September 25, 2015

Death, Life, and Shark Hunters…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

—Thomas Wolfe

I’m not really sure where to start with all this. I figured to be writing all about Beach Week, right here. And how my soul got all rested up, out there by the sea. I never know, of course, from one blog to the next, exactly what words will come. You think you got it all mapped out, and then life comes knocking around. I’ve said it before. You just write from where you are, wherever that is. Well, you do when you can, anyway. Sometimes you can’t. And when you can’t, you don’t.

And I was pretty much locked in, that Friday morning a few weeks back. September 11th, come to think of it. I mean, that’s a big day, what with all the talk going on about 9/11, and how we must never forget. I remembered where I was, that morning in 2001, and I always think of it. But on this 9/11, I was pretty busy at work. Tomorrow I was leaving, heading out for Beach Week. And this year, I gotta say, I was way more ambivalent at seeing it come than I’ve ever been before. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to it, all the way. I was. But I’ve seen this day, a bunch of times now. You know what’s coming. And you anticipate it. It’s more of a quiet thing, that you feel deep inside. And all that is OK. Quiet anticipation is a good thing.

All that to say, I was looking forward to Beach Week coming right up, that Friday morning. And every year, there’s always that thought way up there in the back of my head. Something’s gonna come along, and make Beach Week not happen. It’s the latent dread we all store, way down there in the caverns of our hearts, when any good thing approaches. Something’s gonna come along, something that’s gonna affect my time by the sea.

And the text came sliding in, right at mid morning. From my sister, Rachel. If anyone knows what’s going on, anywhere, she does. But I was a little perplexed at her message. “Are you going to the funeral?” Well. Are you speaking in riddles now? I thought. What do you mean, am I going to the funeral? And I scrolled up to see our past messages, just in case I had missed something. There was nothing, really, except some Yoder matriarch I never knew had passed away, back in Bloomfield. But that was days ago. So I texted back. What funeral?

Rachel texted right back. “Adin Yutzy died this morning.”

And I stared at her message. Adin Yutzy. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned his name before, here on my blog. I’ve talked about who he was, as Ellen’s father, in a few real old blogs. The bottom line is, Adin Yutzy was the only father-in-law I’ve ever known. For seven short years he was that. And then he wasn’t, because our world blew up, Ellen’s and mine. But still, there was a window there, when I knew who he was, and I talked to him. There were hard things, looking back. The man could have been a twin to Dad, when it came to cutting off his “wayward” children, when it came to incessantly admonishing them about how sinful they were living. That much cannot be denied, when you look at what I saw when I was married to Ellen. But there were strong and beautiful things, too, in his life. Just like there are strong and beautiful things in Dad’s.

And my first thought was, I’ll call Ellen. We don’t communicate much these days at all, but things are amicable between us. I thought back to when Mom died last year, and how Ellen had messaged me her condolences. And she had told me. “I promised you I would attend your Mom’s funeral with you, if you need someone to go with you. Do you need me to come?” And I marveled at her message. She had remembered. When things were blowing up, I had told her. I got no one to go with me to Mom’s funeral. And she had promised. “I will come, if you want me to.” And now, she was offering. I was touched. But I felt her presence at Mom’s funeral would be about as disruptive as my presence would be at her Dad’s. So I told her. Thank you. I release you from that promise. I really appreciate that you remembered, though. I will be alright. Janice will be there, and she’ll be with me, if I need someone to walk with. So that’s how we left it, back then. And when I got home from the funeral, a beautiful card arrived with hand-written notes of sympathy from both Ellen and her husband, Tim.

I called her, and she answered. I spoke her name and she spoke mine. I offered my condolences. The words we shared will remain between us. For a moment, we cried a little bit together. I told her I’d be thinking of her and her family in the coming days, and we hung up. It all seemed a little surreal.

Later that day, I talked to my brother Steve, like I do every day at the office. He’s a builder, and I’m his supplier. So we chat, usually several times a day. And I called him. Did you hear Adin died? I asked. “Yes, I heard,” he said. And he asked the same question Rachel had asked. “Are you going to the funeral?”

Nah, I said. It’s been eight years, since Ellen and I divorced. I haven’t had any contact with her parents during that time at all. So, no. I just called Ellen, and we talked for a few minutes. And I’ll call Paul, too, her brother. I feel like that would be all that anyone would expect of me. It would stir things up too much, if I showed up for the funeral. Steve agreed, or at least grunted assent. Are you and Wilma going? I asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Adin is her uncle. We’ll definitely go.” Pass on my regards to the family, if you get a chance to do so, I said. And we left it at that.

