February 7, 2020


Category: News — Ira @ 5:31 pm


Spring, summer, and fall fill us with hope;
winter alone reminds us of the human condition.

—Mignon McLaughlin

I remember after we moved to Bloomfield, way back when I was a young teenager, a lot of years ago. We moved in October. I can’t say it was that next spring for sure, but it probably was. Dad was always nosing around, always looking for any little opportunity to make a few bucks. And somehow, he found a hybrid seed corn company up in northern Iowa, a small regional enterprise. He signed up as a dealer. I can’t remember that he ever did such a thing before, being a seed corn dealer. He never did much with it, maybe moved a few dozen bags of seed each season. Plus, what he planted himself. He got a discount, of course, as you would. The thing that remains firm in my mind about that little seed corn company was its name, from a town of the same name. Winterset.

I’ve wondered, over the years. What kind of bleak and barren snow-swept landscape could ever be so terrible that its inhabitants would call it Winterset? Think of it like sunset. A place where winter sets in and stays a while. What kind of people would even live in such a desolate land? Did the sun ever shine there? Was there summer in the land of Winterset? The town’s most famous son was the actor, John Wayne. He was born there. He didn’t stick around long, though. Which I figure is totally understandable.

The whole Winterset thing came to me in the last few weeks as I was brooding and getting a little mopey about that very thing. It’s winter. We’re smack dab in the middle of that long and dreary stretch of time that comes around every year. Winter. It always comes slinking in. And once it starts, it’s pretty much endless. January seemed about three months long. Then the first week of February then came limping through the door. And here we are, and that’s how it is.

Except for the incessant dreariness of it, I can’t complain much about the winter, so far. I always want to see at least one major snow storm, a storm where things shut down and you slowly creep home from work early along the icy roads. It’s always exciting and fun that way. Once. But this year, so far, at least here in Lancaster County, it’s been zilch. Nada. The ground barely got covered, a few times. It’s rained a lot. And it kind of grinds down on the heaviness of it all, the fact that we can’t even get a respectable snow storm. Almost, one could get cranky.

I can’t remember that I got this down for a few years. In January, I mean. This year, there’s one factor I can think of that would cause that tautness inside, like it is. The book. I’m done. And there’s not much to do now but wait. Back to that a little later. I got a few bunny trails to go down, first.

Last week, the powers that be marked the event, like they do every year. This time, I took a little more notice for some reason. The Challenger disaster. It happened thirty-four years ago, in 1986. You always see the headlines. This year, I saw them, and a lot of memories came washing back.

I remember quite clearly when it happened. It was a bitingly clear Tuesday winter morning. On Tuesdays, in winter, I went to town. Drove the Stud up to West Grove and tied him in Henry Egbert’s old ramshackle barn. Caught a ride to town with the coffee loafers, or stood beside the road and caught a ride with my thumb. There, I hung out at the Bloomfield Sale Barn with my buddies. Bought a lamb or a calf now and then. And that morning, I was sitting there in Chuck’s Café with the regulars, swapping small talk and tall tales. Sipping strong black coffee. And all of a sudden, Chuck came bustling through the front door of the little café. He had been working in his shop, where he had a radio turned on. He was excited, you could tell.

“Turn on the TV, turn on the TV,” his voice was quietly urgent. “The space shuttle just blew up.” I can’t remember that I had even thought of the space shuttle that particular morning. We had read all about it in the paper, about the school teacher who was going on this trip. I have remembered her name through all the years since. Christa McAuliffe. It was a big symbolic deal, her inclusion with the crew. The news of it even reached the Amish world I was in. She was going to come back and tell her classes all about it, and probably talk on TV. America was excited about it.

“Turn on the TV,” Chuck repeated. Mrs. C stepped back into her little kitchen, where she had a small black and white television stuck up in the corner. She turned it on, and we all crowded around, watching, mesmerized. I remember the great clouds of smoke and debris that littered the skies, where the Challenger had blown up. I forget which TV channel it was. The announcers spoke in hushed, shocked tones. We stood around, absorbing, silent.

