May 3, 2019

Last Call in Leola…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:55 pm


It’s a cruel, cruel summer.
Leaving me here on my own.
It’s a cruel, cruel summer.
Now you’re gone.

— Bananarama; Lyrics

It was my daily hangout for a good many years, back there. And then not so much the last while. Still, I stayed connected enough to hear the news when it first pulsed out a couple of months ago. Vinola’s was closing. It had been sold. My bar, the last bar I ever hung out at. It had been sold to some Mennonite ice cream people. Fox’s Ice Cream. That’s a good thing for anyone who likes ice cream, which includes most of us, I reckon. But I figure it’s just not that good a thing when the ice cream shop is replacing the neighborhood bar. Even the bar I quit going to.

I have a lot of really fond memories of Vinola’s. And, sure, the whiskey played a good part of making those memories. You go to where your heart takes you. And, mixed in there with all those years of drinking, there was a void of some kind. A void that I was trying to either fill or get lost in. That’s how I see it from where I am right now. It makes sense, I think. When you’re trying to fill a void inside you, you gravitate naturally to the spot where others might be doing the same thing. The bar. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. The bar is one of the most honest places in the world. You can shake your head and argue all you want, it’s still true. The bar is a safe place where the human condition meets itself, unflinchingly, without judgment. It would behoove the church to take notice.

And I was in such a season back when I discovered Vinola’s. A time in my life when I was stumbling along. And if there was going to be a whiskey journey anyway, well, Vinola’s made stretches of that road a whole lot more easy to walk. You could take it, you can always take what life throws at you, if you have friends around you. And the whiskey always greases the skids. If you hang out at the bar often enough, you get to be a regular. Your name is known, you are welcomed and loved like family. It’s all about belonging.

Not to rehash the details of what happened when. At some point back there, I decided that the whiskey was detrimental to me and how I felt. Healthwise, I wasn’t going to get much lower than I did. Twice, my heart almost gave out. Both times, I took a break. But then, I went right back, full swing. Back to the whiskey, and back to Vinola’s. I talked about it with a few close friends. My good buddy, Amos, the horse dentist, I told him. Amos is a good man and a good friend. He never made much noise, just quietly supported me. I told him. I’m quitting. It’s just too much.

And Amos told me later. “You were drinking yourself to death. That’s what was going to happen, if you didn’t do something about it.” Yeah, yeah, I thought. I know that. But it was a little startling to hear it spoken so boldly. Amos. If you knew I was doing that, why didn’t you say something? Amos shrugged. “For the same reason you don’t say something to anyone else who’s doing the same thing. No one can make you quit any bad habit until you decide to do it on your own.” Made sense, I thought. Well, I told Amos. I’ve decided to quit. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

I wrote about it, when it happened, as it happened. And some version of those events will make it into the book. It’s a given. The hardest thing about quitting drinking is quitting drinking. To stop, cold. Boom. Give it up. The next hardest thing, well, that’s debatable. A few things stand out in my mind. Every afternoon, as I was heading home from work, those were the moments of truth. The ideal time for the body to relax with a drink. After a long day at work. And it hit me every day as me and my truck got close to home. I need a drink. All else in life paled in comparison to that one gnawing, desperate desire. Whiskey. I need whiskey. It was a persistent, running battle, not to turn Big Blue to the left and Vinola’s. NO. I told myself. Over and over, day after day. NO. Turn right. Go home. And once I had trained my truck to turn the right way, everything else just kind of fell into place. The weeks slipped by, then the months. At some point, I figured it out. Hey. I’m dry. I’ve changed some habits. I’ve lost forty pounds. I can do this. I feel good. I want to do this. And slowly, my desires changed. That’s what happened. Not saying they won’t change back. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Today, though, I’m good. Right now.

