April 1, 2016

Scenes from the Open Road…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


You cannot find peace by avoiding life.

—Virginia Woolf

The morning broke, and the sun rose and glistened over a bright and beautiful day. And I reveled in the feeling and the freshness of it all. It wasn’t that long ago, I thought to myself, when I didn’t know if such a day would ever come again. But now, here it was. And it stretched before me in the distance, as far as the eye could see. Maybe there won’t be another time, but there will be this time. This morning, this day, there will be one more journey down one more open road.

It’s an important thing, a wedding is. And with fifty-nine nieces and nephews all stirring around out there, there’s been no shortage of invitations coming at me. Right along, over the years, here comes another envelope in the mail. One more proclamation from one more far and fertile land halfway across the country. Behold. There will be a great wedding on such and such a day. A huge feast will follow. You are invited. In fact, we would be honored by your presence. Inherent in all that was this simple message. We’ll be offended if you don’t show up. And I was, like, Gahhhh. It all got to be a bit much for an eccentric old uncle like me to take in.

And no, it’s not because I’m a prickly old curmudgeon. I enjoy family gatherings as much as the next guy. The thing is, you can’t go to every wedding. Just like you can’t go to every funeral. Especially if they’re far away, and you got a job to go to every morning. All those factors figure in. So my normal response has been, thanks, but I won’t be able to make it. Randomly, now and then, I could make it. And did. And it was always an enjoyable thing to get together, to hang out. Always an adventure.

Friday morning. Good Friday. It sure works out well this time, I thought, as I headed on over to my friends at Enterprise to pick up the car I had reserved the day before. It works out well, because Good Friday is a holy day here in Lancaster County. Many businesses here shut down. You don’t work. But you can travel. It’s just another normal day, to all the outside world. Right at seven, as the place opened, I parked Big Blue and walked in. A new guy behind the little counter, there at the Ford place. He looked at me, all decked out in my jeans, canvas vest, and Aussie hat. I greeted him cheerfully. Beautiful day out there for a road trip. What kind of car you got for me?

He didn’t seem all that communicative. Cordial enough, and professional. Just not real talkative, like those guys usually are. “I have a Ford Focus for you,” he told me. “It’s pretty close to new, only seven hundred miles on it.” That’s great, I said. But I have to ask, because I always do. Do you have a Charger on the lot? He shook his head. “Sadly, I do not,” he said. That’s fine, I said. I always check, because I always upgrade if you got one. The Ford Focus will be just fine. Especially if it’s that close to brand new.

He got my paperwork ready and walked out to fetch the little car. And as we were doing the walk-around, he got communicative, all of a sudden. Those guys are usually pretty good, and this guy was stellar. Upsell. That’s what you do, when you’re renting a car to someone. Not the model or the make, necessarily. But upsell to trip-specific insurance.

He had asked who my insurer was, and about the deductible. Allstate, I told him. Now, he smoothly slid into his sales pitch. “I know you have great insurance with Allstate,” he began. “But we have insurance you can buy, just for this trip and just for this car. That way, if something happens, your Allstate coverage won’t be affected. It’s only $24 per day, and it would bring your total to such and such.” He named the price. And told me what those guys always say. “With this insurance, you are totally covered. We don’t care if you bring us back only the steering wheel. You’re covered.”

He was good. I’ll give him that. Real good. I came closer to biting than I have in a while. But still. I hedged. My truck coverage spills over to rental cars. I had checked that out a few times over the years. So I told the guy. I’ll pass, this time. He persisted. “Are you sure?” I guess that’s how they train them. Yes, I said. I’m sure. He handed me the keys. “OK, then. Have a great trip, and we’ll see you early Monday morning.” Thank you, I said. I will and we will.

