saw it in my mind, as clearly as if I were standing back there, what was going on about now in the little house where my parents live.
Mom was in bed for the night. They’d tucked her in earlier. And Dad, well, Dad was doing what he does almost every evening. Sitting in his office, pounding away at his typewriter. Except these days, he shuts down early. He can’t stay up half the night. Not like he used to. He’s ninety-one years old. And he’s just too tired, he simply doesn’t have it in him anymore. And now, he was getting up to get ready for bed. He carried the lamp into the kitchen and set it on the table. Opened the bedroom door, so Mom could hear. And then he knelt there by a chair.
And in a cracked and faltering voice, still laced with remnants of the comforting rhythmic flow his children have always known and will always remember, he prayed that beautiful old high German evening prayer by heart. Beautiful, is what all those old formal German prayers are. Just breathtakingly beautiful. And he spoke it, the prayer for this evening. Thanking God for His love and the gift of salvation. Thanking God for all His blessings. Asking the Lord to lift His benevolent hand of protection over him and his family, those he loved. All alone now, he prays every morning as the day breaks. And every evening, after the sun has set.
Kneeling there, in the bleakness of his bare surroundings, he prays for all his family. He prays for Mom. For his children and his children’s children. Wherever they may be scattered on the whole earth. And the children still to come, he prays for them, too, the generations beyond. He prays for all of them in the only way he knows how. Just like he always has.
And suddenly it seemed to him that all of it was his, even
as his father’s blood and earth was his, the lives and deaths
and destinies of all his people…His savage hunger was a kind
of memory: he thought if he could speak, it would be fed…
I don’t claim to know a lot about what it is to travel to other countries. I’ve never done it much. It’s an aberration, for me to do something like that. But from here, looking back, I can say this. It really makes a difference what’s going on inside you, how you feel, depending on how you approach and enter another country. It really does. And the reasons why you’re even there, those are critical, too.
When I arrived in Germany, I swooped in on a jet. Fresh from my world to a new one. A place to which I was invited, to be honored. A place where my friends were waiting for me, and looking to look after me. And it stirred inside me, excitement and a deep quiet anticipation for the wonders I knew would come. It was a settled feeling, too, the feeling of knowing that Germany, what happened there, would be pretty much scheduled by others. It would work out, it would be OK, I knew. All I had to do was walk where they told me to.
Not so, Switzerland. No one had invited me there. There was no one waiting to greet me when I stepped onto Swiss soil for the first time. I was here because I chose to come, on my own. There were a few specific things I wanted to see. Whatever it took, I would go see them. And I felt it as we crossed over the border. Tension, mixed with a hungry eagerness. Deep anticipation. My path was pretty much unplanned, day to day. Whatever happened, it would happen on its own, at least when it came to my expectations. That’s the best approach I’ve found. You walk forward into life with few or no expectations, but you walk free. And it’s just amazing what comes at you, sometimes.
Way back, before I came over, I had figured to stay at least a night in Zurich. It’s such a nice old city, people who had been there told me. And I figured, sure, I’ll hang around for a night or two. Then I saw the prices they wanted for a room for one night. Three to five hundred francs for anything even half decent. Of course, I recoiled. No way was I gonna pay that. And I had told Mike and Janan that morning before we left their home. Find me a room outside the city. I can take the train out in a few minutes. It won’t cost a dime more. I have a Swiss Railpass. And so they had found me a room at a brand-new 6-story hotel in Wetzikon, a little town twenty minutes or so out. For just a shade over a hundred francs. That’ll work, I said. If I can make the connection. Zurich had this massive train station, I knew. And it was a long walk from where I got off to where I needed to board. That bugged me, some.
I never got tired of looking out the windows of the trains. And that Sunday afternoon, I drank it in for the first time, the scenes of Switzerland flowing past. Hills, mountains, ancient little farms, herds of cows, and little towns and villages. And soon we approached the outskirts of Zurich. This old city, with so much history, I thought. The train swept in and stopped inside the station. I poured out with the crowds, lugging my bags. It was a huge multi-level place. The stories had been right. I looked for signs to my track. Number 43, to Wetzikon. Down, down, it was below. I rushed along. I had six minutes. Down the escalator, and down again. And there it sat, a local train. I glanced at the departure sign, as Maryann had told me to. Look at the sign. It’ll tell you where the train’s going. They switch tracks, sometimes, from what it says on the ticket. Check the sign.
People were boarding. I walked up, almost sure but not positive. A young man loafed outside. Is this the train to Wetzikon? I asked in English. “Yes.” He was polite enough. Couldn’t I read the sign? Thanks, I said. I stepped up and parked my bags right there, inside the doors, on the platform. I’d stay right here until we got there, I figured. A young woman with a baby in a carriage approached. She struggled and shifted the carriage, trying to get on. I stepped up with another guy, and we lifted her carriage onto the train. She smiled her thanks.
A minute later, we slid out. I felt relieved and triumphant. I had done it. Switched trains, right here in the bowels of Zurich. Tomorrow I would return. People got off as we approached my destination. The stop before mine, the baby carriage lady needed help again. I lifted the carriage off. She smiled again and thanked me. And then we arrived in Wetzikon. The last stop on this run. Everyone off. Dragging my bags, I walked out to the front of the station. According to the info sheet I’d printed, my hotel was a five-minute walk away. But which direction? I approached a bus driver, loafing outside his bus, smoking a cigarette, waiting for passengers. Excuse me. I showed him my hotel address. He pulled out his phone, punched in the address, and pointed off to my right. “Just down the street, there,” he said, dragging on his cigarette. I thanked him. It’s refreshing, to see someone smoke so openly and unapologetically, I thought. I’m not saying anyone should or shouldn’t smoke, but it was very cool to see how much more relaxed they are about such things in Europe. At least the part of Europe I saw.
