They had been young and full of pain and combat,
and now all this was dead in them; they smiled
mildly, feebly, gently…spoke in thin voices…
looked at one another with eyes dead to desire,
hostility, and passion…
I had heard about him a few times over the years, from my Amish friends. He was the senior bishop in all of Lancaster County. Enos Beiler. The Amish pope, some called him. Not that I remembered his name for long. But still, my friends got ever more quietly persistent. He’s still sharp as a tack, mentally. You really should stop by, sometime, just to talk to him. And it happened again last weekend, as I was hanging out with some good Amish friends. The bishop came up again, in the conversation. He’s a hundred years old, now, they told me. You really need to stop by and see what he has to say to you. And finally I agreed. All right, all right, I said. I’ll go on Monday. On Labor Day. Stop pestering me. Still, I thought to myself. If you’re going to see a man who’s a hundred years old, you better get it done.
And it’s not that it would be a hard thing, to go see an old man like that. But still, I flinched a little when Monday morning came. What would old Enos think, when a total stranger came knocking on his door? And I knew from the little snippets I’d heard. He used to be all hard core, years back, when he was young and strong. He still had the reputation as one of the strictest of the strict, when it came to bishoprics. And I thought to myself. What will an old hard core guy like that do, when an ex-Amish renegade like me walks in? Lord knows I’ve had my share of bad luck over the years when it comes to Amish bishops. The mad bishop of Ligonier always comes to mind in such a moment, scowling darkly at me from the recesses of my memory.
I figured to play my “Dad” card, this time. Old Enos knew Dad years back, when my father was a Conscientious Objector during WWII. Dad served in camps at Sidling Hill, and later, in Boonsboro, MD. And I remember him telling me. The people from Lancaster County came around, just about every Sunday, to hold church services. And I wasn’t sure how it had happened, but I knew they had met, old Enos and Dad, back in those years. The bishop remembered Dad well, from what I heard. Surely he wouldn’t mind meeting Dad’s son. With such thoughts as these I calmed myself as the day came at me, then the hour.
Right at midmorning, I was fixing to head out. I loaded a few things into my trusty canvas messenger bag. My iPad, just in case. A notebook and a pen. And a copy of my book. You don’t walk into a new place like this unprepared. Play it all by ear, sure, but have what you need when you get there. That’s what I figured. I punched the address into my GPS and took off. West to Leola, then south. Then west again on Eby Road. It was a beautiful sunny morning. Old Enos had no idea I was coming, but I figured he’d be home. The Amish pay no attention to a holiday such as Labor Day. It’s like any other day to them.
On then, past vast rich fields of corn and tobacco and hay. The breadbasket of the east, Lancaster County is. The Amish are woven into the very fabric of the land, who they are and what they are. The blood of all their generations in America is buried here. The road curved and twisted, and soon I saw the old farmstead, off to the left. Where Enos lived. Enos Beiler. The elder statesman of all the Amish bishops in Lancaster County.
Oh, well, I thought. Here goes. I turned into the gravel drive and drove up to the big farmhouse. The big white barns with slatted sides were bulging with hundreds and hundreds of bundles of drying tobacco hanging from the rafters. Only in Lancaster County, I thought. The Amish have always raised tobacco here. And they’ve never made any excuses for it. I’ve always respected that about them. Just be who you are. Walk before God, like you always have.
I parked, then slung the messenger bag over my shoulder and walked up to the big farmhouse. I knocked. A rather plump Amish woman opened the door. She looked at me quizzically, but smiling. I’m looking for Enos Beiler, I half stammered. I’m Ira Wagler, one of David Wagler’s sons. The writer. My Dad was, I mean. I just wanted to meet him and visit a bit.
And she smiled. “He lives on this farm, but not in this house,” she told me. “He lives in that red brick house, halfway out the lane.” Is it OK if I stop and see him? I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Just knock on the door. He should be home.”
