A little vacation
Ain’t asking very much.
I hate comin’ home to this old broken down apartment,
I wish I had a dime for every hole that’s in the carpet…
All I want is a life,
To drink from a glass from a well that ain’t dry,
I’m sick of the crumbs, I want a piece of that pie,
All I want is a life.
—Tim McGraw, lyrics
The SUV was sitting off to the side in the parking lot, just as I was leaving work one evening this week. A fancy one, looked like. It was almost dusk, right at five, and I couldn’t see if anyone was even sitting in it. Everyone had already left, except Mahlon, one of my yard guys. He pulled around and opened his window. “Do you want to check it out, what’s up over there?” He asked. Yeah, I better, I said. If you would, just stay back here, don’t leave, until I know what’s going on. So he stayed back while I pulled up to the vehicle. I rolled down my window. The other driver rolled his down, too. He was talking real fast on his phone.
It was a Range Rover. I don’t know much about them, but I know they’re expensive. And the guy told me. “The radiator hose broke. I can’t move. I’m talking to the tow truck people, trying to get them over here to haul us home.” He had people in there with him. They looked cold. After waving Mahlon on out, I told the guy, kind of chided him. It’s close to zero out here. Next time you break down in my parking lot and it’s that cold, come inside. No sense sitting out here and freezing. Come on over to my truck and warm up. All four doors opened, then. And five people stepped out. The driver, and what looked like his brother. And three teenagers in the back seat, a guy and two astonishingly beautiful girls. They were all shivering.
My back seat was a mess, of course. Well, my whole truck is a mess, usually. Because I got no one to nag me to keep it cleaned up. The back seat is especially cluttered. Boxes stacked and strewn about, with all kinds of gear. Flashlights, jumper cables, tow rope, and extra jackets and such. I reached back and tried to pile the stuff off to one side. The three teenagers packed themselves in. It was pretty tight. And the man and his brother sat up front with me. Well, if your tow truck’s on the way, I’ll open the office and just wait with you, I said. “They said it won’t be until eight, but she said she’d see if they can move us up to the front,” he said. So we sat there, while he made few calls to other people. I had the heat cranked up all the way. And they were still shivering, back there in the back seat. They kept chattering in a foreign language. I had no clue what it was, so I asked them. “Greek,” the teenage boy told me.
And then the man’s phone rang. It was the tow truck dispatcher lady. She couldn’t get anyone over before eight. They were just too overwhelmed. Tell her to pick you up at Aunt Jennie’s Diner, just down the road, I told him. So he did. She knew of the place and said the tow truck driver would meet them there. And they hung up.
I was going to try to get to the gym that evening, because it’s been tough lately, to get over there. What with snowstorms and early closings and all. I really had planned to make it. That was pretty much shot, now. Oh, well. I’d go home and shovel the walks from this last big storm we’d had the day before, I figured. And they got their purses and whatever from the Range Rover and piled back in. Six people up front in the cab. And six 80-lb. pole pills in the bed of the truck. My yard guys stack them in there, when the roads get bad, to give me some weight to work with. And off we trundled, my truck and me. It’s the biggest load I’ve ever hauled. I have no idea who these people were, except they lived in Wilmington. We never spoke our names. I dropped them off in front of Aunt Jennie’s and wished them well. Just go tell them what’s going on. They have good food. They’ll be fine with you hanging out here until you get a tow, I told them. The man shook my hand and thanked me. And so I left them.
And that’s the kind of winter it’s been. Where a hifalutin’ SUV like a Range Rover sits useless in my yard, because a hose busted because of the cold. The kind of thing that comes at you sometimes, when you’re least expecting it. It’s been a brutal, brutal winter so far. You try to take it as it comes. Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky. But right now, I’m just flat out tired of it all. I’m weary, just weary, of all of it. And the way it’s looking, there’s still a long way to go until spring. And the global warming wackos have come up with a brand new term for it, even, so they can claim the climate’s changing, and it’s all our fault. Polar Vortex. That term makes me weary, too. Why not just call it what it is? It’s a long, hard winter. It’s been this way before. It’ll be this way again. And it’s never any fun.