The little Focus was what the man had said. Brand new. I parked my truck at the far end of the lot, and walked back to the car. I got in and adjusted the seat and mirrors to fit me. Well. The Aussie hat would have to go, at least while I was driving. My head pretty much scraped the ceiling as it was. That’s OK, though, I figured. And I headed home to load up. I had packed light. Just for a few days. At least I thought so. As always, when the time came to load, I threw in this and that. I might need a pair of sneakers. And an extra jacket. Lord knows what the weather will be out there in Ohio. It’s a weird state. I loaded a box with a dozen of my books, too. You never know when you’ll meet someone who wants a copy. By eight, me and the little Focus were on the road.

And it seems like such a strange and astonishing thing, but I gotta say it. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt so lighthearted and free as I did that morning, heading west. I’m not even sure how to put my finger on it, how to describe it. I guess it was just a state of mind. Whatever it was, it had been a while. And I felt the gratitude stirring deep inside me. Thank you, Lord, for this day. Thank you, for health and strength. Thank you, that I can go and spend time with my family. I will never take such a thing for granted again, and I will always be grateful for all of life. That’s what I felt and that’s what I thought and that’s what I spoke to the Lord that morning on the road.

The little Focus pulsed along, on and on into the morning and then into the day. It sure was a heavy car, for its size. I didn’t feel small at all, driving along in traffic. But when I stopped for coffee for the first time and got out, I couldn’t believe how tiny the car was. Oh, well. I reached in to the passenger’s seat and grabbed the Aussie hat and put it on and sauntered in. Inside, no one would know that I was driving a little toy of a car.

Onward, westward, I pushed along. And soon enough, I-70 came right up. I left the toll road after paying the exorbitant fee of 21 bucks. For a little car, to drive from Harrisburg to New Stanton. That’s highway robbery, I grumbled to myself. The thing is, that price will never recede, will never go down. Only up. I paid. And then it was on west, to Wheeling, WV.

And I thought about it, as the Focus slid along through the traffic. The wedding. It was a big deal to my sister Naomi and her husband, Alvin Yutzy. They had raised a long row of strong, strapping sons and one beautiful daughter. And the strange thing was, the children had all pretty much stayed with the church their parents raised them in. Not precisely, and not all, but still. Close enough. And looking back to where I came from, and how I could not stay at the place where my father was, it was a thing of wonder to me, how Alvin and Naomi had raised their children. Especially the sons. Somewhere, there had to be some communication going on when those guys were growing up. That’s all I could figure out. Sons get all restless sometimes, and will push on and out, from where they were raised. Get a little more modern than their parents. Walk a different path. Like I had. Unless…unless someone is talking and someone’s listening.

Whatever the reasons, almost all of Alvin and Naomi’s sons didn’t stray very far from how they were raised. They stayed pretty plain, which was and is a wonder to me. And now, one of the younger boys, Daniel, was getting hitched to Sheri Byler, a Conservative Mennonite girl from Holmes County. That’s where I was heading. Up west and north to Holmes. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there. I used to stop and see John Schmid, now and then. Back when. John and I still hang out a few times a year, when he comes through Lancaster County. And we always catch up, and he always invites me out to Holmes. The problem is, John travels a lot, working in prison ministry. And he’s not home a lot. We had chatted a few weeks back, and I told him I was coming for a wedding. He told me. “You’re welcome to stay at my house, but we won’t be home. We’ll be traveling that weekend. A concert in Missouri. But you can stay at my place.” He meant it, too. Ah, that’s OK, I told him. I’ll just get a motel room. It sure would be nice to hang out, and I sure would stay at your place if you were home. But I’ll just hang with family and friends at the motel.

Down around Wheeling, Highway 250 got some real sharp curves. I mean, you’re going one way this instant, here comes a hairpin, and you’re going the other way, pretty much. I don’t mind the road, though. It’s a scenic drive. By early afternoon, I got through the curves and headed on west. Then up Rt. 19 through Sugarcreek. Walnut Creek was next. It sure is hilly, out there in Holmes. I haven’t seen many places where they farm hills like that. But out there, they do. The Amish are about as saturated in that area as they are here in Lancaster County. I cruised on up Rt. 19. And there, just outside Walnut Creek, stood the Wallhouse Hotel. It jutted majestically from the farm fields all around. All five stories of it. Wow, I thought. They’re getting a little hifalutin’ in Holmes. That there’s a brand new place, looks like. And five stories high, yet. What’s next, a real skyscraper?

