“A wannabe really is clueless on the real deal, only seeing what he wants
to…But you can tell the wannabe what he needs to know; we don’t all have to
go through deep waters to learn that [if we do] we will get very, very wet.”
-Excerpt from an email message
I don’t know what it is. I guess I’m just a magnet for certain things. And no, I’m not grumbling about the emails that still trickle in now and then from readers. I appreciate the time people take to write, and tell me they read my book. They had to be a little affected, or they wouldn’t have gone to all that bother. It’s when they take things a little further, as has happened a couple of times just lately, that I sigh and shake my head. It’s when they tell me. “I really feel like I want to join the Amish. I’m serious. Can you help me? Is there anyone you know that you could connect me with?” And I sigh a little bit more. Some of my closest friends around here are Amish. But I’m pretty protective of those relationships. I sure don’t like to bug my friends with a load of unnecessary baggage. So no, I think to myself. I don’t know of anyone who could help you become Amish. I don’t usually bother even responding to requests like that. It wouldn’t get anyone to any good place, anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Amish are as popular as they are, in the current publishing climate. That popularity is a big part of the reason that the Tyndale people ever gave me a shot at my book. Absent that, I don’t kid myself. The book would never have been written, because it never would have gotten anywhere. So I’m grateful that people like to read about the Amish, whether it’s fiction or memoir. (I think that whole market’s getting pretty saturated, though. I can’t see it holding on to such intensity for much longer. But maybe I’m wrong.) And I’m not going to scold anyone who takes it to the next level, and wants to join. But I’d like to have a little chat with such people, right here.
First off, I’ll tell you. You have no idea of what you’re asking. You really, really don’t. It’s not the kind of culture that adopts outsiders well. There is little mechanism for such a thing. And what about the language? How are you going to learn that? You have to be born into the culture. Yeah, I know. It all looks too good to be true, so idyllic and peaceful from the outside. You marvel, that people can even exist in today’s world, in such a setting. But they’re just people, too. Flawed, like the people in your own world are. You yearn for something more, something deeper, in your life. Which is fine, to yearn for a more peaceful place. But coming from where I came from, I can tell you that some of those “peaceful places” look a lot more peaceful from outside than they actually are when you’re in them. I mean, I just wrote a book about all that. And if you’re contacting me, you’ve probably read that book.
They’ve tried it by the dozens, people have, over the years. To join from the outside. I’ve always been fascinated that anyone would even want to. And I think it takes a certain type of personality, to get so far as to even try. I saw a good many of those people up in Aylmer, back when I was a child. Somehow, that community was a magnet for such seekers. It probably had something to do with Family Life, and those other magazines they were cranking out up there. Here we are, speaking grave noble proclamations. Here’s the shining city on a hill. Here we are, living right before God. And they came from all over, it seemed, the eager wannabes. They sure brought some color and flavor into our rather drab and provincial lives. We didn’t really treat them all that politely. But they were fun to hang around with and talk to. Bottom line is this, though. Of all those characters that came slogging through, all starry-eyed and eager, of all those seekers, not one of them made it. At least not that I know of.
Oh, except one man did. But he came around way early on, when I was pretty young. He wasn’t with the crowds of others, and he wasn’t that welcoming to those others. That one success was David Luthy, the eminent Amish historian. He set his roots, there in Aylmer. Married. Raised a family. And there he remains today. But he was a rare, rare, and I mean rare exception to the rule. I’ve always thought he made it because he came from a hard-core Catholic background. I’ve said it before. Amish guilt and Catholic guilt are pretty much twin models. He was (and is) highly educated, with a Master’s Degree from Notre Dame. And he was figuring to enter the priesthood, when he heard about the Amish. He decided to check them out. Their simple structured lifestyle appealed to something deep inside him. And he joined, up there in Aylmer. Or maybe it was northern Indiana, where he first touched base. He learned to speak the language, pretty fluently. He was a staff writer for Family Life, when Dad and Joseph Stoll launched that magazine. And he wrote all kinds of little moral stories. I remember one such story about the “little places,” in which he decried that the Amish were moving away from their legacy of farming. I guess he saw that happening in northern Indiana, where they work in factories a lot.
I think he grasped at a perfect concept of what he thought the Amish should be, should look like. They shouldn’t have little places. They should have farms. Like so many others who try to join from the outside, he was more Amish than the Amish. And in the end, despite all he wrote about the glories of working the land as s family, of seedtime and harvest and the beauty of it all, he never was a farmer. Which I completely understand. I’m not a farmer, either. He ended up on a “little place,” himself. And from that little place, the man produced an enormous body of first-class, historical writing.
