February 17, 2017

My Father’s Staff…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


…He heard the spectre moan of the wind, he was entombed
in loss and darkness, and his soul plunged downward into the
pit of night, for he saw that he must die a stranger… And like
a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich
meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain.
Why here? O lost!

—Thomas Wolfe

I remember the day very well. An ordinary Sunday, a regular church service, there at Chestnut Street. I don’t always notice when visitors show up, or pay that much attention to them when they do. That day, I noticed a stranger and his wife. A gray-haired guy, maybe a few years older than me. I can’t remember even vaguely wondering what had brought them to that place.

After the service, we had a fellowship meal downstairs, which happens roughly once a month. I always pay attention to when those meals are, because a guy living alone is always grateful for a good free meal. That day, at that meal, the stranger and his wife sat across the table from me. I was introduced by the friend they had come to visit. The stranger took my proffered hand in a firm grip, and looked at me sharply with piercing eyes.

I forget his name, and it’s not important. He was a missionary preacher man from South Africa, and he worked with Hindu people there. Interesting, I thought. I bet he’s seen some real spiritual warfare. He smiled as if he knew me. Which, it turned out, he kind of did. He told me. They had arrived earlier that week, and his friend had given him my book to read. This was in 2012 or so, the book had not been out that long. He had read it in two days. He thought it was very interesting. But he had something to tell me. And he leaned across the table, close, and those intense eyes looked right through me.

“The part of the book early on,” he said. “Where you wrote about your father being a dowser, how he could find water with a stick. The power to do that comes from a divining spirit. It is not a good thing. It is evil. I have seen so much in my lifetime, with the kind of work I do.”

Well. What do you say to such a thing? Yeah, my father was a dowser. He walked around holding a forked stick. A staff of sorts, I would say. He found water with a little stick, kind of like Moses found water with his staff. Not exactly the same, I realize. But still. Wood and water.

The preacher man was nowhere close to done talking about it, either. He went right on, in that clipped South African accent. “When I read that, early in the book, about the dowsing, I knew one thing,” he said. “I knew some bad things were going to happen before the story ended in your book. And I was right. Your brother, Titus. When he dived into that pond, and broke his neck. It seemed like a freak accident. But it wasn’t an accident. That power that pulled him down was a divining spirit. And that spirit was looking for a sacrifice. That close, it got your brother. Had the wind been blowing out, instead of in, the spirit would have taken him.”

I stared at the man. Across the table, as we were eating a fellowship meal together. Not because I thought he’d lost his marbles. But because I was intrigued. Here sat a preacher man, telling me that the harmless thing I saw my father doing was actually demonic. I mean, I wasn’t going to just embrace what he was saying as truth. But I sure was going to listen to what he had to tell me.

Dowsing is not unique to just the Amish, but it sure has been a part of the lore and legend of the culture. There are lots of dark tales out there, about a lot of dark things. Some of that stuff comes from an evil place, no doubt about that. But does it all? And if so, how is a bloodline affected? Are there curses? If so, are those curses generational? I’ve heard it from about every side. And I don’t take a hard position on most such things. It all just depends on where you came from, and what you’ve seen. Near as I can tell, anyway.

There are Amish tales of many dark things. I’ll never forget the story Mom told me one time when she and Dad were admonishing me after I got caught smoking. I was probably twelve. It was a tale of a rebellious Amish youth who bought a car. Big sin, there. One night, as he was driving home alone around midnight, there was a tap on his shoulder from the back seat. Slowly, almost frozen with fear, he pulled off to the side of the road and parked. Then he turned around slowly. And there the monster sat, horned and grinning. Satan himself. “Welcome to my kingdom,” Satan said. “I’m so happy that you will be helping to fill hell, after you die.” Then, poof, he was gone. The boy, terrified, drove home. He could not sleep that night. The next day, he sold his car. That was the moral of the whole thing. The car was bad, because disobedience was bad. I had to figure out that connection for myself, years later. I listened, wide eyed. That tale scared me for years.

And there are sermons, too, based on raw fear. It’s not just for parents to speak to young children. Of demons hovering over “beer joints,” visible only to eyes that are open to see. And somewhere in some graveyard, there is a tomb stone that glows eerily at night with unearthly fire. I’ve never seen it. But that’s what they say. Tales of dark men walking in to the wake of a rebellious young Amish girl (In Illinois somewhere, probably Arthur) who had been tragically killed. The two men walked in late to the wake, they were blackened and singed, still reeking of smoke and fumes. They looked at the dead girl, then at each other and nodded. And then they turned and walked back outside and disappeared into the darkness, back to hell where they had come from.