And that evening after work, I went home and packed. Tomorrow morning, I’d pick up Wilm, and we’d be off. It was my turn to take Big Blue this year. I took him to the garage recently, had him all checked out. My truck is getting old, just like I am. Eight years, and 128,000 miles. I look at all that time and all those miles. And I figure I’ll run my truck until it won’t run anymore. It should be good for a few more Beach Weeks.

The next morning, I was loaded up by 6:30, and heading over to Wilm’s. I just have luggage. She has luggage, and lots of other things. A half dozen large floppy hats. Boxes of baked goods, and flat crates of ripe tomatoes. I piled and stacked it all carefully on the back seat and floor of my truck. Only one box was relegated to the open bed in the back. And by seven, we were off. Beach Week, 2015, here we come.

We travel well together, Wilm and me. We chat some. Mostly, she reads a book or something. And on the road, we have the same focus. Just get to where you’re going. Don’t lollygag around. Stop for gas and restroom breaks, and grab a snack. But just keep moving. And we talked that morning about Adin, Ellen’s Dad. Wilm and Ellen are close friends, have been for years. I’m not sure if Wilm ever met Ellen’s parents. But anyway, we talked about it, about his passing. And the funeral.

And I thought back, as our conversation lagged into silence. Back to those seven years, when I had a real father-in-law. Adin and my Dad had a lot in common. Dad came from a hard core Amish place. And Adin came from an even harder core Plain Mennonite/Beachy place. And I remember our wedding day, down in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, back in 2000. Some of my siblings came. Some of Ellen’s came, too. But none of our parents did. I’ve written it before, and this is not an excuse for how things went later. Our parents would not attend our wedding. And they would not bless our union. I’ve always felt that the lack of their presence, the absence of their blessings, actually amounted to a curse.

Adin was always cordial to me. And Fanny (Ellen’s Mom) was always beaming and so gracious. It never was her choice, to reject any child for any reason. She loved them all, and she grieved the loss any of relationship with any child. Just like my Mom always loved all her children, regardless, and always welcomed us home. They were very alike, Mom and Fanny, when it came to their husbands and their children.

I remember a trip we took, Ellen and me, a few years after our marriage. To Bloomfield first, then on down south to Grandin, Missouri. Ellen’s home stomping grounds. Her home farm, her home place. We stayed there with Adin and Fanny for a few days. And I have good memories about it. Adin smiled and was all cordial. A seasoned, old-time realtor, he drove me around the neighborhood, pointing out properties, telling me stories of this and that. I never felt a bit of tension during our stay in that home.

Big Blue pulsed along, on and on, ever further south. I grumbled to Wilm about my GPS. I don’t trust it. Every year, it tries to take me down different roads. And on and on we went. South through Delaware. Maryland. Virginia. Soon, the Bridge Tunnel was coming up. I pulled up and handed the man his thirteen bucks. I’d like a receipt for that, I told him. An older guy, he smiled pleasantly at me. “I’ll be happy to give you a receipt, if you give me two more dollars,” he said. “It’s the weekend rate, I guess.” I fished around for the money. Y’all are ripping me off, I grumbled at the guy. He just kept smiling, took my money, and handed me my precious receipt.

From the Bridge Tunnel, you close in pretty fast, to the Outer Banks. The Saturday traffic roiled and rolled about us. And by 2:30 or so, we were pulling in to Awful Arthur’s, our usual meeting place. Janice and Brian and Melanie were already there, waiting for us. We greeted each other with hugs and laughter. And we all got a table downstairs and just chilled out. This was the magical moment, the magical beginning of a new week. Beach Week. There is no feeling like arriving, knowing that there’s a full week ahead of you of doing nothing that you don’t want to do.

We set out then, for the house. After last year’s new lemon, Janice located another fine mansion twenty miles north, in Corolla. We plugged along in the two-lane traffic. Through Duck, then on. And finally Brian pulled into the development where it stood, the beach house. This one was big, really big, and kind of plain, set up like a square box. The one redeeming factor: the house had a wide deck on three sides, on three stories. We unloaded, then, and I found a real nice bedroom off in a corner of the second floor. And then it was upstairs, unpacking boxes of food and many bottles of wine and whiskey. The girls soon headed to the grocery store for basic supplies. I set up my laptop at the far end of the long table in the dining room. I figured to get a little writing done in the coming days. And I stepped out onto the porch, too, there on the third floor. Less than 300 feet away, the waves crashed and roiled. I breathed in the salt air, deep inside. This was it. This was the time.