The Wallhouse Hotel was almost brand new, and pricey enough. I didn’t grumble, though. This place was chosen because it was real close to the church where the wedding would be tomorrow. I sauntered in, all sharp. The clerk greeted me politely. I need a room, I told him. For two nights. I didn’t make a reservation. And I need the AAA discount. He checked me right in. A big king bed in a room on the fifth floor. I took the electronic key and thanked him and trundled out a cart for my stuff. A guy should travel light with only a few bags, I knew. But when you’re going to a wedding, you gotta take some nice clothes on hangers. And you need a cart for that, when you’re moving from your car to your room. I loaded the cart and boarded the elevator. All around me, everything was glistening and new.

I pulled the cart up to Room 505, and fumbled around for my key card. And I looked at the door. Strangely, there seemed to be no slot of any kind to stick my card into. There was a little plastic box mounted right under the door knob. Looked like it had a lid, and a little indent to push it open. So I pushed. Nothing. I pried around. Nothing. This was getting frustrating. I mean, come on. There’s gotta be a slot for my card, somewhere. And I pried around that plastic lid every which way. Up. Down. Sideways, both ways. It simply would not budge. I stood back and pushed my Aussie hat about as far back as it would go, and scratched my head and just looked at the door. There has got to be a way to get that card stuck in there, somewhere. There has got to be. But there wasn’t. Not that I could see or feel, anywhere. A couple of times, I almost boarded the elevator to go back down to the front desk. But I didn’t want to leave my cart there, with my stuff. So I stayed, glued to the spot, and just fought that door. I talked to it, too, real sternly, which didn’t seem to make any difference at all. It was a maddening and frustrating thing.

About right then, a couple stepped from the elevator and strolled right up to me, to pass on down the hall. Heavy-set and bearded, the man was dressed all casual in shorts. I turned and practically assaulted them both. I can’t find a place to stick my card in, I said. I’ve almost torn this door down, and it won’t budge. Can you show me how to open the freakin’ thing? The man barely slowed his stride. “Try waving the card across the plastic thing, there,” he said. “I think some hotels have remote cards, now.” I looked at my card. There was no stripe on it, anywhere. So I waved it across the front of the plastic thingy under the door knob. The green light went on, and there was a sharp click. The door unlocked. I stood there and sputtered. I ain’t never seen such a thing. The heavy-set man had walked on past me, but he was sympathetic. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You’ll be alright.” I gaped after him. And I felt like I had just crawled out of a hole in the jungle, somewhere.

On into the room, then. A beautiful spacious place. King bed, fridge, all kinds of closet space and a large bathroom. I’ll enjoy my stay, I thought. After unpacking and relaxing for a few minutes, I headed on back down. I wanted to check out a few places before supper tonight at the community center. I stopped by the front desk on my way out. You people need to tell guests that you just wave your card to open the door, I told the clerks. There were two of them now. I almost tore your door off its hinges before someone told me how the card works. They both chuckled. What can you expect from a guy wearing an Aussie hat? That’s what I felt them thinking.

I drove out on Rt. 19 toward Berlin. A few years ago, I had a book signing at Gospel Light Bookstore. My friend, “Small” Hochstetler, owns and runs the place. He was around somewhere, the clerk told me when I walked in. And soon enough, he came bustling around. Even with my beard, he recognized me. He beamed and shook my hand. We stood there, close to the spot where I had signed my books, and just visited. With Small, that’s an easy thing. He’s never short of words.

I asked about Dad’s books. Oh, yes, he had them right up front, by the entrance. All three volumes. Dad had come around last spring, I think it was, and there was a book signing for him, too. Lots of people showed up. Small shook his head in wonder. The man just keeps writing and writing and producing and producing. After half an hour or so, we were winding down. Small paused and looked at me sharply.

