April 29, 2016

The Penitent…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


…for in all that limitless horizon there was no shade or shelter,
no curve or bend, no hill or tree or hollow: there was only one
vast, naked eye – searing and inscrutable – from which there
was no escape, and which bathed his defenseless soul in its
fathomless depths of shame.

—Thomas Wolfe

The preacher man stood with his head bowed to his chest, all silent, looking solemn. He had been preaching right along, but apparently there was something heavy on his mind, something that made him pause. Some story. He stood there in silence for a few more moments in the open doorway between two rooms. And then he settled in to tell it.

Recently he had traveled to another Amish community, somewhere far away. I can’t remember, but I’d guess it was somewhere down in the States. And he had stayed there over Sunday, and he was invited to preach. Which he did. But that wasn’t the story. After church, there was the traditional noon meal. Homemade bread, Amish peanut butter and all the fixings. And after the meal, the men relaxed and spread out and sat around to visit.

And the preacher man told us. A strange thing he saw. He noticed a man sitting hunched over, off to the side, alone. Youngish, probably in his thirties, I took it. He watched the man, intrigued that he sat there, all by himself. No one bothered him. The man seemed greatly burdened. He hung his head. And then a tear trickled down his cheek. And another. The man reached up listlessly and wiped the tears away, but the preacher could see. More tears trickling down, more tears wiped away. And then more and more. The weeping would not stop.

And the preacher man turned to the men around him, the people he was visiting with. And he asked them. “Why does that man sit alone, and weep? What happened? Why does he grieve so?” And one of the older men next to the preacher sadly shook his head. The other men around them kind of froze up, silent, listening in. And the old man told the preacher what had happened in the sad man’s life, that he sat off alone, all by himself. A terrible thing, it was, a sin better not talked about much. A sin you almost can’t come back from.

The weeping man had been an ordinary average guy, growing up. He ran around with the other youth in the community. And in time, like most Amish boys do, he asked a girl if he could take her home one Sunday night after the singing. She said yes, and the two of them started dating, got to be a thing. And after a few years, there was a wedding one Thursday. They got married. Just another ordinary Amish couple settling in to their own home, their own household. And then the children came along. There were two or three, if I remember right. And their life path was set, as in days of old, the days of their forefathers. Their children would grow, there would be more, and then the parents would grow old together, surrounded by their extended family. Such was life foretold, and such was all that anyone ever expected from the weeping man and his wife.

The preacher man paused, here, in the telling of the story. And he looked even more grave and somber than before. He spoke softly, as if he were talking directly to each individual in his hearing. I know it felt like he was talking only to me. No one saw it coming, the trouble for the young couple. But somehow, the wife was tempted by another man. An English man. They kept it hidden, pretty well, so that no one suspected anything. Until it couldn’t stay hidden any more. The scandal broke across the community. The shocking news was proclaimed from the rooftops throughout all the land. And the young Amish wife ran away with her English lover. Deserted her home and her husband. I can’t remember what the preacher said happened to the children. If they went with Mom or stayed with Dad. Wherever they went or stayed, they bore the burden of their shame.

And the young Amish wife filed for divorce. For the husband, it was the most shameful stigma imaginable. He staggered with the blow. Everyone clucked and talked of how awful it was, that his wife treated him so badly. What was she thinking? And everyone blamed her, all the way. Her poor husband couldn’t help it, that she divorced him. He was about as innocent as he could be. Still. Divorce was divorce. He was allowed to stay Amish, in the church. He could never get remarried, at least as long as his ex-wife was alive. And penance. There would be never-ending penance.

The husband eventually got a bit of a grip on his life. Adapted to the new reality that was his world. He was Amish and divorced. A misnomer, if there ever was one. And in time, he took to sitting alone and weeping always after church. The others learned to leave him alone. And so he sat there, and his tears would not stop. They would never stop.

And the preacher paused, then, as he wound down his story. And he told us. He understood, then, why the man sat apart and wept. It was a heavy thing he carried, and lived with every day. And he spoke, in a voice of compassion. The poor weeping man would bear the shame and sorrow of his sin all his life. He would always, always sit and weep after church on any given Sunday. But, the preacher told us. When the Lord returns to gather his children, there is hope that there will be room in heaven for the poor weeping man, too. That he might also be gathered in, when the Lord comes for His own.