And late that afternoon, all the others arrived. Steven and Evonda. Fred and Melissa. Sam Thomas. BJ and Ashley. And Brandon, who joined us last year. We all assembled in the kitchen and sat around and just caught up. There was lots of boisterous shouting. And a few toasts with shots of good quality bourbon. A few of us had not seen each other since last year’s Beach Week.

It always gets real relaxed, the first night at Beach Week. It’s the first night. No formal meal is served. Everyone just snacks on cold cuts and cheese and whatever else there is. Fred hung a string of ltittle box lights out on the porch. And after dark, we all assembled outside on the third floor porch, like we always do, there at Beach Week. Assembled and just talked. It was a loud and merry time. There’s not a whole lot that is off limits, when it comes to the conversations that go on there. We could solve the world’s problems, we figure, if people only had the sense to listen to us.

It got late. And at some point, I found myself seated by the kitchen bar, across from my nephew, Steven. Maggie’s only son. He and Evonda are getting married this very weekend, in a totally private family ceremony. They plan a more public reception next June, sometime. They’ve been together as a couple for many years, and I’m very happy for them. Anyway, Steven and I sat there and discussed a few things. We’d had a few, well, more than a few. And we got all somber, in our talk.

And we talked about the Wagler blood, the extended family, and the traits and tendencies of each branch. Rosemary, my oldest sister, married Joe Gascho. A unique mixture of blood, right there. Wagler and Gascho. Then Maggie, Steven’s Mom, married Ray Marner, one of the calmest and most laid-back personalities you’ll ever meet, anywhere. Joseph married Ive Mae Hochstetler. Again, she comes from very calm blood. The Hochstetler blood calmed the wild and unruly Wagler blood a great deal, I claim. Jesse married Lynda Stoll. Straight Daviess blood, both of them were. I think the Stoll blood runs a little wilder and a little stranger than even the Wagler’s, if that’s possible. And every single one of my other married siblings crossed into the Yutzy blood. Every single one. Naomi married Alvin. Rachel married Lester. Stephen married Wilma. Titus married Ruth. And Rhoda married Marvin.

We talked about it, the wildness and the strangeness of a clan like that. I have fifty-nine nieces and nephews. And mostly, they all get along. Sure, you wouldn’t want them all living in the same community, or anything like that. But they all get along tolerably well, and that’s more than most extended clans like that can claim.

Steven and I sat there in the kitchen. Outside, the others all were still talking and laughing loud. It was getting late. We talked about a few other things, too, things I don’t really feel like telling here. Except he told me solemnly, in response to a rant I kept repeating relentlessly, about how someone had wronged me, had hurt me bad, had yanked me around. I mean, I was in my cups in a real way. Steven spoke to me, in my cups. And he spoke truth.

“You Waglers hold onto hard, hurtful things for a long, long time. It’s one of those traits that you have.” He wasn’t scolding me, just telling me. Well, maybe he was scolding me a little bit. Yeah, I know, I said. I know I hold on to wounds a lot longer than I would ever need to. I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

I drooped then, and settled over onto the couch. Sat there and fell fast asleep. Outside, the party was still rolling right along. I have vague memories of someone shaking me, telling me it’s time to go to bed. Then that someone took me by the hand and gently led me to the door of my bedroom. It was very late. I fell onto the bed and instantly slid into a deep dreamless sleep.

Sunday morning. I got up late, after ten, and shuffled upstairs to find some coffee and some food. My head didn’t hurt too badly from the night before, surprisingly. I stumbled about, feeding my face. The girls were sitting around. I glanced out to the ocean. The guys were already out there, standing in the surf, fishing lines strung out. After coffee, I got into Big Blue and drove the five miles to the Tackle shop, where I bought my fishing license for the week. Then I returned and walked out to the beach to join the others. Today, they were just shore fishing, looked like.

They had not rigged up their shark lines, Steven and Brandon. But I saw their tackle, back at the house. Some serious, heavy stuff. Shark hunters, is what those two guys are. Since last year, they have refined their craft. They actually know what they are doing, I would see that soon enough. But today, on this Sunday, we all just fished for the small stuff, right off the shore. I pulled in a few tiny ones, too small to keep. And after an hour or so, I headed back in. This year, for some reason, the small fry fishing just didn’t tug that hard on me. So I didn’t do much of it.

