And now, because you have known madness and despair, and
because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening,
…we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult,
pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all
that henceforth never more shall touch us – we call upon you to
take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.
He hadn’t been down the past few years, because Mom was too sick to travel. So he stayed up there in Aylmer through those long and brutal winters, by her side. If she couldn’t go, he wasn’t going anywhere. And then Mom passed, last spring. And we all gathered to mourn and honor her. From that point, it didn’t take my father’s eyes very long to take to gazing wistfully to the south, as fall rolled on by and winter approached. He wanted to go real bad. Oh, yes. Dad wanted very much to get back down to Florida again, to hold court in Pinecraft. And he worked real hard, after his sickness and stroke last summer, to get his strength back. He knew he had to be strong enough, or the trip south wouldn’t happen.
And in early January, he went down to Florida. He was strong enough to make the trip. Or maybe it was just simple old determination. Whatever it was, he got down there. His nephew and my cousin, Simon Wagler and his wife accompanied him and stayed with him for the first month or so. Omar Eicher and his wife came along, too, to stay with Dad and Simons. And then, both families, they traveled back home to Aylmer and north. And there were family conference calls going on, right along through all this. It was decreed. All of us should consider taking a turn to go down and stay a week to take care of Dad. It will work, if everyone takes their turn. Ah, I muttered. I figure I’ll just pass, like I always have before, back when you all were taking turns a few years ago, to go when Mom was there with Dad. I never took my turn, back then. And I figured that’s pretty much the way it would be this time, too.
And then, about a month back, I got a text from my sister, Rhoda, one day. She was going down to be with Dad over the last week of February. This month. Marvin wasn’t planning to go down with her. So she figured me and her could use a little brother/sister time, since it’s been so long since we’ve just hung out together and all. And I looked at her text and chuckled. Pretty smooth, she was. And then I thought. Why not? This is the year you vowed to do things different. To lay it all out on the table. So do a thing you wouldn’t have done before, no matter how small that seems. Go down to Pinecraft, and take your turn, taking care of your father. So I messaged Rhoda back. That seems like a pretty good possibility. I’ll see what I can do. Which meant, yeah, I’ll plan on being there.
And so it has been spoken. And so it shall be done. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I’ll be heading on down south in a rental car I just now picked up. Nope. It isn’t a Charger. It’s a brand new Ford Fusion, and from what I can tell, it drives pretty much like a rocket ship. I’ll be arriving in Pinecraft at Dad’s house sometime Sunday, around mid day, probably. And I will stay until the following Saturday, the last day of the month. And then I’ll head back home. Naomi will be there when I get there. Rhoda will take her place a few days in. So I guess I’ll have brother/sister time with two sisters, not just one. That’s a bonus, right there.
And still. I think about it. I’ve mentioned it before, a few years back. It seems so strange. Maybe a little awkward. Maybe not. But definitely a little strange, how things turn out in the long run sometimes. For most of his life, Dad didn’t believe in going down to Pinecraft for the winter. It was a bad place, where wild Amish youth went to hang out and party, when they should have been quiet and content at home. I can tell you all about all that. And it’s a place where some renegade older Amish people go, too, the ones that don’t know any better, the ones that don’t realize or don’t want to know what a bad example they are to the youth. That was Pinecraft’s reputation, way back. It sure wasn’t the popular winter destination it is today. At least it wasn’t, in any world I was in.
And my father was officially against such a thing, as church policy. As well he should have been, I suppose, since he lived in Bloomfield back then. Bloomfield has lots of very sensible things going on. They allowed mechanical milkers, some years back. (When that happened I told Dad I might have stayed on the farm, if only milkers had been allowed back then. But I was forced to milk all those cows by hand, and it was just too much to take. He laughed that little tale off as a joke, which it was.) And LP gas, too. They’ve allowed that, in Bloomfield, for heat and light, and for their refrigerators. But the one hurdle they can’t seem to cross — it’s against the Ordnung, it’s always been against church rules to do such a sensible thing as go south in wintertime. Especially for the older folks, it’s the most sensible and humane policy you can have. Go to Florida, for a few months over winter. Go, and soak in a slice of warmth and light in the midst of an otherwise dull and dreary and depressing season.