It took a while to work up the nerve to walk back through the doors of my bar. Early last year, in 2018, I was chatting with Amos. We talked about it. And that week, I walked into Vinola’s to meet Amos and to get some good food. It was the same place. Some of the same people. Ola, of course, was there in all her stunning beauty. The woman is and will be forever young. Even before I had left, she and Vince (Vince and Ola = Vinola’s. That’s where the name comes from.) weren’t together anymore, as a couple. She connected with a fine young man. None of us had ever seen the guy before. Matt. Ola and Matt and Vince and Nichole. The four of them were usually around the bar the last few years. Amos and I stopped in to eat, too, now and then. There were long stretches between the times we went. A few months, sometimes. When a place like that is open and accessible anytime, you don’t think much about how it would be if it wasn’t there.

I remember that Monday morning when Amos texted me. He had been at Vinola’s over the weekend, and he heard the place had sold. They were closing in a couple of months, sometime by May or so. I wasn’t that surprised at the news. There had been rumors, here and there. And now those rumors had come to pass. Vinola’s was closing. That’s too bad. We need to get over there a few times before that happens, I texted back to Amos. He agreed.

And we met regularly at the bar after work, me and Amos. A couple of times a week. Happy hour specials, for food and drink. I never paid the drinks any mind. The menu had changed a little from back in the old days. We sat at our usual seats at the center of Vinola’s long and unique and beautiful bar. I always kept an eye on whatever game was on the closest large screen TV. We chatted about a lot of things, me and Amos. We chatted with the other regulars, too. The place was still as comfortable and welcoming as it had always been.

Five years ago this week, we buried Mom up in Aylmer. On a Wednesday. I remember how it was. And how it went, the next time I walked into Vinola’s. That next Friday night, after getting home. I took a seat at the bar at my normal spot. Amy was working. Vinola’s always had the most stunningly beautiful barmaids. They fussed over you and treated you nice. Amy was special to me. My favorite, pretty much. When she flashed her dazzling smile, you felt as if you were the only man in the whole world. Well, the only man in the whole bar, at least. And that night, Amy and Rachel were working. They both offered their condolences. “I’m sorry to hear about your Mom.” Thank you, I said. I had a drink, and then some food. The bar was buzzing. Lots of people. Soon it was time to settle up. I asked for my check.

Amy smiled that dazzling smile. She flitted about the cash register, then came to me with a long face. “I can’t find any check for you, Ira,” she said, mournfully. I looked at her. “You have no bill here,” she went on. It finally sank in. I was getting comped, because I had lost my Mom. Ah, Amy, I said. You don’t have to do that. She looked blank. “Do what?” She asked innocently. I laughed and thanked her. That was one of the nicest gestures anyone did for me after Mom died. Right there at Vinola’s, at the bar. I never forgot. Down the road, the time came that I said good-bye to Amy. I haven’t seen her for a couple of years. She was a single mom, studying pre-med. One day, it’ll happen, probably. I’ll walk into a doctor’s office, and there she’ll be.

The book was a good part of my identity at Vinola’s, too. Growing Up Amish had been on the market for a few years when I first started hanging around. I never made a fuss about it, just casually mentioned the fact when I could slip it in without seeming uppity. I gave away a good many copies to the servers, there. And to Vince and Ola, too, of course. Ola looked astounded and pleased. Vince bragged in a great loud voice to many of his other customers. “Let me introduce you to Ira, our NY Times bestselling author.” He seemed proud of that fact. And it was funny, too. I brought a copy of the book in, signed it to the bar, and asked Ola to place it on a shelf, surrounded by many colorful bottles of hard liquor. She set it up on a little stand I bought just for that reason. The book glinted in the lighting, and I beamed with pride. I figured that was a special privilege.

Book at bar
My book at the bar.

I traded copies of my book for drinks, for a few years there. More than a few strangers agreed to buy me a drink for a signed copy. I had many interesting conversations with people who seemed startled to find a real author sitting and drinking at a bar.

The closing countdown plugged along. Ola put the date on the sign outside. April 25th. Thursday. That was the last day, ever, for Vinola’s as we knew it. I flirted with the idea of not showing up that night. But I couldn’t stay away. I ate at home, then sat at my desk and worked on some editing. And then, around 7:00, I headed out. Amish Black and me drove the two miles to Vinola’s one last time. The place looked full. I found a parking spot and walked up the steps into the back door, which is technically the front door. The place was always strange, like that.

