November 15, 2019

Vagabond Traveler; Songs of Autumn…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:00 pm


All things belonging to the earth will never change — the leaf,
the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes
again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark,
and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth…

—Thomas Wolfe

It’s that time of year again. Fall, drifting into winter. The clocks turned back an hour the other Sunday. I don’t know where it all goes, the days, the weeks, and then the months. The circle of the seasons. And every year it comes sweeping in at this time, a deep and abiding sense of foreboding and loss. Fall is the season of death, as the earth settles in and prepares for winter. In the spring comes new life. But not now. Now comes the darkness, the fruits of harvest on the farm, and the plow.

It always takes me back, this time of year does. Back to the escapes of time and memory, as Thomas Wolfe would say. Back to my days of childhood on my father’s farm. All things come from the earth, and all things must return to the earth again. The first frosts came sweeping in, cold and biting. The nights chilling down, the brown leaves raining from the maple trees, the first thin ice forming over the puddles and then the pond. The sun rising, clear and brilliant, in the east.

After chores, and after breakfast, we trundled off to school, swinging our plastic lunch boxes, hunched against the bitter northwestern winds. Above us in the cloven skies, great rafts of geese and ducks flew south in gigantic Vs, the geese sprawling sideways in the wind. Their high wild calls stirred a longing deep inside, an intense and quiet desire for a thing I could not speak. It was a yearning undefined that pulsed strong through my blood.

We had a mile to the west school. Half a mile to the east school, where all the children went through third grade. And one cold fall morning, we were walking along to school. Me and my little sister Rhoda and little brother Nathan. I’m thinking Nathan would have been attending the east school, the closer one. Anyway, it was fall, and it was cold. The ice had frozen over the mud puddles along the road. Rhoda, ever energetic and adventurous, decided to check the strength of the ice over a little puddle. She stomped on it, to see if it would hold her. And just that quick, the ice broke. It was a deep puddle, and her foot plunged in, all the way down. Her shoe was completely submerged and soaked with freezing water. Startled from the shock of it, she burst into tears.

Ah, Rhoda, I groaned gently. Not too harsh, she was upset. What to do? What to do? I was the older brother. I needed to look after my sister. Rhoda sobbed and sobbed and shivered. If I sent her back home to change socks, she’d be late for school. Plus, she’d be walking alone. After a few seconds of quick calculating, I told her to sit down on the side of the road and take off her shoe and sock. I sat down beside her and did the same. And right there in that bitterly cold morning, we switched. I pulled on the sopping freezing wet sock she had worn and gave her my dry one. And we got up and walked on toward school. That day, the cold wet sock dried in the warm schoolhouse. I thought about it, now and then, since that long-ago morning. I was the big brother. I was responsible to look out for my younger siblings. I didn’t always get that done later, in my running around years. That morning, I reckon I did.

This year, the brooding days of fall brought death. Just last month, it hit pretty close there at work. I’ve worked with Rosita Martin ever since I came to Graber. Almost twenty years. She’s actually the one who runs things there. And last month, one Monday evening, here came a text. About her father, Kenneth Beiler. A well-respected man in the Beachy Amish circles, he had not been feeling well. That evening, they went in to the hospital to get him checked out, he and his wife. The news came, brutal and shocking. He was filled with a highly aggressive form of cancer. He didn’t have long.

I didn’t know the man well. Met him probably a few dozen times over the years when he stopped in to see his daughter, there at work. We usually smiled and chatted briefly. The family brought him home and prepared to walk with him through the final months. Except there weren’t months. Three weeks later, Kenneth Beiler passed away in hospice, where he had been taken the night before because of intense and unbearable pain. The funeral was at Mine Road Beachy Amish Church, which Mr. Beiler had helped found many years ago when he was a young man. And so he was respectfully laid to rest. The extended family grieves the loss of its patriarch.

