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.



  1. Hummm, repeated use of the term “goodwife” is as interesting as it is curious. Is that your wording or a blue-blood Amish thing?

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — April 15, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

  2. Another great article Ira…..I have heard good things about Thieves Essential Oil….I have been trying to find info on all the oils, from what I have been reading, they are great to have around…..I did buy (2) from Amazon, a Lavender and an Orange…..but don’t really know how to use them lol….I don’t like the smell of the Lavender…heard it was good to help you fall asleep….spritz it on your pillow or rub some on the bottom of your feet…and I did try that and it did seem to work :) now if I could find out what all the Orange is for….. I think the ones I bought are not the real good essential oils tho, as they were really not that expensive….and I have noticed from do-terra oils , their oils are expensive…..but I may try their brand…..will have to check out Thieves and see what all it is good for….thanks for your info….

    Look forward to reading your next writing…..:)

    Comment by kentuckylady717 — April 15, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

  3. My condolences to you Ira, on the loss of your friend & coworker John. And I hope your heart trouble gets resolved. Glad to hear you are taking care of your health by eating well. God bless you. :)

    Comment by Cy — April 16, 2016 @ 10:41 am

  4. I am happy to hear that your sister is now cancer free. That is utterly amazing. Can you tell me which essential oils she used? I have a relative suffering from the same type cancer she had and would like to recommend them. Thank you. I am sorry for the loss of your co-worker. You sound in good spirits and that is good.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — April 16, 2016 @ 11:44 am

  5. I really enjoyed the story behind the Thieves oil. I can imagine there’s a story behind any essential oil if you know who to ask. Good news to hear that your sister is cancer-free. The motorcycle sounds like a great idea for staying young or at least a sure way to find out if the ablation took.

    Enjoyed how you made spring pop up everywhere in this blog.

    Comment by Maria Rockhill — April 16, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

  6. Another great post – I look forward to it each week. Thank you.

    Comment by Deb — April 17, 2016 @ 7:48 am

  7. Sooooo glad to hear your sister Maggie is cancer-free. Great post.

    Comment by Phyllisitty Myers — April 18, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

  8. About John:

    All dressed up to go away

    That’s a line from a George Jones song.

    Comment by Jay — April 22, 2016 @ 11:45 pm

  9. So you had some success when you when on your mission of mercy to hunt down that oil. You are a kind soul.
    Must say that if the roads up there were empty on a snowy day, then folks have more sense than they do down here–just let it snow and people drive as fast and crazy as ever, “slippin’ and slidin’,” beeping and colliding . . .

    Comment by forsythia — April 25, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

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