I remember the scene vividly from my childhood. Not where church was that day. But the story and the setting. The preacher man of long ago was Elmo Stoll. And I remember that even as a child, I felt very sorry for the weeping man, that he could never have any hope of joy in his life, but only guilt and pain and sorrow and relentless shame and penance that could never end.

The Amish. Divorce. Mention the word “divorce” in polite Amish company, and it’s like waving a cross at a vampire. They recoil from it that strongly. It simply is not part of their lexicon, the concept or the practice. And that’s OK. I’m not criticizing any of that. Just observing. That’s part of why the Amish have maintained their identity, part of the reason they remain a separate people, their strong stand against any kind of divorce for any reason. It’s simply not allowed. If your partner leaves and divorces you, well, that’s not your fault. You can stay with your people. But you can never, never be the one filing for divorce. Do that, and you will be cast out. Don’t matter how good a reason you had. That’s just how it is. And that’s how it’s always been.

And other than Elmo’s little tale, I don’t remember a whole lot of such stories in my childhood. Maybe a few, always told in hushed tones. I remember one story Dad told a few times about a single girl, a spinster, who came to work for Pathway, there in Aylmer. I can’t remember her name, or where she came from, but I can still faintly see her face. A rather beautiful girl, in my young mind. And Dad always told us her story. She was engaged to a young Amish man back in her home community, wherever that was. And their wedding date approached. And the last night before the wedding, her man decided he didn’t want to get married after all. He ran away, disappeared, and soon emerged in some nearby city. English. She was devastated, of course. Dad always shook his head as he concluded the tale, and said, wisely. “She can’t be thankful enough that he didn’t wait until after they were married, to leave like that.”

I could never see that much to be thankful for, when your betrothed deserts you on the night before your wedding day. And I thought stern thoughts about any man who could ever do such a thing. He must have been a real bad person. And then one day, long ago, I fled from my betrothed, too. Openly, face to face, not sneaking out the night before the wedding or anything like that. But still, we were betrothed. The Amish take family very seriously. And I broke the bond of family. Be careful how you judge, is what I take from looking back. People have their reasons for doing what they do. Someday, you might do close to the same thing yourself.

After we moved to Bloomfield, there were a few more rumblings here and there, about divorce scandals. Maybe those rumblings always were out there, maybe I was just too young to be told. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, sometime during the eighties, I think it was, there was a large scandal down south of us a ways. Just over the line in Missouri about a hundred miles. The Clarke community was a real plain place. “Low” Amish, we called people like that. Very strict, not a lot of comforts allowed. Hard working people, of course. And life was hard.

It kind of swept through that community like a plague. Young husbands, half a dozen or so, leaving their wives and children. Running off to town, living English, and running with English women. It sure made some waves in the regional Amish world of that time, there in the Midwest. I remember people clucking and shaking their heads. How could any man be so deliberately wicked? To just off and leave your wife and children? What kind of man would do such a thing? And what was going on, down in Clarke, anyway? The Clarke community hunched down, deeply shamed. And the young abandoned wives bore the heavy burden of their shame, as well. It was a strange and bitter thing, such as I had not seen before.

In Lancaster, I don’t hear much of such a thing as divorced Amish people. I’m sure there is the odd couple, here or there, where one or the other ran off. It happens just about anywhere, and it happens seemingly randomly. I was chatting with a local friend not long ago about it all. And he told me. A few years back, there was this young Amish man my friend knew real well. They grew up together. Went to school together. The man had married, Amish, and they had about six children or so. And one day, out of the blue, the young father just took off. Went and bought a Harley and took to running with a rough biker crowd. Why? I asked? Where did that come from? You don’t just run off and join Harley people unless there was something going on before. My friend shook his head. “I have no clue,” he told me. “The guy just seemed to go haywire. And he left his family, just like that. They’re all still Amish, his wife and children. I guess she’s his ex-wife, now.” And I clucked in sympathy and shook my head. Who can understand such a strange thing as that?