Since those years, David Luthy has done some of the finest quality research about the history of the Amish. And he’s produced some of the finest writing ever done on that subject. It seemed like it was just destined to be, that a man like him would come along, and preserve much of the history of a culture he wasn’t born into. It’s kind of startling and surreal, when I think about it. I certainly respect the man a lot, and I respect all he got accomplished.
But I still don’t understand why he did what he did, in joining the Amish. And I’ll say it one more time. He was a rare exception. For every success story like his, there were a hundred wannabes that crashed and burned. And burned out.
Years and years ago, right about the time I was fixing to go to college, David Luthy said something to my father that Dad never forgot. “I always thought Ira might want to move here and help me with my writing and research,” he said. Or something along those lines. I don’t know if he actually meant it, but Dad latched right on. And he seriously asked me, the next time I came around. “Wouldn’t you consider taking up David’s offer? You’d be accomplishing something real and lasting, if you worked with him. He told me you’d be welcome.” I never even remotely considered the offer, although I was flattered that David thought highly enough of me to mention something. I’m not a research kind of guy, I told Dad. I’d get bored to death, trying to force myself into a role like that. Besides, I don’t want to be Amish. It took me years, to break away. Why would I ever want to walk right back into that mess? Dad never quite let it go, though. Pretty much every time he saw me after that, for years, he brought it up. “David Luthy wanted you to come and write for him. That was a real opportunity for you. I sure wish you would have gone” That’s fine, I’m honored, I always said. I don’t regret it, though. I guess that’s what’s going to have to count, in my life.
So David Luthy made it, to join the Amish for good. And Sam Johnson made it, too, there in northern Indiana, about the time I came wandering into his life, a desperate and despairing man. I’m really glad Sam stuck it out. He was there for me, right when I needed someone like that the most.
But I think of all those other poor souls who came wandering by, all those years ago. I can’t remember their names, and their faces are blurred, in my memory. But they came. They came and tried to follow their visions of living the peaceful Amish life. Poor lost souls, is what they were. I feel nothing but pity for them. They came from families, somewhere. And when it all blew up, when none of their dreams worked out, when they left, they went somewhere. I wonder sometimes where they are today. And how all their lives turned out. Here’s what I want to say about those people. They all spent a lot of effort, a lot of time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, to follow their vision of joining the Amish. A lot. And eventually, they all drifted off, deeply disillusioned. Sure, you can chalk it up to “just having an experience.” They certainly had one that most people never get to see. But still. All those years, all that toil, and all for nothing, in the end.
And recently I heard from such a person, someone who had tried to join the Amish. She sent an intelligent and reflective email. She’d read my book, and wanted to tell me she nodded her head a lot while reading. The stuff I wrote was real. And she told me. She and her husband had joined the Amish in an eastern state. They never felt as if they were totally accepted. She didn’t go into a lot of detail, but I could see that happening, not being accepted. And then they spun over to the Eastern Mennonites. I don’t know much about Plain Mennonite groups, but the Easterns are among the strictest, at least around here. Nice people, don’t get me wrong. You just don’t want to try to join them. Anyway, that didn’t work, either, the woman wrote. At some point, then, they drifted back to the outside world. And that’s where they live today. And she told me, in conclusion. “Now we are back to being Christians.”
And so they looped around, this woman and her husband. I don’t know if they have children, she never said. And I’ve thought a lot about her statement, there. Now we are back to being Christians. Isn’t that what it’s all about, in the end? To be calm wherever you are, to follow Christ wherever you are? She did say they had some good experiences as well, among the Plain groups. And met some very nice people. I’m sure they did. But it seems to me there was a lot of wading through deep waters, too, and a lot of lost time. You don’t ever get that lost time back. It just seems like there was so much wasted effort. And for what, in the end? For what?
So if you are a “wannabe” Amish, let me tell you as frankly as I can. It won’t work, to join. It will not work. Well, I guess it could, because it has. But the odds are astronomical that it won’t. And it won’t be anything like what you’re envisioning, joining. It won’t be utopia. There is no utopia on this earth. It’s not the kind of culture that adopts outsiders well. If you come from the outside, you’ll always be an outsider. There is no mechanism for such a thing, to deal with people like you. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or anything like that. It just makes the path you are considering pretty much impossible. You have to be born into the culture. You have to be born into its ways. You have to be born into its language.
And there’s one more thing that bugs me just a little bit. I’d like to ask those who write me, looking for a connection to the Amish. Did you actually read my book? If you did, how did you not catch the part where I almost lost my mind, breaking away? It’s about as hard to break away as it is to join from the outside, at least for some of us it was. How did you miss all that turmoil, all that tortured anguish, all that frantic running, all that grief? And if you didn’t miss that, why in the world do you think a guy who went through all that would ever want to tell you how to get to where he came from?