And I thought of it a few times that day. They would all be together now, Adin’s children. Up there in Ohio, in the little community Adin and Fanny had moved to, oh, around five years ago, if I remember right. They had lived in Grandin, Missouri, for decades and decades. Raised their family there. I guess Adin kind of retired, so they moved out east to where their daughter Sue lived with her family, in Logan, Ohio. And that’s where the man would be buried.

They had come from all around, the children. They’re about as scattered as my family is. Paul and John and Arlene and their families live just out west of me here, up in Lebanon. I have kept cordial relationships with all of them, especially Paul. He and I never had any issues, back in those terrible days when my world was blowing up. He always made a point to keep in touch, to invite me to his gatherings. Vernon lives out in Oklahoma somewhere, if I remember right. I only ever saw that man once, and that was at my wedding. He walked Ellen down the aisle, and when the preacher man asked who gives this woman to be married, Vernon spoke for all his siblings who were present. “Her family and I do.” And Glen is an auctioneer, out somewhere in Missouri. The only one of all of Adin’s sons that I never met. I don’t know how that happened. It sure wasn’t planned, on my part. I guess we just never were at the same place at the same time. And Andrew, Ellen’s younger brother, he was there, too. And Sue, and her husband, Tony.

They were all gathered as a family to bury the patriarch of their clan. I wondered how long it had been since they had all been together in one place. It couldn’t have been forty-plus years, like it had been for my family as we stood around our mother’s coffin. But I figured it had been some time. I don’t know that. I’m just surmising, here.

And I remember the good things Ellen always spoke about her father. And Paul, too. They spoke almost in awe of who their father was, at least at times they did. He worked hard, and he taught his children to work hard. I remember Ellen telling me of how her Dad took her deer hunting, when she was just a young teenage girl. And how proud he was, when she shot a real nice buck. And how proud she was, that he was proud of her. He was a worker, and he was a provider. That was all very clear, from all I’ve ever heard spoken of the man.

One of the man’s most enduring legacies came from the most unlikely of places. Adin Yutzy was one of the three defendants in the 1972 landmark legal case, Wisconsin v. Yoder. Where the supreme court ruled that the Amish have the right to have their own schools, and, more importantly, have the right to not send their children to high school. It was a huge deal then, and it still is. Practically all of the homeschooling movement emerged from the aftershocks of that case. I have always admired the man tremendously for having the backbone to simply stand up to the state. To tell the king. I will not bow down. I will not obey. It takes a strong and courageous man to speak truth to power, like Adin did.

And then there was another side, of course. There always is, seems like. The side that I saw, through Ellen. I don’t remember quite what year it was. Probably around 2004 or so. We had gone through a tough period, in our marriage. And for the first time ever, we both went to counseling. It was good stuff, what our counselor friend Sam told us, and taught us. And Ellen and I reconciled, after six months of separation, back in 2003. The thing the counseling did, it woke up a deep calling, a deep yearning inside both of us. We wanted to hear our fathers’ voices, spoken over us as a blessing. I wanted to hear that from Dad. And Ellen deeply, deeply yearned to hear words of affirmation, words of acceptance, from her father.

Sam warned us. It’s always a risk, to reach out. Especially to our fathers. They are set in their ways. And no, that doesn’t make them evil. It just makes them hard of hearing. They don’t understand that language. Can’t comprehend it. It’s a huge risk, to tell your Dad you love him. It’s a huge risk, to ask your father for a blessing. And to me, it all sounded so strange. To me, it wasn’t about risk. It was about sheer impossibility. Why would I ever tell my father I loved him? And why, in my wildest dreams, would I ever remotely believe that he will ever bless me?

Ellen was all about risk, though. That’s how she lived. And this is one of the most poignant memories I have of our time together, the memory of how she tried to reach out to her father. She wrote to him, late that summer. I can’t recall the exact year. But I remember the seasons. She wrote to him honestly, her memories of who he was and how he had always protected her. The things he had taught her, and how she cherished all of those things. She wrote of how she loved him. And at the end, she asked. Can I come home this fall and go hunting deer with you? I would love to do that.

I wanted it to all work out. But coming from where I came from, I pretty much knew it wouldn’t. And it didn’t. It was a brutal, brutal thing to see. I held her as she wept and wept. She wrote to him a few more times. Pleading for acceptance, pleading for, well, pleading for the unconditional love only a father can give. All to no avail. And eventually, her pleading subsided. Her weeping subsided, too. Until she didn’t weep any more at all.