I don’t know how anyone can ever romanticize this season. I hear people fuss now and then, about how great it is, all the cold and wind and snow. And how cozy it is by a warm fire inside, all wrapped in a blanket with a book. And I think, blech. Nothing romantic about any of that. Sure, sometimes winter acts tame, by being tame. To get you to look the other way, to catch you off guard. But its true nature always shows itself, if you wait long enough. And its true nature is that of a freakin’ beast. Because winter, real winter, will always break in and break things. Whether it’s this guy’s fancy Range Rover, or my old house.
I think back, now and then, to what my brother Nathan claimed years ago. “We were always cold, in winter, growing up,” he said. “We didn’t even know it, but it was always cold. I have never been able to warm up from that cold.” I thought he was just saying wild things, from bad memories. But this winter, I think back and he was right. It was always cold, in Aylmer in winter. The Lake Erie winds swept in, ruthless and biting. And it always snowed and snowed and snowed. The plows rolled through, then, and the snow banks beside the road were higher than our heads, often, in many places. We didn’t think much of it, because that’s just the way it was.
The house was always warm, at least during the day. At night, after the fires lowered and died, that’s when the cold crept in. And every fall, Mom brought out her big feather blankets and put them on our beds. I’ve never seen any like that since. They were big, and fluffy. Filled with goose feathers. You could nest down in those, didn’t matter how cold the room was around you. And you could sleep in peace. But getting up was the problem. By the time Dad called upstairs that it was time to go do the chores, he had a fire roaring in his big contraption of a wood stove in the northwest corner of the living room. We shivered from our warm snug nests, to even think about stepping out into that cold air. But Dad’s hollering was pretty persistent, and you couldn’t just ignore it. By the second or third time, it was time to get out from under that big old warm comforter. Step onto the cold floor, on our bare feet. Dress, as quickly as possible. And then run down the stairs to the living room and huddle by the stove. It was all so cold, all of it. And then we put on our coats and headed out to the barn. That was a fairly warm place, what with all the animal heat going on. Warm, but odorous. We didn’t even think about the way the place smelled, though. Because we were raised around the barn. Warm was what we wanted, and were looking for.
We had running water in Aylmer. They’ve always had that, ever since the settlement was founded. And Dad’s water system was pretty simple. He installed a vast water tank in the hayloft of our big old barn. The windmill just south of the house filled the tank. And the water gravity-flowed to the house and the water tanks for livestock. That meant there were pipes going every which way, from the tank. And I can remember almost every winter, Dad slogging around out there with a bucket of hot water and some rags, trying to unthaw things. It always looked real messy to me.
I kind of felt it coming, early on, that it would be a tough winter. We haven’t had a real bad one in a while. Last year, the ground never even froze up. And you could just calculate what was coming. That, and the Farmer’s Almanac boldly claimed we were in for some big storms. I don’t know how those people do it, but they’re right more often than they’re wrong.
And the first snow came one Sunday in early December, while we were in church. I kind of noticed it coming down outside. Didn’t look that bad. So most of us stood around and visited for an hour or so, like usual. And by the time I walked out to leave, it was absolutely treacherous out there. I crept out to Rt. 41 in 4-wheel drive, and slowly edged down Gap Hill. PennDot was caught completely off guard. It’s been years since I’ve seen such horrendous driving conditions. Traffic was already at a full stop going uphill. And it was like a minefield, all the way home. I would have been fine, except for the other traffic out there. Cars stuck halfway up hills. Buggies clogging up things; you had to dodge around them. And of course, look out for the nuts coming up from behind and passing you. Forty-five minutes later, I finally got home. And I was very grateful to be there. No going to Vinola’s to watch football this afternoon, I thought to myself. I’m staying right here.