And no, I’m not scolding. I’m just asking.
A few closing thoughts on a few things. July 4th is coming right up. Flag waving, rah-rah, we’re-the-greatest-country-on-the-face-of-the-earth Day. I think most of you know how I feel about all that. I won’t be waving any flags. But I’ll be having fun with friends, cooking out and hanging out. And I probably won’t post that Friday. I’m thinking I won’t. Of course, when the pressure’s not on, something might just come on its own. If it does, I’ll post. If not, I won’t. We’ll see.
I haven’t gone off on a tangent like this for a while. Had to wait for a trigger, I guess. But here goes. The state does nothing but impede the free market. It’s a vile and evil entity, and it will always be vile and evil. The state has not one redeeming quality. Not one. It will always gorge itself on innocent blood until it implodes under its own weight. Then it starts the process all over, and repeats. That’s just how it’s been, through all of history.
And New York is a vile and evil state. I had a wide load to deliver in upstate New York, scheduled to leave this past Monday morning. We ordered the wide load permits last week. On the Friday afternoon before, around 4 o’clock, the permit service people we deal with called Rosita. There are two counties up there that demand special permits, to take wide loads through. And until those county permits are issued, the state permits will be held back.
It was all such a mess, over the weekend. I stressed about it a good deal. The two counties require 24-48 hours, to get their permits signed. So the load was backed off. On Tuesday morning, my driver headed out to a truck stop in New Jersey, as far as his permits would take him. And there he sat, waiting until the New York permits were faxed to him. He finally got to his drop point around mid afternoon, to unload. He got home real late that night. Meanwhile, the guys who planned to start the building on Monday had their schedule yanked back for two whole days. All because of the state. All because of a piece of paper you have to pay for, to get to where you’re going. It’s like paying thieving warlords, to cross their territories. No, it IS paying thieving warlords. And it’s all one big racket.
A while ago, I had some correspondence with a Facebook friend I’ve never met. She comes from a Plain Beachy Amish background out in the Midwest, from what I can tell. She’s broken totally away, like I have from my Amish past, as least in dress and lifestyle. I think she’s a little closer to her experience than I am to mine. She left more recently.
I forget what my post was about, on Facebook. But in her comments, my friend told me she had spoken recently with a cousin who still is with the Beachys, somewhere out in the Midwest. And that person told her. “We don’t like Ira Wagler, because he just writes what he wants. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.”
I’ve thought some about that comment since. And I gotta say. It’s probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received about my writing. I can’t think of one that pleased me more. I mean, if some people choose not to like me because I don’t care what they think, how much freer can you get than that? Especially if I don’t even know who they are. I choose not to walk in “fear of man.” I never try to be deliberately offensive, of course. But I write what I want to write. I don’t much care what you think about it, one way or the other, as far as agreeing with me. I guess I care a little bit about whether or not you read my stuff. I want as many readers as I can get. But in the end, even that doesn’t matter much, not when it comes to writing what I have to say. I’ll write it anyway.
If I wrote all perturbed about what my readers will or won’t think, about whether or not they will like me, especially readers from Plain places, I wouldn’t get a whole lot of writing done. I never would have. I’d be too paralyzed.
It’s one of my biggest passions. Freedom. I will walk free, when it comes to speaking what I have to say. And it’s a beautiful thing, to write free like that.
What is this strange and bitter miracle of life? Is it to feel…
the evening hush, the sorrow of lost, fading light, far sounds
and broken cries, and footsteps, voices, music, and all lost–
and something murmurous, immense, and mighty in the air?
The email came in last spring, a little more than a year ago. From a man in Texas who claimed to be my cousin. Elmer Stoll, better known as Garner. And he had some things to tell me.
We are passing close to your area next year, sometime in May, the email said. My brother Amos and me. And we’d like to connect with you, if you have the time. We’ve never met. We are the sons of your Uncle Albert and Aunt Mary. Absolutely, I wrote back. Just let me know when you’re in the area, and we’ll get together.