The hotel was as advertised. Brand spanking new, clean and shining. After settling in, I took the elevator to the restaurant on the top floor. Some food and a glass of scotch, that’s what I needed. And that’s what I got. I sat back and relaxed with my drink. Looked into the distance, through the big plate glass windows. I felt pretty good. I had done it. Traveled all by myself, in Europe. And I’d reached the place I was heading for. That’s not bad, for a country hick like me.
The next morning, around nine, I trundled back to the train station, lugging my bags. Back to Zurich it was. There were two things I planned to see in Switzerland, whatever else I saw. And one of those sites was in Zurich. Right along the river, I was told. The spot is marked. The spot where Felix Manz was drowned, back in 1527. One of the original founders of Anabaptist theology, Felix Manz was a name I heard growing up. A martyr for his faith. The Anabaptist faith. And by extension, the Amish faith. The man was a hero, from my childhood up. A man who knew what he believed. And was willing to pay the ultimate price for those beliefs. The Zurich fathers never paid much attention to the incident, or the spot where it happened. Until recently. Descendents of the Wiedertaufer kept coming and asking. Where did this happen? We want to see the spot. And so the city fathers, sensing a profitable tourist attraction in the making, placed a plaque on the stone wall beside the river, marking the spot. That’s what I was told, anyway. And that’s where I was going this morning. To walk the river until I found that plaque.
I could have looked it up, where it was. Should have, probably. But I didn’t. I wanted to walk in free and blind, to find the spot on my own. And that morning, as the train bucketed along toward Zurich, I could feel the tension inside me. A host of small problems awaited me, I knew. Nothing to do but walk forward into them. The train hissed in and stopped. I walked off, and up the escalator to the next level. First, I’d need to find the lockers, to store my bags for the day. I had no idea where to go. And I did something I can’t remember doing before. Two cops strolled by. I hailed them. Where’s the information booth? They pointed. “Up ahead, to the right.” I thanked them and walked where they told me. And there it was. I approached the lady behind the booth.
She smiled at me, but it was an arrogant, aloof smile. “Yes, the lockers are down below in the next level. They cost nine francs. One and two-franc coins is all they take.” I thanked her and turned away. Where to get change in this vast place? The Western Union counter. I walked up. They were polite and friendly. And yes, they would make change. I need it for the lockers, I told the man. I changed a 20-franc bill for coins. I’ve never liked the coins of any foreign country. Because you never know, quite, what you have and what it’s worth. Throughout the trip, I often just held out a handful of change when buying a drink or sandwich. Is there enough here? I’d ask the clerk. And either there was, and she picked it out, or she shook her head. No, not enough. And then I’d switch to a bill, and get even more coins in change. A vicious little cycle, right there.
I went downstairs with my bags. Approached the lockers, and poked around until I found an empty one. Nine francs for the day. Seemed excessive, but what are you going to do? I stuffed in both bags, shut the door and fed in the francs. And right there came my first inkling that this little city does not like me. Nine francs poured in. I tried to turn and extract the key. Nothing. I jiggled it. Nothing. So I poured in another franc. Again, nothing. After twelve, and I repeat, twelve francs, the key finally turned and I yanked it out. I was nervous and angry and excited. Right there, the system had stolen three francs from me. Oh, well. No one to go complain to, around here. They’d just look at you like an idiot. Now, a quick trip to the restroom before heading out. I followed the signs. And stood outside and stared. A young gentleman in suit and tie brushed past me, clinked a few coins into the slot, and walked on in. You had to pay. $1.50 francs, just to use the restroom. I recoiled, outraged. No way was I going to pay. It’s against my religion, to do something like that. Again, what are you going to do? My messenger bag strapped securely across my shoulder, I turned and walked up and out the main entrance.
It was a clear, beautiful day. Perfect for walking. And there was the river, right outside. I should have asked someone, I thought. At least asked which side of the river the Felix Manz plaque is. My brother Steve had told me. He and his wife, Wilma, had stumbled across the plaque. But I never asked him where it was. I’d find it when I got there, I figured. I set off to the left, crossed the river and began walking back toward the old town on the other side. Keep circling until you find it, I thought. I felt mildly exuberant. Here I was, finally. I strolled along, under a line of old trees by the river, keeping a sharp eye out. The plaque. Look for it.
At a deserted spot under the trees, I stopped to adjust my messenger bag. I glanced back. A young man approached. He didn’t look like a bum. But he came right up to me. “Could you spare a little change?” That was odd. It’s rare, that someone hits you up like that in Switzerland. I smiled at the guy. Nope. No spare change here. He shrugged and moved along. But then, wait, I said. He stopped. If you can tell me where the plaque is for Felix Manz, I’ll pay you well. He was a Wiedertaufer leader, and they drowned him along the river here, somewhere. I came to find the spot. He shrugged again. “Never heard of it,” he told me. And then he strolled off, to accost his next victim. Oh, well. Move right along, I thought. It has to be here somewhere.