But Dad never lived in a place that allowed it, all his life. Well at least not since he left Daviess all those decades ago. And Dad always fully supported the rules in whatever community he happened to live in, so near as we could ever tell, he actually believed it was wrong to go to Florida in winter. Age grinds things down, though. And after He and Mom moved to May’s Lick, Kentucky, back in 2008, things changed. The May’s Lick rules freely allow for people to go on down to Pinecraft in winter, for as long or short a time as they see fit. And next thing you knew, Dad was heading down there for a few months at a time, right over the colder months. We all cheered him on, of course, and Mom enjoyed a few seasons in Pinecraft, too, with what little awareness she had left at that time. And then she couldn’t make it over the past few winters. She wasn’t well enough. And so Dad didn’t make it, either.
And it just seems so strange, when you look back over that long road Dad traveled, how so much of that road was way more rocky than it would have had to be. Simply because of choices he made. And now, here, calmly, here at the end, this is how things stand. Here he is staying, in Florida. In Pinecraft. And here I am, going down to stay with him for a week. For most of my adult life, anything remotely resembling such a scenario has been all but impossible to imagine.
And I think back through the years. I look back at what Pinecraft was to me, during different times of my life. It was a formative place, in some ways. Very formative. Not that I’ve ever felt any particular loyalty or longing for the place. It just seems like when I wandered through, whether my stay was long or short, well, those were usually very important times in my life. For better or for worse. Those were life-changing times.
I haven’t been there that often. Maybe four times, total, if my memory serves me right. One of those times was in summer, for just a few days. I don’t remember a lot about that trip. But the other three times I was down there, well, yeah, the river of memory flows. The river flows on forever, in my mind.
January, 1981. A tense and troubled time, at home. Marvin and I boarded the bus in Bloomfield. We headed south. Before reaching Florida, we stopped off in South Carolina for a few days. My brother Jesse was getting married to Lynda Stoll. And I wanted to be there, for that. We had not been allowed anywhere close to my sister Magdalena’s wedding to Ray Marner, back a few years before. We lived in Aylmer, then. And no one in my family could go to my sister’s wedding in Pennsylvania. And I always knew it instinctively, at twelve years old. I don’t care what they’re telling you. This is so very, very wrong. But what’re you gonna do, at that age? There’s nothing you can do, in a moment like that. Maybe when it ever happens again, maybe you can go then. So that’s why I wanted to attend Jesse’s wedding so badly. And that’s why I did.
I can’t remember much about that day, sadly, other than I recall that I was sick as a dog. Chest pains. It hurt when I breathed. When Lynda’s family realized how sick I was, they sent me to their local doctor, a kindly old man who poked and prodded me and took my temperature. I had double pneumonia, or some such thing, he proclaimed. And he prescribed some pills. I paid the meager fee, fifteen bucks or so. And I remember that Dad called down, somewhere about then. They had heard I was sick, and he told me on no uncertain terms to go see a doctor, to take care of myself. I said I had. And I was getting better about the time we got to Florida the following week.
We arrived in Pinecraft. A sunny Mecca. Problem was, we were pretty close to broke, which wasn’t that unusual, I guess, for two Amish boys who came from where we came from. That was just life, and we totally accepted it. We had some friends, some contacts, who helped us get lodging in some dumpy little travel trailer back along the creek behind Fred Jack’s house. Three of us jammed into that little travel trailer. We didn’t have much choice. We took what we could afford. And we went to work, on Dennis Bontrager’s mason crew. As laborers. Mud boys. Slinging concrete blocks for the masons. All for the princely sum of six bucks an hour.
We scrabbled and scratched and ate from tin cans in the evenings, fretted because we had run out of cigarettes and there wouldn’t be any money until the first paycheck next Friday. And when that paycheck came, we were kings. We were going to make it, make it on our own. We knew that.