The bar was full. People sat, nursing their drinks. A great many others milled about. Old time regulars. And looking around, I recognized a lot of faces from the past. A lot of servers that I had not seen for months and years. I strolled about, greeting people and snagging as many hugs as possible from the beautiful girls I knew. I had not contacted Amos. Tonight, I was alone. I found a seat at the bar close to the middle. My usual spot. I sat here hundreds of times before. From here, I have watched the ebb and flow, the tides of life. And I remembered a thing that happened years ago. It was a Saturday night. I usually hung around Vinola’s at five or six. Early. I never was a late owl at the bar. Maybe that’s why I never got nailed, driving home. The cops weren’t out, yet. I always drove real careful, but when it gets late, the cops will harass you and wreck your life for no reason.

Anyway, that evening I had a few drinks and some food. I remember sitting there, mulling over things. Looking serious, I guess. And somehow, I must have nodded off a bit. I wasn’t sleepy. I don’t know why it happened. I paid and got ready to head out. I noticed that one of the barmaids hovered close. And then there were a couple of people standing behind me. “We’re taking you home,” one of them said. I looked startled. What’s up with that? No one knew, really, except they saw me swaying as I was sitting. Vince walked out with me. We boarded Big Blue. Vince drove. Another regular, John the Wise, followed us, to bring Vince back. And the two of them took me home. I guess I should have been ashamed. I was, a little. Mostly, I was grateful that the people at Vinola’s were looking out for me. I felt pretty mortified, though. And I vowed in my heart that such a thing would never, never happen again. It never did.

Back in mid-April, just a few weeks ago, a funny thing happened. I was sitting at the bar, minding my own business, chatting with Amos. Matt was tending bar. Ola stood a little way down, chatting with some friends. Somewhere in there, I beckoned Matt over. That lovely lady standing down there. Isn’t she the owner of Vinola’s? I asked, feigning ignorance. I’d like to buy her a drink. Matt grinned and allowed he could take care of that. Some time later, he served the drink to Ola. She smiled down the bar, in thanks. And a few minutes later, she came over to thank me in person.

Ira and Ola
A kiss from the Queen. Ola and Ira.
(And no, she’s not rolling her eyes. It just looks that way.)

I always sneak a hug from any beautiful woman when I can. Ola and I chatted a bit, she hugged me, and we talked. Then she introduced me to another lovely lady sitting there. The second lady, I didn’t know. I’d never met her. She was quite stunning. Ola dragged me over and made introductions. “This is Ira. He’s a book writer.” The lovely woman turned to me with a huge smile. She was almost swooning, which puzzled me a little. And pleased me. I’m not used to any woman swooning when I come around.

She smiled again, a big bright smile. And she gushed. “What kind of bulls do you ride?” She heard “bull rider” when Ola said “book writer.” Oh, my. If a smile could melt you, I’d be a puddle. No, no, I protested. Book writer. Not bull rider. She had to absorb the brutal truth. We all laughed and laughed. It was too funny. Turns out she came from Texas a few years ago. I guess you hear what your ears are tuned to hear.

On this last night, Ola and Matt were scurrying around frantically, serving food and drinks. Ola smiled and welcomed me. Water with lemon, I told her. She brought it and I thanked her. And I sat there and sipped from my glass and surveyed the scene. Then I took my lemon water and walked around. Mingled. Vince was working the room, and I chatted a bit with him. Thanked him for all he’s done over the years to keep such a place running. Some of the customers were old timers that I had not seen since I quit drinking. I laughed, I chatted, I shook hands, I sipped water, I talked real loud. Just an ordinary scene at an extraordinary bar on a special Thursday night.

