December 8, 2017

Ninety-Six Years: My Father’s Road…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

— Tennyson, Ulysses
________________

I hadn’t really figured on writing about it, much. But as the date crept up, I looked at it. And thought about it. A rare milestone will arrive this Sunday, December 10th. It’s a place few people ever see. Ninety-six years ago on that day, my father was born.

Whatever the man’s strengths were, and whatever his flaws, it is a remarkable thing for him to reach the age of ninety-six. It doesn’t matter. Not at this stage. The work of his life, his faults and failures, the track of his deeds and how they healed or wounded those around him. He is standing where very few people have ever stood. And it is worthy of note when a man reaches the door of such a day as that. And however his sons and daughters may feel about a lot of things, it detracts not a whit from the fact that he now stands where he stands.

I proclaim it. We proclaim it. This is our father’s day. We celebrate, with him right here among us. This is our father’s road, our father’s world. And we are his sons and daughters.

December 10, 1921. It was a long time ago, any way you look at it. It was early winter. The cold winds swept in from the northwest and swirled through the raggedy little clapboard farm house, there in the Daviess country side. Farm houses back then were not insulated. It was just bare walls against the elements. I don’t know if there was snow on the ground, back on December 10, 1921. There easily might have been. I’ve asked Dad a few times, over the years. What was the day like, when you were born? He’s always been vague about any specific details. Which means he never asked about it, much, and doesn’t know. Either that, or the adults in his childhood world never took the time to tell him because it wasn’t important. Still. One can wonder, from here. And one does.

The world was a vastly different place, ninety-six years ago. Unimaginably different. The murderous Great War had just ended a few years before. And the Spanish flu was just winding down, too, about the time Dad made his appearance. It was a hard place he was born into. It’s probably about as much a miracle as it isn’t, that he even survived at all. But he did. He was a sturdy son, of sturdy stock.

He was born into a family that had its own dark mark of shame to bear, though. The Waglers of Daviess. I’m not sure if my father heard much about it when he was young. I know he never spoke about any of it to us. There had to be whisperings and knowing looks, and gossip, there in his childhood. There just had to be. There was a black stain on the family name. It had happened barely a generation before. Dad’s grandfather, his father’s father, Christian, was a deeply disturbed man. The pure Wagler blood coursed through him. I know a little bit about that blood. He recoiled, mentally and emotionally, from the harsh realities of life around him. Until he simply could not take it anymore. He shot himself in the head at age thirty-six, in 1891. A suicide is always a shameful thing, in the Plain cultures. There is dark sin, buried somewhere, some curse from way back. That’s what people think to themselves, and mutter to each other. It was exponentially more shameful back then, than it is now. It took a generation or two, to live down the stain of such a deep shame as that.

Dad came along quite a few years after that stain was unleashed. And his father, Joseph K., had managed to work his way up in status to an upstanding member of the community, there in Daviess. And he was a deacon in the church, yet. So the Wagler blood was struggling back to respectability, back in 1921.

Christian’s widow, Mary, remarried and moved out of Daviess with her new husband. How she ever attracted another man remains a mystery. He had to come from a hard place, too, I always figured. He was from Mt. Ayr, Indiana, and they moved to Nappanee after they got married. And Dad told me a little story, just last April when I was visiting him in Florida.

He went on a trip with his father, Joseph K. and his mother, Mrs. Joseph K. — Sarah, I think her name was. They traveled on the train. Dad was five years old. So this would have been around 1926. The Roaring Twenties. Wherever they went, they stopped in Nappanee on the way home, to visit Joseph K’s mom, Christian’s widow. They lived right there, in the outskirts of town, Dad told me. He and his parents arrived one day, and stayed overnight. The next morning, Dad decided to take a little walk, there in Nappanee.

He strolled about in the fresh morning dew, a little Amish boy of five. Blithely skipped along. Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and little barn door pants and galluses, I’m sure. And then he wanted to return to his grandmother’s house. He wasn’t sure which one it was, there in the row. The houses all looked the same to him. That’s what he told me. And so he just walked right on in, into the house he thought was the right one. It wasn’t. It was the wrong house. The woman of the place squawked in surprise to see a grubby little boy in her home. Dad was all embarrassed. He quickly ran out and over one house, to the right place. I had never heard this story before. I wondered what the world looked like to a five-year-old child that morning long ago, in Nappanee, Indiana.