And I walked along. No plaque to be seen. Little slivers of uneasiness shivered inside me. I couldn’t leave, not without seeing what I came to see. A mile or so up, I crossed the river. Began walking back toward the train station. It has to be in here somewhere, I thought. It has to be. But I wasn’t finding it. I trudged on and on. The walkway led away from the river, into a section of old town shops. This wasn’t doing me any good. I needed to walk the river. I circled back and connected again. Back there behind me was a stretch I’d missed. I walked on. And on and on. No plaque.
I crossed back to the other side of the river. It was past noon, now. I was tired and stressed and hungry. And I still hadn’t found a restroom I could use for free. I’ll look for a place to grab a bite, I thought. A little old bar would be nice. I walked along some back streets, away from the river. And there it was. A little hole in the wall. A pure dive. That’s what I wanted. I walked in. The place was almost deserted. The bartender, a man in his fifties with a seamed face, greeted me. English? I asked. “I speak a little,” he said. Can I get food here? “Of course,” he smiled and handed me a little menu. “We have food.” I took a seat at the ancient bar. Scanned the sorry little menu. Fish and Chips, for a mere 20 francs. That’s what I want, I told him. And a beer, for 5 more francs.
He took my order and brought my beer. Stood there, and we talked. How old is this place, this bar? I asked. He had no idea. A hundred years old, if not more, he thought. “It’s still original, all of it.” I told him where I came from and what I was looking for. He shrugged. He’d never heard of Felix Manz, either. What is it, with this place? And he told me. He’d been to America, way back. Went to New Orleans. That was a wild time. I asked about this bar, the history of it. A tiny door in the back wall led to the kitchen. They quit cooking food here, a few years back. He had taken my order next door, to a restaurant. He’d bring the food from there. And he told me. “We’re open, on weekends and holidays, twenty-three hours a day. We close from 4 to 5 AM, to clean the place. Then it’s open again, for almost a full day. We have to kick out the people at four. They’re here, drinking all night. They wait outside, until five, when we reopen. Then they come in and keep right on drinking into the dawn.” That’s crazy, I said. I never heard of such a thing. There must be a lot of people out there who can hold their alcohol a lot longer than I could. I can’t even think of how that would be.
He brought my food, then, and I sat there and munched it. Delicious enough. And he directed me to the restroom in the back, when I asked. No fee for that, other than the food. No way I’m ever gonna pay good money to open a restroom door. I paid the man, then, and tipped him three or four francs. He seemed pleased (All the servers in Europe seemed very pleased when you tipped them). We chatted some more. He wished me well on my quest as I walked out. Thank you, I said.
I walked along the brick streets, back toward the river. And I knew it was time to quit walking aimlessly, and strategize. Otherwise, I’d never find the plaque. I stood on the sidewalks and looked around. Someone, somewhere could help me. But who? No one in the crowds. People in Zurich have never heard of Felix Manz. I don’t blame them. Why should they have? But I needed someone, someone to tell me where to go. I kept walking along. And there it was, on my right. A small travel office. They should know. Gripping my messenger bag, I pushed open the door and walked in. A small room with two desks. A young woman sat at the right corner, an older guy at the desk on the left. The woman looked up as I entered. I smiled at her. And I spoke to her in English.
I’m looking for a plaque along the river, for Felix Manz. I’m from the Wiedertaufer. He was a founder. I can’t find it. Have you heard of it? She seemed intrigued. No, she hadn’t heard of it. Can you google it for me? I asked. Felix Manz. Look on Wikepedia. She chattered to the older guy off to the left. In German, I think, but it was so fast I can’t be sure. And she clicked around on her computer. “Yes, here it is, on Wikepedia,” she said. Another burst of German back and forth between her and her coworker. “Yes, we have found it,” she told me. “He will show you.” And the guy got up, held open the door for me, and we walked out. “Over there,” he said in broken English, pointing. “Across the river, way down there, by that red house with the green cupola. It’s somewhere close to that place.”
I thanked him profusely. And I walked. Down the street, across the bridge. The red house loomed. And there was a little wooden walkway, leading back. I’d missed it. It was in that stretch I’d bypassed, when the streets looped around to those old town shops. I crossed the walkway. And walked back into a little grove of trees, back to the river. And there it was. The plaque. This was the spot where Felix Manz was drowned for his faith. I stood there, almost in disbelief. I had found it. I was here.
This was a story I’d been told all my life. And it was so real, right there. This is where it happened, what they told me. Here is where they brought him, bound on a wagon. Here is where they tied him to a pole and took him out on the waters on a boat. For that dreaded “third baptism”, drowning. And right out there is probably where they submerged him. There he spoke his last words, “Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” I looked around. Here is where the crowds edged in, watching. Somewhere here is where his mother stood, calling for him to stay steadfast. In death. She called that to him, even though it meant that she’d watch her son drown before her eyes. This was the spot, where all that happened.
It was a powerful and moving moment. I stood there, and sat there on the wall, for more than half an hour. And then, at the end, I hailed an older guy, strolling by. Hey, can you speak English? He couldn’t, so we talked in German. Well, somehow we communicated. I need someone to take a pic with my iPad, I told him in rough German, with lots of motions. You just touch this button, real light, right here. He seemed a little grumpy. Can’t he take a quiet walk along the river without some tourist harassing him? But he obliged. I thanked him.
And then it was time to head back to the train station. I strolled along, no longer tired, almost lighthearted. I had seen what I came to see, here in Zurich. I walked into the station and reclaimed my luggage from the evil locker. You ripped me off, I thought. Wicked town, this is. I’m heading out. And I won’t see you until next Saturday morning, when I leave.