And that’s the way it went, pretty much ever since, for over a month now. A hard snow slashes in, and just shuts things down. And messes up all my schedules at work. Deliveries pile up on each other, and the builders try to fit in what they can, when they can. And you get it all shook out and straightened out. Then it all happens again.
And I thought about it a few times, as it got cold and stayed cold. My furnace downstairs. It’s an old heating system, in this house. But the furnace was relatively new, back when we moved in. The Amish man had bragged about it. “It’s less than ten years old, so it should last you a good many years, yet,” he said. And we looked at what he was pointing out to us. A little furnace, with a great tangle of all kinds of pipes strung about. The water heating system ran through it. If that furnace ever quit, there would be a world of hurt waiting. I didn’t think much about it. The house was real. And the heating system was real. We could see it. And that day, the old house could have been in way worse shape, all of it, and we would have taken it anyway.
And I kept the furnace serviced, pretty much every year. Usually in the summer, that’s when you get that stuff done. And I had it all checked out last summer. So hopefully, with any luck, it would get me through one more winter, even a bad one. Plus, I figured, I had a wild card. The tenant. He’s pretty capable, and he has lots of connections. If he can’t fix it, he’ll know someone who can. I felt pretty confident about all that. And as December passed on in to January, everything seemed to be hanging together pretty well, down in the basement.
And it all came loose about two weeks ago. Late one night, as I was getting ready for bed, I thought I heard a strange gurgling sound coming from the kitchen sink. This cannot possibly be a good thing, I thought. The water still came, though, when I turned on the tap. The pressure seemed good. I checked around all over, for any water coming from anywhere. Walked down to the basement. Nothing that I could see. It was late. Oh, well. Maybe nothing’s wrong. If there is, I’ll figure it out tomorrow.
The next morning, the water pressure was very low. And the water itself was murky. Gah. It had finally come. Trouble with my system. And right in the middle of the worst winter anyone’s seen in these parts for decades. The tenant was already gone. So I called him. He had showered last night, and the pressure was fine. Well, it’s not fine now, I told him. “I’ll check it out when I get home,” he said. I’ll leave the outside basement door unlocked, and the light on, I said.
I skipped the gym that evening and went straight home. He was puttering around down by the furnace, talking to a buddy on his cell phone. We could hear water running through the pipes. And when water’s running, it has to be going somewhere. That’s what he couldn’t figure out. The next day was a Saturday. And his buddy agreed to stop by in the morning.
I didn’t have a real good feeling about it all. I met them and let them in. And the two of them stood there, trying and trying to figure out where the water could be running to. It was a pretty classic redneck scene. They talked and talked and analyzed and fussed. I stood around, fretting. And then they decided that maybe some parts needed changing.
And over the next few days, his buddy came and went and came and went. He knew just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to actually get the thing fixed. He switched out a modulator. Changed the pressure overflow valve. Both were pretty much clogged up, he claimed. I have hard water. It eats things up. And he figured out that when you closed a certain line, the continuous water flow stopped. And I had decent pressure and clean water upstairs. But there was no heat. There was really nothing else he could do. He was stumped.
And then I did what I probably should have done to start with. Called on one of my own connections. A young guy, a real plumber. I’d become friends with him, because he serviced our system at work. I hadn’t wanted to bother him, because he was already working insane hours, fixing emergencies all over the county. But I finally called him, because I figured the situation I was in was an emergency. I left a message and he called right back. He’d stop by the next afternoon, Saturday. That’s great, I said. I won’t be here, because I’ll be at the Horse World Expo in Baltimore, manning the Graber booth. I told him how to get into the basement. If anyone could fix this problem, he could.
And that Friday evening, the furnace itself just stopped. Quit working completely. I punched the reset button, but it was just dead. That’s all I need, I thought. Now I’ll have to shell out money for a new furnace. I got things to do and places to go this year, travel plans. A new furnace is gonna take a serious bite out of all that. I called my buddy, and amazingly, he was very calm. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I will fix your furnace.” That settled me down a little bit. But still. How could he be so sure? He had never even seen my unit.