You preach that, you’re preaching fear. And fear can never be the basis of salvation.

Since the book came out, back in 2011, I have heard from many readers about many topics. One message came from a woman who came from Amish blood. And she told me of how her great-grandfather had been a dowser. He was an Amish minister. He practiced water witching, and used Ouija boards. It was whispered that he at one time had cursed God, challenging God to show Himself if He is real. He never heard any response, not when he was living. But after he died, as they were lowering his casket into the hole, large black snakes came up and slithered away. That’s the story that is told.

A good friend of mine who lives in the Midwest told me. He’s a builder. And one day, years ago, he was working for a guy who lived right across the road from an old church, and a large, mostly empty graveyard. And the guy told him. He used the same method as my father did, but it was with wires over a grave. He could tell you if a male or female was buried there and which end the head was when the body was placed in the grave.

Stories like that are just too wild to make up. Well, they’re not, but you can tell if you’re talking to someone who is credible. These are cultural stories, that science has always scorned. We hear those stories, and we instinctively know when they are true.

My friend told me. “I asked the guy. I said, are you [a witch]? He said, No, I’m not into witchcraft, I’m a Christian! He lived across the road from a large cemetery with only a dozen stones or so. Him and his dad-in-law learned how to do it from the internet. He said there were over 200 unmarked graves.”

I’ve never heard of such a thing, that a man has the power to locate and speak of some pretty intimate details about bodies in unmarked graves. But I don’t doubt even a smidgen of the story my friend told me. I don’t know where power like that comes from. I don’t really care to know. I would never dabble in such an activity as that. But I will talk face to face with any person who would. And I would talk to such a person without condemnation, and without fear.

And fear is really behind the reactions, when people recoil, I think. The reactions to dowsing and other ancient practices. Most of the stories, too, are based in a deep underlying current of fear. Satan is a roaring lion, and he’s out there stalking about, looking to devour the unwary. And the stories are told, passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. I think it’s time somebody wrote them down. At least some of them.

Another reader wrote me years ago, of the fear that is used to control the Amish youth. He came from a hard place, and heard all the stories as a child. This is a little bit of what he wrote to me: “…Fear and torment as a way to control. Fear of the occult, power of darkness, fire from graves, spirits groaning in the hay loft, nooses hanging from rafters, stories, tales and threats of terror to demonize any young person. Harsh severe judgement on sin, no hope…a way of life.” He was speaking truth, from the world he came from. And the better one he was in.

When we were young, we played a game. It took five or six people. One person in the group would leave the room. The others in the room would pick one person from among them. Then the person was called back from outside the room. We all stood around him, put one hand on his shoulders, and thought about the person we had chosen to think about. The person who had left the room always, always was pulled by some magical force to the person all the rest of us were thinking about. And I don’t mean a little tug, either. It was a powerful force that actually would have pulled a person over to the ground. I can’t quite remember where this game came from, or who taught us. I do remember playing the game in Aylmer, before we moved. So it probably came from Daviess roots.

Would I play this game today? Probably not. (There are lots of ancient practices I would not get close to. I would never touch a Ouija board.) There is no question the power we saw and felt was real. I have no idea how it all worked. But it did. Just like Dad’s dowsing worked. And none of it was anything that I ever was afraid of. It didn’t seem based on fear. It just was what it was.

Science has never verified that any of it works, any of those strange cultural things. Not the dowsing, not the Ouija Board, not the game we played. I guess science can’t explain everything. I respect real science. The provable experiments, the medicine, the surgery techniques. I’d be dead, if it weren’t for science, from my heart procedures in the past few years. I respect and appreciate it a lot. But that doesn’t mean I worship it.

It’s the “consensus” politicized “science” that I abhor and detest. They have become the new priesthood, such scientists have. And they will cast out and ostracize anyone who dares to question their grave noble proclamations about how the universe was born, or their shrill screeching about manmade destruction of this planet. When an arrogant, condescending hack like Bill Nye can pronounce that Christian parents should not be allowed to homeschool their own children because faith has no place in the classroom, and be taken seriously, when that happens, the priesthood needs to be resisted at every turn. In every way possible. These high priests are frauds. Just like the religious Christian ones were, a long time ago.

An idol is an idol. It don’t matter who’s worshiping it.