Fribourg. That’s where I was heading. The night before, on my iPad, I had reserved a room in that city. The Hotel de Faucon. Real close to the train station, the website had claimed. So I booked a room, even though it all sounded real French to me. And I was going to Fribourg, why? Because it was the closest city to the only contacts I had in Switzerland. Well, the only contacts that knew I was coming and reached out to me.
The Raboud family lives in a little village, just a short train ride from Fribourg. French speaking. On a farm that has been in the family for generations. I got to know a few members of that family, because they were friends with Anne Marie Zook. And back when Anne Marie was trudging through her four-year battle with brain cancer, they sent over some help. Anne Marie was almost like a member of their family. She had stayed with them, years ago, for a year, working as an Au Pair. They never forgot each other, the Rabouds and Anne Marie. And they came to help, two of their girls. Severine and Carline. I got to know them both when they were here. And we all got along just fine.
Just that close, I didn’t even bother to contact them. Who wants to be pestered by a guy traveling through? I thought. It puts people on the spot, makes them feel obligated. I knew Severine had just gotten married a few months ago. And Carline was in nursing school, full time. That’s busy, right there. But still, I decided to send them both a message. So I did. Hey, I’m traveling through Switzerland for a week. Any chance we could meet for a meal, or even just coffee? They both responded. Sure. Plan on stopping by.
And then, about a week before I left, a message arrived from Carline. She had adjusted her work schedule as a nurse intern, and she would be free to show me around for a day or two, if I wanted. Of course, yes, I wrote back. And thanks so much. That’s way more than I expected. I appreciate it.
I boarded a train for Fribourg late that afternoon, and soon the evil little city of Zurich receded behind me. A two hour ride later, I got off. Walked out the front entrance. People swarmed about. Now where was that hotel? The Hotel de Faucon? I had no clue, only an address. And the only people loafing about were a couple of taxi drivers lounging by their cabs. Probably not a good idea, to ask them. Where’s a bus driver, when you need him? I had no choice, I figured. So I approached. Showed them my paper with the address. Can you tell me how to get to this hotel? The website said it’s only four or five blocks.
They were tough old Frenchmen, both of them. Well, at least they claimed to speak only French. They looked at my paper and chattered between themselves. Then the older guy pointed, away. “That store, way over there, you walk there, then turn right. And then you go right again, then left. It’s a few blocks down from there,” he claimed in very broken English. The other guy pointed and chattered in French. This is all getting way too complicated, I thought. I looked at my bags. I sure didn’t want to drag them around on some fruitless chase. All right, I said. Take me. The older guy, the one who could speak a little English, jumped to oblige. Loaded my stuff in the back. And off we went, around the block and around again. It didn’t take long to get there. He pulled up in front of the old hotel and unloaded my bags. “Ten francs,” he said. I paid him and thanked him.
On then, into the hotel. A narrow little sliver of a place, five stories high. My room was on the third floor. The clerk couldn’t speak a word of English, either, or pretended she couldn’t. Somehow we communicated with hand signals. After settling in my room, I decided to go for a walk, back toward the train station. And sure enough, right at four blocks away, around a little curve, there it was. Pretty much a straight shot. The taxi guys knew that. They just wouldn’t tell me. I couldn’t get that irritated at them, though. That’s what taxi guys do. Scare up fares when there are none. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a nice little pub. All French. That’s what they spoke, which was gibberish to me. I finally showed the nice barmaid what I wanted by pointing to a sandwich and a beer on the menu. She smiled and gave me great service and delicious food.
Back at the hotel, I messaged Carline. Hey, I’m here in Fribourg, at the Hotel de Faucon. I’ll meet you at your station in your village tomorrow around nine. She messaged back, to my huge relief. Don’t move. I’ll stop by the hotel tomorrow morning, and we can travel to Bern from there on the train. Great. This was working out.
At nine the next morning, I waited in the small lobby. And in she walked. I would have recognized her, I think. Hadn’t seen her in probably two years, during that awful stretch when Anne Marie was sinking in her final valiant fight. Carline smiled at me in welcome. I got up and greeted her. Thanks so much for taking the time, I said. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. “Oh, I wanted to, it’s no problem,” she said. “Let me talk to the clerk. We can leave your bags here, and pick them up when we get back. You’re staying out with us on the farm tonight, and tomorrow night, too, if you want.” She turned to the clerk and the two of them chattered in French. The clerk smiled. “Of course.” She opened the door to the back, and I wheeled in my luggage. Cool, how things work out if you can actually communicate, I thought. We walked out onto the street and I walked into two of the most amazing days on the whole trip.
After showing me parts of old town Fribourg from high on a hill, Carline was ready to take me to Bern. The Capital of Switzerland. We walked back to the train station, and I just relaxed. I had a native born guide. No worries. After the short ride over to Bern, we walked the streets of the old town. Carline showed me the state buildings, where the legislature worked. She told me stories of Swiss history. And on and on we walked, past hundreds of old shops. Down to the river, where the famous Bern bears are kept in a natural preserve. We dropped by the big old pub nearby for a beer, sat there and looked out, watching the bears. Carline told me stories of what it’s like, to live in Switzerland. About the nursing program she was enrolled in. I was pretty impressed. She is twenty years old, and fluent in three languages. French, German and English. And she’s working her way through a tough nursing program. European education, I got to thinking, is the real stuff. A lot harder than back home, from what I was hearing. Soon we headed back uptown. Stopped to eat at a nice outdoor café. Europe has a lot of those. Outdoor cafes, neat little places right out on the sidewalks. And then we walked some more, browsed through an outdoor market, and then back to the train station. We stopped at Fribourg to pick up my bags, then headed on out to the village where Carline had parked her little car. And off we zoomed. We had one more stop, yet, before heading out to the farm.