And I looked forward to it. He emailed me again, right over the time I was getting out of the hospital with my mended heart. And somehow, I let it slide. Didn’t think much about it. It was the Coumadin, messing with my head, I think. I was going to answer him. But the days just slid by, and I never got it done. I just flat out forgot. Then, the Friday before Memorial Day, I got a call at the office. A soft-voiced guy. Samuel Martin, a nephew to Garner and Amos. He was going to be in the area, too, the next Monday evening. Memorial Day evening. And they were all just wondering if I still wanted to meet. I slapped myself upside the head. Groaned aloud, on the phone. I’m so sorry, I told Samuel. Of course I want to meet. There’s been a bunch of crap going on in my life, lately. “Yeah, I’ve been following that on your blog,” he said. It totally slipped my mind, I said. I’m sorry. Let’s get together at Vinola’s around seven, in Leola. “All right,” he said. “I’ll let the others know. We’ll plan on it.” Great, I said. And we exchanged cell phone numbers.
Over the weekend, I hung out with old friends at the cabin in West Virginia. As I was getting close to home on Monday afternoon, my phone rang. Unfamiliar number. I answered. This is Ira. “This is Garner Stoll,” the man said. “We’re looking forward to meeting you tonight.” Great. Me too, I said. I found out that Vinola’s is closed, though. There’s a little pub just outside New Holland, Brady’s. Why don’t we meet there at 6:30? “We’ll be there,” he said. Me too, I said. And we hung up.
I was waiting for them at a table outside Brady’s just before 6:30. And right on time, they walked up. It had to be them. Two guys, a decade or so older than me. And a lithe young man, who looked to be a teenager. They waved as they walked up. And I got up and walked to meet them. They were lean and fit, and looked familiar. They had strong Stoll features, but I had never met them before. We shook hands, and introduced ourselves. Amos Stoll. Elmer Stoll. Elmer’s son, Evan. Ira Wagler. Immediately we hit it off, as if we’d known each other for years. They were totally open, friendly, smiling. And it struck me fully for the first time at that moment. These men, these strangers, were my first cousins. Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. They were family. They had read my blog, sporadically, over the years, and maybe my book, too. And now they had made the effort to reach out, to come and meet me. They were Albert and Mary’s sons. Their mother was my father’s older sister, a woman I never knew. But I felt it, clear and strong, our connection. And something stirred deep inside me.
Albert and Mary Stoll. I can’t recall their faces in my mind, which means I can’t remember ever seeing them. My siblings claim I did, back when I was very young. So I won’t dispute that. But I have no recollection of their faces. I’ve heard their names, though, in countless stories. Uncle Albert has always been sort of an infamous legend in the family lore.
He was born in 1905, in Daviess, one of the many sons of his father, Victor. And his father’s wild strange Stoll blood coursed through him. Victor was a man who stirred always, and questioned everything. Challenged the preachers on all kinds of theological points. I won’t vouch that this is true, but I think it is, because I remember Mom telling it many times. It’s the only such story I’ve ever heard. Victor was estranged from the Amish church in Daviess when he died. I don’t know if he was excommunicated, but he sure wasn’t having much to do with anyone. And on his deathbed, he decreed that there should be no preaching at his funeral, because none of the preachers were good enough to preach over him. That’s what Mom always claimed. Victor was buried, there in Daviess. And there was no preaching at his funeral.
That’s the kind of setting Albert came from. I don’t know if it’s true of all the Stoll branches in Daviess, but of this particular branch, it is. They have wild, strange blood. And brilliant minds. (My Wagler blood is wild, but melancholy and brooding. You have to be in a cave, to get the real honest, gut-level writing out.) The Stolls are brilliant, on the math side of their brains. They can figure things out. Problem is, though, they use those brains of theirs, as often as not, to dispute and argue. About the tiniest little silly things. How can the church rules be tweaked, so we’re serving God better? What could we do, to suffer a bit more, so He’ll be pleased? Historically, they’ve fussed about the mustache a lot. They believe the Amish should have mustaches. It all seems so futile, all that fussing. If you’re part of a group, accept the rules or get out.
Albert grew up, and like his father, he questioned just about everything there was to question. And somewhere along the way, he married my father’s older sister, Mary. She was five years younger, but they seemed to get along well. And they started their family, there in Daviess. He never was happy there. I don’t know what the problems were, that far back. Maybe the Daviess youth drank and partied. I don’t know. Anyway, Albert had all kinds of issues, and he was always stirring about. And then, when he was still a young married man, they ordained a preacher, there in his district. And it was destined to be. The lot fell on Albert Stoll. The preacher lot always seems to hit the Stolls a lot, wherever they live. Somehow, it just does. It’s a strange thing. Now he was a preacher, a part of the group he had so many problems with. A part of the leadership of a church he felt was doomed.