Ira Ola bar

I mingled and socialized until around 9:00. That’s late, for me. Always was, at any bar. And I thought about it, then. Do I go and formally taking my leave, or do I just walk out quietly, with no fuss? I looked around at many familiar faces. The place was getting loud. I approached a small knot of friends. Shook their hands. I’m leaving, I said. And that was it. I turned and walked out of the bar that had been like a second home to me in one season of my life. Some of the people there that last night, some of them I will probably never see again. I walked out of there, out to my Jeep in the crowded parking lot. Inside, the music and the laughter thumped and rocked. I drove to the highway and turned left into the darkness toward home.

And now, Vinola’s is no more. Such is life.

Mostly, I write about what I have a mind to write. Don’t matter if my views are heretical to people who rattle on and on about the law. There are a few subjects that I have shied away from, historically. Tar baby stuff. The stuff that can’t get resolved and never will. For instance, I have always steered clear of the head covering debate. I guess there’s actually a group out there, called the Head Covering Movement, proclaiming the great news of a great “truth.” Women must cover their heads. It’s the law. I’ve seen their posts. Not so much, lately. But in past years, it’s been out there, the apologetics of a fledgling movement trying to break into the mainstream. It ain’t gonna happen. Sorry to tell you guys that. You seem sincere, just vastly misguided.

I guess there’s no reason to hold back how I feel about it. I have no use for head coverings on anyone. It’s bondage. It’s legalism. It’s idol worship. I will not walk in chains. And in my opinion, the headcovering tends to make the woman wearing one feel superior to the woman who isn’t. Not saying it always does. But I bet if you could look deep down in the crevices of the heart, you’d see a good bit of smug satisfaction from women who feel they are more pure because their heads are covered. I bet you’d be surprised how prevalent it is. Not saying it has to be that way, and not accusing anyone, here. This is how I see it. That’s all. Nothing personal at anyone.

It was a long hard slog, to break free from that world. And now, I have very little patience for anyone pontificating about the law to me. The whole thing has always made me weary. If you choose to wear a covering, fine. People have deeply held beliefs, and I try to respect that. But. There’s always a “but,” and this is a big one. BUT if you believe that failing to do so will cause you to lose your salvation, you are in bondage to the shackles of the law. Period.

It always makes me shiver to hear the hoarse, rasping voice of any man insisting that the woman is responsible to dress “modest” and wear a large bag over her hair, so the man doesn’t have lustful thoughts. Many years ago, I heard a visiting Amish preacher go off like that. On and on about the Reine Jungfrau, the pure young virgins who had oil for their lamps at midnight when the bridegroom came. The preacher man roared around like a hoarse and rasping bear. I was highly suspicious of him. Later, it came out that he had sexually abused his own daughters for years and was doing it right at the time I heard him. You don’t forget a thing like that.

The scriptures are often used as a club to berate and suppress the “weaker vessel.” I have a few words for such men as that. You alone are responsible for the darkness in your own heart. Stop blaming women. Repent from your wicked ways. Seek forgiveness. Walk in the light.

Anyway. This whole headcovering thing came up because I came across a link last week. It’s the most sensible exegesis I’ve ever seen on the subject. Written from a good old Reformed Presbyterian (that would be Calvinist) perspective. At last, a rational explanation to counter the incessant clamor of the Anabaptist headcover legalists. I think it’s quite refreshing.

And the first of the month came around again, this week. May 1st. The due date for my manuscript. I communicated with Virginia a few times, and she told me the other day. She’s still finishing up her current project, so she didn’t need my stuff for another week. May 8th. That’ll be the big day now, I guess. I’ll definitely be working hard all weekend, to wrap up a few things. It seems like my mind splices out into a thousand different threads as I’m writing. Well, how about this? And over here, what about that? It just never stops.

I won’t say I feel good about it. But I feel calm. Virginia sent me a sample cover layout the other week. Broken Roads: Returning to my Amish Father. That’s the title. I can’t remember that anyone came up with precisely that suggestion. If you did, point me to your post, and I’ll get you a free copy of the book.

From what I’ve seen, the cover of my second book will rival the cover of my first. It’s that good. I never expected such a thing. The art and design people are total professionals, there at Hachette. I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I’ll share the cover layout the second I have permission, and after they get it tweaked just right. I’m excited.



