Don’t you know that you are a shooting star,
Don’t you know, don’t you know?
Don’t you know that you are a shooting star?
And all the world will love you just as long,
As long as you are
A shooting star…
–Bad Company; lyrics
It always was a pretty controlled thing, what happened on a Sunday night in my Amish world. We had what were called singings. Where the youth gathered in the home where church was that day, and ate supper, and later sang. Both in Aylmer and in Bloomfield, that’s how it went. And that’s all I ever knew, when I was Amish. Even during the Gang of Six years. We always showed up. A little loud and tipsy sometimes, but we showed up. It was only later, during the brief months of the Old Green Dodge, and later yet, during the year of the wheat harvest and the Drifter truck, that I saw and grasped it. In the older and larger communities like Daviess, there was something a whole lot different going on.
They didn’t call it a singing, at least not back then. I make no claim to know what they call it today. Back then, in Daviess, it was called the Crowd. And I honestly don’t remember that much of how it was, when Eli and I rambled through Daviess in the Old Green Dodge. I was eighteen. I don’t remember much of anything that happened at the Crowd or that we had much to do with girls, there in Daviess. Well, except maybe one. But it was the second time I came around, way later, after I had fled Bloomfield and Sarah. And returned from the harvest out west, in my Drifter truck. I remember how it was, to go to the Crowd. It was a big deal, always the event of the weekend. And looking back, those are among the fondest memories I have in all the time I ever spent in Daviess, then or later. Which wasn’t that much, really. But I’m just saying.
I stayed in a little old trailer home where my friend Eli lived with his brother. I hung out with the Wagler family, some. Worked for them, building big long chicken houses on their farms. They didn’t go to the Crowd, the Wagler boys didn’t. It was way too frowned on, in the Mennonite church they went to. I never felt that they judged me much for going, though. They kind of looked bemused. Ira was just out there, exploring. He’d come to his senses someday, they figured.
The Wagler boys couldn’t take me to the Crowd of a Sunday night, because they weren’t connected to that world, and didn’t want to be. So I had to find someone else who was. And it wasn’t hard at all. One of their cousins, and a close friend, stepped right up. And he had no qualms at all about attending any Sunday night Crowd. He went regularly, ran around all night a lot. Ron Stoll. Ritter, he was called. Still is. And Ritter gladly took me under his wing, when it came to getting to the Crowds. This was way back in the eighties. There was no such thing as cell phones. And I remember stopping at the sawmill along Cannelburg Road with Ritter, late on a Sunday afternoon. There was an “Amish” phone there, in the shack. And Ritter called around, until he got hold of someone. And found out where the Crowd was going to be. And we headed over, in my Drifter truck.
I suppose a guy like me would have been welcome, however he showed up at the Crowd, there in Daviess. Because I come from that blood, and that’s all I would have had to say. But if you showed up with a guy like Ritter, well, you were instantly accepted. Instantly. No questions asked. The man knew everyone. And no, he never was Amish. He was Mennonite. But his parents had been Amish, and in Daviess, that blood ran close, didn’t matter who had left or stayed. And when we got to the Crowd, Ritter got me right in.
And I remember the exhilaration of it all, what it was to go to the Crowd in a late fall evening. I have some vague memories of what it was like, outside, in the summer. But my strongest memories come from when I got back to Daviess in my Drifter truck. It was November. And I stayed around Daviess, for a couple of months, before heading down to Pine Craft. We’re talking 1987 here. That’s a long time ago. But I remember getting to where the Crowd was, with Ritter, after dark on a Sunday night. People mingled a bit, outside in the cold. But the main party was downstairs, in the basement.
This was all happening at an Amish home. And we wandered down, Ritter and me. It was hot down there, that much I can tell you. Heat from the stove, and body heat. It was pretty packed out down there, too. The basement was filled with young people. Amish kids. Dressed Amish and English. All having a real good time, just mingling and socializing. The talk and laughter echoed through the crowded room. Almost everyone was sipping beer, girls and guys. It wasn’t loud, though, as in people hooting and hollering and getting all uncouth. I’ve never been to a Crowd, where things like that got out of hand too much. I’m sure it’s happened, often, especially way back before my time there. But I just can’t say I ever saw it.
Ritter and I had had a few, and I was feeling pretty good. I stood there in the hot basement in my heavy winter coat, chatting right along. And then I felt it, the waves of heat inside me. I tried to fight it off, but couldn’t. And I told Ritter. I need fresh air. A few of us walked single file toward the stairs. And I remember fading out, how it all went dark, all of a sudden. I didn’t crumple down. I simply fell straight back, right into the arms of the guy behind me. He hollered. “Ira’s passed out. I need help here.” The others turned and surrounded me. I came to, then, and mumbled vaguely. I’m here. I’m OK. And they bundled me up the stairs and outside into the biting cold night air. I remember it washing through, reviving me. We stood around in the cold outside for ten minutes or so, talking. Then we returned downstairs. I took off my winter coat. And I was fine, the rest of the night. I’ve always remembered that little incident, because had the guy behind me not been there, I most likely would have cracked my head wide open on the concrete basement floor. I could have been killed, I’ve always claimed.
Near as I can remember, Daviess only had one group of youth, and one Crowd. Maybe it’s not that way now. I hear some changes have come, in the past decade or so. But back when I was around, the Crowd was just where you went, on a Sunday night. It’s where boys and girls mingled, and coupled up. And Daviess used to have a very unsavory reputation, back then. I’m amazed, sometimes, that my Dad had enough sense to move out of that place. But in Daviess, back when I was a child, a real Amish wedding was a very rare thing. That’s because almost all the dating couples got married only after the girl got pregnant. And if you got pregnant before marriage, you couldn’t have a real wedding. You got married in a real short ceremony, on a regular Sunday, after the main church service was over. A shotgun wedding, I guess you’d call it. And that’s just the way it was. I’m not saying it’s that way now. I hear there’s been some real changes in Daviess, and I think a real, regular wedding is much more common there, now, than it used to be. But back then, it all was what it was. Daviess had a real bad reputation, among the other established Amish communities. And like Nazareth in the Bible, nothing good could ever come from there. It was a place of shame and dishonor.