There are so many parallels, between who Adin was and who my father was. Except my father lived long enough, to where the fires of rejecting his “worldly” children burned out in him. He simply got too old, too weary, to fight the battles that defined so much of his life.

That night, we had our first formal meal, around the table. Tilapia (a fancy name for fish), rice, and mango salsa. And wine, of course. It’s such a mishmash of people, but we all gather, every night, for the meal. The first time is always special. As the aging patriarch, I get to pray the blessing before each meal. We all hold hands, around the table. And I always manage to stammer out a few words of gratitude. No words can ever express the real gratitude in my heart. But the Lord knows that. I think He hears what I really mean to say.

Monday. This would be a big day. (And I’ve got to wind this blog down.) The shark hunters set up early. Steven and Brandon. They had it figured out, this year. They had done the research, and they had fished the beaches closer to where they lived. And now, they were here, at Beach Week. They had all the equipment. The short, stiff trolling rods. The huge reels with 80-lb. line, with a large crank handle. They set it all up like they had last year. Except this year, they actually knew what they were doing.

They brought two kayaks, to the beach. Sea kayaks. They baited their hooks with real whole fish, bait bought from the Tackle shop. The rods stayed on shore, usually nursed along by Steven. Brandon boarded a kayak. Two baited hooks were stored behind him, in a little plastic basket. And he set out, with his little double oar. Rolled right along, into the waves. And he rowed and rowed. About 500 yards out, he stopped, and looked back. Steven stood there, with his hands raised. That’s far enough. And Brandon dropped one of those baited hooks. And then rowed off to the right, another hundred yards. Then dropped the second baited hook. And then he paddled hard, to get back to shore.

And Brandon pulled in a shark, early that Monday morning. Way before I ever got out there. I hollered at them, though. This is early in the week. Can’t we butcher a shark? I’d love me some shark steak. Both Brandon and Steven looked at me kind of strange. I couldn’t figure out why, right then. I would, though, soon enough.

And late that morning, Brandon snagged another shark. These guys were for real, this year. I stood by and snapped pics with my iPad, as he fought the fish in. You watch the line, and it comes closer and closer to shore. And then you see the shadow of a log, out there in the water. The shark. Brandon expertly beached the fish. He and Steven swooped down and subdued the beast. Measured the length. This one was right at 74 inches. Just a tad over seven feet long. That’s a big thing, to pull out of the sea.

Sam Thomas and I stood by, close. And we argued hard, for shark steaks. Steven and Brandon paid us no mind. And I got a little bit of a grasp why. A large crowd had gathered around, as if by magic. Oooooh. Aaaah. Look. A fish. What is that, a shark? What are you going to do with it, turn it loose? Steven always smiled, and told the people. “It’s a shark. Do you want to touch it? Come here, if you do.” Most people shrank back, but all of them smiled when they saw the shark being released back into the waters. If we ever get to butcher a shark at Beach Week, I guess we’ll have to go out and catch it at night, when no one’s around.

The Monday wasn’t over, quite. The rigs were reset, the baits taken out and dropped. And I’m thinking it was early afternoon, when Steven’s reel started screaming. There was something big on the other end of the line. And Steven took up his rod and reel, and started fighting the fish in. It took a while. Like I said, Steven and Brandon are true shark hunters. And I saw the shadow of the log again, emerging from the depths. And then Steven beached the beast.

8 ft. shark

They measured the shark. 93 inches. Just three inches shy of eight feet. The fish snaked around on the beach, as Steven and Brandon fought to remove the hook from its mouth. A crowd gathered, all agog. I made a few weak noises about shark steak. But I didn’t protest much, when Steven grabbed the fish by its tail and drug it back into the waters. And released it. When you release a shark, it wobbles around, all weak. That’s because it’s exhausted, from getting pulled up to the shore by a hook in its mouth.

And that day, as the boys were hunting large sharks from the sea, Adin Yutzy was mourned by all his sons and daughters. Then he was laid to rest, there in a plot close to the woods at the edge of the graveyard. I didn’t follow a lot of actual details that day, but I thought of it a few times, his burial. I suppose his sons or his grandsons carried him to his final resting place.

I had to think, too. The man saw a lot of pain in his life. There had to be a lot of pain, somewhere buried down there deep. Pain begets pain. I think that’s how it works, from what I’ve seen.