He never fit in, as a preacher. Which is sure no surprise. There was no way he could conform. He was always his own man. Always questioning, always stirring. And somewhere right along about then, a man from the strange and shadowy “Sleeping Preacher” churches came wandering through Daviess. And somehow, he got to Albert’s ear. And Mary’s. He got them to listen to him. It probably wasn’t that hard, as they were both convinced the Amish church was sliding downhill fast. And they were both convicted. And they both adopted the Sleeping Preacher heresies. As an Amish preacher, there was no way Albert could stay for long in Daviess after that. And he didn’t.
In 1942, Albert and Mary moved out of Daviess. Along with a small group of families, they founded a little Amish community in Jerome, Michigan. I don’t know much about this place, except that Albert’s brother, Peter Stoll, and his family also moved up there. Peter, like Albert, had married one of my father’s older sisters. Anna. And there in the Jerome community is where their son, Elmo, was born. The man who, decades later, would stride through the Amish world like a giant, and then forsake it, preaching in his mesmerizing voice wherever he went.
I don’t know much about how it was in Jerome. Actually, I don’t know much about how it was in any community Albert and Mary lived in. I can only write from my perspective. And try to retell the tales as I heard them. Jerome was a small community, maybe half a dozen families, or so. Not all of them came from Daviess. It was a ragtag group. The community lasted for less than ten years. Then the people disbanded, and headed their separate ways. Who knows what the reasons were? Maybe there was dissension. Or maybe it was just time to move on. Peter and Anna Stoll moved over to Piketon, Ohio, to join my parents there in that new fledgling Amish settlement. And before many years had passed, Piketon was blowing up. They claimed at the time that it was the large nuclear plant being installed so close, that’s what made them move out. That’s not true. The place was blowing up, from dissension inside the church. The nuclear plant was just a convenient excuse. But Piketon really has nothing to do with Albert and Mary.
After the Piketon debacle, Peter Stoll and his family moved to Aylmer, to join my father’s group in settling in southern Ontario. Albert and Mary weren’t interested in that, though. They wanted something harder, something plainer. “Zurick und Nunna. Nett usht in ein Weg, ahva in allie Weg.” “Stand back, and be humble. Not in just one way, but in every way.” That had been their motto, their code of conduct, ever since the Sleeping Preacher man converted them. Zurick und Nunna, in allie Weg. They wanted to be plainer. More humble. More remote.
And so they moved, again. To Everton, Arkansas. A remote place. Rocky and hilly. A place where they figured they could live in peace. But “peace” is a fragile thing. You can see it, you can almost grasp it, but somehow it eludes you like the morning mists. They were hopeful, though, when they moved there. As you would have to be, to even attempt such a thing. They had sons and daughters now, sons and daughters who needed to be taught the right way. Eight sons. And three daughters. (And a few children who were stillborn.) All of them growing up, all of them looking around, the wild strange Stoll blood flowing through all of them. Albert had been taught, by his father. Question everything around you. He taught his sons what his father taught him. Question everything. And soon enough, they would. Soon enough, they would question the foundational bedrock of his own beliefs.
It was an odd little group of misfits, there in Arkansas. Rudy Wickey and his family moved in from somewhere. And John Martin came over from the Old Order Mennonites. And a few other families drifted in and out over the years. They were fringe people, all of them. Despite that, the Everton community managed to cling to its Amish identity. They were very plain, almost at Swartzentruber level. No running water in the house, no plumbing at all. Albert was the preacher. They had no bishop. Once in a great while, maybe every year or every other year, they managed to cajole some bishop from another community somewhere to come around and hold communion services. Otherwise, they were pretty much isolated. Maybe that’s how they wanted it. Seems odd, but maybe. Anyhow, that’s the way it went.
My parents and a bunch of my siblings traveled to Arkansas by train to visit Alberts when I was a little baby. I remember nothing of it, of course. But I was there. And the stories have come down. They claim that I wasn’t feeling well, and that I screamed and cried during the entire trip down on the train. All night long, I bawled lustily. Mom and my sisters could do nothing to quiet me. I’m sure I kept a lot of people from sleeping that night on the train. I’m sure many annoyed glances were stabbed at my family by the surrounding English. I’m sure my family was hugely mortified. Oh, well. What can I say at this point, to make it all better?
When I was growing up, Stephen, Titus, and I were known as “the three little boys.” Albert and Mary had their own three little boys. Amos. Alvin. And Elmer. My brothers and I ran wild and ragged and barefoot on the old home farm. I’m sure the other three little boys ran wild and ragged and barefoot through the rocky Arkansas hills. They grew up, tough and lithe. The thing is, they grew up, all of Albert’s children. And that’s when the foundations of his world began to shake a bit. That’s when things happened that would drive him and his wife deep into the remote hills in Central America, in the country of Belize.