  1. I always appreciate your candid honesty. A modern day Pharisee would never write about Vinola’s or admit to stopping in on the last evening. It takes nerves of steel to write of one’s convictions. It’s always refreshing to read your blogs. I very much look forward to the publishing of your new book. I can’t wait to see the cover too!!

    Comment by Janet Bell — May 3, 2019 @ 7:31 pm

  2. As always, your writing is strikingly refreshing and thought provoking. Tom and I look forward to the book. We are thankful to be counted as your friends.

    Comment by Jerilyn Gainsford Henderson — May 3, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

  3. Gratitude for places that are “honest” with good people who create memorable moments…

    Agree and smile that a bar can be that special honest place.

    Comment by SHO — May 4, 2019 @ 5:00 am

  4. But pride lurks everywhere, needing to be rooted out no matter what we do or don’t do. A woman without a head covering could also be prideful because she goes bareheaded. So much depends on the heart. The Bible speaks clearly to me on this issue, though it did take time to sink in, what Paul said to the Corinthian church. Many times the culture around us speaks so loudly that we can hardly hear what the Spirit whispers.

    And I like to look at history, which points out that for about 1,900 years, most Christian women covered their heads; this started to change only about 100 years ago. If I stopped wearing a covering, yes, I would still be saved, but I would feel bad about having removed what God has asked me to wear. It would be a sad commentary to have learned something good, to view it in the right light, only to then follow the culture instead of God’s Word.

    Comment by Christine in Maine — May 4, 2019 @ 9:59 am

  5. Oh, wow. Good blog. Got me wondering if even when I’m not wearing my covering, is it possible to unintentionally look down on someone who drinks? Being familiar with the beautiful lies and empty promises alcohol can tell its victims. Watching someone I love killing themselves. And the sometime pious judgement of Christian family and “friends” – just not sure if it helps or hurts.

    Comment by Phyllis — May 4, 2019 @ 10:48 am

  6. This post made me sad. You might say my grandparents ran a bar, and you might say they and my dad all had serious drinking problems. They’re all gone now. They were good people. But, as the Japanese say, “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink, And then the drink takes the man.” Or woman, in this case.

    Speaking of women, it always makes me so mad when I see a Muslim woman swathed head to toe in heavy black material in a humid Maryland summer, accompanied by her husband and sons. And what are they wearing? Shorts, T-shirts, and sandals.

    Comment by forsythia — May 6, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

  7. I spent a good part of my young life,around 20 years,on the liquor trail,searching for I know not what.It was fun.I had some really great times.The booze promised everything and delivered nothing and that was ok,for awhile.In fact,the way I was feeling during those times,I like to say,alcohol and sundry other substances might have saved my life,kept me from hurting myself when I felt things I didnt want to feel and didnt understand why I felt the way I did or the cause of the feelings.The booze smoothed over all the rough spots.I did seem to find a kind of superficial cash register honesty among the hale fellow,well met crowd I hung with.And I mean superficial. Because when the alcohol stopped working and the fear came back ten fold and I had to meet myself and do life on life’s terms,quit with the crutch and get real gut level honest,none of the bar people were any where to be found.That was ok too,since the new people I met on my journey on meeting myself were infinitely more understanding and real then the bar flies were from my drinking life.The new people were there for me.Almost 3 decades of sobriety later,life is good most of the time.When life isn’t good and I dont like the way it’s going,I don’t need or want to reach for a drink.The people I have surrounded myself with and the tools I have been given tell me the booze is not an option.And it’s all good.It really is.Today,I understand the drinking life.Its but a symptom.Today,if I run into someone with that look in their eyes,desperation and demoralization oozing out of them,they might be shaking some and they aren’t ready to quit and tell me they need a drink,I will buy them a drink.And if and when they are ready and willing to stop with alcohol focused merry go round life I will share with them how we did it.And they will know I understand them in ways people who don’t drink can’t…peace to all..

    Comment by Lenny — May 22, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

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