Carline said her pastor and his wife wanted to meet me. They lived in a nearby village. I’d be honored, I said. And we pulled up to a very nice house in a development. Swiss houses are built to last hundreds of years, same as German houses. We walked up to the front door. A kindly-looking elderly man answered. He greeted Carline and shook my hand and welcomed me. “Come in, come in, and sit a while,” he said. We walked to the back patio and sat there to visit. The pastor’s name was Jean-Pierre Trachsel, and he smiled at me with a crinkled face and twinkling eyes. “Severine gave me her copy of your book,” he told me. “And I just finished reading it. I couldn’t put it down. It reminded me of some of the things I faced back in my youth.” I thanked him. That was cool, indeed. He knew where I was coming from before I even got here. Then he continued. “I’ve checked out your blog, too. Interesting. I see you’re a post- millenialist?” Oh, boy, I thought. Now we’re going to get into some trouble, here. I’m sure he doesn’t agree with my eschatology. But the man smiled his crinkled smile. His eyes still twinkled. And we just sat there and talked about a lot of things. I felt completely welcome and at home.
And he told me. He was a retired businessman and the pastor of a small, independent church, Alliance Pierres Vivantes (APV, translated Alliance Living Stones). That’s a fairly rare thing in Switzerland, an independent church. The state churches claim everyone at birth. And if you branch off on your own, into your own little group, they call that group a sect. It’s a negative connotation, I took it. People who belong to sects are all pretty much lumped together, in the public’s mind. Doesn’t matter what you claim to believe. You’ll be classed with the looniest of elements out there. And your children, too, they make fun of them in public schools. The teachers do that, make fun of little children whose parents belong to a sect. I grappled with that. Back home, there is no state sponsored religion that taxes you. Back home, it’s pretty much a smorgasboard of choices. Any little group is free to pop up and start a church, and nobody even blinks twice. Not so, here, apparently.
And as we talked, I told Jean-Pierre. I came to Switzerland to see two things. Places that mean a lot to my people, the Anabaptists. One of those was in Zurich, by the river, where they drowned Felix Manz. The other place is not far from here. Trachselwald Castle, in the Emmental area. It’s a place where they imprisoned and killed Anabaptists, a long time ago. And it’s important for me to get there. He smiled, intrigued. “And how are you getting there?” he asked. I grinned at him. Don’t know, I said. I just figured the Lord would bring someone along to guide me. Can you take me?
And he smiled some more, at my little trap. His eyes kept twinkling. “Yes, I will take you,” he said. “We’ll go tomorrow. I’m retired. I have the time. Plus, I’m very interested in your story, and the things you came to see.” Thank you, I said gratefully. Thank you. And there it was. My ride to Trachselwald Castle. They had told me back home. The train wouldn’t get me there. It’s too remote. You’ll have to rent a car, or something. And I had really said what I’d claimed to Jean-Pierre. Guess I’m just going to have to figure that God will bring someone along to show me. I had no idea of the little church Carline and her family attended. Had no concept of what a “sect” was in Switzerland.
We chatted right along for a while. Carline and Jean-Pierre’s wife Yvonne sat off to one side, visiting. And Jean-Pierre told me. “We have church service every Tuesday evening. That’s tonight.” Carline had told me before, and I figured I’d go, even though they’d sing and speak in French. Jean-Pierre, though, had a further request. “Would you say a few words tonight? Speak a bit, about where you come from, and maybe a few words to our youth, too? They have a tough road sometimes, being so different from outside society. It would be good if you spoke a bit about your journey and where you are now.” Ah, man, I thought. Bless his heart. He really wants me to speak. I don’t speak much in front of church groups, I said. Never have. I don’t know how comfortable I’d be. Or if I even knew what to say. “Well, consider it,” he responded. “Give us ten or fifteen minutes. Carline can translate for you.”
All right, I will, I said. Consider it, I mean. I’ll probably do it. I don’t know how long I’ll last up there, though. What could I say? The man was taking me to Trachselwald Castle tomorrow, and all he wanted was for me to speak a few words to his congregation. I don’t think I told him, because I didn’t know him well enough. But I thought it. I’ve always shied away from giving my official “testimony” to any captive church audience. In that setting, they expect you to be over the top cheerful and upbeat. Say what you’re expected to say, about all your victories. Which is fine. But anyone can claim anything. And often, “testimonies” are just not realistic. Life is life, and we live it flawed. It’s foolish, to pretend we don’t. It’s probably that quiet reserved Amish blood in me, but I think the most powerful testimonies out there are lived and seen, not spoken and heard.
Carline and I left soon, then, and headed on over to her home farm in a nearby village. A real, honest-to-goodness working Swiss farm. A generation or so ago, the family lived in the house that was attached to the barn, the old way, she told me. Her parents had built a free standing home decades ago. The men were out in the fields, frantically baling hay. It had been wet for a long time, and more showers were coming tonight. They had to get the hay in. A quick tour of the place. They raise beef cattle. We walked through the barn which housed the cattle. Various sizes, in different groups. We walked into the house and met her mother, a very kind lady who welcomed me. She spoke only French, though, so Carline had to translate. Then it was off to unpack at her brother-in-law and sister’s home a quarter mile down the road. They had an empty room upstairs with a mattress on the floor. That’s where I’d sleep. I dragged up my bags and freshened up a bit. Then walked back down to the farm. There, I met Severine, the other sister I knew, and her husband Daniel. Severine smiled and greeted me. The last time we saw each other was at my friend Paul Zook’s home, a couple of years back.