It was a lonely place, that home in Arkansas. Albert’s children didn’t have a whole lot of peers around them. And as they grew into adulthood, they began drifting away from their home. To other places, where there was a more active social life. They came to Aylmer for long stays, when I was very young. I don’t remember them, but I’ve always heard the stories. In 1966, Alvin and Elmer came to stay with their Uncle Peter’s family for the whole summer. I think they were well accepted by the Aylmer youth. I know that my sister Magdalena and my brother Joseph befriended them. I know that because Elmer told me that. It was a fond memory for him.
I don’t know who left first, for good. But, in time, two of the older sons drifted off. Ervin joined the Holderman church, somewhere not that far away from Everton. I’m not sure if Holdermans consider themselves Mennonite, but they are pretty plain. They have very strict rules. And they consider themselves to be in sole possession of the knowledge of the path to salvation. If you ever join that group, you can never leave, not without getting excommunicated. It’s kind of like the Amish, I guess, at least like the Amish in certain areas.
Then their son Ira left. He didn’t stray too far from the faith of his father. He moved up to Aylmer and stayed with his uncle, Peter Stoll’s, family. He adopted that family as his own, and they adopted him. He worked at odd jobs around the community. He was working for my father on the old home farm the day I was born.
It was shocking, to Albert, to see his sons leave like that. Ira, not so much. Albert had always called down doom upon the Amish church. It was corrupt, the mainstream part of it. It was doomed. It would not last long, not the way it was going. Still, Ira’s departure to the Amish fold in Aylmer sent only small shock waves through Albert and Mary. Their son Ervin leaving for the Holdermans hit a lot harder. Those people drove cars. They were worldly. And all too soon, the oldest of the three little boys stepped out, too, from Albert’s home in Arkansas.
Amos. I don’t know if he was reserved or outgoing, growing up. I picture him as quiet. I don’t know that, though. He left, too. Followed his older brother, to the Holdermans. But he would not last long in that world. Maybe a year. Sometime in there, he went off to the big city, to serve in 1-W service. As a conscientious objector to the war. Albert had taught his sons right, that way. Amos wasn’t going to go off and kill or be killed, in senseless, bloody battles. So he served in a hospital, as an orderly, instead.
And there, working in that hospital, he saw a world he had never seen before. He saw how things were, outside his own confined upbringing. He could never go back. After serving, he quietly went and got his GED. And enrolled in college. His brilliant Stoll brain thrived, through it all. He pushed right on through college, right on through medical school. He was a stellar student. And the oldest of Albert’s “three little boys” went on to become a neurosurgeon. A guy who operated on people’s brains. He obviously drew deep from the Stoll side of his brain. No Wagler could ever accomplish such a thing.
It was highly unsettling to Albert and Mary, to see their sons leaving like that. Well, maybe unsettling is not quite strong enough a word. They fretted and fussed and grieved. How could they have failed so badly as parents? They had tried to teach their children the right path. The path the Sleeping Preacher people had showed them. Something wasn’t working. Maybe they could still keep their remaining sons with them, if only they moved to the right place. Zurick und Nunna. Stand back and be humble. And somehow, they got the idea that it would be a good thing to relocate again. To leave the hills and rocks and brambles of Arkansas, to leave that setting for a far more remote place.
There is no hiding place for any family, not after the sons start stirring about and leaving. Moving to a new place will not address the foundational issues. It’s a Band Aide. A quick change of scenery, so things will get better. They rarely do. Because the reasons the sons were leaving were never faced or dealt with. By that time, it’s usually too late, anyway. It’s futile, to move to try to hide the reasons you needed to move. My father found that out when he moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield, to try to salvage the Amish way for his sons. It didn’t work for Dad. It never had a chance to work. And it didn’t work for Albert.
In 1966, Albert’s little ragtag group moved to the west central area of Belize. Most of the families from his Arkansas church moved with him. It was known as the Pilgrimage Valley, the place they moved to. A fairly fertile land. And from that valley, their sons kept on leaving. Alvin left, when he was 20 years old. Went out, and wandered among the people of his father’s culture. Taught school, for a year, at some plain community. He saw what Amos was doing, going to college and all. And soon enough, he left it all behind, all that he grew up with. He got his GED, and went off to college, too.
The “three little boys” all left when they were around twenty years old, near as I can tell. Elmer (Garner) left right at that age. They all stepped out, from their restrictive world, into some sort of plain community. So it wouldn’t hurt their parents so much. And from that first step, they kept right on moving. Right on into college, and right on into a world of education. For their brilliant Stoll minds, the college world was not a problem. They all excelled, in all their studies. Alvin got his law degree, and worked as an attorney, then as an administrative judge in Texas. Garner got his degree, and ended up as the head city planner of Austin, Texas. I think they both retired recently, from their work. I look at that, I look at all the “three little boys” got accomplished in their lives, and I marvel. These guys are my cousins. My father’s sister’s sons.