It was a good year, looking back, 1981 was. Sure, I was wandering pretty aimlessly. And I had no clue how things would ever turn out, long term. But we just settled into the routine that summer, Marvin and me. Enjoyed life. Got to know a few people, new friends. And when October came that year, we were ready to head on back to Bloomfield. I left Florida that first time, with a lot of uneasiness roiling inside me. There was no plan, other than to make it work back home in Bloomfield, just like we’d seen a lot of others do before us. How little I knew, how naïve I was. And that first time I left Pinecraft, I figured I would probably never see the place again. Where I was going, you weren’t allowed to come back.
It took only six short years for Pinecraft to beckon once again as a place of refuge for me.
January, 1987. Approaching a year since I had fled Bloomfield in shame, leaving behind a whole lot of twisted wreckage, a whole lot of broken promises and shattered dreams. The summer of the wheat harvest out west. A month or so after I got back to Daviess from those wanderings, I meandered on down to Florida in my Drifter truck. Deep down inside, a quiet, desperate panic stirred. But still, I walked forward. And again, I have a lot of good memories of those few months I spent down there, that winter, and early spring. I remember the faces of my friends, the people I hung out with. My brother Nathan was living right in the center of Pinecraft with his friend, Eli Yutzy. And looking back, that winter was a real bonding time for me and Nathan. We were out there on our own, refugees of sorts. And pretty much outlaws, too. Unaffiliated with any church group, anywhere. There was no vestige of any safety net for us anywhere. Not short of surrendering and returning home. Which, by that time, we wouldn’t do. I look back, and, as Waylon sings in Bob Wills is still the King, “In spite of all the hard times, I’d live it all again.” And I would, too.
And I remember how I felt when I left Pinecraft that spring, for Daviess. I planned to head on up to Canada to help Ben Walters plant his wheat crop. After that, well, it was back to the Amish in northern Indiana. And I remember thinking. You can only look forward, to make it work. Not back. Not back to Pinecraft, not back to any of the time I spent there or anywhere else, or the people I got to know. Forward. Only. And deep down, it was a quiet, desperate thing, leaving Pinecraft in 1987.
And this time I did not return for close to two decades.
February, 2007. The last time I was in Pinecraft. Almost exactly eight years ago. A hugely formative moment. I look back on it, and the dark drumbeats roll in my head. This was when things happened, that finally proclaimed to all the world the fact that my marriage was in shambles, a hopeless wreck. That, and a whole lot more, all of it affecting a whole lot of lives. The Florida Nightmare. Eight years ago, right this moment, I was entering one of the darkest places I have ever seen on this earth. Those were hard days, and those were long days. It seemed that they would never end.
And yet, from the heat of all that unfolded, all that was triggered there in Pinecraft, from the white-hot forge of utter devastation, from that came the genesis of my writing voice. From the vast pressures and from the deepest shame, I wrote. Right here, like I never had before in my life. And I look back over all of it, and none of it is a single thing I would willingly have chosen. So what the heck sense did any of it make? Well, there is a price, I suppose, on every good and noble thing in life, on every dream and vision of the heart. A very steep cost of suffering, sometimes. And when that price is being extracted, you might as well go ahead and make use of whatever the heck it’s paying for.
And now it’s February, 2015. And now I’m heading down to Pinecraft again, for the first time since those brutal days back in 2007. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the place, or anything like that. It’s just that it never has seemed all that important, for me to get down there again.
And now, at this moment, it is important to go. It’s important to go, and hang out with my Dad. And no, I’m not expecting any great revelations, or anything like that. But I think I won’t quit wrestling, I won’t let go of the angel until I extract at least some small blessing of some kind. That much I think I can say. However small and quiet that blessing is.
I look forward, to just chatting with my Dad. Visiting. There, in a nice warm place, away from this brutal winter cold at home. We have a few things in common, I think. He was known to his generation. I am known to mine. We both got a little something accomplished with our writing. And for a short time, at least, our voices will remain on this earth after we pass on. It’s a beautiful thing, to talk face to face and eye to eye with your father on such a matter as that. At least, that’s how I’ve found it so far.
So this time, in Pinecraft, I look for a nice warm place where I can rest a bit from the weary road, and just relax with my Dad. We’ll see how it goes.
I’m looking forward to the journey.
The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin
of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted
by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung.
Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-
winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment
is a window on all time.