And the next day, I packed a bag and headed on down to the Horse Expo to join the other Graber guys already there. It’s kind of fun to get out, once in a while, just for a change of pace. I don’t know horses, I don’t understand horses, and no, I don’t particularly care for horses, as anyone who has read much of my stuff knows. Being Amish burned any potential for any of that out of me years ago. And a lot of “horse people” are just a little bit strange. They just are. But I can talk horses all day long, and I can sure sell you a real nice horse barn.
I fretted to my coworkers about my furnace. “Nah,” they said. “If anyone can fix it, Dwylin can.” And he didn’t even get over to my house until late afternoon. Right after he got there, he called. He had instantly figured out why water was flowing through the pipes. Two little pipes went out through the north basement wall, under the back porch and mud room. He’d shut them off, and it just stopped. As he was talking to me, he went outside and opened the little crawl space and shone his light in. “Yep,” he said. Those two little pipes are busted. They froze.” Don’t worry about fixing those, I said. We’ll get to them later sometime. I can put a little heater out there in that porch, over the winter. And right there he took care of that.
Look, I said. It’s late Saturday afternoon, and you’ve been running hard all day. Just get me patched up for now. Get me some pressure, and make that furnace run. We can fix it all as it should be fixed later, when things slow down for you. Like maybe next summer. “I’ll call you when I get the furnace running,” he said. And he did, less than an hour later.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your furnace,” he told me, as I sagged with relief. “It’s got perfect spray, perfect flame, and it’s in real good shape.” Man, I can’t tell you how relieved I am, I said. Look, when things slow down, I’m taking you to Vinola’s. We’ll have a few, and I’m buying. He laughed. “Yeah, I’ve heard lots of good things about that place. Never been there.” Well, I’m taking you, I said. And get that bill in the mail, too. And charge me your weekend rates. And I thought to myself, as we hung up. Next time use your own connections, when it comes to the big stuff.
And I got home in time on Sunday afternoon to watch part of the Denver-New England game. Settled in to watch the next one. And there was a little issue of water leaking from one of the tenant’s heaters upstairs, right down onto my kitchen counter. After frantic calls to both the tenant and my plumber, we got it all squared away without too much damage. Except I didn’t get to see the last half of what was one of the best championship games in NFL history.
But overall, everything kind of wrapped itself up in a good way, I thought. Except it’s still winter. And I’m still weary. I think now and then about how nice it would be to “go south for the winter,” and run with the racy set. I could look all writerly and wear a linen jacket and smoke a pipe. Hang out in quaint cafes and coffee shops, and maybe get a little writing done on a sequel, or some such thing. And I got nothing against any of all that. If that’s you, feel free within yourself, and make no excuses for who you are. I just can’t see it being me. Because here’s the problem with that little scenario. People who have jobs, people who get up and drive to work every day to make a living, people like that can’t do things like that.
And I am one of those people.
And how about the upcoming Super Bowl? It’ll be played outside, in New York. Here’s hoping for, oh, at least a semi-blizzard. There, I mean. Not where I am. I’d love to see a snow covered field, with more snow coming down hard, all game. The way the winter’s been going up in those parts, I think there might be a decent chance of that.
And my pick to win? I got nothing against either team, really. The vile Patriots were unceremoniously booted, that’s all I really cared about. And I wouldn’t mind seeing Peyton get another ring. But I’m going with the Seahawks. It’s time for a West Coast team to bring home a ring, I think. Plus I respect Pete Carroll a little more as a coach. If Denver wins, it won’t be because of John Fox’s coaching. Besides, I still feel bad for the Seahawks, the way they were robbed in their last Super Bowl. That game against the Steelers was just flat out the worst officiated Super Bowl in all of history. Maybe one of the worst officiated games, ever, anywhere. Sorry, Steelers fans. It really was that bad.
So I’m going with Seattle. Seahawks by three.
And at night, he stiffened with shame in his dark bed, ripping the
sheets between his fingers…He wanted to blot out the shameful
moment, unweave the loom.