And I look at the choices they made, both my Dad and Adin. Choices they made, to reject the children they felt were not walking in the Word. They used the “sword of that Word” to, well, to reject their own flesh and blood. It’s a harsh place to come from. And it’s hard place to be. In the end, it was all such a terrible, terrible waste. A waste of time, and a waste of love. I’m not a parent. But family is family, and blood is blood. And you don’t ever, ever reject a child. Not for any reason.

But somehow, from where I am today, I can only wish peace upon any father who ever did.

And Beach Week rolled along, like all Beach Weeks do. Every night, there was a big old feast. And the shark hunters went out twice again. Three times, total, they set up. And they pulled in a total of six sharks. Steven’s 93-incher was the largest shark caught all week.

On Wednesday night, we had a hymn sing, like we always do. Fred strummed his guitar, and we all just sang our hearts out. I got some writing done. And every night, there was a big feast. There never were any shark steaks, though. Maybe next year.

The week wound down, and all too soon, it was time to head back north with Wilm and Big Blue. Time to settle back in, at home. And this year, the words of my nephew Steven stayed with me, way back there in the recesses of my mind. “You Waglers hold on to hard, hurtful things for a long, long time…”

Before the next Beach Week comes, I want to let go of at least some of those hard and hurtful things.

September 11, 2015

The Hitch-Hiker’s Song

Category: News — Ira @ 6:03 pm


Have we not crossed the stormy seas alone,
and known strange lands, and come again to
walk the continent of night, and listen to the
silence of the earth?

—Thomas Wolfe

It really was all so random, the way things came down at me that morning. Like so many things in life are, I guess. Random, I mean. On a normal morning, I wouldn’t even have been driving west down the road that is Rt. 23. A main artery that slices through Lancaster County, a highway that runs right by my house. Normally, I slip through the back roads, to get to work. But that particular morning, I had a few boxes to pick up from a vendor in Leola. And that’s the only reason I was driving west on Rt. 23, from Sheetz, after picking up my coffee.

And almost right away, I saw him standing up ahead. A man, leaning into the traffic, holding out his thumb. A hitchhiker. You don’t see many of those around here. I can’t recall when I saw the last one, anywhere. And as I drove at him, I heard them in my head, all the words of caution ever told to me. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. It’s not safe. Any person you pick up along the road could be a total psycho. There’s no way of knowing, one way or the other. Just drive by. Don’t let on you see them.

I looked at the man as I passed him. Older guy, probably sixty. With a thin little gray mustache. And I had to decide, right that second. So I did. I swung off to the shoulder, and turned on my four-ways. The man trotted up, opened the door and got in. “I appreciate you stopping,” he said. He sure seemed harmless enough. No problem, I said. I’m turning off, a few miles up ahead, in Leola. Where are you heading? “Lancaster City,” he told me.

And I didn’t really feel like talking a lot, as we pulled out into the traffic. We chatted briefly. And after a few miles, I told him. I’m turning left up ahead. I’ll drop you off at the gas station on the corner, there. He nodded. And then he slid it in so smoothly, it almost seemed like a normal thing. “Any chance you could spare a couple of bucks, so I can catch the bus into the city?” He asked, looking right at me. He panhandled the same way he hitchhiked. Looking you right in the eye. And I mean. What’re you gonna say? No?

Sure, I should have a few ones, I said, as I pulled into the gas station and parked. I fished out my wallet and found three bucks. Here you go, I said. He thanked me profusely. Not a problem, I said. I’d been taken for $3 by a real smooth panhandler, I figured. Ah, well. I’ve been to hard places such as that, or close to it. It’s been a while, but I’ve been there. You don’t forget what it is when someone helps you out, with no expectation of any return. When someone helps you out, and you know you’ll never see that person again. It’s been rare, that I’ve seen such a place. But I have seen it. Felt it. And I know what it is, to be standing out beside the road, in the real world or figuratively, holding out my thumb, asking for a ride. I know what that is.

And that was the first little hitchhiker incident I’ve seen in a few years. I’ve thought about it more than a few times, that I need to write about hitchhiking, some day. But I needed a trigger. This guy, that morning, thumbing along Rt. 23, gave me all the trigger I need.

Hitchhiking has always been a part of the legends in the annals of Wagler family lore. I grew up hearing the stories told. My brother Joseph and our cousin, Alvin Graber, hitchhiked down around Texas way back, decades ago. The details of what all they got into remain a little murky. I’ve mentioned that trip in my writing before, and got scolded good all around for having a wild imagination. So I’m not exactly sure of the details, because no one will tell me. But I know that one night, late, they camped out beside an empty highway, in the ditch. I’m saying, this was in Texas, here. The next morning they woke up to a real busy road, with cars and truck whizzing past their heads, just a few feet away. I guess they got up pretty quick and hitchhiked on out of there. Or maybe they walked to a bus station. I simply don’t have many actual details of that story.