The sorcerer’s gifts, and his deeds, are always based in fear. At least in my culture, they are. I never, never sensed any fear in Dad, that way. Don’t get me wrong. He was deeply flawed, in a lot of ways. But not ways that I ever saw connected to this.

And yeah. I know all about God’s curses, and such. But I’ve always wondered. If “witching” is such an evil thing, why do the people who have the gift have so little clue as to why they have it?? Seems to me, if it’s evil and cursed in the Old Testament, then the people who are cursed should be aware that they are, and why.

I don’t know. I guess I feel a little defensive. Like a child of a person like my father was would be. I saw what I saw. And it didn’t seem all that harmful, any of it. Actually, it all seemed downright calm and peaceable. Dad never talked about it, much, his gift. He never advertised it. He just went and dowsed when he was called on to do so. Looking back, there was something so orderly about it that I just can’t bring myself to get all harsh and biblically judgmental about it. I just can’t. It’s who I am, and where I came from, what I saw and lived. You can’t slog through life on a foundation of fear.

Well. I guess you can. But it’s not healthy. Fear never is.

Circling back around, then, to the preacher man from South Africa, with the piercing eyes. We chatted through the meal that day in church. And then I asked him. Will you be around for a few more days? Can we do lunch one day this week? He told me. They would be around for a week, so that would work.

We met for lunch, down at Dutchway, a few days later. I carried a small gift, a copy of my book. He had read it, but I figured he might like one to take back home with him. And we had a great time that day. I had been right, in my thinking. He told me war story after war story of the spiritual battles he had seen and waged back in his home country. I listened and asked a lot of questions. I did not doubt any story he spoke to me that day. And we talked about it, too, the divining spirit he claimed my father used when he dowsed. I just listened. I did not scoff, and I did not fall over myself to agree with him. It was a respectful conversation.

Soon enough, it was time to wind down. We walked outside. And I thought about it, and then I asked him. Would you say a prayer for me? We may never see each other again. He agreed instantly. He would be happy to.

We sat there in my truck. The man placed his hand on me. And he spoke to God in a way that I trust. Simply talking man to man. And he told God. “We pray for Ira, in the name of Jesus. We don’t know if there is a generational curse that passed on down to him from his father, with the divining power. But if there is, we rebuke it, today, here. And we tell it to depart forever from having any effect on Ira or his extended family.” Not an exact quote, there. But words to that effect.

I thanked him. We shook hands and parted ways. I have often wondered if there was any particular reason he came striding ever so briefly through my world, the preacher man from South Africa who knew what it was to do battle in the spiritual world.

I’ve wondered, too, about that curse thing. You won’t be able to tell, from my life. It’s been in shambles, often as not. But I have never sensed a generational curse over me. I mean, that would leave me pretty hopeless, walking around under a curse I never had anything to do with.

Jesus died for the hopeless. That’s what the gospel is all about.

Still, I come from where I came from, and I saw what I saw. And I have often pondered them in my heart, the things the preacher man told me that day.

The motorcycle journey rumbles on. Well, maybe I should say, it stumbles on. I’ve kept the grooming going, the long hair look. About once a month, I stroll into the barber shop in downtown New Holland. It’s a classic little man cave place. My buddy Michael is usually working his way through the line of customers. I sit and wait, like you do in a barber shop. When my turn comes, he always welcomes me, and chats about his latest woman troubles. I nod and smile and agree. Yeah, it’s best to stay away from’em. They never brought me a thing but trouble.

Last time I was in, he told me. “Your hair is sure filling out, nice and long, like you want it. Soon it’ll be down to your shoulders. Your kind of hair, it’s hard to get long, because it just curls up.”

Ira steampunk2

Yep, I said. And then I told him. Let it grow, let it grow. I want to look all mean, so the little children shrink in fear behind their mothers when they see me. I thought I had told him that before. Apparently, I hadn’t, because he stopped what he was doing. Stood there for a second. Then he threw back his head and laughed as long and hard as I’ve ever seen him laugh.

“No,” he said it matter-of-factly. “That, my friend, is not going to happen.”

Ah, come on, I chided. Don’t shoot down my goal.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for a cheap motorcycle. Something small, like the one I took the classes on. Not too small, but still. Small enough so that I can ride the back roads until I know what the heck I’m doing. Confidence, and all that.

Earlier this very week, a good friend told me. “That little car dealer in Gap is going out of business. My daughter just drove by, and they have a really sharp little bike sitting out there. For sale. You should go check it out.”