I suppose every family has them. Well, as tiny as the modern family is these days, maybe not so much. But still, they have to be sprinkled in there, somewhere. The tales handed down and told and retold, tales that grow more fantastic with each telling. And then, of course, there are the legends, the things that happened generations ago. The difference between a tale and a legend? A tale will shift and grow and change, almost at the whim of the teller. The details of a legend remain pretty much set in stone. The basic story is carefully guarded and passed along from one generation to the next.
And the one legend in my family that stood out above all the rest, well, that was a pride thing, one of those legends that got told to us from the time we were old enough to understand the basic concepts of what we were hearing. It was as natural as the passing of the seasons, the telling of the story. We heard the voices speaking, and we listened with innocent ears and wondering hearts. And to me, it was the same as gospel truth, the story, because it was so real, and so unquestioned. We Waglers are different, at least the ones in my immediate family are. We’re different, because we got special blood flowing through our veins. It’s Indian blood. American warrior blood. Sure, we come from the Amish. But we got us some native connections, too. Connections to this land, before it ever was the country it is today.
I can’t tell you how casually and how solemnly that story was passed down. I remember it from my earliest years. Not really as a special thing. I mean, any family story you hear as a child, you just absorb it. You accept it as the truth. And you don’t really consider it as anything other than what was. And what is. Later, as you grow the legend in your mind, that’s when you get a little proud of the blood in you. At least, that’s how it all came down for me.
The details of the legend were all a bit vague, but always told the same. Never much variation at all, in the telling. Way back whenever, a young unmarried woman boarded a ship from Germany with maybe her father and a sibling or two. I forget who else exactly came along from her immediate family. Anyway, this young woman had a young daughter. She was unmarried, the young woman. Maybe widowed. We don’t know. Those details never made it. And supposedly, the young woman hooked up with an Indian on the ship on the way over. It was whispered that she may have been of somewhat dubious moral fiber. I mean, how slatternly was that, hooking up with some dark stranger on a ship? Especially in those days. Anyway, some months after they landed, another little baby girl was born to Veronica Stuckey. Yep. That was her name. Veronica Stuckey. Such a surname has long disappeared from the rolls of any current Amish group anywhere.
The young daughter that was born here in this country was supposedly my maternal great-great-great grandmother, or some such thing. It goes way back. And she was dark-skinned, being half Indian. And that’s where we come from, my brand of Waglers. That was the legend. And it wasn’t just a loose story. Oh, no. It was always pointed out, in the telling. Look at us. Look at our high-boned faces. That’s Indian. American Indian. We got the blood flowing in us, through us.
And details like that made it all fit, when you look at my immediate family. You look at our faces. Mostly high-boned cheeks. Coal black hair, pretty much across the board. And we have dark complexions. That’s who my family is. I can sit in the sun for ten minutes a day, and have a deep and healthy tan in less than a week. And when I work in the sun, well, I get real dark. Back in the days of my youth when I worked construction, lean and shirtless under the summer skies, I very much resembled an Indian. Except for one thing. My curly hair. But that was from all the non-Indian blood in me, is what I always figured. Except for that unruly hair, I could have passed as a native son of this land, from way back.
A little aside here, about my curly hair. I hated those curls, as a child. Despised them with all the intensity any child is capable of. And I remember when I got particularly irritated, I remember going and dunking my head under the water tap in the sink. Get those curls wet. Plaster them back. Now, I got nice flat hair, just like everyone else. Of course, mere minutes later, after my hair had dried, the curls went completely haywire. There was no way to win, seemed like, looking back.
Well, maybe there was one small victory. I’ve always remembered this little incident, because it was just such an aberration. It was a summer evening, when I was probably four years old. I was playing out in the yard north of the house, beside the road, with my siblings. A car pulled up on the gravel road, and stopped by the mailbox. Stephen and Titus and my sister Rachel, I think, walked up to see what was going on. There were two couples in that car, out on a date. Young kids, teenagers. Maybe the boys were twenty. And they wanted to know how to get to somewhere. My siblings just stood around and they were all chatting amiably with each other. About that time I pushed myself through the crowd, up beside the car. A little curly-haired four-year-old Amish boy with large brown eyes. Galluses holding up my denim pants. Barefooted and dirt-stained. And dark as any Indian.