I don’t remember any specific hitchhiking tales from my brother, Jesse. But I remember him telling us, his younger brothers, coaching us. And he got all dramatic about it. “When you’re standing beside the road, don’t just halfheartedly hold out your thumb. You lean into the traffic, like this.” And he showed us. “You hold your thumb right out there, and you look at the drivers in the eye, like you’re expecting them to stop. That way, you’ll get a ride a lot faster.” I’ve often thought of Jesse’s advice over the years. And whether I was the hitchhiker or the driver, his advice has pretty much held true, right across the board.

And from Stephen, there was one hitchhiking tale. That time he left home, walking across the fields and woods, south to Highway 3. I’ve never asked him if he had planned to end up in the town of Welland, eighty miles or so east. But I know he thumbed his way there. It was winter. And it had to be cold. Some driver must have felt pity for a stripling Amish lad, shivering beside the road, with a meager bag of belongings.

Outside that dramatic world, most of the hitchhiking we did was local. Heading to town, half the time the people who picked you up knew you. Titus and I got all brave once, and hitchhiked over west to Centerville, about twenty miles from West Grove. This was soon after we had moved to Bloomfield. We walked the two miles on the gravel road to the highway. Then we walked west along the highway and held out our thumbs, like Jesse had taught us to. I mean, we leaned out, right into the traffic.

And soon enough, a guy in a car swooshed over onto the shoulder and stopped. I can still picture his face. He wore black glasses, and had that sloppy, long-haired 1970s haircut. We’re heading to Centerville, we told him excitedly. And he allowed that he could take us all the way there. And he pulled off onto the highway, at a high rate of speed. The man drove like a madman, way above the posted limit. Probably around seventy or so. And we came blasting around a curve, and there was a cop, coming right at us. The driver reacted dramatically, stomping on the brakes, tilting us all forward with the pressure. “Oh, (F-word), a Bear,” he exclaimed. He didn’t mutter. He spoke the swear word, right out loud, as he stomped on the brakes. Amazingly, the cop ignored us, and we slipped through unscathed. And that’s about all I remember about that little trip. Titus and I discussed it later, in hushed tones, that any man would just off and swear like that, just because of a cop. We agreed that we couldn’t see any reason to ever do such a thing.

And Dad never grumbled much, that we hitchhiked. Mom would have scolded good-naturedly, that we shouldn’t, when she heard we were stepping out. But she never made any big fuss. I guess they both caught rides along the road, somewhere, back in their memories. And I remember once, hitchhiking to Centerville with Dad. I think he had called Henry Egbert, the guy who hauled the Amish around in Bloomfield. And Egbert was busy right then, but he could come in later and pick us up. So Dad and I walked out, a bit west of West Grove. I don’t remember that he held out his thumb. I think he just held up a cardboard sign. He had scrawled on the word, with a black marker. Centerville. And soon enough, a farmer and his wife picked us up. They took us about halfway in. And we stood out beside the highway again. It didn’t take long for someone to stop. I’m thinking a bearded Amish man and his lanky teenage son can’t be all that threatening as hitchhikers.

Most of the hitchhiking I ever did was pretty local. So it was all safe. I mean, who’s going to kidnap or hurt an Amish youth? That’s how we saw it. I certainly never felt any danger. After I took to hanging around Chuck’s Cafe, I often thumbed my way to town. Half the time, seemed like, if I hung around the Café long enough, someone would offer to take me in. If not, I walked east, around the curve, leaning into the passing traffic. I need a ride. And it always worked out.

I remember once, hitchhiking my way home from town, a guy from Las Vegas picked me up. He was driving a Jaguar. I had never had a ride in a Jag before. I gaped at the gleaming wood paneling on the dash. The man chatted amiably. I don’t remember much of our conversation. I wondered fleetingly if he was with the mob, being from Vegas and all. Which means I must have seen The Godfather. Or maybe I had just read Mario Puzo. The man turned his Jag south on Highway 63, then, and I got out, and hitched my way on west to West Grove.