And I think, too, how that must have been for them. They walked into a new world, and embraced it completely. I held on a little tighter to my roots, way back when I got my GED and went to college. My journey was a lot different from theirs. My parents lived in Bloomfield, Iowa. Their parents lived in a real remote section of Belize. What are the costs, to totally break away? I never did it. I always kept connected. I think Albert’s sons could tell me a whole lot about those costs. A whole lot of things I never knew or saw. Nathan and I went home to see our parents, every year at Christmas. That was not an option for Albert’s sons. Their parents were too far away, inaccessible, really. Zurick und Nunna, all the way. And my heart goes out to the three little boys. It had to be a tough slog, sometimes. It had to be a hard thing, sometimes. It just had to be.
They all got married, eventually. To totally English women. I think they all had families of their own. Elmer’s first marriage blew up in a pretty brutal way, kind of like my own did. We chatted about it. I can tell you all about how that is, I told him. And, of course, the people in the world he came from dramatically shook their heads. Poor Elmer. Look how it went for him. That’s a good lesson, for our children. That’s just how it goes, when you leave the path your parents taught you.
Uncle Albert had one more card to play. His sons were deserting. That must mean he wasn’t Zurick und Nunna enough. In 1972, he and his flock retreated even further into the hinterlands. To Barton’s Creek, a truly remote place in Belize. Here, they could be plain enough. Here, they could be humble enough. Here, they could live what the Sleeping Preacher people had taught them to be. And here is where they would die. Here. In a place so remote that few of the freundschaft would ever come to visit. Here, they were buried, Albert and Mary. Estranged from most of their sons.
They were very poor, the people in that community. They didn’t have much, and that’s the way they wanted it. They scrabbled out a living on the rough land. Kept a few head of lean cattle. Grew some truck crops, vegetables and such. In season, they hitched up a pair of very thin horses to an air-tired wagon and hauled what produce they had to the nearest town. And sold it on the streets. Zurick und Nunna. That’s how they lived, right to the core.
Aunt Mary was very close to her sister, Anna, Peter Stoll’s wife. And after Peter followed the call of his own strange wild Stoll blood and moved to Honduras, the two sisters connected. At least once, I’m told, Anna traveled to Belize to see Mary. And some of Mary’s siblings made the trek to Belize, too, to visit, at least once in their lifetimes. Bishop Pete Yoder and his wife Martha (Mary’s sister), went to see them. And Dad and Mom went too, I’m not sure of the date. It was probably in the late 1980s, after I had left Bloomfield. By this time, Albert was the classic picture of the aging patriarch, with a full white beard and a glorious white mustache. Dad came back with a funny little story. He took some flashlights along, to give to Albert and Mary as a gift. He figured flashlights might be hard to come by, in Belize. He offered his gifts. They were refused. The people of Barton’s Creek didn’t believe in having flashlights. Zurick und Nunna, that’s how they lived. All the way. So no flashlights. Dad brought his gifts back home.
You choose to live how you live. And you have every right to. It doesn’t have to make any sense to anyone else, as long as it makes sense to you. Sure, you can make all kinds of judgments from a distance, especially about the past. You can wipe your forehead and think. What were those people thinking? You can do that. But still. I choose to believe that most people do the best they know to do, in the moment. And with all their flaws, Albert and Mary did the best they knew to do. I don’t judge them. And I don’t judge their sons. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see or know what anyone went through. I didn’t see or know what they felt, what they saw, what they lived. On either side of that father/son divide.
And in the end, none of that matters, I suppose, as long as you’re at peace with yourself and at peace with God. Death came calling, in Albert’s family, back in the early 1990s. First it came for him. He died in May, 1992. And then it came for his daughter, Sarah Ann. She had rheumatic fever, as a child. She was always sickly. But if I’m not wrong, she married and had children. She sank and passed away, in September, 1992. Those were two hard hits, for the family. That close together. And Aunt Mary could not last long after that.
She died in February, 1994. She could not long survive the passing of her daughter and her husband. Who knows, what griefs she bore? Who knows, what pain? I’m sure she kept it all to herself, as the Sleeping Preacher people had taught. Zurick und Nunna. Now the three of them are buried, in some remote graveyard in some remote area of Belize. And there they rest.