And it seems strange to me. I have no memories of anything real wild coming down at the Crowd. Either I just never saw it, or I slipped through, somehow. I probably attended a few dozen Crowds, total, so my experience might have been an aberration. Because way back, in the sixties and seventies, some real bad stuff happened there in the land of my father’s blood. Crazy, wild stuff. I think there were lots of drugs floating around Daviess during that time. The wild boys often went on rampages. Terrorized the Amish farmers, their own neighbors, just for sport.
One time, a group of young toughs stopped at the farm of a man named Swartzentruber. They made lots of noise and got generally destructive. Poor Mr. Swartzentruber came out from the house and confronted them as they were cutting up his fences along the field. The “wild” youth of Daviess hooted and mocked the man. And Mr. Swartzentruber got so worked up from the senselessness of it all that he collapsed on the spot from a heart attack and died. Right there, on that spot, jeered by the local young toughs from the Amish Crowd. I mean, that’s about as uncouth as any rowdy youth could get. I don’t know who those youth were. They know who they are, I suppose. The thing is, I will not judge what their hearts were back then, from where I am today.
Those were wild days, and wild times. Once, a group of youth got all mad at my Uncle Henry (Wagler) Mealy. They were car (Block Church) people, but I’m pretty sure they attended the Crowds. From what I’ve heard, which may not be all that accurate, these guys were taking instructions to be baptized in the Block Church. Uncle Henry didn’t feel they were quite ready, yet, and he opposed the baptism. He sensed darkness in their hearts. And I think he got it postponed, somehow. The boys got all livid at Uncle Henry. They felt they were totally ready to be baptized. This could not stand, this resistance from an obstinate man like that. And one quiet Sunday night, soon after that, someone snuck in and planted a large amount of dynamite at the base of Uncle Henry’s silo. That person lit the long fuse and got out of there. The dynamite erupted and the explosion swept through the community in waves.
The silo stood firm, though. Somehow, the perp had placed the dynamite so it only blew a small hole in the concrete. I’ve heard it told that had the explosives been placed properly, all of Uncle Henry’s buildings would have been leveled, and he and his family would have been killed, most likely. The FBI came snooping around in the next few months, but as far as I know, no one was ever arrested for that crime. And I gotta say. I don’t care how wild the youth may have been in other large communities, I’ve never heard any story as crazy as that. You get mad at someone because he doesn’t believe you’re ready to be baptized, you go try to blow up his silo. Daviess blood is strange blood.
And there’s another legend out that I’ve often heard, but never saw with my own eyes. Amish bands. In the sixties, seventies, and maybe the early eighties, there were such things, from all I’ve heard told. Teenage guys, playing guitars and drums, churning out the hits of their times. In the eighties, it was the old rock hits from bands like AC/DC. It’s always been a thing of wonder to me, the concept of an Amish band. Because you know those kids didn’t pick up a guitar, or any musical instrument, until they were at least teenagers. They had to have the music in them naturally, because they taught themselves to play.
A funny little story I heard years ago, back in the early eighties, from an old friend in Daviess. Some years before that, an Amish band from Daviess went on down to Nashville for some sort of competition. The lead singer’s last name was (Wagler) Robin. And he and his boys whooped and sang real good. Total Amish hicks, they rocked the competition, there in Nashville. And they came home with the first prize, whatever that was.
And the story was told by the lead singer’s younger brother, who saw it all happen one day a few weeks later. A long black Cadillac pulled into the drive of their home farm. A man in a flashy suit and tie got out and approached the father. He was looking for the (whatever the name of the band was) band. They had come to Nashville a few weeks back, and he really wanted to talk to the boys in that band. The father listened, briefly. Got out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. He knew darn well what the flashy man was talking about. But he had work to do, and he didn’t believe in Amish bands.
So he told the flashy man. “Nope. I’ve never heard of that band. Never heard of them.” The flashy man looked all disappointed. “But they gave this address, when they signed up for the competition,” he protested. The father repeated. “Never heard of them.” And he turned away. The flashy man looked all disappointed. I mean, he had driven a few hundred miles to hunt down this phantom band. But there was nothing he could say, that would get him anywhere. So he got into his long shiny black Cadillac in defeat and headed back to Nashville. I have no idea if the story is true, or if some semblance of it actually happened. All I know is that this is pretty much how I heard it told, years ago.
And that’s a little bit of how it went in the Daviess of long ago. I’m thinking some of that wild blood has calmed down a good bit since then. There have been some big changes in Daviess over the past twenty years. They’re more mainstream. They have top buggies, now. I haven’t been to a Crowd since the days of the Drifter truck, back in 1987. And since those days, I have meandered a good bit, around the country. Eventually, against all I ever figured would ever happen, I settled right smack in the middle of one of the largest Amish communities in the world. Smack among the Blue Bloods of Lancaster County. I hung with the Beachy youth in those days, and didn’t pay much attention to what the Amish kids did of a Sunday night. I didn’t know if they had Crowds, or what.
And I’ve learned, since then. The Amish in Lancaster had three different things going on, or at least they did back then. (Who knows what’s all going on, right now?) Saturday night parties. Sunday night supper and singings. And after the singing, on the same farm, there was the hop. Where a real live band played. And their youth groups aren’t called youth groups. They’re called gangs. Not as in the Crips and Bloods. But in more of a benign way, like the Sugar Creek Gang in the books I read as a child.
And I’ve chatted with people over the years, here and there, people who used to attend Amish hops, way back. It’s something I never got done, though, get to a hop. I’ve never seen one. It makes me feel like I missed a valid and fascinating cultural experience, looking back.
And the other week, we got to chatting about things, there at Vinola’s on a Tuesday night after the Bible Study. My buddy, Amos Smucker, the horse dentist, and a few others. And I asked them. Do you guys remember when there were Amish bands around here? I mean, I think most large communities had them, at one point or another, but I’ve never seen one play at any gathering. Are they still around? And do you remember when there were more of them?
Well. Throw out a question like that to a small group like the one I was with, and get ready to hear some real history. And I can only try to speak what I heard in the broadest sense. I got few specific facts, here. Just a broad picture.
Lancaster County is pretty much unique, when it comes to what goes on, on a Sunday night. Or at least it used to be. Way, way back, there were just singings. Just like where I grew up. But then the community got a lot bigger, with each generation. And it was just a natural thing, that the youth divided themselves by temperament. Each time that happened, a name was born, for that group. Names like the Groffies (the first ever gang, back in the 1950s), Happy Jacks, Ahmies, Sailors, Souvenirs, Checkers, Crickets, Ranchers, Green Peas, Shotguns. And a host of others. And when a gang got too big, it divided, just like the Amish divide their church districts when they get too crowded. And so one group spawned another, and that’s why there are dozens and dozens of names out there for Amish gangs that once were.