An odd marriage doesn’t have to involve divorce, or even separation. Down east of me, there is an extraordinary situation, a thing such as I’ve never heard of before. There, in one district, a wife left the Amish church a number of years ago. She didn’t leave her home or her husband, just the church. She joined some English group of some kind. Got a car, and didn’t dress plain anymore at all. When such a thing happens, usually, there’s an explosion. Someone leaves, a home breaks up. But that didn’t happen here.

The woman and her husband continued living together, and they still live together today. Their home never broke up, never got busted. What makes this scene so extraordinary is that the husband is the deacon in his church. Ordained and everything. He remains the deacon. The whole thing just boggles my mind. I’ve never heard of such a thing before. But there it is, a mere few miles from where I live. And I’m certainly not knocking the situation. I think it’s fantastic, that everyone involved is so level headed. Including the bishop and the preachers.

I got to talking about it all with my friend Amos Smucker, the horse dentist. If anyone knows what’s going on, right now or in the past history of all of Lancaster County, he does. And he told me. “It’s the plainer, hard core communities where this kind of stuff happens more. Sure, it’s happened here in Lancaster. I can tell you of a few examples. But those plainer places, they get it in waves. Six, nine couples at a time. Not long ago something like that happened out there in western Pennsylvania, around Smittensburg and Punxutawney. Those communities are real strict and plain. And it just seems to happen more in places like that.” And I thought back to Clarke, Missouri, back in the eighties. Yes, it seems like the plainer communities have more of a problem with it, I agreed. There was no judgment in our conclusion. We were just observing.

Winding down, then. Coming from where I came from, I never imagined that the stigma and shame of divorce would ever be something I’d have to deal with. It’s not something that crosses your mind much, when you’re growing up Amish. Stuff like that mostly happens to people out in the world, and once in a while to some Amish person who should have known better than to marry the spouse they did. The odds are pretty long though, that it’ll ever happen to you, not when you’re safe inside the box. You don’t look for it, you don’t expect it.

There’s a small distinction for me, I guess. I never experienced divorce as an Amish person. I had left decades before. I can only imagine what the shock of it all must be like, if you’re still a part of your people, and something like that comes at you. It would have to be a hard thing, a bitter thing. It just would have to be.

And so I am where I am today. And yeah, I know. I’m a poster child that the Amish use, that parents point out to their wayward children. Look at Ira. He left, when he shouldn’t have. When he knew better. And just see how it went for him. He got all educated, when he should have been content at home working on the farm. He married English. And now he’s divorced. And that’s not all. When his marriage blew up, it got really, really messy. It was a huge scandal that rocked the world he left. A man like that should never hold his head high again, not around the people he came from. He shouldn’t be able to look them in the eye. And he wouldn’t, if he had any shame.

There’s a lot more that’s left unsaid, I suppose, from people who talk like that. Penance. Endless penance. That’s what they figure I should be doing. That, and there must be tears, there must be incessant weeping. There must be perpetual remorse. It all looks a lot like the sad man who sat off to the side alone in the preacher’s tale.

I will give them this, the people who judge me. I will give anyone this. It’s a harsh and brutal thing when a marriage blows up. Few things I have ever seen have been anywhere close to as brutal as that. And yes, you rage and cry to the heavens. There are tears, there is sadness, there is rage, there is weeping. All those promises, all those hopes and dreams, all those plans for a home and family in a place of peace, all that gets swept away into the debris of a torn and broken world. And yes, there is penance and regret. There is remorse that cuts so deep you think you’re sliced in half. And yes, none of it will ever really die inside you. All of it will live in you for as long as you’re alive.

But the Lord is the Lord of broken people with wounded hearts. He cares for the lost, he cares for the exiled, he cares for those whose lives are so shattered that there is no hope. And he heals them. Somewhere in the Old Testament, there is a place where he speaks to people like that. And he tells them.

