October 18, 2019

Sons of my People…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:04 pm


What is it that a young man wants? Where is the central source
of that wild fury that boils up in him, that goads and drives and
lashes him, that explodes his energies and strews his purpose to
the wind of a thousand instant and chaotic impulses?

—Thomas Wolfe

He walked in at work late one afternoon a few weeks back to pick up the order his father had called in earlier that day. A young Amish man, maybe twenty years old or so. He smiled at me shyly. We chatted as I pulled up the invoice and got his paperwork. I asked about the project they were building. At some point, his eyes focused on the book sign taped on the back of my computer screen, facing him. Most people who buy from me across the counter never see the sign. He did. I saw him locking in. And so, I asked. Have you heard of my book? Growing Up Amish?

He had. He looked at me and smiled again, an honest, open smile. “Are you Ira?” he asked. Yep, I said. Did you hear of the book before? “Yes,” he said. “I read it, years ago, when I was in the eighth grade.” And now, I gaped. His father was from the south end, that much I knew, just from talking to the guy when he called in the order. South-enders overwhelmingly tend to be plain and very conservative. How in the world did this boy get hold of my book when he was that young? Eighth grade. You have to have some nerve, to sneak around absorbing such contraband at that age.

You read the book? I asked, astounded. I am surprised. And he told me a little bit how it went. His older brother bought the book behind their father’s back, a year or so after it came out. What, seven, eight years ago, probably. And when the older brother got done with it, he shared the book with this young man. I’m a little astonished, when I think of it. Or maybe not. Boys will be boys. We used to hide many books my father would have burned, had he found them. This day, at the counter, the young Amish man kept smiling shyly. He liked the book, that was pretty clear. We chatted about the highlights of the story from the parts he remembered. We got along real well. He was a sharp young man.

We wrapped it up, then. I handed him his paperwork, and he walked outside to his English driver. They pulled back out to the warehouse to load. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the Amishman, the young man’s Dad. He needed a few more pieces of trim. I took the details, wrote up the order, and walked out to the warehouse to track down the boy. He was checking out our warehouse, drinking everything in. He seemed young and eager, like a child fresh from the country. Which he was, I guess.

I handed him the new paperwork, and we stood and chatted some more, taking up where we had left off a few moments before. I came right out and asked him. Are you content being Amish? He grinned. You can tell when a smile is real. This one was. And he told me. He is completely satisfied as an Amish person. He’s dating and plans to get married soon. And he looked at me, smiling shyly again.

It struck me in that moment. This young Amish man was living in a world such as I had never known. He was content. Amish. That thought went against everything I had fought so hard for, searched for so relentlessly in my youth. He was content among the Amish. He was settling in and sinking his roots, right there close to his home place. You just can’t be against such a thing, I don’t think. Not if that’s the choice someone made. I guess I don’t have to understand everything, I think at such a time. At such a time as this.

You know what? I said. You are choosing to stay Amish. That’s completely OK. You found something I never could. I’m happy for you. I will say, I’m amazed that you boys got that book snuck past your Dad, but it didn’t seem to influence you in a way he wouldn’t approve of. I appreciate that you read my stuff. The boy smiled again. He thanked me. We shook hands. And that was it, for that little incident.

I thought about the young man a lot, that day and that evening. Mulled over things. It sure is strange, how some things are. You think you’ve seen about everything there is to see, and then something comes along that you hadn’t seen before. And I thought, too. The boy grew up in an Amish world that is a lot different from the one I knew in my youth. The world around here seems a lot more tolerant, not in all ways, but in many. And even in the south end, I’m sure, there are pockets of progressive thinking. I’ve often wondered how it would have been to have been raised in the Lancaster County Amish world. I think my breaking free wouldn’t have been near as frantic in this setting. Not that any of it makes any difference from here, I guess. Still. Such were the thoughts that were triggered by my encounter with the young man.

And then one day later, it came at me from the other direction, the thing that holds an Amish son to his roots. Around midmorning, probably, on a lovely, sunny day. An Amish contractor walked in to pay for the building package we had dropped at his job site a few weeks before. I’ve known the guy for years, he’s a farmer who builds on the side. We’ve always got along well. He’s from down south a ways. Middle-aged, I’d say. His beard is broad and wild and untrimmed, like Amish men do when they let loose. When they don’t care anymore. Down south, where they raise lots of tobacco. And if you feel led to go proselytizing in those parts, you won’t get far. So, I don’t. I meet people where they are and deal with them. That just works better. I smiled at my friend and spoke pleasantly. Good morning. Great to see you. Did you bring me some money? He nodded as he reached into the barn door pockets of his pants and pulled out his checkbook.