“And what about you?” he asked. “Are you working on your next book?” Ah, well, I said. A thing like that, you can’t force it. It’s gotta come on its own, and if it doesn’t, I’m totally OK with that. But I’m thinking it will. By the way, did you know I almost died last November? Small had not heard. So I told him. My heart issues. How close it had come, to me leaving. I finished my story. I’m not afraid anymore, I said. Not afraid to die, and not afraid to live. I’m not afraid of another book, either, and what it is to write it. I’m telling you, I can’t help but talk about it to whoever will listen to me.

Small looked at me sharply again. “You need to write that story, then, if you’re not afraid,” he said. “For your next book, just write that.” I have, I said. I’m writing that story, all of it, on my blog. Once the book comes along, I’ll be able to go back and pick through and expand on stuff. That’s my game plan. Small seemed satisfied, then. He asked which blog told of my hospital stay, and I pulled it up on my iPhone and showed it to him. He jotted down the title and the date. It was close to closing time, which was at five on Good Friday. I took my leave and headed back to the hotel.

I settled in, then, and just rolled with the events as they came down. The evening before a wedding, there’s always s big old feast somewhere, provided by the groom’s parents. That’s how it’s been, anyway, in the past. And tonight, Alvin and Naomi were hosting a meal at the community center just outside Sugarcreek. I pulled in right at 5:30, right on time. The place looked pretty deserted. A few other vehicles were parked about randomly. My brother Jesse pulled up in a rented van about the same time I got there. He and Lynda emerged and we greeted each other. Where is everyone? Alvin and Naomi met us as we approached the front door. My sister smiled and smiled and greeted me with a huge hug. “I’m so honored that you made it.” she told me. Not a problem, I said. I wanted to come. I didn’t make it to most of the weddings in your family. This one was close. So here I am.

I shook hands with everyone all around. We lounged around and visited, then. Jesse tried to stir the pot by loudly praising Trump. “He’ll be the next president,” Jesse proclaimed. It might have stirred up a few people, but not me. I hope Trump wins, I said. Not that I vote, or anything. I just want to see him win, because I hate the establishment so much. And nothing is getting more tiresome than listening to all those pious Christians telling you. You can’t be a Christian and vote for Trump. That right there is enough to make anyone vote for him, even if you don’t vote. Which I don’t.

I saw my sister standing across the room, and went to chat with her. She was fretting. Over a hundred people had committed to come for supper tonight, and only a few dozen had showed up so far. Oh, well, give them some time, I told her. She looked me up and down and pronounced that I had good color and looked very healthy. I laughed. And I told her what I had told Small, earlier. I can’t not talk about it. I’m not afraid. I can’t tell you how not afraid I am. Not afraid to die. Not afraid to live. I’ve never been here before, in my heart. It’s the freest place I’ve ever seen. It’s a beautiful place to be. I’m getting my motorcycle license, I babbled, somewhat disjointedly. She gaped mildly at me. This was certainly a side of me that she had never seen before. I can’t help it, I said again. I can’t not talk about it.

The place filled up then, boom, just like that, as waves of youth swarmed in. And more guests, too, from out of state. My good friend and blood brother, Rudy Yutzy walked up, smiling. His load had just arrived. We hugged, and he asked about my heart and health. “I didn’t realize you were in such bad shape until after it was all over,” he told me. “Had I known, I would have been out there to see you.” It all ended good, I told him. And more people flooded in. Naomi wouldn’t have to worry about the food getting eaten. There was much shouting and greeting and hand shaking and hugging and back slapping. And we all feasted from the loaded potato bar. It was a very special time.

The next morning came, and the day flowed at us. A large group assembled in the lobby for breakfast. The Wallhouse sure served up some tasty food. Biscuits, gravy, eggs, bacon, all the usual greasy stuff. I ate a heaping plateful and sat at the table sipping coffee. A few local friends stopped by to hang out and chat. We all drank coffee and connected.