From left, Carline, me, and Severine, just before heading to church.
And then it was time to head to church. Carline told me she sometimes sings with the band, but not tonight, probably. She was a little nervous about translating for me. She’d not done that before, in front of her church group. Others in the group were more talented than she was, she thought. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, I said. I’m the one who’s nervous, here. After a fifteen minute ride or so, we approached the church building in a little village. Nice, clean building. “It was a restaurant, once,” Carline said. “When that closed down a few years ago, our church group bought it.” We walked in and sat up front, on the first bench. The band was strumming up. Jean-Pierre had told me they were considered charismatic, the people in his group, and they probably are, in ways I did not see that night. But the music I heard was pretty much mainstream evangelical.
After a few songs, Jean-Pierre got up front and greeted his flock and opened with a prayer. And then he began his introduction. It lasted a good five minutes or more. Carline translated quietly to me as the man spoke. “In our history, we have a dark blot many don’t know of,” he said. “There was a group of people among us who were persecuted and killed by both Catholics and Protestants alike. The Wiedertaufer. These people were hunted relentlessly, and in time they fled, mostly to America. Tonight we have one of their descendants with us. Ira Wagler, who came from the Amish. And he will speak a few words to us.” He motioned cheerfully at me. And I got up and walked to the podium, Carline close behind me. We both had hand-held mics. And I lifted mine to speak.
Me and my interpreter.
It was the first time in my life that I spoke to any group through an interpreter. And it actually was pretty cool. I said a few sentences, then stopped. Carline translated. While she spoke, I had a few seconds to think of what I wanted to say next. It all worked out, I gotta say. I told them a bit of where I came from. And how I wrote my story. I held up a copy of Growing Up Amish. This book brought me to Germany, to speak at two universities. And now I’m here, in Switzerland. I came to see where the Wiedertaufer came from. I told them of my struggles, how hard it was to break away from the Amish. How I’d left and returned and left and returned, again and again. How I’d finally found peace through faith in Christ. To these people, that wasn’t gibberish. They understood. And I told the youth. You are free. Free to walk in love, free to move forward in the world around you. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you, sometimes, because your world is strange to me. As are the pressures you face. But you are free. Walk free.
I actually lasted fifteen minutes, I think. Or close to it. Maybe twelve. Then I thanked them, and we returned to our seats. After the service, many people walked up and welcomed me. Many could speak only French, but they welcomed me in their language. Afterward, Carline and another nice lady took me downstairs for a tour of their private school. These people have their own school, which is almost an impossibility in Switzerland. Somehow, they had obtained permission. And they paid whatever costs associated with running it, too. Cheerfully. I was very impressed. If these people were a sect, they were a sect I could identify with. They really were. I signed my copy of Growing Up Amish and donated it to the school library.
The next morning, after a few cups of coffee in the kitchen with Carline and her Mom, I was ready when Jean-Pierre pulled in with his SUV. Ready and excited. He seemed excited, too. He had mapped out our route to the castle. And, he said, he’d done a little research, too. “Your Mom is a Yoder,” he said. “I can take you through the area today, where the Yoders come from.” I’d like that a lot, I said. And then we took off. We picked up right where we’d left off the day before, talking. We agreed on a lot of things, except for end-times stuff. He lost me, there, with his beliefs. And I lost him, with mine, I’m sure. But it was OK. I am free, I told him. I just live. Because I am free to live. He told me of how it was, to be a preacher for a “sect” group. It’s inconceivable, what you’re telling me, I said. Back home, you wouldn’t even get a second glance. There are thousands and thousands of churches very similar to yours. And we can have our own schools, too, and do. I marvel that your group has its own. From what you’re telling me, it really is a miracle.
After more than an hour, we approached the Emmental area. Where the Castle was. Historically, it was a poor area, Jean-Pierre told me. Which is probably why some people there were attracted to the Anabaptist faith, way back. It’s a faith for poor people. And I felt the excitement stirring inside me. Not the nervous excitement of Muenster. But a more settled, almost peaceful feeling. I was approaching a place that reflected the stories I’d always heard. Stories of persecution, blood and death. They did this to my people. The “real” Anabaptists, as my father would say. And we drove around, through a town, then a back road out. And there it stood, on a hill, right where it has stood for hundreds of years. I pointed. There. That has to be it. Trachselwald Castle. Off to a side road then, and then the winding entrance. Up and up we drove. And then we pulled in and parked.
Approaching the castle tower.
It’s a small castle, as castles go. Remote. And it would be pretty much completely unknown to the world, except for one thing. The descendents of the Wiedertaufer flock here in droves. One by one, as I was coming, and in large and small groups. This place has huge historical significance to them, to me. Here, in this tower, here is where it happened. Where the authorities rounded up and imprisoned innocent Anabaptist farmers from the surrounding area. And tortured and killed them. All because of their faith. A faith they refused to recant. Who can even imagine what kind of strength and courage that took? To stand up to power and refuse to yield, even when it costs you everything? We like to think we could imagine that. But it’s impossible, if you haven’t actually seen and felt that kind of persecution. And they come here by the hundreds, those descendents, on a pilgrimage of sorts. And they enter the tower. Walk up to the floors where the cells are. And they write their names there, on the fronts of the old wooden cells. Their names and the date. Hundreds and hundreds of names are written there. I figured to add my own. We walked up the hill into the courtyard.