And I asked. Who thought up the names? Amos looked at me. “No one thought them up. They were just born, no one knows quite how.”
Well. What can you say to that? I am fascinated, by the history of the Amish youth of Lancaster County. Absolutely fascinated, because a guy like Amos will come along and tell you things like that, right when you actually want to hear the real story told. Right when you’re wondering about it, anyway. It all seems a little uncanny, somehow.
One thing I can say, about both Daviess and Lancaster. They’re sure a lot more relaxed about musical instruments than any place I ever lived, growing up. In Aylmer and in Bloomfield, if you got caught with something like a guitar after you joined church, you were in pretty serious trouble. And if you persisted in your sin, you’d get kicked out, just like that. Excommunicated. Here, in Lancaster, I’ve been in Amish homes, just lounging around, and someone unlimbered a guitar. I was pretty startled, the first time I ever saw such a thing. This sure is a different place, I thought. The Blue Bloods are way more relaxed about a lot of things.
Anyway, back to hops and bands. I would guess the first organized bands came out in the sixties, sometime. The seventies were the heyday of Amish bands in Lancaster County. Every gang, except maybe the plainest ones, had several bands. There was one in the older group in a gang. And the youngsters pushed up, too, with their bands, to take the place of the older ones, after they went and got married. And so it went. And from the descriptions Amos told me, I would give a lot to be able to see what he saw, back in his youth.
After the singing, the hop started, The band would set up a stage on a farm wagon. Set up their guitars, keyboard, and drums. Somewhere way back, out of sight, a generator hummed. Electric instruments and speakers take juice. And the authentic thing about true Amish bands, back in the day, was that they stayed dressed in their Amish clothes. I mean, they were at the Amish singing, anyhow, dressed Amish. And so, up there on that wagon they stood and sat, in their colored shirts and vests and Amish hats. Some of them even wore their Mutza suits. I would pay good money to see and hear such a thing.
And the crowd surged around the wagon as the band fired up. And played and played and played. All bands have groupies. This has been true in modern history. And the Amish bands were no different. Amos told me. If a band member winked at a girl down in the audience, that girl would be waiting for him when the evening wound down. It had to be a giddy thing, to play on an Amish band back then. It just had to be.
The hops of that time were totally unsupervised. As in, the parents kept to themselves, and didn’t intrude at all into what all went on. And there was some real bad stuff going on. Lots of hard drinking, and hard drugs, too, in the seventies. And beyond that decade, too. I’m not judging that. Just telling it. An Amish youth in Rumspringa would leave on a Saturday night, and not get back home until late Sunday night, or early Monday morning, and his parents never pried as to where he had been, what he’d seen, or what he had done. Such a thing is simply unfathomable to a guy who comes from where I come from.
And so it went the way it went, back there in the seventies. And then, one fateful Sunday night in 1978 or ‘79, a real bad thing happened. Three Amish gangs got together for one mega-hop. The Antiques, the Happy Jacks, and the Ahmies. It was highly unusual for gangs to mix like that, and especially those three gangs. But that night, they did. They all got together on one farm, somewhere down south a ways. Upstairs, in the barn loft, the bands set up. And the place just got packed out with hundreds and hundreds of Amish youth. Boys and girls, all having a loud, large time. And then the whole barn groaned. And then one side of the loft floor just collapsed from the weight of all those people. I can’t even imagine the mayhem. And suddenly the place was filled with blaring sirens, fire trucks, and ambulances. By some miracle, no one was killed. There were lots of injuries. One young man was paralyzed, and never walked another step. The Great Barn Floor Collapse was an enormous and infamous event in the annals of Lancaster County history.
And after that, the parents didn’t sit back any longer. After that, there rose a determined and sustained resistance to Amish hops and bands. The hops didn’t just disappear. But slowly, they faded out. And soon, not every gang had a hop every Sunday night. Soon, it was maybe once a month, that a hop happened somewhere. And after the barn floor collapse, the hops were usually held separately on a Saturday night. The band members had no reason to dress in their Sunday best Amish clothes, as there was no singing to dress for on a Saturday night. And from then on, you didn’t see them up on the wagons, dressed in their Amish vests, barn door pants, and large hats. They were more apt to wear English clothes. And because a hop was a rare thing, much larger crowds showed up from all the gangs around. And the Saturday night hops just turned into one big wild party.
I’m not sure when the last authentic Amish hop band disappeared in Lancaster County. And I’m not saying there aren’t a few bands around. But you don’t have the authentic Amish look like the bands used to have. And mostly, from the few sources I’m connected to, Amish kids who are picking guitars these days just tend to hang out among themselves. Get together in someone’s hut with a few friends. And so you don’t have the real hops anymore. And you don’t have the real bands.
Sometime in the 1990s, a new movement came sweeping through Lancaster County. Amish gangs that were supervised, where the parents were very much involved. The first of the supervised gangs was the Eagles. I had some close friends who were members of the Eagles, and from what they told me, it sounded about the same as what I knew, growing up. They meet somewhere for supper, the youth do, and they play volleyball, and eat. And later, they sing. After the singing, there is no hop. Everyone just goes home.
And all of that is totally OK, I guess. But still. I would have loved to see the heyday of the real hop, where real Amish bands, dressed in real Amish clothes and hats, set up on a farm wagon and played and sang their hearts out.
I really would have loved to see that.
The old hunger for voyages fed at his heart….To
go alone…into strange cities; to meet strange
people and to pass again before they could know him;
to wander,… across the earth — it seemed to him
there could be no better thing than that.
They had told me before I ever got over there, Sabrina and Maryann. The conference is over on Saturday. And we got you scheduled to speak to a group of students on Monday afternoon. That means you have a full day to just do whatever you want. What do you want to do? And I told them. I’m on your home turf, in Germany. I mean, that’s about as astounded as I’m going to get. It doesn’t matter to me, what you plan for me on Sunday. You decide. I’ll be happy with whatever it is.