I am the Lord of the whole earth. And I know you are far from the place you grew up in, the place you call home. You are stranded far from there, and you will never see your home again, despite the deepest longings of your hearts. But I want you to have joy in life, wherever you are. I want you to make the world around you more beautiful. I want you to plant gardens. I want you to live, and not weep. You are my children, and you will never not be. Go, then, and live and rejoice on this earth.

That’s what the Lord said to his lost and exiled children a long time ago. And that’s why I don’t sit off to the side alone and weep like the sad man did in the preacher’s tale.

April 15, 2016

Vagabond Traveler: Tracking Thieves…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


…He would appear at the table bearing a platter filled with some revolting
mess of his own concoction, — a mixture of raw vegetables, chopped up —
onions, carrots, beans, and raw potatoes — for he had the full strength of
his family’s mania concerning food, … and deep-seated distrust of every-
body’s cleanliness but his own.

—Thomas Wolfe

I didn’t feel particularly grumpy that morning as the day dawned. Well. Maybe just a little. It was my Saturday to work, which comes around about once a month. So no sleeping in. Which was fine. I’ll take my turn at work, just like everyone else. But, it was also going to snow. And I could see, looking out. It was fixing to start, right about the time I walked to my truck. Snow. Spitting white stuff. In April. So, yeah, maybe I was a little bit grumpy about all that. Still, it was a new day. And you just do what you do, when a new day comes.

The roads were dead when I pulled out in Big Blue and headed over to Sheetz for my coffee. Of a Saturday morning, the roads are usually dead here in Lancaster County. But they’re especially dead on a Saturday morning in April when it’s snowing. I pulled up and parked at my usual spot and walked in. The cashier, a kindly elderly lady, wears a name tag that simply says, Mom. She’s been around for about as long as I’ve been going there, and always smiles and greets me by name. A few years back, I watched for my chance. And one Saturday, around mid-day when it was slow, I snuck in a copy of my book and signed it and gave it to her. She beamed and beamed and smiled in wonder. Ever since then, she often asks how my family is doing. “How is your Dad?” Oh, he’s still writing, I say. She was all sympathetic, too, back when my Mother died. She offered me her sincere condolences. “I feel as if I know her,” she told me. This morning, she smiled in welcome as usual as I walked up to pay. Some of us have to drive to work in this snow, I grumbled. “You be careful out there on the road,” she admonished.

On over the back roads, then, toward the office. The snow swept down in great wet blobs. I took my time, meandering along. A few minutes before eight, I arrived and parked. Today would be a slow day, if there ever was one. It was. The phone rang sporadically. A few brave souls wandered in for materials. One local couple came in for a quote on a garage. They had just moved down from New York. I’m sorry it’s snowing here, in April, I told them. They laughed. “It’s nothing, compared to what we’re used to,” they said. And right at noon, as I was leaving, the snow stopped, and the spitting skies cleared up. Great. At least the afternoon could be salvaged, I figured.

I don’t usually get too torn up, on a Saturday afternoon. I putz around, run a few errands, and generally end up for coffee at the house of some of my good Amish friends. Well, at least when they’re home, that is. Lately, they haven’t been around that much. But this Saturday, they were there. And right at my regular time, around 2:30, I parked Big Blue outside their house. The husband met me, and we chatted for a few minutes before heading in. And he told me. The goodwife was very ill. Well, she was some better now, but earlier in the week, she had got so bad, they went to see the doctor. Bronchitis and pneumonia, is what the doctor had decreed. She was on antibiotics. And feeling a lot better. We walked in, then, for a cup of coffee. The goodwife sat on the couch, resting, looking a little wan. I greeted her cheerfully. What’s the matter? I hear you’re sick. “I was,” she said. “I’m feeling a lot better now.”

We just sat there and drank strong creamed coffee and talked. And the goodwife told me. She was feeling a lot better. At her low point, it was pretty bad. The antibiotics had helped a great deal. Almost immediately, boom. She was breathing better. And she asked me. “Are you stopping at Miller’s Health Foods this afternoon?” I am, I said. I always stop there of a Saturday afternoon to stock up on my veggies for my smoothies for the next week. I buy mostly organic stuff. And each morning, I blend it all up and drink it. Good stuff, right there. Delicious, too. So yes, I told her. I’m stopping by at Miller’s when I leave here. Can I get you something?