The tower entrance.
We approached the tower and entered. And up the steep old rickety stairs to the second floor. Then the third. Jean-Pierre recognized what this moment meant to me, and he respected it. We talked in hushed tones. Here are shackles, on the wall. And up here, on this floor, are cells. And up on the next floor, too. He took my iPad and quietly snapped pictures of those moments. And I took a black marker from my messenger bag and wrote my name on the wooden cell wall. I was here. Along with hundreds and hundreds of others who had been. I would tell of it, I said to Jean-Pierre. This place is almost a holy place, because it harbors so much of the story of who they were, those poor Anabaptist farmers. And who we are, their descendents. They were tortured here. They died here.
A cell on the fourth and final floor of the tower.
Jean-Pierre quietly absorbed the place, right along with me. He really did. He sensed the deep ancestral call inside me, and honored it. I could not have asked for a better guide or companion.
We left then, and headed out into the hills on two-lane highways. “This is where the Yoders come from,” Jean-Pierre told me. And we just chatted right along. It was past noon, and he kept looking out for a café. We passed a few in little villages, but strangely, they were closed. Jean-Pierre mumbled. We backtracked, then, and came up on a café that was open. We sat outside and checked out the menu. The waitress approached. Jean-Pierre looked at me inquisitively. “Will you have a beer with your meal?” he asked. Of course, I said. He smiled and ordered one for himself. “The Americans seem so hung up on alcohol,” he said. “It’s OK to be divorced four times, but you better not have a drink.” I laughed. And before I could say it, he said it for me, his eyes twinkling. “You just live, right?” Yep, I said. I just live. My heart is free. I just live.
We headed back to the farm, then, and Jean-Pierre told me a lot of stories of the places we passed. Old stories, history, that the Swiss know about their land. I thanked him over and over for taking me. For spending a good part of his day and time, just showing me a place I wanted to see so badly. He smiled his crinkled smile. “It was my pleasure,” he assured me. “I send my greetings to your people.”
Jean-Pierre, my friend.
At the farm, my day was far from over. Severine, Carline’s sister, and her husband Daniel were waiting for me. They wanted to take me to a few places. And in the next three hours, we toured a cheese-making plant and a chocolate factory. It was all so much, coming at me so fast. And then we returned to the farm, where supper was waiting. Afterward, I sat there and visited with Carline’s parents, Jacques and Marie-Anne. Carline translated, and back and forth we talked. I signed a copy of my book to the family and gave it to them. Thank you, I said. Thank you so much for your hospitality. They smiled and invited me to stop by anytime I returned to Switzerland. They meant it, too.
We sat around the table then, and Carline helped me map out my trip for the next day. I had decided to head to Geneva, then up a ways close to the pass through the Alps. I’d stay tomorrow night in Brig, a little town in the foothills. We checked out a few hotels and I booked a room for the next night. And Carline asked me. “Do you want me to check your flight details for Saturday morning?” Nope, I’m good, I said. I have the itinerary right here. It’s all scheduled. I’m leaving Zurich at 1:30 PM. And right there, at the table at that moment, I made my biggest mistake on the whole trip. Right there. The door was open. All I had to do was walk through it. But there’s no way I could have known that, because you don’t know what you don’t know, until you do. And looking back, you can always pinpoint the instant it could have gone either way, right when it happened.
The next morning around 9:30, Carline dropped me off at the train station in a nearby village. She walked me to my train, told me to stay on it, all the way to Geneva. Straight run, no layovers. We hugged good-bye, and I thanked her again. And she boarded her own train back to Fribourg, and her nursing studies. A minute later, my train slid out. To Geneva, then, and the Reformation Museum. The Rabouds had told me of it. It’s worth seeing. A steady drizzle was coming down as I stored my bags in a very reasonably priced locker at the Geneva station, and took off to find the Museum.
After a few misguided directions from strangers, one of them actually knew what he was talking about. “The old town,” he said, and pointed. “It’s over there in the old town, beside the old cathedral.” And I tramped off in the rain. Seems like about all I did in Switzerland was walk. And walk and walk.
I found the Museum, and walked through it. Gaped at the displays. Actual letters written and signed by Calvin and Luther. Those two giants in history and theology. I stood there, in the presence of what they had actually touched and produced, and marveled. I could have spent a lot of time there. But I had to keep moving.
I stayed that night in Brig. Most of the week, the weather was cloudy. And on the ride that day, I never got to see the peaks of the Alps. Or on the next day’s ride through Interlaken. Unbelievably beautiful scenery. The peaks were always obscured by clouds and rain. But the land is beautiful in Switzerland, no matter what the weather.
A beer on the ride through Interlaken.
Swiss countryside from the train.
I was getting pretty comfortable, just hopping around on the train on my own, by myself. Figures, I thought. Now I’m at least a novice at this. And tomorrow I have to leave. I stayed that last night in a hotel in a village outside Zurich, the other direction from last time. I enjoyed a leisurely evening. Slept pretty solidly through the night. And boarded the train the next morning, for Zurich and the airport. All in good time. I was getting there way early. Who knows how long it would take, to work your way through that maze?
It was a pretty sizable airport. I was surprised at how big it was. It took me a while to locate the British Air counter. There were no crowds. Good. I was early. I walked up to one of the two perfectly coifed ladies sitting there and showed her my eTicket. And she asked for my passport. She took it from my hand and scanned it. “I’m not finding you,” she said. No alarm bells went off, not right that instant. She’d find me. I was in there.