And they both had their suggestions. Sabrina mentioned the Fish Market in Hamburg, as something I might want to go see on a Sunday morning. Maryann claimed there was an old castle somewhere close that might be interesting. And it seemed to me that my friends were fretting a bit, about the small details. I’m laid back, when it comes to such things. I really am. It doesn’t really matter to me at all, what you choose for me to do on a Sunday, when I have free time. Whatever you figure out is fine. I know you’re busy. I don’t want to interfere too much, in your lives. That’s what I told them. And I meant it. And then I didn’t worry much about it.
And it came sliding in sideways, out of nowhere, the thing we actually did. One more option showed up, when I wasn’t looking for it. And that option, that offer came from Melanie Grundt, my student chauffeur, at the conference. When she told me she had been born and raised and still lived in what was formerly known as East Germany, I got all interested and focused. Asked all kinds of nosy questions. She answered them all cheerfully. And by the time the conference was over, she came up with the suggestion. Maryann backed her up. Why don’t we just head on over to East Germany on Sunday? Melanie will be glad to take us in her car. Show us around, guide us. I jumped at the offer. Yes. That’s what I wanted to do. Go see the small villages and the back country of East Germany with a native guide. There was no question in my mind that I’d get to see things most people don’t ever get to see, when you come from where I come from. I was pretty excited that night, looking forward to the next day.
And the ladies arrived at the hotel, right on time, the next morning at nine. And we headed out into the heat of the day. Beautiful clear skies, with a few puffy clouds floating aimlessly. Melanie’s car was a tiny little thing, almost new. And it had air conditioning. Something we badly needed, in the heat of this day. I settled up front, riding shotgun. Maryann sat in the back. And Melanie stick-shifted the little car around and right through town and out. And soon we were zipping along narrow highways through the German countryside.
There was a lookout tower on this side of the Elbe River. That would be our first stop. We parked and walked the steps up the hill to the tower. Then up the stairs, zigzagging back and forth and up and up. Up beyond the treetops, and there was a very nice viewing platform. And it was just breathtaking, the view. On this side of the river, the West, were all kinds of hills and little mountains. And farmland, too, and villages. On the other side, miles and miles of vast rich farmland. And it was mostly laid out flat. Melanie pointed out this village and that. And she pointed over to the area where she was born and grew up. After fifteen minutes or so, we headed back down. Into the car, then, and through the village over to the Elbe River, which we crossed in a small ferry boat.
We drove off the ferry onto the land that was formerly Communist East Germany. It always gives me a chill, to enter a land like that. To know, to grasp, that this land was a prison, where you were brutally murdered if you got caught trying to escape. I felt the ugliness, the brutality of all that, down deep inside.
And Melanie talked as we drove. Here, close to the river, no one was allowed. It was called the Totenzone. The Death Zone. If you were caught here, you were just shot. No questions asked. You were dead. The Russians strung up a high mesh fence, all along their side of the river. Miles and miles and miles of it. And watch towers, too, stabbed into the skies, every mile or two. The soldiers patrolled the fence, manned the watchtowers, and patrolled the river in gun boats. And she told me something interesting, too. The soldiers were all Russians, there along the river. There were German soldiers in the army in East Germany, but they weren’t posted along the river. Even the Communists had enough sense to realize that it wouldn’t work to command Germans to kill Germans, along the border.
And I looked and gaped and just asked questions. The narrow ribbon of a highway curved along. And Melanie pointed off, to our front left. That’s where her village was. Where she grew up. And she pointed out into the vast, rich fields. Somewhere in there was an invisible line. When she was little, she went playing in those fields, often. And once, she unknowingly crossed that invisible line. The soldiers didn’t shoot at her, just around her, to warn her back. And so she moved back, closer to the village and her home. I asked. Were you scared? And she shrugged. “Not really. They were just warning me back. They weren’t going to kill a playing child.” Wow, I said. You sound so lackadaisical about it all.
The villages in the former East Germany are a bit used and run down, now. I saw many deserted and empty store fronts. After reunification, the young people fled the barrenness of their world. And migrated to the towns and cities of West Germany, where the jobs and lights and the beautiful people were. And Melanie told me. You can buy land, you can buy a small farm in East Germany for 20,000 Euros. It’s just run down, and you’ll have to fix up the buildings. The German government has tried and tried to lure business and industry into the former East. It’s just hard, to get anyone to commit to building a factory over there.
And I asked a hundred questions of how it was, when she was a little girl. And I soon grasped. The people may have lived in some fear, but they sure weren’t paralyzed by it. She had many, many happy memories from her childhood. Life was just what it was, and sure, it was hard sometimes. Her family took the milk and eggs from their little farm, and turned it in at a government station, where they were given coupons for food in exchange for their produce. And once a year or so, she said, there were bananas, there in the grocery store. And everyone went and got bananas. And enjoyed them very much. But overall, from what I heard, she and her family did not starve, far from it. They existed under a tyrannical regime, but they survived quite well. And despite all the wrong imposed on them by the vile false god that is the state, they have some real good memories of it all.
We drove through Melanie’s little village, then, and stopped by her house. The place where she was raised by her grandparents. About twenty hectares in size, the farmette has the classic German farm building on it. One long structure. The house on one end, then the barn in the middle, then hay storage on the far end. It was an old structure, in half decent shape, needing a little bit of repair here and there, on the roof. Melanie lives there with her attorney husband, her two young daughters, and her aging grandma, who is fading into the twilight after a recent stroke.
Early afternoon, now. And Melanie had told me, way back up on that lookout tower. Somewhere along that highway over there, there used to be a village. And she told me the chilling story of what happened to that village. Back just after the Communists took over, and before the fence was built along the Elbe, this little village was quietly rebellious. Its people offered to guide refugees across the river, over to the West. And they did that. Somehow, of course, the authorities discovered what was going on. And one day, a host of soldiers descended on the village. They ordered all the people out of their houses. And then they bulldozed the village into rubble, and buried that rubble in the dyke over by the river. The village people were deported to a destitute land far away.
I had never, never heard of such a thing before. I mean, the story. It’s not something you’ll ever know, unless the locals tell you and show you. And just that close, the story was lost to all of history. By the time of reunification, the village and its name had all but been forgotten. Terrified locals from other villages denied ever knowing of such a place. But the Germans were cleaning the dyke, down by the river, back in the 1990s. And suddenly they unearthed great piles of manmade rubble, the remnants of houses and barns and tools and lives. All buried, and all but forgotten to all of history. Just that close, it was. But now the light of day shone on the horrendous deed that had been unleashed on all those innocent villagers, more than a generation ago.