The house is gone, now, on the farm where my father was born, and lived as a child. I mean, the house that was there, then. A new house was built sometime in the 1960s, I think it was. And the old barn still stands. And the well out front along the fence, buried and unused in the weeds. Those are there. And the public school where Dad attended as a young child. Parson’s Corner. It’s still there, right close to the farm. Not sure what it’s being used for these days. But it still stands.

And that period of my father’s life is about as blank to me as any. His young childhood. There were stories, I’m sure, that he told when I was growing up. I just don’t remember much of them. Maybe I wasn’t listening all that close. Still, in later years, I asked about that world. And Dad told me a little bit about it.

He saw the Great Depression before he was ten years old. I find that fact just astonishing, today. That my parents both saw and lived through a window of history such as that. They saw the dust of the dirt roads in summer, and they saw the ragged tramps walking those roads to nowhere. They saw the peddlers traveling door to door in rickety vans, selling what they had to offer. The market came to the poor country folks, back in those days. A sparse market, compared to the one we take for granted, but a market nonetheless. Dad spoke of the dry goods man, selling bolts of cloth for dresses and denim for Amish barn door pants. Three yards of this, five yards of that. The man kept a running tally in his head, and when it came time to settle up, he had the total price all ready. He never made a mistake in figuring, Dad claimed. He was a real math whiz.

It’s all a little foggy, those years in his life. And when he was a young man, those years are foggy, too. It’s kind of funny. Dad wrote a lot, in his lifetime. But he never spoke much about his childhood and young adult years. Back in 2011, one of his sons got a memoir published. Growing Up Amish. The son told his story. And soon after that, Dad announced to his family. He had some notes, he’d been keeping. He was fixing to come out with his own memoirs, now, too. I chuckled when I heard it. That’s great news. I’d love to read Dad’s memories, from when he was young. If that’s what it took to get him going, his son getting a memoir published, then that’s just fine. Dad envisioned a five-volume set of small books. In the last five years or so, he has actually come out with four of those five volumes. (If you want to order any of the volumes, call Gospel Book Store in Berlin, Ohio. They stock and sell and ship all of David Wagler’s memoirs.) The first two volumes are a gold mine to me. Most of the stories in them, I had never heard before. I’m glad he got them told. And even more glad I got to hear.

Moving on, then, into his teenage years. That’s when he met Mom. At least that’s what he remembers. Her father, John Yoder, had some livestock for sale. Some heifers. Dad was sent over to check the heifers out. I don’t remember if he rode a horse or drove a buggy that day. He arrived at the farm. The sun was shining. Whistling a merry little tune, he walked up to the house and knocked on the door, to see if any of the menfolk were around. The door opened. And there stood the most beautiful young woman Dad had ever seen. Ida Mae, it turned out, her name was. Mom. She smiled at him, shyly and sweetly. Dad was tall and handsome enough, I suppose. He reflected his mother’s blood and bone. Waglers are generally short. He was tall, with dark, curly hair. That morning, standing in the midday sun in front of that lovely young woman, Dad stammered and stuttered a little, but got the words out. He had come to check out the heifers that were for sale.

Mom smiled at him again. He felt light-headed. She was so beautiful. And she told him. The menfolk were all gone, this morning. She was home with her Mom and sisters. The heifers were out behind the barn, if he wanted to check them out. Dad thanked her. He turned and walked out to the barn. The lovely young woman disappeared into the house. He checked out the heifers and reported back to his father, who later bought them.

That would have been in the late 1930s, probably. And Dad somehow found reasons to keep lurking around Mom’s home place. They connected, and started dating. And things moved right along. They were married in February, 1942. They were very young when they started their journey through life together. And there was no way they could have known where the tides of life would sweep them as the years and then the decades rolled on like a flood.

And now, Dad is on the doorstep of ninety-six. He’s been alone for a few years. Mom passed away in early 2014, up in Aylmer, and was buried there. As most of my regular readers know. And Dad has spoken it. He never expected to last this long. His father, Joseph K., passed away from a heat stroke back in 1940. He was fifty-nine years old. Dad was nineteen. He didn’t figure to reach the old age he’s in. The Waglers just weren’t known for their longevity, that way. Maybe Dad got it from his Mom’s side, from her Lengacher blood. I don’t know. But here he is.