And last week, death came calling fairly close to me. Well, it was close at one time, years ago. My ex-wife Ellen’s older sister Sue Brunk. She was married to a Plain Mennonite man, Tony. I never knew Sue that well. She was always kind, back when I was married to her sister, the few times I was around her. She never made any fuss, when our world exploded later. I’m sure she felt for us deeply, because that’s the kind of heart she had. Anyway, she was diagnosed some years ago with cancer, too. What kind, I don’t know. She gradually declined and wasted away, clinging on, getting better, then worse, then better, then worse. Like a roller coaster. It got so I almost forgot she was sick. Last Friday morning, I got the message on my phone. Sue passed away. The family gathered in the little Ohio community where she had lived and buried her. Grieved the loss of the first sibling to go, like my family did with Joseph last March. I sent my condolences.

Death came knocking, for those two families. It will come knocking again, for others. Soon. That’s just a fact of life.

And off on a little bunny trail, here, about the whiskey. Or the lack thereof, might be more accurate. I don’t talk about it all the time, but I’m still walking dry through life. It’s the norm, now. I can’t accurately express what a difference it has made in my life. How good I feel. I think it was mentioned before. There’s a whole chapter in the book about it. Whiskey and Me. Unplanned, that little narrative had been. It just came on its own. The dry life is a good life, I can say. I feel free, which is saying a lot for me.

So, anyway. The other Saturday morning, I stopped at the local bank to make a deposit and pick up some cash for pocket money. I strolled in. A beautiful, sunny day. I do most of my banking in the Christiana branch, there close to work. This was New Holland. I smiled at the teller and presented my signed checks to cash and deposit. She was real nice, she smiled back at me. And she was a little apologetic. She didn’t know me. Could she see some ID? Of course, I said. I dug into my wallet and extracted my driver’s license. Here you go.

She looked at the picture. My face is bloated like a fatted hog. And then she looked at me. “My,” she said. “You’ve lost a little weight.” Well. What do you do with that? Yep, I told her. I quit drinking two years ago. The weight just washed off, after that. She smiled. “And all that sugar you’re not taking in anymore,” she said. “Alcohol is loaded with sugar.” Yep, that too, I said. Whatever it was, I’m in a good place now.

It made me smile, that little incident. I hope to smile again, like that. The blessings of life flow strong.

Four or five years ago, I used to meet with a little group at Vinola’s every Tuesday after Bible Study. We took a break from those Tuesday night meetings this summer, still haven’t started back up. I’d like to again. Anyway, there was this eclectic group that got together at the pub. Had a few drinks. Sometimes someone ordered food. Greasy, late night stuff, there. A few of the guys who met us there at Vinola’s never made it to the Bible Study. They had an aversion to such things. They’d socialize with us later, though.

One of those regulars who would only come to Vinola’s was an atheist. Nice enough guy, a little younger than me. He wore his atheism on his sleeve. I took to calling him the atheist evangelist. If I talked to others about Jesus as much as he talked about his atheism, well, I’d be an irritating pest. Which is exactly what he turned into. A tiresome bore. He’d get all vitriolic and sneering at how stupid Christians are. I mean, a little bit of that is fine, if that’s how you feel. A steady dose of such poison gets old, though. Real old. Back in those days, my drinking days, I got all hot at the guy more than a few times. He was hard to like.

In time, the little Vinola’s group disbanded. The atheist went his way, and I went mine. At some point in there, we got disconnected on Facebook, too. I think he unfriended me about the time Trump got elected president. Which I was fine with. I got tired of seeing tirade after tirade with link after link, scorning and mocking all things Christian.

I was fine with not being friends. I mean, at some point, you just accept it like it is. The atheist was not a pleasant person, and I didn’t particularly like him much. What do you owe a person like that? Do you have to pretend to like someone who is so deliberately obnoxious? Why? We are commanded to love the unloveable. What is love, in this situation? To me, it was disconnecting and walking away.

The atheist stayed out of sight and out of mind. Until very recently. I got a private message from the man. I was startled to see his name. This could not possibly bode well. And in his message, he had a very explicit thing to tell me. It was about Kanye West, the singer. I know very little about Kanye and have never been a particular fan of his singing. He made a huge splash recently when he came out as a full bore Christian. His runaway hit album is titled, “Jesus is King.” I was glad to see Kanye’s conversion. The power of the gospel can reach anyone at any level. That’s what the atheist was writing to me about. He sneered about how stupid Kanye is, to pretend to be a Christian. Obviously a fraud. All for the money.