And we set out, on the way out. The village was not that many kilometers from Melanie’s home village. And we approached, where she thought it was. A few old ramshackle houses stood, swaying. I guess they didn’t quite get them all bulldozed. And we crept on through, then, to the other side of what used to be the little village of Vockfey. And there it was. A little shrine in a three-sided hut. With photos of how it used to look, from where we stood. And there was a wall, with old hand tools mounted on it. Old shovels, rakes, hammers, hoes. Just the heads of the tools. But far more chilling, off to the side stood a little monument. A little pyramid, made from the rubble that had been unearthed out by the dyke. Bricks, mostly, from houses and barns. Chunks of this and that. And there, up front and in the open, a large black tombstone. I mean, when the Russians leveled the place, they leveled even the grave stones. They tried to make the village as if it had never been. And just that close, they got it done. But not quite. And now, here I stood, beside this pyramid, a silent witness to the absolute evil that is the state.
We cruised the back roads, then, just driving through the country side. The land was rich, and dark, like blood. And slightly rolling, like the farmland of Lancaster County, I thought. By midafternoon, we were heading back to the city. Back to my hotel room. One more night, that’s what I had there. And the rains came down hard that evening, and cooled the heated earth. And cooled my hotel room.
Monday. My last full day in Germany. I had told Maryann. I’m speaking to a group of students from 2:00 until 3:30. After that, I’d like to get on the train and head west and south. Toward Switzerland. She checked out all the schedules, and nothing really seemed to work out that late. And she told me. “Why don’t you sleep on my couch tonight? I’ll have a little cookout, and have some friends over. We can get you on a train to Zurich at 8:00 the next morning.” Well, if that’s what has to be, then that’s what has to be, I said. I kind of wanted to get moving on. But I couldn’t, not until my last speaking gig was over. And that afternoon Sabrina picked me up and took me over to the high school where I was scheduled to speak.
They don’t call it “high school” in Germany. They call it Gymnasium. I think there are several levels. Students test out to the level best suited to them. And the teacher met us with a smile. There would be around 150 students. She had about six different passages she wanted me to read. I notched them all out, in my book. And she and Sabrina asked. “Can you force yourself to talk a little slower? These are young students, and they may have a harder time keeping up, if you speak at your normal speed.” Sure, I said. I’ll try.
We sat up front at a little table. I was introduced. Sabrina had my iPad and she walked around the perimeter of things and snapped a lot of pics. The students looked to be around sixteen or seventeen years old. A real young audience, right there. I’m always a little more tense and nervous, talking to a younger audience like that. Who knows what their attention span is? And I was supposed to talk for a good hour. That seemed like an eternity, in my head. A whole hour, talking to teenagers? Oh, well, it’s too late now. You are here. Relax, and just dive right in. And I did, forcing myself to speak slowly. And read slowly. And the students seemed to be paying attention.
I talked and read and talked and read. And talked and read some more. And that little engagement right there turned out to be my longest speech, ever, that I can remember. I talked for right close to an hour. Then I stopped and placed the book on the table. OK, are there any questions? I asked. If you have some, I’ll be happy to answer them. If you don’t, well, we’re going to dismiss class real early today. Because I’m done, otherwise.
After some initial hesitation, a student raised his hand. He had a question. And then they came, as I had hoped they would. For the next twenty minutes or so, I just talked to that young audience, by answering their questions. When I was trying to describe how it was, leaving home for the first time, I asked. How many of you are seventeen? A few dozen hands went up. OK, I said. That’s how old I was, when I got up and left in the middle of the night. I think it sank in a little bit, what I was saying. More questions, then. And then it was over, my final talk on this trip. The students clapped politely for a minute or so, then got up and left. I felt drained and relieved at the same time. Well, I’m glad that’s over. I thought it went OK, I told Sabrina. She agreed.
Sabrina drove me over to Maryann’s apartment, not far from the college. Melanie was there, and Maria showed up, too. And we just sat outside in Maryann’s little back yard, like old friends. Sabrina, Maria, Melanie and Maryann and me. We sat around and drank beer and talked about the conference, and how it had all come down. Remembering. “It’s so much work,” they told me. “So much to schedule, to look after.” Well, if you ever have such a thing again, I’m always delighted to show up, I told them. I’d sure like there to be another time, whether it’s a conference or just me lecturing to students. Either way, I’m OK with it.
And soon Maryann served us the meal she had cooked up. Steaks. Salad. Bread. And it was all good. By early evening, the guests had left, and I stretched out on the couch in Maryann’s living room. Time now for some sleep. Tomorrow, I would leave this place. It was fitful sleep that came to me that night, but it was sleep.
The next morning just before eight, Sabrina showed up. My ride to the train station. And there was a bit of drama, right there at the end. My iPhone didn’t work over there, so I didn’t carry it with me. Packed it in my bags, or so I thought. That morning, as I was packing everything up to leave, I realized I had not seen my phone in a few days. So I checked out the pockets in my Messenger bag, where I could swear I stuck it. Nothing. I checked everywhere, in all my bags. No phone. I hollered to Maryann. I can’t find my phone. I wonder if it’s still at the hotel. And she got right on the phone, bless her heart. And I caught snatches of what she was asking, and what the hotel clerk was telling her. “Yes, from room number 315,” I heard her say. And then. “Someone will be stopping by very shortly to pick it up.” I gaped at her. Do they have it? “They do, at the front desk,” she told me. “I mean, I wonder when they were planning to make any calls to us about it.” It doesn’t matter, I said. We can stop by and pick it up on the way to the train station.
Sabrina smiled in disbelief, when she heard what we had to tell her. My phone was at the hotel, yet. It was no problem, to stop by and pick it up on the way. Sabrina looked at me, and she said, “Your Guardian Angel is sure looking out for you this morning.” Yes, I said. Absolutely, he is. I could just as well have left without my phone, and things would have been a whole lot more complicated. I hugged Maryann good-bye. Thanks for all your gracious hospitality. Thank you for putting me up on your couch. Thanks so much. And then we took off for the hotel, and the train station, Sabrina and me. And her teenage daughter, Emily, in the back seat. She was going on a field trip with her class that day, Emily told me.