“Well,” she said. “It seems like I’m out of Thieves Essential Oil. Do you think you can pick up a bottle?” Ah. Thieves Essential Oil. Right here, I will concede. I don’t claim to know a whole lot about Essential Oils. I know there’s people out there who swear by them. And I remember that my sister Maggie used a good variety of Essential Oils when she was fighting her cancer last year. And now she’s cancer-free. I don’t claim to know much about any of it. Except Thieves. I know about Thieves. That stuff absolutely works. It’s a magic elixir. When you get a bad cold or you’re stuffed up and can’t breathe, just rub some on the back of your throat or on your chest. And swallow a drop or two. It will cure your ills, just like that. I’ve known since the Ellen days. She always had Thieves around and it always worked when you needed it.

And how in the world did an Essential Oil get loaded down with such a name as Thieves? Legend has it that it happened many hundreds of years ago. A plague was sweeping the land. Might even have been the Black Death. And people just died, whole families. Whole houses full of people. Everyone just collapsed and gurgled to death in the most horrible way imaginable. And when people got the plague and died, everyone else stayed far away, so as not to get infected. It was a brutal and fearful thing.

And somehow, it was soon discovered. There was a group of people going around, from house to house. Even into the houses of the dead they went. Fearlessly. And they robbed every place they walked into. Stripped the dead of their trinkets, even. And generally just helped themselves. And the authorities could not figure it out, what was going on. Why weren’t these vile thieves getting infected and dying, just like everyone else? And somehow, at some point, some of the thieves were captured in the act. And the authorities took them and imprisoned them. And asked the thieves. How can you walk into a plague-infected house, and not get killed for it? Why don’t you get sick and die, just like everyone else does? If you show us your secret, we won’t torture you, or tear you limb from limb. We’ll let you live.

And the thieves gave up their secret. Showed the authorities what they had. A mixture of herbs and oils. When you rubbed it under your nose, and swallowed a few drops, you would be protected from the plague. And all other sicknesses, too. And that’s where Thieves Essential Oil comes from. I believe there is a lot of truth in the legend. And I told the goodwife. Of course. I’ll be happy to pick up a bottle of Thieves for you. I’ll be back after a bit. They gave me some cash. And off I went.

Miller’s Natural Foods is a pretty nice store. Just east of Bird-in-Hand a few miles, just off Monterey Road. Well stocked with just about everything natural imaginable, and Amish-owned. I stop by almost every Saturday afternoon. Sometimes I bring along my Amish friends and sometimes I don’t. You’d think the Miller’s people would recognize me by now. But no one has ever given me the slightest indication that such a thing is true. I always walk in, grab a basket, get my veggies, and get out of there in less than twenty minutes.

And today I sauntered in, on a mission. Get my own stuff. And get some Thieves for the goodwife. I puttered around with my basket, back in the walk-in cooler. Kale. Spinach. Baby carrots. Brussels sprouts. All stuff I throw into my Ninja every morning. And then I wandered back into the store. Essential Oils? Where did they keep the Oils? Eventually I took my basket up front, to the cashier. A real nice elderly Amish lady. These Miller people sure run a productive place, I thought to myself. I’ve thought that often. And I chatted with her for a bit.

I’m here to pick up some Thieves for ______, I said, conversationally (and I named my friends). Instant recognition. The goodwife is very sick. “Oh, my,” the cashier fretted. “We are out. We’re getting restocked next week. But that won’t help someone who’s sick today.” Oh, good grief, I thought. That’s all I need. No Thieves. The nice lady brightened, then. And she told me of another little Amish store, just a few miles over there, across the fields. Not far at all. “She deals in essential oils. She should have some Thieves for you,” the nice lady said. I thanked her, and paid for my stuff. And off I went, in my truck.