The alarm bells clattered a few seconds later, though, in my head. She looked perturbed, all of a sudden. “This is not good,” she muttered. And she turned to me. “That flight has already boarded. And left the gate. Let me just check on that.” She dialed a number, and there was a staccato conversation. “The plane has left, or is just leaving,” she said.
They had changed the departure time, from my original itinerary. I’ll just say that it was all one big shock. I’d been walking along pretty much unscathed, for the whole trip. To the point where I expected nothing else. And now, this. Getting a grip on reality in an instant like that is a little tough to do. Instinctively, I grasped the first straw. Can’t you get me on another flight? I do have a ticket, here. A negative shake of her head, instantly. “It’s a holiday weekend,” she said. “The flights are all filled. Air France can take you, but they’re so expensive.” I just stood there and gaped. And she continued. “Up there around that aisle, over there. There’s a discount ticket seller. They broker. Check with them. It’ll be cheaper than Air France.”
I don’t know why I didn’t just step back and think a bit. Look it over, the situation. I should have. I knew enough to. But I didn’t. All I wanted was to get out of there, out of that evil city and that evil airport. To them, those two perfectly coiffed ladies, I was just a hapless traveler. A guy who had missed his plane. They owed me nothing. And they conveyed that quite convincingly. The one thing they didn’t think of, this guy has a voice to the world. A small voice, sure. But a voice nonetheless. And I will never fly British Air again, unless there is no better option. They really don’t care a whit about you. They’ll leave you stranded, as they left me. The cost to the customer means nothing to them. They’ll leave you stranded and alone in strange and evil cities. They will. It means nothing to them, to accommodate a traveler who missed his flight. Nothing. And British Air means nothing to me. I don’t know how they even survive, with customer service like that. In a truly free market, they never would.
I walked up to the discount counter. The elderly, heavy-set lady with glasses was amazingly cheerful and polite. I told her what had happened. Can you get me on a flight, any flight, to Philadelphia? She jabbed at her keyboard. “The computer’s slow today, very slow,” she said apologetically. And then she pulled up a few flights. And she frowned. “They’re so expensive, those one-way tickets,” she said. Don’t worry about one-way, I told her. Just find the cheapest price. Go roundtrip, if that’s less. And she punched around some more, then smiled. “Yes, I have one seat on a Swiss Air flight to JFK in New York,” she said. And she told me the price. I’ll take it, I said. The miracle was that there was even one seat available, looking back. And the price could have been way worse. Let’s just say all those Euros I got from Sabrina went out the window, whoosh, just like that.
And I’ve thought about it all a lot since that moment. It was just a little sliver of the story of the trip. One of those incidents that pops up, now and then, to balance things out a bit. But the lesson was not karma. Not things evening out, word for word and bad for good. This bump barely registered as a tiny blip, when you really weigh it out against all the blessings that had rained down on me, and I’d come to expect. Nah. It’s not karma. The lesson was respect. The laborer is worthy of his hire. Respect what you earn. And when someone like Dr. Sabrina Voeltz pays you to speak at her University, you don’t speak lightly of that. You respect it. You accept it gratefully as a gift. But you respect it. Because if you don’t, it will be taken from you in the end, right when you least expect it. That’s not the only way of looking at it all, I know. But it sure is one way.
The Swiss flight was good, except I was just so tense, all through those eight hours. The flight orator showed up, one row forward, one seat left. She howled intermittently, but persistently, all the way over. An infant, maybe a year old. I felt sorry for the little girl and her mother, who got up and paced the aisles again and again, trying to comfort her terrified child. I thought I had stress. It was nothing, compared to that mother’s.
And late that night, after a good bit of drama trying to contact my friend who was planning to pick me up in Philly, but instead was diverted to JFK, after a lot of drama involving all that, I got home. Very late. And very grateful to be there. But so tense that I sat at my computer until I drifted off way after midnight. It was good to be back, back in my familiar old surroundings. It really was. It was a great feeling, to have traveled safely far away and back to where I’d started from. Home.
And I’m thinking I’d really like to travel back to all those places again one day.
I’ve mentioned it before, I think. I never bother my contacts in the publishing world much. Once in awhile, maybe, but it’s pretty rare. And it’s always a little startling when an email pops in from anyone in that world. (I’m like, gah, what’d I do now, go off on too much of a rant somewhere?) And I was startled last week to see an email from Carol Traver of Tyndale, who I’ve quietly worshiped from afar these past few years. Because she’s the only person who stepped out from that vast and desolate wilderness any writer must slog through to be found. She’s the only one who saw a glimpse of what I had to say and stepped out and took a chance and offered me a real shot at my dream. And a few days before the second anniversary of my book’s release, she was just checking in, she said. And, oh yeah, she wanted to tell me. Growing Up Amish had just crossed over into a new place. Print units have now reached 70,000 in sales.
I wrote back and thanked her. And we just chatted back and forth a bit. And I asked her. What’s the total number of combined sales, from eBook and print units? I told Dad it was right at 140,000. I didn’t know if it was that high or not. I haven’t heard anything lately. And she shot me back the numbers. 70,000 print units. And 90,000 eBook units. A total of 160,000. And they’re still selling, still moving right along, she told me. Wow, I thought. And I wrote back. 160K rocks. Thanks for your time and thanks for checking in.
And thanks to all of you, my readers, for your time, too. And thanks for checking in again. 160K really does rock. Thanks for reading my stuff. I am grateful. I don’t know what else to say.