I pulled up his invoice. We chatted as I printed out his paperwork, and he wrote me a check. Talked about how the job went. It was the biggest project I had ever supplied for this particular builder. And somewhere in there, I told him, offhand like. I talked to your son a few times on this job, when he called in with measurements and such. He was real nice. I enjoyed working with him. He seems alert and capable.

The Amish man looked pleased. He got that “ah, shucks” grin, like they do when you compliment their children. He stopped writing and leaned into the counter and told me a little bit about his son. “He’s nineteen. That’s a big reason I even mess with building pole barns, is because he likes that work. He likes to build. The younger children stay busy on the farm.” His pride for his son shone through, but it was a modest pride. I understood completely. I come from that world. I nodded and smiled.

And I was impressed, I gotta say. Here was a father, connected to his son. Doing what he could to get the boy started in a trade he liked. And no, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of problems with Amish culture. I do. It will never be right, all that pressure that’s applied to Amish children not to leave. Still. Just because it ain’t right don’t mean it’s not real. That’s what that world is like, you think. But here was an Amish father, tuned in to his son in a way I could not have imagined in my youth. And I thought to myself, as I looked at him. Whatever your flaws, if you get that done, I respect you.

We wrapped it up, then. He reckoned there would be another building or two coming my way this fall, yet. So maybe I’ll get to work with his son some more. I’d like that, I said. He smiled and walked out.

And I’ve thought about it a lot, both of those little incidents. The young Amish man who seemed genuinely content to stay there. And now, the Amish father telling me how he is nurturing his oldest son. Well, he didn’t call it nurturing, and likely would be embarrassed at such a phrase, but that’s what he was doing. And I look at it all in some wonder. How can such a thing be, in such a restrictive setting? How is it even possible, that level of communication, in a culture where so many of the heavy things remain unspoken? Where there are no words to describe, I guess, sometimes there are deeds that do.

It struck me, though, what the bottom line had to be in both those families. Somehow, the parents in those families latched onto a basic, simple truth. They made their homes a safe haven for their children, a place the children wanted to come back to. How you get that done in the Amish culture without coercion is beyond me. But they did it. The son who was dating, fixing to get married soon, somehow he chose to walk in the footsteps of his fathers. And he wasn’t dull or stupid. In fact, he seemed quite alert and intelligent.

I’ve known a few people over the years who stayed Amish because it would have been more of a bother to break away than it was to just stay. Or that’s how it looked like to me. I’ve known Amish people who were so extremely laid back, it seemed like they could have just as well chosen to leave, but somehow didn’t get it done. I’ve seen people like that.

No separated group like the Amish will long survive the pressures of the modern age unless some good measure of the children choose to stay. Or can be coerced to. Each generation, or at least a portion of it, must keep walking in the way its fathers walked. Cultural survival is just not possible otherwise.

And it’s all OK. I’m not criticizing, here. Just leading up to the thought that I have not often met a young single Amish man who seemed so exuberantly sure of the road ahead. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. He would not wander, he would not stray from the old ways. It’s hard to grasp a road that was so unfamiliar to me, growing up. It’s hard to compute such a journey in my head.

It is what it is, I guess. As life mostly is.

Moving along, then. The book is rolling along quite nicely, thank you. Last month, a nice little package arrived at the Wagler household in New Holland. From Hachette. It was the page proofs. The book is typed up in proper format, and I get a stack of pages to edit with a pencil. Other than an inordinate amount of section breaks, the narrative seemed to be in good shape. I caught and corrected a few minor errors.

Earlier this month, I wrapped up the stack of pages and sent them back to New York City. And now, I wait. May, 2020, seems far away. Still. The journey rolls on at its own meandering pace. I’m trying to grasp the moments to my memory as they pass. I will say. I am tired.

Seasons come and seasons go. The tides of life roll on. And the blood lineage rolls on, too. I marvel at the beauty and timelessness of it. My nephew, Mervin Wagler (one of my brother Joseph’s younger sons), and his wife Marlene live in upstate New York in a small New Order Amish community. This past Monday, they were blessed with a hearty nine-pound son. He is welcomed by two brothers and two sisters. They named him David Wagler. The boy will carry my father’s name into future generations.

Mervin stated that young David Wagler is “stout as a bull.” Which is a good thing, if the boy is going to shake up the world like his namesake and great-grandfather did.