He called the office one morning last week. Asked for someone in sales. And Rosita told me. “A guy has some questions about some horse stall doors.” OK, I said. She transferred the call, and I spoke like I always do. This is Ira. Can I help you?
It was an Amish guy, I could tell from his voice. Couldn’t place an age on it, though. He might have been in his twenties. Or he might have been sixty. He was wondering if I stocked a horse stall door. A slider. And did I have a stall door that had a yoke, where the horse could stick its head out, if it wanted to? Yeah, I have a few of those, I said. How many do you need? “Three,” he said. I have them here. They’re not the standard door. Let me look up what they cost, I said. And I told him the price. He seemed to recoil a bit. “Well, do you have any regular small grills, so I can just make my own doors?” He asked. I have some of those, too, I told him. Tell you what. Why don’t you stop by when you get a chance and see what we have? You can choose then, what works for you. And he allowed that he might do just that later that morning.
And in the bustle of things a few hours later, the door bells jingled. I was on the phone, but I looked. A middle-aged Amish man. And his wife. That’s a little unusual. The women usually stay outside, in the vehicle they came in. It’s pretty rare, to see an Amish couple walk in like that. I heard the man ask for me. About a minute later, I got off the phone. And I rose to greet them as they walked up to my counter. The man smiled and introduced himself and his wife. She just stood there, smiling.
And I took them out to the warehouse. Showed them the yoke doors he had asked for. Explained how they were made. Galvanized steel. Then powder coated. “What about the smaller grills?” He asked. I showed them those. And they conversed quietly, off the side a bit. In PA Dutch. And it didn’t take long. “We’ll take three of these, and just make our own doors. Do you sell the wood for me to do that?” Yep, I answered. I got samples up by my counter. I’ll show you what I have, and you tell me what you want.
And that’s what we did. They stood at the front of the counter, and I showed him the Northeastern White Pine I stock. And we figured it out, what he needed. I wrote the stuff up on an invoice, and he wrote out a check for the total. The wife glanced about, and suddenly her eyes focused on the little poster I have taped to the back of my computer screen. Of my book. She looked at it, then looked at me. She had mostly smiled politely up until now. She glanced back and forth a few times, at me, then at the poster, then at me again. And all at once she got real talkative.
“Is this you?” she asked, mildly astonished. Yep, that’s me. I was a little astounded that she’d even noticed the poster. Most people stand there, and look right past it. And I never mention anything, if they don’t see it. Her husband, too, looked to where she was looking. And it took only a few questions for her to figure out that I was David Wagler’s son. “Is Titus your brother?” she asked, all intrigued. Yes, I said. “I read your Dad’s book about his accident. Through Deep Waters. I was just thinking the other day that I’ll need to dig out that book and read it again,” she said. The husband seemed about as astonished as she was. And he got to talking, too.
“We met Titus once,” he announced. “Years ago, back in the early 1990s.” And I just leaned on the counter and we visited about it all. Yes, I told them, when he asked. I can speak PA Dutch. It’s a little different from yours. You people are the blue bloods, when it comes to the Amish. “Blue bloods?” They looked a bit puzzled. The oldest group around. You all were here first. And you have a lot of words and traditions that I didn’t grow up with, I explained. They grasped that.
The woman smiled as we talked. She seemed pretty excited that they were making a connection, here. “I think I was born the same year Titus was,” she said. And then a thought hit her. “Do you have a copy of your book here?” she asked. Oh, yes, I always keep a few around, I told her. I stepped back and got a copy from the box by my desk. Right here it is. I handed it to her, and told her the price. I’d sign it, of course, too, I said. She read the back cover, then started paging and paging through the book. I kept right on chatting with the husband, as his wife pretty much absorbed what she could from the book she was holding.
And I told her. You probably won’t agree with everything in it, but I think you’d enjoy the read. The husband got to asking some questions, then. “How old were you when you left?” he asked. Twenty-six, when I left for good, I said. And of course that opened up the usual can of worms. Yes, I had been a church member. And no, I’m not excommunicated. They do things a little different, out there in northern Indiana. He seemed a little dubious, but he still smiled at me.