And that how things get started. The next morning, on the way to work, I stopped at Waltz’s Sales. It’s a small, very old fashioned place, straight out of the 1950s. I walked into the office. Greeted the father and son sitting there. I hear you have a bike for sale.

Yes, they did. And the son took me out to where the bike was in the small garage. A Yamaha 650, with lots of after-market chrome. 2010 model, low slung, very sharp. White, not black. Which is OK for the first bike. The next one, I’ll get black. The most amazing thing of all: this little bike had only 1600 miles on it. I mean, that’s practically brand new. The price. Very low, but still at the top of the range I had set for myself.

It was a cold morning. We pushed the bike outside and he started it. I didn’t feel comfortable test driving it in Gap, because of the traffic. I sat on it, and rolled the throttle. It rumbled magnificently.

If you’re gonna do something, you might as well get it done, I thought to myself. And I wrote out a check for the full amount. I got it licensed and insured, and my friend Lewis is driving it home for me tomorrow. I have notified the tenant. We got a new thing coming, that needs some garage space. He parks his car in there, but I’m sure he’ll find me a spot. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

I don’t think a scabbard is going to fit on this bike. It’s a little small for that. So the coach gun will have to stay at home for now. Until a new black steed shows up on its own, kind of like this bike did.

I’m excited. There’s a new road rising.




  1. I’m so glad you mentioned this experience because when I read about your dad and the divining rod I remembered how we were taught that this is evil or demonic. I have often wondered why such a helpful gift is also evil at the same time and I still wonder. I guess this is something I should ask the Lord about since I still question. My granddad had the same gift and he was one of the kindest men you’ll ever meet.

    Comment by Geraldine — February 17, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

  2. Even though I have read and studied the Bible I can’t remember if it says anything about dousing being witchcraft. We have dug wells when we had a house in the country, and most times if you dug your well at the bottom of a hill there was water. I think it is up to God to judge what is a sin, and not men. The man was almost talking voodoo. Your father was simply trying to find water and not casting spells. Your dear brother had an accident and that is all. The Bible says what it says and does not need to be interpreted. (God bless you with your motorcycle too.)

    Comment by carol ellmore — February 17, 2017 @ 8:53 pm

  3. “Dowsing” being like Moses and his staff? Not in the least. That’s just it – an interpretation that “wood and water” means there might be some equivalence. Nope; the spirit in which a thing is done, alone, can make all the difference.

    I had to laugh at “real science” as something to be distinguished from ‘mere observation of phenomenon by “non-scientific” people.’ Science is just observation … and then putting together an interpretation. But where do the “authoritative” principles of interpretation come from? There’s the rub. (For those interested in an empirically-honest study of how real advances in science have often – of not always – come, see the classic by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s where we get the term “paradigm shift.”)

    I could tell you stories of the indigenous people I have lived among, and how some of their children have told me stories in whispers, terrified, of the tales the people in the close communion (I mean, community – same thing) tell their young people to keep their worldview and consequent practices alive. It is what makes a culture, so I’m not judging that. But what you said about fear-based reasoning and judgment rings an echoing bell.

    Anyway, I’m glad that gentleman prayed for you like that, and that you received it. There is so much more.

    Comment by LeRoy — February 17, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

  4. We were reared the same, on many levels. And you are right. Salvation based in fear is bogus. “There is no fear in love.” Jesus.

    Comment by Ray — February 18, 2017 @ 11:27 am

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter, here. Thanks for another great blog, Ira! All that spiritual warfare stuff has long confused me and left me frightened or skeptical.

    I have wondered since reading your blog and especially after reading your book if the use of fear by Amish preachers is a significant cause of the issues faced in many Amish churches. I suspect that well-intentioned, genuinely concerned preachers who lack formal training or are not well educated or well read resort to fear to keep their flocks in the faith. Others may simply use fear because that is all they ever heard preached. Your story is an example of how fear doesn’t work for everyone. You are absolutely correct, fear cannot be the basis of salvation. Those who attempt to please God and follow His commandments and teachings out of fear aren’t doing it for the right reason. I think in another of your blogs you said the most important aspect of Christianity is love. Thank you for pointing that out! I look forward to the next installment in your writings.

    Comment by Nicholas — February 18, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

  6. I really enjoyed your blog post “My Father’s Staff.” An exceptional bit of writing there as it touched on several topics of interest and strong feelings within me. The generational curse concept is one I have debated with friends over the years. I come from a long line of murderers on my mom’s side so I tend to hope on the side of no such thing but at the same time I am witness to characteristics of sin that seem to reveal themselves across generations and am not sure that it’s a curse or a personality predisposition. I have ultimate faith in the transforming power of Jesus whether its murderous tendencies or sexual perversion or whatever comes handed to us.