I was a little more cautious on the other side of the equation, over the years. More careful about picking people up along the road of life. During my years of wandering, I traveled the length and width of this land. And back in my Drifter truck days, I picked up a wanderer or two. In Montana, I picked up a hitchhiking woman in the rain. She was on her way to Great Falls, which is where I was heading anyway. She wasn’t all that communicative. We chatted a bit and she asked if I had any pot. Only she didn’t pronounce the word, pot. She said, Pawt. I allowed that I didn’t have any on me right then, and she asked to be let dropped off at the next gas station we passed. And so I left her in the rain, there.

On the way back east from the wheat harvest, I planned to stop in Omaha to see my good friend, Mark Hersch. A good many miles out, I came up on a young couple, thumbing their way right along the interstate. I looked them over as I passed, then made a snap decision. Pulled over, turning on my four-ways. I felt bad for the woman, out there along the road with her man. I had a big old suitcase up front with me. So I told the man as he stood outside the passenger’s door. She can ride up front. You sit in the back, in the bed. He agreed readily. I figured if they were planning on robbing me, he’d be the one to do it, and he certainly couldn’t do it from the back. The woman, a girl, really, sat up front with me. We chatted right along as we approached the city. I asked her for directions, and dropped them off right at their home, a little house in the suburbs. They both thanked me profusely.

And I picked up a few more total strangers along the road, here and there, throughout the years. In South Carolina, while attending Bob Jones, more than one road bum got a ride from me. Invariably, the bums hit you up for a few bucks. And I usually had a five or so to spare. Even as a student. And no, I never worry what any person will do with the money I give him. My duty ends the second the money changes hands. If he goes and spends every cent on demon rum, that’s his decision. At that point, it’s his money. Not mine. And what he does with his money is his business.

Like I said way back there at the beginning, you don’t see many people hitchhiking around these parts. You just don’t. And I figured that was my little experience, that other morning, that evoked a few old memories buried there in the back of my head. That’s what I thought. Until last Friday evening. I had stopped in at Vinola’s for Happy Hour. A few drinks, and some good cheap bar food. And a good time with my buddies. Around seven or so, I was heading out. Left onto Rt. 23, and over toward New Holland.

A quarter mile or so down the road, a man stood, leaning into the traffic. It wasn’t quite dusk yet, and I didn’t recognize him. But I thought, what the heck? I’m into picking up hitchhikers these days. So I swerved off into the next parking lot, a bit down the road. The man came puffing up. Wiry, in his sixties, with a thin little white mustache. Hey, you look familiar, I said. Didn’t I just pick you up the other morning, going the other way? He nodded as he got in. “Yes,” he said. “You did.”

And this time, I had a bunch of questions, as we pulled out into the traffic. What was he doing in Lancaster City? Working, he said. He had just got a job doing remodeling work with a friend. And his first paycheck wouldn’t come in until next week. What was his name? He told me, and from somewhere back there, the man has Amish blood. He never was Amish. His grandpa had left, decades ago. And we just talked. His fiancé had passed away unexpectedly a little over a year ago. “I went into depression,” he said, looking at me kind of sideways, to see my reaction. And I looked right back at him, and smiled. I know all about dark places, I told him. Believe me, I’ve been there, and not that long ago, either.

And we just talked. I’ll drop you off at Sheetz, I told him. And he told me a little bit how hard life had been lately. “But God is good,” he said. Yes, I said. Yes. God is always good. Don’t matter what you’re going through. Even in the dark places, He’s there. You can’t feel that, walking through. But you can always see it, looking back. “Yes,” he said.

We were getting close to Sheetz, where I would drop him off, just down the road from my house. And this time he wasn’t all that shy about it. Could I spare a few bucks, to help hold him over until his first paycheck came next week? And this time I wasn’t talking to a smooth-tongued panhandler. He was just a guy, down on his luck, walking down a tough road. Out there, whacking around, trying to do the best he could with what little he had. Trying to make it, hitchhiking his way to work and back.

Yeah, I said. What are you looking for?

It wasn’t much. “A five would get me some food and milk,” he said.

I dug into my wallet, there at the Sheetz parking lot. I got a five here with your name on it, I said, handing it to him.

We shook hands. “God bless you,” he said. “Thank you.”

You are welcome, I said. God bless you too, my brother. And then I left him.
And it’s that time of year again. Beach Week. Tomorrow morning early we head out. As always, I am beyond ready for it. It just seems a little strange that the year has slipped by so fast, and now it’s time. I remember last year, how desperately I needed that week to refresh my weary heart. This year, I won’t say my heart is particularly weary. I’m just tired, overall. Bone tired. And I will turn again to the incessant and eternal roll and roar of the sea to calm my soul, and rest.