It was time for them to head out to the yard to load up. And the wife still stood there, holding the book. I wondered if they’d take it. Then she looked at her husband. The two of them stood right there in front of me and communicated without saying a word. She kind of wanted it, she seemed to be saying. But we don’t really know anything about this man. Whatever you think is best. I’m good with that. He looked at her, and they discussed it some more without saying a word. And then he turned to me with a loopy little smile. “I guess we have enough books,” he said, as his wife handed me back my copy. That’s fine, I said. And it wasn’t awkward at all. You know where I am, if you ever change your mind. “Yes, yes,” they both nodded and smiled. And then they turned and walked out.
It was just a little bit strange, that whole experience. I can’t remember that exact thing ever happening before. And I made some random comment to the others in the office. My, she really wanted that book. The man wouldn’t let her buy it. But overall, I wasn’t at all upset. I come from these people. And they weren’t being disrespectful. They just made a choice, or at least the husband did. I don’t know if they’d ever heard of my book before. I think not. She had seemed pretty surprised. And maybe she’ll get to borrow a copy from someone, sometime. Maybe not, too. It’s none of my business what other people decide they will read, or won’t. And no, I don’t feel like I have a “ministry” to anyone. I’m fine with those who are in ministry. But to me, it’s always felt like you can’t talk to people eye to eye, if you’re consciously “ministering” to them. I’m just a guy who writes, now and then. If you want to read my stuff, great. If you don’t, that’s totally your business. It’s certainly none of mine.
I got to thinking about it all later, though, how the husband had turned down my book. Mulled it over, some. And I thought about it. I sure don’t blame him, because I came from where he is. And I think back, way back, to my preteen years, and how it was at home. Dad was pretty adamant about what he’d allow in his house. And he never would have let his sons read my book, not when they were young. Sure, he’s read it, and he has his own signed copy, because I gave him one when I went up to see him last June. But that’s now. Back then, he would surely have cast out that book as unfit for his children to read. He just would have. Not saying his sons wouldn’t have snuck around and got hold of it on their own. They surely would have done that, too.
And all that musing juggled loose a memory from way back when I was a child of twelve or so. A tough memory, in some ways. But still, it looks a lot different from here than it did when it all came down. It’s neither here nor there, I guess. No other reason to write it, except it happened.
We always had a lot of books around our house, growing up. Dad saw to that. We had no idea how unusual that was in the Amish world, especially back then. It was just our reality. His nonfiction stuff was generally pretty good. There was an old encyclopedia set. That’s always good stuff. But there were a lot of other real books, too. History books. Biographies. Reader’s Digest condensed books, there were plenty of those around. So many books that Dad built a bookshelf into the wall in the living room. A good-sized bookshelf, longer than half the room. And it was always chock full of books.
When it came to fiction, though, well, there he lacked a bit. Most of that was just mushy goo. Little didactic volumes he dragged home from the bookstore at the print shop, and presented to us with lots of good cheer. We generally didn’t act all that interested, though. Some of that stuff is fine, when you’re seven or eight. But not for much longer after that. And I saw my brothers, Stephen and Titus, sneak home contraband books they somehow had snuck through the school system, from the bookmobile. Freddy the Pig. Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. Paddington Bear. Dad didn’t want books like that in the house. My brothers snuck them in and read them, anyway. I listened hungrily to their talk and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to read such books, too.
And soon enough, I did. Never got into Freddy the Pig, much. But the others I enjoyed. It’s all formulaic writing, but at least those stories had plots and twists and a little bit of violence and evil villains, unlike the preachy “Christian” books Dad brought home. I lost myself in a lot of real good children’s literature. And I loved it a lot, all of it.