From here, today, I stand and look at who my father is and who he was in his lifetime. And I feel a tremendous sense of respect and pride. And, yes, I know. He was a deeply flawed man. That has come out countless times in my writings in the past. He was a hard, driven man. He was full of passion and desire and rage. The road he chose to walk was his own. And no, he didn’t treat Mom the best, on that road. Well. He treated her pretty bad, a lot. She endured a lot of senseless suffering. Until she was approaching the end of her own road. Then he cared for her with gentle tenderness, desperately, eagerly, like a child trying to make up for past wrongs. He was such a man. I look at all that unflinchingly and acknowledge his failures. But he was so much more than the sum of his flaws.

He was a man. A giant of a man, whose footsteps will remain imprinted in the earth long after his passing. He was all the maddening things a man can be. Stubborn. Focused. Bullheaded. Flawed. Unyielding. Cold, and kind. Distant, yet he cared deeply for his family. And where it counted, he wanted what was best for his children, his sons and daughters. He walked the path, he walked the road that he believed was the right one. He wanted his children to walk that road, too. And he sacrificed his own desires to do what he felt was best for his family. Most notably, he moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield, way back in my youth. He did that, so his remaining sons would stay with the Amish church. It didn’t work, of course. But he was willing to uproot all that he cherished, and take the risk. And he did it.

He was adventurous. Born of good solid Daviess blood, I don’t know where my father got his wanderlust. There was never any chance that Daviess would hold him. And once he forsook the land of his fathers, it was ever easier to leave the land he had fled to. I know his time in service camps as a conscientious objector during WWII vastly broadened his world. So it was a comparatively simple thing to move to Piketon, Ohio, then to Aylmer, then to Bloomfield. It’s OK. He wasn’t a nomad, but he didn’t hesitate to travel to a new place, a new world. There is always a place out there where things might go better.

He was a pioneer. My father will go down in history as one of the most visionary Amish intellectuals of all time. And yeah, I know. Some would claim that the term “Amish intellectual” is an oxymoron. I’ll stand with those who say it’s not. Dad was a writer, which is a little bit rare in the Amish culture. And writing was the true passion and purpose of his life. In defense of the Amish way of life, he cranked out voluminous amounts of words, from all the way back in his youth. He wrote because he had to, I suppose. I understand that. Compared to him, I got a real late start. And I’ll never match his volume. Never. It wasn’t until he followed his passion and his dream to launch Family Life, it wasn’t until then that his name became legend among his people. I look at that one single accomplishment as the major defining event in his long and productive life.

Such a thing had never been done before, at least not with any measurable success. Sure, there were wild-eyed Amish guys here and there over the years, guys who cranked out a little rag of some kind. They were never successful, at least not outside the boundaries of their immediate communities. The Budget would be an exception, but that was a newsletter that depended on its readers to provide the print. Family Life was a monthly magazine. With an editor and columnists and stories and serious historical research, and such. And Dad threw all he had, all his energy and drive and talent, into making the venture work. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. I have always admired him tremendously for pursuing his vision. That took guts, it took courage, and it took a bucket load of faith.

He walked alone a lot. I can’t say this for sure, but I’ve often thought it. Dad was a lonely man. He didn’t connect easily or deeply with a lot of people. Oh, sure, he did on a surface level. He was a superb salesman. He could jive and laugh and bow and scrape for a sale right with the best and brightest. But at a heart level, I think it was very hard for him to connect with people. He had very few truly close friends, at least not that I remember. I could be off a bit on this particular observation, but I don’t think I am. He was alone a lot, because you have to be, in your head, to really write. I know this because that’s how it goes for me. Writing is a lonely world.

And now he’s old. Now he’s turning ninety-six. Winding down a little abruptly, here. I didn’t know how this would all come out. In the end, I guess, my father was a man as he walked through life. Dad. A figure so vast in my world that it seems futile to try to express it. Or to commemorate the milestone he is about to observe. But still. You do what you can. You speak as you are able to. One of these years, it will be the last time his birthday is celebrated. Maybe it’s this year. Maybe it’s not. You just keep walking.

“And you, my father, there on the sad height,” Dylan Thomas wrote. “Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” Those words have always spoken to me. Dad, I know you are on the sad height of a lonely world. A world where others take you by the hand and lead you to a place where you may or may not want to go. A world of loss and pain, where all but one or two of your peers are gone. I know you remember life from long ago, and look back fondly on the days of your youth. I know you miss Mom. I know the road has been long, and rough in places. And I know you are weary and simply want to rest.

Tomorrow is promised no one. It will bring what it may. Today is today. We are here, and this is now. At this moment, we choose to celebrate life, and all that life is.

A blessed Christmas to all my readers.