I remember the two beautiful English girls in the car, and how they suddenly squealed in unison. “Oh! Isn’t he cute? Oh, couldn’t you just hold and hug him?” And they kept gushing. “Oh, isn’t he cute?” I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. And then I realized it was me they were fussing about. The two girls kept pestering their boyfriends. “Isn’t he cute?” And the boyfriends mumbled half-heartedly. “Yeah, yeah. He’s cute.” They probably wanted to throttle me. But I was blissfully unaware of any of that. We stepped back, then, from the road, my siblings and me. And the car crunched off to the east on the gravel.
And that was just a bunny trail about my curly hair. Despite those curls, though, I never, never doubted the original story. We have Indian blood in us, we Waglers of the David and Ida Mae lineage. We’re pretty unique. The ancient warrior strain, that stirs in us. And yes. We are proud.
And I always made sure to slide it in there, in a lot of conversations with people along the way over the years, although in later years not so much. A casual observation that just kind of came out on its own. I have Indian blood in me. I’m one/thirty-second Indian. That’s how closely they had calculated it all out, those ahead of me. And I told people wherever I went. I wouldn’t remember this specifically, but my sister-in-law, Wilma, Steve’s wife, told me recently. “That first summer, when a load of you came to Bloomfield to build your barn, I remember the first time you walked into our house. There was a picture on the wall, of an Indian on a horse. You pointed up to that picture and said, ‘There goes one of my relatives. I’m part Indian.’”
I have no memory at all, of that particular instance. But I’m sure it happened. Because I remember how proudly I carried it on me as a badge of honor back in those years, and beyond, my Indian blood. Like I said, not so much in later years, and never, since I started writing. But I still believed it. And I’m sure I bored many people to tears with it all, way too often, back then. To all such people, I apologize. I believed what I was telling you, and somehow, I just thought you’d be interested in hearing it. I wouldn’t be that presumptuous again.
And so it was all firmly settled in our minds for all these years, for me and my siblings. We have Indian blood in us. That makes us different. Special, somehow. Well, I think my brother Steve was the only one who didn’t really embrace the legend. “Nah,” he’d proclaim. “I don’t think we have any Indian blood at all.” But he dutifully passed the story on to his children. We all dutifully passed it on down to the next generation. Those who had children, to their children. Those who didn’t have children, like me and Nathan, well, we spoke it to our nieces and nephews. As dramatically as we could intone it, we spoke it. Walk tall. Walk proud. You have a very rich, mixed heritage. You have warrior blood.
And it probably would have receded into the mists of time as the truth we all believed, our Indian heritage. It would have happened. Except for two little factors that somehow just came rumbling right down the pike when no one like me was looking for them.
The first factor is that the younger generation tends to be a little skeptical about some things. Even family legends. My nieces and nephews somehow didn’t just buy into the Indian blood legend. Well, I’m sure they all believed the story when it was told to them as children. I’m sure they listened, all wide-eyed, and drank it all in. But somehow, they became skeptics, some few of them, later, as adults.
And the second factor is because they, those in the younger generation, they have a tool in hand that we never had. The internet. And if you know your way around, even just a little, in that world, you can research a lot of stuff, very thoroughly. And it all started out innocently enough last fall. My niece Dorothy (Abby’s Mom) decided she was going to check out Ancestry.com. A grief diversion for her, I think. Dorothy told us all about it on the family Facebook page. She was fixing to do a little family research, to see if she could find that young single lady who came over on that ship. And we all blessed her and cheered her on.
And within days, she was posting some pretty astounding stuff. At some point, there, my nephew Reuben Wagler joined her. Reuben actually subscribed to the service, and the two of them were off and running. And it didn’t take them long to dig up all kinds of fascinating facts and figures. They even posted a picture of young Veronica Stuckey. A rather buxom woman, with high cheek bones. Not looking any too happy, either, in my opinion. Or maybe that’s just how people posed for photographs back then. And she didn’t look Amish at all. I don’t know. Maybe she wasn’t. Anyway, Dorothy and Reuben dug and dug around to find the father or fathers of Veronica’s children, her two little daughters. And they dredged and dredged and sifted some more. They could find nothing. No mention at all, of any man anywhere in her life.