So far, so good, mostly, I thought to myself. I thanked the plump woman and walked back out to Big Blue. A few minutes later, I was approaching the screen door of the little brick house. The inside door was open. Looked like a washhouse in there. I lifted my hand and knocked hard on the door. No one seemed to be stirring inside. Maybe the old man wasn’t home. Maybe the bishop had gone out to visit someone this morning.
And right then the plump Amish lady from the first house came walking up. She smiled. “I’m not sure if he’ll hear you knocking, so I came to help you get in.” I looked grateful. She opened the door and walked right on in. I followed closely. “Dad,” she hollered toward the back of the living room. There was a shuffling noise. And a few seconds later, he came rolling out of the back room in his wheelchair. Enos Beiler. The Amish pope. The oldest living bishop in Lancaster County, and probably the oldest living bishop in all the Amish world.
He wheeled up and greeted his daughter, and looked at me. I held out my hand, and he took it. I’m Ira Wagler, I said. One of David Wagler’s boys. He beamed and his eyes flashed, and I saw my father’s name evoked something strong in him. I heard you met him years ago, at the CO camp during the war, I said. And he seemed all eager to talk. He settled down in his wheelchair, and I sat down on a chair by the kitchen table. And we just went at it, the old man and me.
And he told me. He remembered my father well. From way back in the 1940s, when Dad was in service in Boonsboro, MD. The people from Lancaster County went down there and bought the farm, where the young COs would stay. They enlarged the house, and sent a married couple to act as house parents. Enos told me. His parents were house parents. That’s how it happened that he ever even went down to visit.
And I looked at him, as he talked to me. In those first few minutes, the thought flashed through me. Here he sat, an old man, a hundred years old, all ready and excited to visit with a stranger. As a bishop, years ago, he was the strictest of the strict. He observed every jot and tittle of the Amish Ordnung. And I wondered, there. How many innocent lives had withered under his rule? How did the fire of all that ever die in him? Was it for him as it had been for my father? Dad held onto the fire of who he was for as long as he could grasp it. Only with age did the flames die down and recede, only with age did a certain mellowness creep in. I think that’s the way it goes with a lot of those hard core prophets of long ago. The fire dies down, simply because they get too old. No other reason. But I guess that’s a better reason than none.
We settled in then. His daughter sat off to the side for the first ten minutes or so, just listening. “This is all so interesting,” she smiled as she got up to leave. And the old bishop and I talked about a lot of things. I asked the questions, and he spoke his answers.
There were eleven districts in Lancaster County back in 1916, when he was born. Eleven. That’s pretty small. Now there’s probably more than two hundred. And he told me of how he remembered walking on the dirt road to the little country school half a mile west. The road was dirt. “Today, the young people get fussy when their buggies get a little dusty,” he said. “And I always think. They have no idea what real dirt is. Not dirt like we walked over back then.” I laughed, and he laughed, too.
He was born on this farm, he told me when I asked. Not in this house. Up there in the bigger house, where his youngest daughter lives with her family. He lived on this farm all his life, except for a brief period after he got married. He rented a small place across the road. But he worked this old home farm all his life. That’s just amazing, I said.
And I asked him, then, about the Amish culture and where he thinks it’s going. He thinks it’s moving too fast, away from the old ways. I pulled out my iPhone. What do you think of this, that the local Amish people have them? “Oh, they’re not supposed to have cell phones,” he told me. But they do, I said. I deal with them every day, out in the field. He didn’t know quite what to make of that. But he half grinned at me. “I like to hold back a little,” he said. “I’ve always liked to hold back.” Yeah, I bet you did, I thought. I didn’t say that, though.
I asked him. Do you still preach? He smiled a little shyly. “Yes,” he said. “When it’s my turn, I do.” I half gaped. Do you preach sitting down in your wheelchair? I asked. “No,” he said. “I have a walker. I can stand pretty well and when I lean on the walker.” I marveled. Here was a man, a hundred years old, telling me how he still takes his turn, how he still gets up and preaches in the Amish church he was born in.