Back in the old days, I would have risen to the bait and responded in rage. The whiskey always triggered a strong reaction. The atheist knew that. He expected the old me to get riled up. It didn’t happen. I messaged back. What’s it to you? It’s absolutely none of your business, what Kanye does. And he came back with a string of sneering vitriol directed at Kanye. He’s a mental case who produces bad art. I don’t know what he was expecting me to say. I do know it wasn’t even tempting, to reply in kind. I shrugged and asked again. What’s it to you? Why do you care?

In other words, go away, and stop wasting my time with your silliness. I got better things to do. That’s how you can respond if you’re dry, and it’s real. I’m good, here.

Not long ago, I got a call from a young Amish man, a foreman in a local shed-building shop. I’ve worked with this guy for a few years. He’s young-married, with a young family. Three children, I think. So far. He and I have had many interesting and in-depth conversations about what it is to be Amish. I’ve wondered sometimes if he stays because he wants to, or because he’s scared to leave. It didn’t matter. I mean, I didn’t try to change him. He read my book and told me he enjoyed it a lot.

So anyway, that day he was calling to check on some invoices, and he had something else he wanted to tell me. Today was his last day at this job. Ah, I said. Sorry to hear that. I’ve really enjoyed working with you, and I have enjoyed our little chats. What are you going to be doing? He told me he was moving to a farm halfway across the county. That’s the traditional but increasingly rare dream for young Amish couples in Lancaster County. Farming. Most of them can’t. Price of land is too high. I’m happy for you, I said. I’m sure your children are going to love having their Daddy home more. Still, it’s gonna be different here, not talking to you now and then.

He agreed, he enjoyed our chats, too. I thought about something, then. And I told him. I know I promised you a copy of the new book when it gets published next spring. And I’ll still give you one. But I ain’t hunting you down. You have to come over here and pick it up yourself. Maybe we can catch up, then. He chuckled and allowed that he could probably do that. We said good-bye, and I wished him well on the farm. And I thought about it. People come and people go. Everyone keeps moving on. That’s life, I guess.

The other day, I did something at work that I had not done in quite a few years. I ordered a guy to leave and never come back. The man was basically a fringe lunatic. Last time he was there, several years ago, we had a knock-down, drag-out fight to get him to pay taxes on his purchases. He fought me for twenty minutes and kept waving a little card around, claiming he’s not a US citizen, and the Constitution entitles him not to pay taxes. He wasn’t convincing. His spiel fell on deaf ears. He paid.

I mean, the man was absolutely right about the foundational issue of his gripe. Taxes are immoral and they are theft. One hundred percent of the time, that is true. But I told the man back then, and I told him again that day. I do what it takes to stay out of a cage. That’s the extent of my respect for any human law. I obey, but I seethe, doing it. The state is a vile monstrosity of an idol that gorges on innocent blood. But if I gotta pay tax on what you buy, you are going to pay that tax. Period.

I was on the phone when he walked in this time. I recognized him and wondered. Did he remember how it went the last time? Apparently not. He laid his little card on the counter and was starting down that same tired old road with Mark, my coworker. I got off the phone and inserted myself. We got things to do, I told him. We don’t have time to argue. You will pay the tax. If you want the trim, pay Mark and go out and load. We ain’t going to fight you. Not this time. Take it or leave it.

Somehow, he got the idea I was being disrespectful. He got pretty livid. Launched into me. Verbally, I mean. Wagging his finger and talking real loud. “Don’t you dare disrespect me,” he hollered. I listened for a few seconds, then interrupted. Get out, I said flatly, pointing to the door. Now. Don’t ever come back. He wasn’t expecting that. He fussed and groaned and got all pissy. I was firm. Go. Get out. Now. Don’t ever walk into this place again, or I’ll call the cops. (I would have to be half dead before I’d ever call the cops for any reason, shades of my father. But he didn’t know that.) He muttered and grumbled. Then he left.