    Another thing is about the “Amish Man” stories. I didn’t grow up among Amish, but rather they were a peripheral as Dad told of his Amish neighbors, mom had Amish pupils at school, etc., and the knowledge that my great-grandparents were among those Amish who rejected the Old Order movement. My dad told about the “Amish Man at Green Dragon who would continue to pour sugar into his coffee if distracted by someone saying his name.

    Over the years, I have noticed these “Amish Cautionary Tales,” but started documenting them a few years ago, when I visited a Beachy church in Southern KY just because I wanted to visit a plain church. The bishop was a guy dad grew up with and many others there “knew” me like plain people do. In Sunday School the bishop told about an Amish guy who would catch pigeons in the barn and poke out their eyes then throw them into the air to watch them fly into walls or what have it. The Amish man then grew up and had several children all of whom were blind. Here I actually laughed out loud because in my way of thinking it wasn’t a punishment from on high but likely that the guy poked his kids eyes out too, if such a person existed.

    Just the other day a longtime friend and ex-Amish man posted that he often feared as a young person that he’d committed the unpardonable sin, as do many youth. He said he’s never chosen to teach about that because he believes in a Spirit of Promise, not rejection. Contrary to the way we were raised where if we didn’t conform we were ostracized, the Spirit is forgiving and draws us in. I think there are two parts to the “Amish guy” stories. One is a natural cultural draw for Tennesseans to make fun of Alabama, Germans Pollocks, etc. But I also sense a tendency for people in one form of bondage to deride another form for its blindness to its situation.

    This brings me all the way around to the meeting with the Missionary at your church. I was really touched by your response to his kind gesture to free you from any possible curse rather than instruct you in what could have been your blindness. Something tells me he didn’t return home and relate stories about American Christians. It’s fair to say this blog post has been one of the best, as far as engaging on many levels. And I very much appreciated how you tell the story – your humility gives it deep perspective. I guess I am responding here not to counter anything or add to it, but because I feel good that some excellent writing was done about an under represented topic. Made me want to share my experiences.

    Comment by Allen King — February 18, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

  7. I’ve stayed out of the water witching discussion because I wasn’t sure if it was my grandfather or a great uncle who had this ability. I finally remembered to ask my sister and it was our grandfather. I doubt that Satan gave anyone the ability to find water a hundred years ago in order to sustain their farms and families.

    I think it’s like so many other things that we can’t understand or see reasoning for in black and white, it gets credited to Satan. That’s more than likely how the ‘witching’ label came about. It couldn’t be explained or understood.

    Enjoyed the blog, as usual.

    Comment by Tammy — February 18, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

  8. If you’re trying to stay away from women, you’re going about it all wrong Charlie Brown Wagler. The new look and cool bike are going to send them swarming. Commiserate all you want with your barber. Your anima is springing forth and it says, “Hot bachelor for rent.”

    Comment by lisa — February 18, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

  9. WATER is life in spades, come on give me a break. My great uncle could dowse. In some parts of the world women carry water miles for family.

    Comment by John L Wood — February 19, 2017 @ 1:03 am

  10. When I hear tales about the dark side and people looking for explanations,my perception is that rather then looking inside themselves ,or others,for answers it is much easier to blame an outside force.The devil made me do it..No he didn’t..You did it.Take responsibility for your actions.Out side evil does exist ,but is given too much credit when weird events happen.And positive unexplained events like “water dowsing”can occur.As for the”bad boy”persona complete with hair and accessories,oh yeah,it brings the ladies out of the woodwork.My problem was after the ladies were done looking and the repairs and “do overs”they thought I needed didn’t work,they moved on to the next project..Just sayin’..Thanks,IRA,..Peace to all..

    Comment by lenny — March 4, 2017 @ 10:47 am

  11. Now these are some good stories to tell around a campfire at night like the one about the mental hospital escapee with the hook hand who stalked the two teen lovers parked in the woods one cold and dreary night. Oh, the shivers.
    The South African man does sound…interesting. But to say your dad was the cause of Titus’s accident…ah, I don’t think so. First of all, there are a whole lot of people who do some really evil things, knowingly even, and they have healthy, beautiful, intelligent, successful children who in turn do their own little nasty things. No, I don’t buy it…or what I don’t buy is that he knows this for sure.

    Comment by Francine — April 2, 2017 @ 3:08 am

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