The other Amish place was just where the nice lady had told me it would be. There was a big greenhouse with a little shack sitting off to the side. That must be the store. I poked around. No one seemed to be home. I stuck my head into the door of the store. No one. I walked in. Cool little shack, loaded with shelves all around. You gotta hand it to the Amish. They keep things pretty simple. And there was a shelf, with lots of little Essential Oil bottles. My. Someone could just walk off with a few of those, and no one would know the difference. There was a small counter. On the counter sat a large cowbell. And there was a little sign. Please ring bell. Hmm, I thought. I guess I’m supposed to ring it outside. No one’s gonna hear it in here. This is getting to be quite a production. I picked up the cowbell. Heavy, of solid brass, it was. I stepped outside. And I shook the bell up and down, hard. It clanged and clattered and pealed and bounced from the barns and houses all around. Goodness, I thought. That was loud.

A moment later, a robust Amish woman stepped out of a nearby greenhouse where she had been working and walked over to help me. The greenhouse must have been warm. She wasn’t wearing a coat. She was young, in her thirties, probably. A mother, I could see. Her face gleamed with a healthy glow. I’m sure she would have been barefoot, had it not snowed three inches that morning. She smiled at me as she got close. Open and friendly, is what her smile was. She figured I was just an ordinary English customer. I smiled back and greeted her. I wasn’t sure about ringing that bell so loud, I said. And then I told her what I was looking for.

Miller’s Health Food said you might have some Thieves Essential Oil that I could buy, I told her. They’re totally sold out. I’m here for ______ (and I named my friends). The goodwife is very sick. Instant recognition, again. But the robust woman looked a little perturbed. “I sell another brand. It’s called OnGuard. It’s the same formula as Thieves, just not that name. But I’m sold out, too,” she said. Oh, my, I said. What am I going to do now? My friends really need it. And the woman suddenly had an idea. “Let me go in the house and see if I have a partial bottle I can sell you,” she said brightly. “When you’re sick like that, it’s good to have what works.” She turned and disappeared.

She returned a few minutes later, smiling. She had found a partial bottle. Oh, that’s great, I said. Thanks so much. She wrote up an invoice. I paid her, and thanked her again. And then I took the precious little bottle of healing oil back to the place I had started from.

My motorcycle journey chugs along, real slowly, seems like. I’m fairly used to my beard now. It stays decently trimmed. And I’m letting my hair grow long. And it’s getting to where you’ll notice. The other day, an Amish contractor stopped by to break down a building he’s buying. The guy’s a good friend, I’ve worked with him for years. “My,” he said, peering at me sharply as he took a seat by my desk. “I haven’t seen you in a while. You’re starting to look like a hippie.” Ah, thanks, I said, beaming. It’s real nice of you to notice. I take that as a big compliment. One of these days when you walk in here, I’ll have me a real ponytail. That’s my goal, anyway. He allowed it would be a little different, to see such a thing, but totally OK with him.

So things are rolling along right nice. A few weeks back, I went and got my motorcycle permit. In PA, you have to get a beginner’s permit first. You gotta go in and take a written exam, and get 16 out of 20 questions right. Some time ago, I printed out the PDF instruction guide and study book. It all seemed pretty basic. Just common sense stuff, adapted to motorcycles. One theme runs through it all, over and over, again and again. THE OTHER DRIVER WILL NOT SEE YOU. THE OTHER DRIVER WILL PULL OUT IN FRONT OF YOU. INTERSECTIONS ARE VERY DANGEROUS. WATCH OUT FOR THE OTHER DRIVER. That Saturday, I headed on over to the DMV office to take the test. It was around midmorning, and I immediately thought. This place is packed out. I’ll never make it, through these crowds. I could feel it in the air, a panicked sense of pulsing fear. Great. I checked in and got my number. About an hour, the man told me. I walked to the back of the crowded room and found a chair and settled in to wait. And I waited. And waited.

I had brought along my study guide, since I figured there would be no way this would be a quick thing. On the back of the book were about 80 practice questions. So I just started in on those questions. All 80 of them. The ones I missed, I did over again. And again and again, until I pretty much knew that practice test like the back of my hand. Meanwhile, my number was creeping up, one agonizingly slow minute after another. An hour passed. Then two. I took the practice test again. And then my number was called. I picked up my bag and walked to the front. When you wear an Aussie hat and oilskin vest in a place like that, you can feel the stares hitting your back as you pass. What kind of loon is this? What’s he here for? I felt the questions and the stares.