Well, what do you expect, at least when it comes to the second child? We older ones asked, all confident and smug. It was that Indian on that ship, of course. And I think that would have settled the matter in everyone’s minds. Except the younger generation is very restless. And except the people at Ancestry.com offer more than just research services. For a fee, they will take your DNA test, and match it with everything in their vast data bank. And they’ll tell you where you come from. And they’ll tell you if you got any Indian blood in you or not.
And now, enter another nephew. Ira Lee Wagler. My namesake, Steve’s son. Married, with a little son named Desmond Ira. (Lancaster County now has three Ira Waglers, which is probably about as many as any county, anywhere, could be expected to put up with.) A month or so ago, this man, this nephew, my namesake, suddenly got a very bright idea. He’d get that DNA test done. So he sent off his hundred bucks for the kit. And duly spit into the little tube and sent in his sample of saliva. All this he did, without telling any of his aunts and uncles. And maybe no one else, for that matter. Whoever he told, it wasn’t many people. He kept it pretty quiet.
And one day, a few weeks later, which was just a few weeks back, the results were emailed to him. He read the stats eagerly. And a few evenings after that, we were all at Steve’s house for supper. And as we visited after the meal, Ira Lee brought it up. He told me what he’d done. The results were in. And a big old family legend was just about to be put to rest, once and for all. And boom, just like that it was flung at me, right out of the blue. I recoiled.
Oh my, I said, dismayed. Why in the world would you do such a thing as to take that DNA test? Is there no respect in you, for family legends? Especially for such a foundational legend as that. I mean, it’s part of the essence of who we are, as Waglers. We have Indian blood. That’s just how it’s always been told. Do you realize what you’re doing, when you set out to disprove something so entrenched as that? How could you? I really, really wish you wouldn’t have.
But he had. And we sat there, and he told me the results. Native Americans (Indians) have a very unique strand of DNA. And the test had shown not a shred of that specific, unique type. It’s impossible, that we have Indian blood in us. Boom. Again. We are mostly Caucasian, from France and Switzerland. But there is a thirteen percent slice of Greek/Italian. So that’s maybe where the dark features come from. The facial features, too, some.
There was nothing I could do but absorb what he was telling me. But I grumbled pretty savagely at my nephew. You’re just gonna believe what they tell you? I mean, I think that DNA test is just wrong. If it’s not, then maybe that was an Italian on the ship, and people just mistook him for an Indian. I’m trying to protect the legend, here. Ira Lee seemed a little apologetic, but still, not repentant. He was gonna do what he was gonna do. And he had done what he had done. He has since actually produced a very flashy little video, recording every step of his heretical journey.
But I’ve thought about it all a good bit, since then. I can’t be too mad at Ira Lee. If it wouldn’t have been him, it would have been someone else in the family lineage. It’s impossible, that the legend wouldn’t have been shattered as the myth it was, at some point. It would have happened, sometime, somewhere. It was all just a matter of time. And who can control the timing of such a thing?
Still, it would have been OK if the legend-busting bloodhounds had held off for a while. Like, maybe, another generation or so. Because it knocks you around a bit, when something you have firmly known all your life just gets yanked out from under you like that. It’s disconcerting. What else out there isn’t true, that we’ve always been told?
It all is what it is, I guess. But still, it makes me wonder, a little bit. Where does a formerly proud man of “warrior blood” go to turn in those false credentials he has claimed all his life?
And this past week, another milestone quietly came and went. February 3rd. Which would have been my parent’s seventy-third wedding anniversary. And I thought about it, on that day. Thought about that long, hard journey they traveled together through all those years of life.
In 1942, my parents got married in a simple Amish wedding ceremony in Daviess County, Indiana. Through all that came at them, for better or for worse, they held that marriage together for seventy-two years. Mom left us last April. Except for a few years early on when Dad was serving in a WWII work camp, this was the first time since their wedding day that they had been separated on February 3rd.
Still, I thought it. Happy Anniversary, Dad. I know you miss her. She never will come back to you here, but one day you will go to where she is. And then the two of you can celebrate this date together again.