It wasn’t fun. And I never got angry at him. Wasn’t worth it. I don’t go looking for trouble. It usually takes a little time to get me worked up. But when I get yanked around like that, I just figure a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

A while ago, I sent an advance copy of Broken Roads to Dr. Donald Kraybill, the eminent and respected historian of all things Amish. I’ve always said. If Dr. Kraybill says that such and such a community has this many districts and that many families, you can take that information to the bank. I’ve always respected his research. He knows what he’s talking about. He retired a few years back, although he’s still active as a Senior Fellow at E-Town College.

I’m not all that tuned in to the hallowed halls of higher learning, but lately I’ve heard some mutterings that Dr. Kraybill’s work is under assault from at least one other professor in the Midwest. It looks to me like the classic scene, where the young lion attacks the old lion to make a name for himself. I don’t pretend to understand the insular world of academia. I met the main man attacking Dr. Kraybill a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. To be fair, he didn’t like me much, either.

Whatever criticisms one might have for Dr. Kraybill, he has always treated me fairly and with respect. I consider him a friend. A few weeks ago, he sent his feedback in a little blurb, with full permission to use his words anywhere I want to, verbatim or edited. I don’t know if the blurb will be on the back cover of the book, but I am grateful for his kindness and support. He didn’t have to do that. It’s a big deal to me.

“In this wonderful sequel to Growing up Amish, Wagler repairs the broken roads—the endless rifts with his father and others.

With audacious candor, Wagler reveals the darkest crevice of his heart, the sensitive soul of his people, the yearning of the human spirit. He fearlessly tells the unfettered truth. Raw truth about love, empathy, sin, salvation and reconciliation. His honesty refreshes. His brilliance informs. His courage offers hope.”

—Donald B. Kraybill, author The Riddle of Amish Culture



  1. A very interesting blog post. The longer we live, the more changes we will experience. Congratulations on being “dry.”

    Comment by Rosanna F. — November 15, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

  2. Ira, that is so Christ like, what you did for your little sis Rhoda. He took all my blame on the cross and gave me eternity, with warm feet, with Him. I really appreciate your “audacious candor”. And God Bless Don Kraybill. God Bless, Roger

    Comment by Roger Otto — November 15, 2019 @ 10:33 pm

  3. This blog is a beautiful blend of the pensive and compassionate.

    Comment by Maria — November 16, 2019 @ 2:31 pm

  4. I really enjoyed the above post, God Bless, stay well.

    Comment by Jacob Dienner — November 16, 2019 @ 11:00 pm

  5. Hi Ira:

    I read voraciously. Your book was donated to a senior citizens library of which I make use. I only read biographies, as they are true accounts of life.

    Just so you know: when I finished your book I thought to myself that you are one of the best writers/biographers I’ve read in a very long time.

    Look forward to May 2020 when your next one comes out.

    Comment by Denise H. — November 19, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

  6. So the atheist is saying the something like religious Christian are saying. What is the difference between the two?

    Comment by Ken Martin — November 22, 2019 @ 6:28 pm

  7. It takes faith and belief to be an Atheist,a conviction that this orderly Universe started from Nothing and will end in Nothing just like it takes faith and belief to believe in a Higher Power or Supreme Being who oversees all,God,if you will.I personally believe there are few true Atheists. It seems more like infantile Ego and Arrogance that has a person declaring themselves the center of their own little world,a lack of spiritual growth and development for whatever reason.

    I find the Atheists I know rather tiresome people because of that very self centeredness. However,every person has the right to believe as they wish and the right to be wrong.And yet,just like the season’s changing and the end of life,everything Earthly has a beginning, a middle, and an end..period.And a life ending that has believed in Nothingness and centered on Self as a solution seems like a bleak way to go…just saying..Good blog writing,Ira,thanks and peace to all..

    Comment by Lenny — November 24, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

  8. Beautiful writing as usual. The older I get the more I like to read biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. You never disappoint.

    Comment by Cynthia R Chase — November 28, 2019 @ 6:02 am

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