I remember how it was the last time I was fixing to board a train on my own, all by myself, there in Germany. It seems so long ago. And this time was nothing like the first time. This time, I was very calm and laid back. Other than that big red suitcase I had to drag along, nothing got to me, much. I found my boarding platform, and waited in the gathering heat of the morning. Trains whooshed in and out of the station. I waited patiently until the right one came along, slid in and stopped. And I poured through the door with the crowds, dragging my luggage. It was all OK, though. No panic at all, inside me. I had been in this place before. I stashed the big old suitcase in the luggage rack at one end of the train car. And settled in, then, for the trip to my next connection. I was heading to Zurich, from there, to Fribourg. The French-speaking section of Switzerland, where my friends, the Ribauds, lived. And I kept an eye on the German landscape outside as it flashed by. I didn’t have to drink it in voraciously, not like last time. But still, I wanted to see the land I was passing through. And I did.
I had messaged my friend, Carline Raboud, a few weeks earlier. And she had messaged back. Come around on Wednesday. We have a room for you to sleep. This was Tuesday. I figured to get to Fribourg, and then get a room for the night. Then, tomorrow, Carline would come and fetch me. And we’d go from there. I felt a little bad, being a bother like that. But, hey, when you got connections to people in a farm family in Switzerland, you might as well make the most of them. They can only say no, if it doesn’t suit them to see you. The train sliced through the ancient landscape, right along. Around midday, I walked to the dining car, and ordered a large bowl of stew, a water, and a beer. Zurich was coming up, right soon. That evil city, that harbors a lot of bad memories for me.
The train was running late, though, as late afternoon approached. And I got a little nervous. I was supposed to have twenty minutes to change trains in Zurich. That time got whittled down, more and more. And by the time we pulled in, I had less than five minutes to drag my luggage downstairs, over to another platform, and up again. I simply grabbed the big old red suitcase. Forget about rolling it along. Carry it. Carry all your bags. I made it back upstairs, after stumbling on the concrete steps on the way back up, and skinning my knee. Score another one for evil Zurich. I made the train with about a minute to spare. And off we went, for the hour-plus ride to Fribourg.
One thing was definitely different this time around, from two years ago. I noticed it right away. That was wireless internet, or Wifi. Back in 2013, it was hard to find, anywhere. You were lucky if your hotel was wired. During my stay at Leuphana last time, I just checked in once a day, at the University. My hotel never had free wireless. Well. Since then, I guess Maryann and Sabrina told the hotel people. If you want us to board our guests here, you better get free Wifi. And it was right there, this time. But I was astounded to find it on the train, as well. The signs were there. Free Wifi. I had some issues, linking on for the first time. A nice German passenger across the aisle offered to help me, when he saw the trouble I was having. And I got linked on, as the train snaked on through the German countryside.
And I linked onto Booking.com. The site where you can reserve a hotel room, just about anywhere in Europe. And I checked out the hotel in Fribourg where I had stayed last time. Hotel du Faucon. Reserved a room, for one night. And after I got off the train there, I remembered where it was, about four blocks away. I trundled my luggage down over the cobblestones. Last time, that French taxi driver has ripped me off by pretending the hotel was far away, so he could charge to take me. No such thing this time, though. I walked into the lobby shortly after seven, and checked in. The nice lady even spoke a little English, and we got along better than I expected we would.
My room was in the second floor, facing the main street outside. The thing about European hotels is, you can open the windows. Crank them wide open. You can lean on the sill and just view the street life below. Americans would be horrified at such a thought. And at the liability, if some stupid guest leaned out too far and fell out. That night, I opened the window wide, and leaned out and looked. And then I went outside and walked about, and ate at an outdoor café. As darkness settled in, I returned to my room, and just enjoyed the bustle and flow of the street life below me in the window frame.
The next morning, I slept in. Carline would arrive around midmorning. I dragged all my stuff down, settled with the front desk lady, and sat on a chair in the tiny lobby, by the open door. And after a while, here she came. My good friend, and as lovely as ever. Carline. We chatted as we walked to where she had parked her car. And I mentioned. I haven’t had coffee, yet. “Oh, we have a Starbucks, here, now,” she informed me proudly. OK, Starbucks it is. We each ordered a medium coffee. Six and a half francs each. Wow, I said, handing over the money. That’s kind of wild. Carline laughed. “You’re in Switzerland, now,” she said.
And we caught up as we walked to her car. She’s still in college, although out now for the summer. She worked nights, at a local hospice. I apologized. I had no idea you’re working all night, every night. Now I’m going to keep you from getting your sleep, and you have to work tonight. She waved that off. “It’s not a problem. I’m dropping you off at Jean-Pierre’s house this afternoon. I’ll get some sleep then.” And she asked. “There’s a big castle, not far from where I live. I thought we could go there, and I can show you around, and we can eat lunch there. Would you like that?” Absolutely, I said. And off we went then, out of the city, and onto the narrow winding roads into the impossibly beautiful Swiss countryside.
I’ve mentioned it before. Everything in Europe is so old. As was the vast castle we visited that day. It was a huge complex, with a little village inside the walls. And all kinds of shops and restaurants. We walked all around the place, then settled in at a restaurant. And I remembered a dish from when I was around last time. Rosti. A Swiss dish of fried potatoes, covered with a slab of ham, topped off with an over-easy egg. I remembered how delicious it had been last time. Can I order it here? I asked. “Of course,” Carline pointed it out on the menu. A mere 23 francs. Oh, what the heck? We both ordered the dish, and it was every bit as delicious as I had remembered.
And after the meal, we meandered around, ending up at Jean-Pierre’s house. My old friend, the preacher man. We had met and hit it off last time I came through. And he had asked me to speak a few words, in his church. Which I did, through Carline, as the interpreter. That was all pretty wild, the first time around. I was all upbeat and excited just to be there. This time, I was way more calm and settled, as we drove over to where Jean-Pierre lived. We knocked on the door. He was upstairs in his study, so it took a few minutes for the man to open the door and greet us. He hugged us both. His crinkled smile was exactly as I remembered.
And he invited me to his back patio. Carline left, soon, to go home and take a nap. She had to work tonight. And I sat down outside in the back with my old friend. He brought me a beer and poured one for himself. And we just sat there, the two of us, and caught up like old friends do.
We talked about a lot of things. About how the whole world seems pretty unsettled right now, and what that might mean. It’s a pretty scary thing. And I told him. You look just like you did, back when we met, in 2013. Back when you took a day off, to take me to where I needed to go, to see the castle where my ancestors were tortured and killed.