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(16 Comments) »

  1. Ira…. very well written…. a great tribute to your dad…. we have had the privilege of meeting him a few times, and enjoy his books. A blessed Christmas to you!!!!

    Comment by June and Barry Kinsey — December 8, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

  2. Thank you for sharing.

    My prayers are for all to have a safe and joyful Christmas,

    Cindy

    Comment by Cindy — December 8, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

  3. Mr. Ira I enjoyed your blog tonight. I didn’t realize until tonight that your father is exactly 20 years older than me. I was born on December 10, 1941. Sunday I will be a grand 76 years young. Longevity runs in my mothers side of the family. Mother lived to be 99 years and 25 days old. I ‘m thankful for my good health but I don’t want to live longer than I can take care of myself. God Bless and have very BLESSED Christmas.

    Linda

    Comment by Linda Morris — December 8, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

  4. Beautiful tribute to your Dad on his 96th Birthday. A blessed and peace-filled Christmas to you, your family, and to all your readers.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — December 8, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

  5. A beautiful blessing/tribute to your father. I was privileged to read “Family Life“ growing up. What an accomplishment by a brilliant man. What a way to honor your dad. No matter his flaws (every dad has them!) at 96, every person should have a blessing spoken like you have written. Thanks for sharing this blog.

    Comment by Doris Vetter — December 8, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

  6. Thank you, Ira! God’s blessings be upon you. Proud to be your “friend”.

    Comment by P. Liang — December 9, 2017 @ 5:59 am

  7. Great depth and understanding! My Dad passed away in 2016. I can relate so much to your current thoughts. What was was and what is is now.

    Comment by Debra — December 9, 2017 @ 10:50 am

  8. Very good, Ira. I can contribute that the Parsons school still stands and is in use today as an Amish parochial school. I taught there, at Parsons school, from 1999-2001.

    Today, on a cold windy day in Daviess, we buried one of the men who was father to some of my students there.

    Comment by John Stoll — December 10, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

  9. Good reading,and very well written. As my father says, “1921” the year Henry Ford built the Model T Ford. Your father and mine are the few, like the Model T that are still running.

    Comment by Warren Stehman Jr. — December 10, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

  10. Sitting in a local McDonald’s a few Saturday mornings back,my cell phone went off.Drinking coffee,on the internet with my tablet making sure I wasn’t missing any new truths,not wanting to be bothered,I looked at the phone.It said Dad.Happy Birthday he said when I answered.Thanks,almost forgot was my reply.There was a little small talk as usual,in the mother tongue,about weather and other unimportant things.Then the old Amishman got a catch in his voice.I was 19 when we had you he said.I didn’t say much to that,just listened to him for a couple minutes.Then it was over.He never talks long and this was no exception.And I had to think back,after he hung up,to when I was running and gunning.Showing the world around me the chip on my shoulder.Working really hard at being a bad boy.Taking my dad and mom into uncharted territory as their first born.Thinking they deserved what they were getting because of how hard they were on me.The truth is both of them did the best they could with what they had.Plus, they had the right to be wrong.Mom is long gone.Dad is in his eighties.I pray for him on a daily basis.Its the least I can do.Great tribute,Ira,…peace to all..

    Comment by lenny — December 10, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

  11. Thank you for writing.

    Comment by David — December 12, 2017 @ 5:02 am

  12. I agree. This is a great tribute to your father. Funny, I never realized he was from Montgomery. I guess I always thought he was from Iowa.

    Comment by Kathy Barbush — December 12, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

  13. Very good article Ira. I always remember your dad as a man of few words.

    Comment by Mark Hostetler — December 14, 2017 @ 6:46 am

  14. I enjoyed reading this tribute to your father.

    Comment by forsythia — December 14, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

  15. Ira, this is one of the best you have written. Although I do feel you are still a little too hard on your father. Don’t you think that just as your father expected perfection from his children, perhaps you are expecting too much from him? When I would visit my aunt (Sarah M Weaver) at Aylmer years ago, Dave was always a hero to me. He and Jake Eicher were two men who always had the time to show a curious little boy how a magazine is put together. If it wouldn’t be for those two men I would not be publishing a magazine today.

    Comment by Ray D Miller — December 22, 2017 @ 8:45 am

  16. Ira,
    I always enjoy the blog. Because of you I bought your father’s memoirs. I devoured them quickly. I am now wondering if you expect him to be able to complete them?

    Comment by JasonS — December 25, 2017 @ 11:19 pm

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