You grow out of that stuff, though. And soon we did. I remember it as about the time Stephen was sixteen or seventeen. Titus was probably fifteen. And I was twelve or so. And this is just how I remember it. The westerns came around. Mostly Zane Gray stuff. I heard my brothers talking about the latest Zane Gray they’d read. And soon, I’d read my first one. These books were bought, and brought home. Right into the house. And there had to be some place to keep them safe.
Stephen came up with the idea, I think. He made a sturdy little wooden box. We called it a trunk, but it was a box. Not real big, so the box itself could be stuck away somewhere, out of sight. Maybe eighteen inches by eighteen inches, and maybe six or eight inches deep. He mounted the hinges and the hasp latch from the inside, so you couldn’t see the screws. And so no one could just back them out, and open the box that way. And he got a cheap padlock and locked it all up. And soon Titus had made his own “trunk” too. I think my brothers kept more than just books in their trunks, other contraband. But I never did. And I never made one out of wood, either. I settled instead for a little plastic box that had come with something, maybe a torch or some sort of tool. It had a handle built right in, and you could lock the handle. My trunk was the least secure of all. Because you could pry up the front corners and see what was inside. We stored our treasures in those trunks, and we kept them in the dark little closet upstairs in our room.
And I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events, but at some point in there, my brothers discovered Steen’s Cigar Store in Aylmer. On the north side of the street, toward the east end of the block. I suppose they sold cigars there, but we never paid that much mind. I know there was a pool room in the back. And we never paid that much mind, either. The thing that pulled us in was the vast, glorious magazine rack against the west wall. The place had hockey magazines. All sorts of magazines. And it had something else, too, a thing that always pulled us back like a magnet. A huge rack of comic books.
And it was just magical stuff, we discovered, those comic books. After Stephen got up the nerve to buy his first copy. Glossy covers in full color. And beautiful, full-colored pages. And all kinds of exciting, chilling, and hilarious plots. We got a bunch of them, eventually. And I can still see it clearly in my mind, some of the scenes and the dialogue. Mickey Mouse and Goofy. Archie. Some more sinister stuff, pulp fiction. (As he drifted toward the rapids to his death, Richard (Rob, Dave, any name fits here) realized that the wail of the Banshee was for him.) I absorbed it all, thought about it. There was so much life and color in those pages, such as I had never seen before in the world I was in.
And eventually I bought my most treasured comic book of all. Tarzan. It was full-sized, and so thick, the spine was square. I’m sure it cost more than I could afford. But I bought it, and snuck it home. And stored it in my little plastic trunk. I can still see and read scenes from that book, as clearly as if I were standing back there, holding it in my hands.
And we sailed along for a while, all smooth and happy in our lives. It could not last, of course. Because Dad knew more than we gave him credit for, I think. He knew we had our little trunks. And he knew we had stuff in there that we weren’t supposed to have. I don’t know what made him decide to do something about it. Maybe he held off until he figured he couldn’t anymore. Or maybe he finally took the time from his busy schedule to do what needed to be done. I don’t know. And from here, it’s hard to judge him, knowing the world he was in and what he represented in that world. He was standing at the gate of his own household, now. And he knew some bad stuff had slipped in. It was time to call an accounting.
It all came down one Sunday evening. Stephen was at the singing. Titus was not, so he couldn’t have been quite sixteen. And he was already upstairs in our room, reading. Not hanging out with the family that much. And around 8:30, I headed off to bed. As was a very brief habit in my childhood years, I walked past where Dad was sitting in his rocking chair. I said “good night” to him, for just a few years there. And that night, I said it. But he didn’t say it back, like usual. And he spoke, and it was a hard voice. I froze where I stood.
“Would you bring your trunk down and open it, so I can see what’s inside?” he asked. “And tell Titus to bring his down, too.” And just like that, a moment of sleepy peace turned into a dark nightmare of extraordinary turmoil. I’m sure he saw the fear and panic in my eyes. I gulped and nodded. And then I fled upstairs. Burst into our bedroom. And I told Titus. Dad wants to see what’s in our trunks. Right now. He’s waiting downstairs.