You look good. I’m the one who looks older, now. I got mostly gray hair, in two short years. And I’m heavier. I didn’t pay much attention to anything at all, health-wise, last year. I was walking down some real dark roads, back then. And it all caught up with me, this past March. I was in the darkest place I’ve seen in a long time.
I felt young, the last time I was through here. Young and exuberant. I don’t feel young much anymore. Or exuberant, either. But still. I have kept walking. And now, I’m not where I was, back there in that dark place. But I sure remember how it was. Vividly.
He smiled his crinkled smile. There was no judgment in his face. We sipped our beers, and just talked about things. The turmoil out there, in the world, all around. And he spoke, then. “You have been to dark places. You see what’s happening in the world around you. You will be able to help others, to speak out, to show them the way, when the time and place is right.”
Well, what do you do with such a proclamation from such a preacher man as that? Over the years, I’ve met a few preachers like that, here and there, who made all kinds of predictions. You will do this, and you will proclaim that, and you will lead people to the Lord. And I gotta say. I’ve never felt the slightest hint of any such calling, ever. I got nothing much to say to anyone about anything, except what it is to walk free.
But when Jean-Pierre spoke, there was something different going on, right there. I don’t know, I told him. It will never be any conscious talk. If people read what I write, and it helps them, well, I’m OK with that. I will speak my voice, wherever I am, with no pretensions. The Lord can take that wherever He wants to, I guess. I’m sure not looking to be anyone special. I won’t speak to people from above. I’ll only speak to them face to face and eye to eye.
After three hours of good company and good conversation, I looked at the time. It was evening. And I told Jean-Pierre. I need to go. And he offered to take me over to the Raboud farm. We drove over the ribbons of roads, through the scenic countryside. Farmers were out and about, in their fields, baling hay, mostly. And on the roads with large wagons loaded with large hay bales. Carline and her Mom and sisters were waiting for us in the house. Jean-Pierre walked me up, and chatted for a bit. We shook hands, then, and hugged. And he told me what he told me last time we parted. “Give my greetings to your people.” I will, I promised.
We feasted that night on home-grown steaks, potatoes, and salad and wine. The Raboud family welcomed me to their home and their table. It was interesting, as always, at least when I’m there. French is the native language in the area. The children speak French and German. And Severine, one of the daughters, married Daniel, a guy from Mexico. So there’s some Spanish talk going on. Of course, I speak only English, and a smattering of rough German. So it was a great mishmash of languages and voices, all around the same table. I visited with the parents, Carline acting as translator. We feasted and laughed. A large time was had by all, I think. And I thought about it later. Sitting around the table in fellowship, eating the evening meal, is a universally joyful thing the world over, in every culture and every language.
The next morning, soon after eight, Carline dropped me off at the local train station. She’d checked out the schedule. I would go back to Zurich, and catch a train at noon. For Vienna, Austria. That’s where I had decided to fly back out of. I had never been there. It’s a real old city. So I booked my return flight from there. Carline checked with the clerks in the small train station. Then we walked down the ramp and up on the far platform. “Take this train to Fribourg, then switch there for Zurich, then switch there for Vienna,” she instructed me. I’ll be good, I said. We hugged. Thanks so much for taking care of me. I’m sorry to keep you up. You’ve been working all night. “It’s not a problem. I’m going home now to sleep,” she said, smiling. The poor girl looked exhausted. I thanked her again. And then she left me.
The train shuddered and took off. I arrived in Zurich with over an hour to kill. So I stood off to one side and people-watched. The Europeans are a little different than people in this country. Somehow, it seems they dress a little sharper. And they use public transportation, like trains, a whole lot more than we ever will or have over here. And soon enough, I wandered off to find my train. My Rail Pass was for first class, so I looked up front for the right car. First class in trains isn’t the equivalent of first class on planes. I mean, the seats are maybe a little softer, a little nicer, but you sure don’t get babied around like you do on a plane. I settled in, and the train took off. This was an eight-plus hour trip. I would arrive in Vienna at 8:30 PM. I had no problem with that, though. What better way to see the European landscape, than from the windows of a train? I couldn’t think of any.
And it was a pretty wild ride, all the way through. I saw the foothills, the baby Alps, leaving Switzerland. Huge mountains. But still, babies. And it was a little freaky, sliding right on over into Austria. The train sliced through a very narrow valley, first off. And I gaped at the houses and villages hanging onto the sheer walls of the mountain cliffs. On and on we pulsed, and the valley gradually widened, closer to what I have seen before.
Darkness was settling as we pulled into the Vienna station. And the rain was settling in, too. From the train, I had booked a room at a nice hotel about a mile from the station. And what with the rain and all, I sure didn’t want to drag my luggage anywhere. So I approached a taxi in the long line of taxis waiting outside. I pulled up the address on my iPad and showed it to the driver. It’s not far, I said. “Yes, I can take you,” he replied. I don’t know what it is with taxis and me in Europe. Last time, I got ripped off in Fribourg, when my hotel was within easy walking distance on a sunny day. And now, the driver started his meter, and we edged out slowly into the traffic. Left at the next light, then down a few blocks. That’s where the hotel should be. But no. Road construction, all of a sudden. The road was closed, leading to the hotel. The driver mumbled and punched at his smartphone for an alternative route. I didn’t say it, but I thought it. You’re in this part of town every day. You should have known this road was closed. You probably knew, and now you’re just killing time and adding miles. We took wide detour, around several blocks. He pulled up right outside my hotel. Eight Euros, to ride four blocks. I mean, who can complain about that, especially in the rain? I paid the man and thanked him.
After checking into my room, I went out walking. The rain was gone. And I walked up three or four blocks, to the main drag. A wide, mall-like setting, lined with shops on both sides. All the way over to the old city. That night, I strolled only a few blocks, then stepped into a bar for some food and drink. Tomorrow, I would walk further down.
Vienna is an old, old city. And I asked the nice lady, at the desk at the hotel. And she told me where to walk and how far, to get to where things get real interesting. I thanked her and headed out. I have no idea of the actual directions. To me, it seemed south and west. But I got back on that main drag, and just walked and walked and walked.