And he spoke of his memories of my father, there at camp. “He had dark hair, and he was a striking young man. The first time I saw him, he was typing. He was the editor of the little camp newspaper, The Sunbeam. He sat there and typed away so fast that I told him. You’re typing faster than I can think.” I laughed again. Yeah, I said. I know all about the sound of that typing. I grew up going to bed with that sound clacking away downstairs. It’s a fond memory for me.
And somewhere in about here, I pulled out the copy of my book I had brought. I handed it to him, and he looked at it. I wrote this book, I said. “You mean, your Dad wrote it?” he asked. No, I said. I wrote it. I’m not sure if he grasped it, what the book was. But I asked him, kind of shyly. Would you take the book as a gift, if I gave it to you? He told me. “My eyes are still good enough to read.” I took that as a yes. So I signed it to him, and gave it to him.
And at that moment, I fiddled a bit with my iPhone. I snapped a few pics of the man. He had no clue at all that I was doing it. And yeah, I don’t know the ethics of all that. I walked into his door uninvited. He was giving me his attention and hospitality. So how right was it, to invade his space and take a photo I knew he would have objected to? I don’t know. All I know is I wasn’t going to leave that place without snapping a few pics of the old man. I just wasn’t. The Lord will judge my heart.
He never asked the nosy questions, like he probably would have thirty years ago. He never asked if I had ever joined the Amish church. He knew I was David Wagler’s son. We spoke PA Dutch about half the time in our visiting. But he never went there, to find out how much of a heretic I am, or if I am excommunicated (I’m not). The fire of all that had burned out in him.
It was soon time to wind down, then, I figured. I asked what he does with his time. He beamed and smiled some more. “Come and I’ll show you,” he said. And he wheeled into the back room, where he had emerged from earlier. And there he showed me what he does, all day. He hand-weaves little baskets. Two sizes, both fairly small. He had a stack of each size off to the side. Some retailer takes all the baskets he can make. I never asked what he gets for them. How many can he make a day? Three. I guess that hand weaving is a lot of work. But still. It’s so typical of the Amish people. When you get old, for as long as you’re able, you work with your hands. You keep busy. His little work station looked very comfortable. And it was right by a large window, where he could look out over the farm he’s lived on almost all his life.
We moved back out to the kitchen, then, and I made noises to leave. “But wait,” he said. “I think I have an old picture of the camp house where your Dad served, down there in Boonsboro. Let me look.” And he wheeled over to a cabinet drawer and pulled out a large binder. Dozens and dozens of plastic slip-in pages, all containing old letters and old correspondence from long ago. Slowly and painfully, he paged through, while I stood there beside him. He could not find the picture. It’s OK, I said. It’s OK.
I took the book from his hands, then, and placed it in the drawer and slid it shut. It was time to leave now. I walked to the table and he wheeled along beside me. Thank you, I said. Thank you for taking the time to visit. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed talking to you. I reached out my hand again, and he shook it. He was smiling, half beaming. “Thank you for stopping by,” he said. “And thank you for the book. I’ll look at it.”
He turned, then, and wheeled to his little workshop, back to weaving his baskets. And I turned to the door, and walked from his world back into mine.
And it’s that time of year, again. Beach Week. It seems surreal, almost. We head out tomorrow. A whole week of not doing anything I don’t want to do. It’s been a crazy year. I have seen and walked through many things since last year’s Beach Week. And in my heart, I am grateful for all of life.
I don’t know if the boys plan to go shark fishing this year, or what. Guess we’ll figure all that out when we get down there. I do know I’ll be doing some serious writing. I’ve got about a fourth of those fifty pages roughed out for Chip, my agent. I just need the time to sit and feel them in, the details. I’m giving myself until New Years to get it done. Maybe if the next week is productive, I might beat my own deadline. No pressure, though. We’ll just see how it goes.Share