And I think, too, of how hard it must have been, for their children, the ones living here in the States. You get the word. Your father just passed away. The funeral is tomorrow. There’s no way you can get there. And then your sister passed. And then your mother. You can’t get there, to say good-bye. It’s not physically possible. My own mother just passed away, a little over a month ago. I know how that feels, that loss. We gathered, the clans did, because we could. Because there was time to. Because my parents lived in Aylmer, not in Belize. It had to be a tough thing for Albert and Mary’s children to face and absorb. How do you grieve the loss, how do you get closure, from such a distance?
We stood there, outside Brady’s Pub, just talking for a few minutes. Amos and Elmer and me. Elmer’s son, Evan, nineteen years old, stood by quietly. Elmer had written me, so I knew. They were hiking the Appalachian Trail. Every year, they hike for a few weeks. Then the next year, they take up right where they left off the year before. By 2016, I think, they figure to get it done. Tonight, they were staying in a local motel. Tomorrow, they’d take off, east. Evan had flown in that day to join his father and uncle for a week of hiking. And I thought to myself, looking at that. There were some good parents in Evan’s life, or that wouldn’t be happening. I can’t imagine ever wanting to hike any trail with my father, not at that age.
We went into the little pub and were seated at a large table. We just talked right along. A few minutes later, Samuel Martin walked in. We shook hands. He’s the son of Albert’s second oldest daughter, Loveda. She and her husband, David, live in Tennessee, somewhere, I think. They live plain, kind of like they were brought up. Samuel had broken away, too. He got his RN degree, and has worked in Austin, Texas, on a helicopter ambulance crew. He was on his way up to Aylmer, for some sort of Martin reunion. His uncle, John Martin, is the bishop who preached at Mom’s funeral. He was a quiet intelligent man, Samuel, bearded, with shoulder length hair. He smiled and listened to our talk. Now and then he spoke.
We ordered our food, and some beers. And just sat there, and talked and talked. It was like we had a lifetime of catching up to do. Then I got a quick idea. Got up and walked outside. Called my brother, Steve. I’m here, in New Holland, with two of our first cousins we’ve never met. Amos and Elmer Stoll. Albert’s sons. Steve was all enthusiastic. “We’re here at home. The children are all here, tonight. Bring them right over, after you’re done eating.”
We feasted on ribs and cole slaw and beer. And just talked nonstop. After wrapping that up, we headed out for Steve’s, except for Samuel. His family was back at the motel, he said. He’d better get back to them. I thanked him for coming. And the Stoll brothers and I hit the highway and headed west to where Steve lives.
We got there just as it was getting dark. They were sitting outside, around a fire. Steve welcomed his cousins to his home. And we sat around and swapped stories of our lives. It was almost surreal, looking back. These guys were of our blood. We never knew them. And yet, somehow, they had made the effort to stop by to see us.
Soon after dark, I was drooping. I’d had a long weekend, and a long road of traveling to West Virginia and back. I got up to leave. I shook Elmer’s hand. And his son’s. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by. I’m honored. I really am. You have no idea, the stories I’ve always heard about your family. Thanks so much, for stopping by. Let’s connect again.
Amos stood off in the distance, talking on his phone. I started to my truck, then waited until he hung up. I walked over and shook his hand and thanked him. I’m really honored that you took the time to stop by, I said. He smiled, and we stood there and chatted for a minute. “I don’t get to all your blogs, but I thank you for writing,” he said. “That one you wrote years ago about traveling on the Greyhound bus, that one was my favorite. You described it exactly as it was. It brought back so many memories. That’s exactly how it was.” Thanks, I said. I appreciate the time anyone takes to read what I write. We shook hands again. And I left.
And I’ve thought about it since. That’s really what did it, I think, that they ever came. The writing. They read a voice from their own blood. That’s what drew them to connect. That, and the fact that no one’s getting any younger these days.
I don’t write for the money. I never have. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take all the money I can get for any of my stuff, if someone wants to pay me. And the book has brought in some very nice checks. It was a big deal, to get published by Tyndale. I’ll never downplay that. And I will always be grateful to the people who made it happen. I hope the book will keep right on bringing in many more checks for a long time.
But that’s not why I write. It never was a reason. I write because I want to tell my story, and the story of my people. Right from where I am, wherever that is. And I throw my stuff out on this blog for free. That’s just how it’s worked best for me, so far. If you want to read it, great. If you don’t want to read it, thanks anyway, for stopping by when you did.
Once in a while, though, the writing brings in some real returns. Like a blood connection I never knew before. Like meeting the sons of Uncle Albert and Aunt Mary, after we had lived all our lives as strangers. That’s a pretty powerful thing. Family is family, and blood is blood. And in the end, I think, that’s what real writing is all about.