Rudy and his brothers wanted to go check out the old homestead of their great-grandpa, Reuben Yutzy. His claim to fame: he was probably the only Amish gun maker, ever, in all of history. He cranked out a good number of high quality muzzle loaders way back when. His guns are highly sought after, especially by his offspring. When one shows up for sale, it’ll bring $30,000 or so. His little work shop is still there on the farm, but just barely. It’s going to collapse and fall in very soon. A load of us headed out and checked out the work shop and took pictures. A few walked on back to the old graveyard on the hill, where Reuben is buried. And soon after 12, we headed back to the hotel to get dressed for the wedding.

By 1:30, we were assembled at the church. A large nice quiet sanctuary it was. The usher led me right to my seat, just a few rows back from the very front. A seat of honor, in the family section. Jesse and Lynda were already seated to my right. Steve and Wilma came in right after me. Of all the siblings, we three brothers were the only ones who had made it to this wedding. That’s just an observation, nothing more. Lord knows I’ve missed more than my share of such events over the years. I made it to this one pretty much because it was close and convenient.

We chatted as the place filled up. I’m suspicious of any Plain wedding service, I told Jesse. A lot of preachers like to hear themselves talk way too much. Jesse chuckled. Well, I said. With the Amish, you know the service is going to be three hours long. That’s just how they do it. But with the Beachys and Plain Mennonites, you got no idea of how long it will go. I sure hope this one’s short. We’ve all heard the five-point sermon on what a good marriage is. We don’t need to hear it again. Jesse glanced at the bulletin. “It looks like it’ll be fairly short,” he said. “There’s going to be lots of choir singing.”

The service began, then, and it was short and very lovely. An opening prayer, then a short admonition from some preacher. And Jesse was right. There was a good bit of choral singing from Daniel’s buddies from Faith Builders. That’s the Plain Mennonite school in western PA, where he and Sheri met. Daniel was on the school choir, and that choir does a real quality job. All A Capella. No instruments at all. As I’ve said before, I don’t agree with the hyper-Anabaptist teachings at Faith Builders. I get weary, listening to that kind of talk. But whatever they do there, they do with all their might. And their choral music has always been of the highest quality. I’ll give them that.

After the choir had performed a good many songs, the preacher man stood and delivered the main sermon. His words were sparse, his presentation blissfully short. And right soon, Sheri’s father, who I guess was a minister of some sort, stood to perform the vows. And almost precisely one hour after the service began, the happy couple was presented to the congregation as Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Yutzy. We all applauded.

There was a great and delicious feast, then, in the auditorium. I sat with my brothers at a family table way up front. We sure were honored all day, with the seating and the service. Afterward, people scattered to the winds. Rudy and his load headed back to Missouri, driving most of the night. I took my sister Naomi over to the bed and breakfast they had rented for their extended family. Most of her children and their families were there. We sat around and just visited for a few hours. And then I headed on back to the Wallhouse hotel for one more night.

The next morning the lobby was pretty much deserted, compared to how it had been the morning before. I packed my stuff and sat down for a nice loaded plate of greasy breakfast food. Then I went back up and fetched all my luggage. Loaded the car. And stepped back in to fill my water bottle and grab a fresh cup of hot coffee. I stopped on the way out to turn in my key card and get my receipt. And then I walked outside.

It was a beautiful sunny day. Easter Sunday. A day of new beginnings. A day to hit the road. I boarded the little Focus and turned to the east and home.
Well. My computer woes seem to be over. After my disastrous experience with the Best Buy people, I took my brother-in-law Paul’s advice. I hunkered down and hooked up my old computer. It was familiar and it worked just fine. Paul didn’t forget me, though. On Thursday, the evening before my road trip, he headed on over with my new Asus model. He had used his Amazon connections, loaded Windows 7, and claimed it all was ready to go. I was a little skittish from how it had just gone with the other computer, but I welcomed him. And in about an hour, he had transferred my data from old to new. It all seemed to work fine. We checked out everything. This model did not freeze up. I paid the man and thanked him for his expertise and time. It’s a good thing to have good people in your life. And it’s a good thing to have good connections.