I don’t know what all Titus had in his trunk, and I can’t remember how it all went down with him, what he did. I know what I did with mine. Opened it. Took out those damning comic books. And replaced them with some books and little knick knacks. Acceptable books, of course. I couldn’t let Dad see I was reading comics. That would mean a whipping, for sure. And I traipsed downstairs slowly. To where Dad was waiting for me to open up my little blue plastic trunk.
I spun the lock and opened the trunk. And it was all just harmless stuff, in there. Dad pawed about a bit. “Is this all you kept in here?” he asked, frowning. I looked at him in fear. My choice had been made upstairs. And I just flat out lied. Yes, I told him. That’s all that ever was in this trunk.
He had me. And he told me. He’d pried open the front corners, earlier that day. He’d seen those comic books. I needed to go upstairs and get them all, right now. And so I did. I handed over that precious Tarzan copy. And a few others I can’t remember. But I remember Tarzan. Dad took them from me, and told me to go to bed. As if there was going to be any sleep for me that night.
My sister Rosemary and her husband Joe Gascho and their family were on a little trip to somewhere, right over that time. And Dad and I drove over the next morning, to do their chores. We milked the cows, and did what all else needed doing. Dad wasn’t himself, not like normal. And of course, I wasn’t either. Just as we were winding down and getting ready to leave, he brought it up. He stood there, with a sturdy little branch switch in his hand. “You lied to me last night,” he said. “And I need to give you a whipping.” Well, it wasn’t quite that blunt. There was a lot of admonishing mixed in there, too.
It’s brutal, when you’re twelve or thirteen, to be confronted with such a thing. And no, this is not a rant about how the Amish raise and beat their children. It’s just a story. And I got nothing against what’s called “corporal punishment” these days, anyway. A good old fashioned spanking. I’ve seen a lot of little kids who needed it, bad. Not applied in anger, but as a boundary. Society would be a lot more polite, if that happened more often. But not when you’re older, not when you’re approaching young adulthood. At that age, a whipping ain’t gonna do a bit of good. And it’s probably gonna do a whole lot of harm.
And in all honesty, I can’t remember more than a few at around that age. Maybe three or so. I just didn’t get whipped much. None of us did, not like some of our friends who got yelled at and smacked for every little mistake. Dad never had a habit of doing such a thing. But when he did, it was just downright humiliating. You had to lift up your arms, above your head. That way, it didn’t hurt so much. Actually, it barely hurt at all. No whipping I can remember ever did. But still, I remember the choking sobs I tried hard to hold back. I just couldn’t do it, not that time. I got my last ever whipping when I was thirteen. And that last time, I made it. I didn’t cry. And that was the most dangerous whipping of all.
We got it over with, right there in Joe Gascho’s barn that morning. And then we drove home, in total silence, in his horse and buggy. I wasn’t hungry for any breakfast. I brooded and seethed. I swore in my heart that one day I would run away from home. And yeah, even a twelve-year-old can make some pretty strong vows.
The thing is, it’s a lot harder to judge Dad now than it used to be, for the way things went sometimes. That’s from where I am today. It’s harder, because I have some small grasp of how flawed I am, myself. I got my own issues, my own idols. And they’re just as bad as his ever were or could have been, just in different ways. I did judge him quite harshly back then, of course. I nursed them in my heart for years, a lot of those wounds. And for the first time in a long time, I just now went back and saw it all again, what this particular scene was, and how vividly I felt it as a child. But from here, trying to understand what he saw from where he was, he was just doing what he thought was right. As a flawed man, disciplining a son who wasn’t walking exactly as he should be walking. And, yeah, a son who had lied to him, that too. He did what he did, so his son would learn to walk the right road.
It didn’t work, of course, the way he went about it. It never had a chance to work. Not saying he should have known that, because obviously he didn’t. And it’s neither here nor there, to focus on that point now. But it didn’t work, because it couldn’t. All it did was this. I never said “good night” to my father again, not while living at home.