The man behind the desk greeted me. I spoke back cheerfully. Did I want to take the test on paper or on the computer? I’ll take the computer, I said. You all seem to be quite busy today. He chuckled. “Yes, Saturday is our busiest day,” he said. “Tuesday comes right after. We’re closed on Mondays. On Tuesdays, you have all the people who lost their licenses over the weekend coming in, to get their work driving permits.” I felt bad for those people. I mean, this place was tense enough. If you got caught by some cop for having one beer too many, you’d have to come wade through this mess. Not to mention all the costs associated with a DUI. It’s a racket, is what all of it is.

The man took my application and my driver’s license and punched around on his computer. Then he directed me off to the right, to computer #7. “Just answer the questions. Then come back here. I’ll take your check then, but only if you pass.” Oh, well, I said. Here goes. And I walked over and sat down and signed in. The questions came up at me, blip, blip, blip. And I was hugely relieved to see that I recognized every single one of them, from my practice exam. In less than ten minutes, I answered the sixteenth question. The computer congratulated me. Sixteen straight. You have passed. A stab of relief shot through me. I walked back to the nice man. He printed out my permit, and I wrote him out a check for ten bucks. He handed me the precious piece of paper. Thank you, I said. Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to me. And I walked out, clutching my motorcycle learner’s permit.

Which means I can now ride on any road in Pennsylvania, at least during daylight hours. And only if I’m wearing a helmet and eye protection. Which is pretty wild. Which doesn’t mean I’m riding. Someone has to teach me how. I’ve never driven a motorcycle even so much as a foot. I’m signed up for an instruction class this summer, in July. A few months out, yeah, but it was the first opening they had that suited me. Once I get through that little ordeal, my real license will be issued. And then, I should be good to hit the road. And then, we’ll see if that Harley chopper was the real thing or just a grand illusion.

A few days ago, I got the link. From my friend, Dr. Sabrina Voelz in Germany. They had filmed my keynote presentation last summer at Plain People Conference. I posted the first part before, if I remember right. Sabrina kept telling me. We’re editing the Q&A session. We’ll make two clips. And just yesterday, I got the links. The first half, and the second half. It’s kind of cool, to see what I had to say preserved so professionally. It’s all a bit astounding to me. Just like being invited to the conference in the first place was astounding to me. My friends in Germany have been way beyond kind to this ex-Amish redneck who just happened to get a book published. I am grateful, and will always be.

A few words here at the end, a belated public good-bye to a good friend. Fifteen years ago when I came to work at Graber, John had already been the mechanic on duty for a number of years. He was retired from a full career as an airline mechanic, and the man was absolutely paranoid about the trucks under his care. He worked his own schedule, clocked in when there was work to do, and kept all the Graber delivery trucks in tip-top shape. It got so those roadside robbers, the DOT goons, learned to just leave our trucks alone, because they knew they would find no violations. Once, after an exhaustive roadside check, the DOT robber told my driver. “My compliments to your mechanic. I can’t find even a single small violation.” That was John.

He slowed down as he grew older, but still kept a fierce pride in maintaining our trucks. Gradually, then, his work load lessened as he clocked fewer and fewer hours. And a few years ago, he approached me one day and told me he was hanging it up, was giving his notice. He was 85 years old. We wished him well. It was different, not having our crack mechanic around, but life goes on. John stopped in to see us now and again, leaning on his cane and hobbling along slowly. Always, he looked a little older and a little frailer.

He passed away quietly in late February, the day before I checked into the hospital for my heart ablation. The next Saturday afternoon, there was a short viewing period before he was laid to rest. Along with a few of his other friends and coworkers from Graber, I stopped for a few minutes to see John one last time and say good-bye. He was all dressed up to go away. His normally grease-stained hands were clean and folded. The half-smile on his face spoke of a place he was seeing that our eyes cannot behold on this earth.

He was a man of integrity and a good friend. John P. Stoltzfus, Rest in Peace.