And off to my left, then, there loomed some big, elaborate structures. I had walked past a real nice bar, and was kind of hungry to go back and see what it had. But I approached those structures, on my left. Absolutely magnificent architecture, in the massive, massive courtyard. And then I walked up to the doorway of one of the buildings. It was a museum. Kunst Museum. I’d never heard of it before. I was intrigued. So I walked through the front door. There was no line, getting in. Not at that time of day. I paid my 14 Euros, and took my ticket and walked in. I had no idea of what it all was that I was walking into.
The next five hours, the rest of the afternoon, I walked in awe through that amazing place. To do real justice, you’ll need three or four days. I ambled through an amazing display of Egyptian artifacts. Mummies. Caskets. Stone monuments. And then on, through a maze of Greek and Roman monuments. Busts of leaders. Citizens. Women. Children. All in chalk-white original stone. I reached out and touched a few of them, when there was no one around. I couldn’t help myself.
And then I stumbled into the rooms of art. And I’m talking room after room after room after room. Real original stuff. Including a couple of rooms that housed the originals of Peter Paul Rubens. The premier Baroque artist of his time. I simply stood and gaped at his massive, wall-sized paintings. This was a production, what was going on here. And it was real stuff. I had some sense of what I was seeing, the rarity of it. And I reveled in it all.
And by late afternoon, I was out of there. Heading back, to my hotel. And about halfway there, I stopped at a sign I had seen on my way out. Bar and Grill. In English. I was intrigued. And I walked upstairs to the bar. Sat there, on a stool. Can you make me a dirty martini? I asked in English. The young bartender’s face lit up. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I can.” And he mixed me one right up, with dark olives and dark olive juice. It was delicious. And I ordered food, of course. A hamburger. They don’t know what a hamburger bun is, anywhere in Europe that I’ve seen. They stick the burger patty into a sleeve of half-closed bread, soaked in all the condiments. I’m not complaining. It’s all delicious. The burger and the dirty martini were among the best I’ve ever tasted. Both of them were. Which just goes to show how uncouth I am here at home, I guess. But it was what it was.
I meandered back to my hotel, then. And that night, I went to bed early. Because in the morning, at 4:00 AM, I would be taking a taxi to the airport, way out there on the edge of the city. Booking.com had claimed this particular hotel had a shuttle to the airport. They laughed, the hotel people did, when I told them I needed their shuttle the next morning, early. “We don’t have a shuttle,” I was told. “We can get you a taxi for 40 Euros. It’s a long ride out there, to the airport.” And I was feeling pretty livid at Booking.com. A shuttle to the airport, indeed. You people are all messed up. But I smiled at the hotel person. OK, I said. If that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. Just have that taxi here, right at four. I need to catch my flight.
And it was all pretty surreal, when my alarm went off the next morning. At 3:30. I got up, showered, and packed all my stuff into my luggage. Including the three posters I had signed and dated, back there at the conference. Posters I had just taken, on my own. Maybe I’ll frame one of those sometime, for myself. And maybe I won’t. I sure don’t plan to give a single one out as a gift. It’s just not near as big a deal to me, as it was the first time around. I dragged my bags downstairs, and approached the man at the front desk. Another guy in a suit stood there, talking to him. I’m looking for my taxi, I said. And the desk man waved at the guy in the suit. Here he is.
There’s something about me and taxis, in Europe. They had told me, the hotel people. It’s forty Euros, the half-hour ride to the airport. And I kept a keen eye on the clock in the taxi. It kept rolling right up. This was early morning. There was no traffic, to speak of. And when we pulled up to the airport departure gate, the time clock told me I owed about 32 Euros. I was fine with forty, though. And I asked the driver. What do I owe you? And he told me. “Forty-five Euros.”
Well. Here I was, at the airport, Determined not to miss my flight out, like I did last time. And here was a taxi driver who had my bags in his trunk, trying to rip me off. But they told me it would be forty Euros, at the hotel, I said in broken German. The taxi guy got all animated, all of a sudden, and unleashed a great torrent of words in German. I caught snatches of his protest, as he talked. The bottom line was this, and we both knew it. He was charging me more than I’d been told, because he knew he would never see me again. He was ripping me off, because he knew he could.
I will not judge that man’s heart. I will not do it. He has to survive, however he can. He had a real nice SUV, and he was dressed in a suit and tie. And I tried to imagine, even as we were driving along to the airport. What kind of circumstances is this man in, that he shows up in suit and tie, at four in the morning, in a vehicle like this, to drive me to the airport? I sighed and handed him his money. He smiled and unloaded my bags and wished me a “Gute Reise.”
And from that point, everything unfolded almost perfectly. I had watched my emails carefully all week. My friend back home had applied for first class status for my return ticket. And all week, no news. Nothing. So I checked in as a common plebe that morning. Back to the way it was before. A short flight from Vienna over to Milan, Italy. The only time I ever set foot on Italian soil, right there inside that airport. Maybe another time I could stay longer. And the big old jumbo jet to Newark loaded right on time. Again, back to the sardine section it was for me. I jammed my carry-on into the luggage rack that was too small and too tight. And took my seat in the middle row, by an aisle. And everyone loaded quietly. I looked around in astonishment. Where was the flight orator? The baby, warming up? There was no sound of any. And no orator ever showed up.
The plane took off right on time, for the eight-plus hour trip. I slumped in my seat and conked right out. At 6:30 that evening, I pulled into my own drive, and walked into my own house. And it felt pretty good to be home.
A few housekeeping notes. Maryann emailed me the link last week. My keynote address at the conference was filmed. And now the actual speech was edited. Almost exactly thirty minutes long. The question and answer session will be just as long, I think. That half hasn’t been released, yet. It should be ready in the next month or so. So, anyway, here’s the blog with the You-Tube link, the link to my actual book talk. I guess what startled me the most was my accent. It’s pretty heavy, almost German. I had no idea I sounded a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I do, in places. Oh well. It is what it is, I guess. Take a listen, if you want.
And it’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party is just around the corner. Saturday night, next week. I’m looking for probably the biggest crowd, ever. The tenant is friends with the auto dealer across the street, so last year he got me parking privileges over there. If everyone who said they’ll be here actually shows up, I’ll need the space. And if not everyone who said they’ll be here shows up, well, there will be some paring of the guest list for next year. I got people waiting in line for an invite. Just a little warning. If you tell me you’re gonna be there, be there. Because if you don’t show up, you won’t get another chance to tell me that again.