And suddenly, the screen switched to the White House. And there stood president Reagan, all somber in his suit. His speechwriters had cobbled together a brief statement. I don’t remember much of what he said, except when he wound down. The astronauts, he proclaimed, had reached out and touched the face of God. Chillingly beautiful rhetoric, that was. And that’s all it was, rhetoric to cover the brutal and horrifying fact that the bodies of the crew had been blown to a thousand smithereens. You might as well say they touched the face of God, because in another dimension, perhaps they had.

And I thought about it this year, more than usual, looking back. The year was 1986, when it happened. Right that moment, my life and my mind were in tremendous turmoil. That spring, I would make one of my final, frantic flights from Bloomfield, Iowa. Fleeing the world I had figured to settle in. It had not worked. There was no way it ever could have. From today, I can see that and say that. It all just was what it was. It can never be told any other way.

Twenty years ago, Ellen and I got married. And we moved into this old brick house I still live in. I’ve lived here ever since. Sometime in that first year, we got a new roof installed. Shingles. Twenty-year shingles. And this year, it’s getting right at twenty years. The shingles are getting a little worn and thin.

I mentioned something to Levi, my Amish contractor friend at work. We go way back, Levi and me. I’ve mentioned him a few times before, and he’s in the book on page 203. I had told him about it, but I never thought to show him until one day a few weeks ago. He stopped in for a quote. We were just chilling, there at my desk after we got the quote done. Chatting a bit before he rushed out the door. And I thought of it for the first time. Hey, do you want to read about yourself in my book? I showed him the galley copy, opened to the right page. Levi took the book and stood there reading. A smile crept onto his face. Great, I thought. At least he’s smiling about it. He seemed mildly pleased. I guess it’s not every day you get to read about yourself in a book.

Anyway, I mentioned it to him, about my roof, back last fall already. Next year (which is now) I need a new metal roof on my house. I need you to get me a labor quote. I’ll get the metal, myself. I can get a discount. I need the labor. Levi promised he would come around to measure up the house sometime before spring came.

Well. Last Saturday, I was hanging out with some of my Amish friends, drinking strong black coffee. My phone rang abruptly. I glanced at the screen. Levi. I walked outside to answer. It’s rude, to talk on your phone when you’re with people. Hello, I said. Ira here. And Levi’s voice crackled. “What are you doing this morning?” he asked, somewhat vaguely. Oh, just hanging with friends, I said. What are you up to? Are you coming around to measure my house? He was. And he did. He and his driver showed up about an hour later, after I had run my errands. They stacked a ladder against my porch, then another ladder from the porch roof to the house roof. The driver got up and shouted out numbers as Levi took notes on a large yellow pad.

I chatted with my friend. He’s figuring to get to my house in March sometime. Providing the weather is good, of course. I will buy all the materials at Graber, where I work. Levi will not remove the one layer of 20-year-old shingles. He’ll leave them right where they are. Install lathe over the shingles, spaced at 2 feet on center. Then attach the metal roofing to that. My house roof isn’t that big, but it has lots of hips and a valley or two. And a couple of dormers, too, sticking out. It’s pretty broken up. I told Levi. I’m thinking Shiny Black metal will go well with the red bricks. He agreed wholeheartedly. “Yes. That will go well, the color of it. It’s going to look good.” And that’s how we left it. And now I wait. Until March.

OK. Back now to the book. I remember nine years ago, about this time. The Tyndale people had told me. After the book’s done, and you’re waiting for it to get published, that’s called the waiting game. Or the death march. It’s when most authors go a little bit wacky. At that time, I half shrugged it off. Hey. I was at a place few people ever see. I’d be OK.

Well, I wasn’t, exactly. From the final edits to publication is usually a matter of some months. Five or six. I came very close to cracking up, waiting for the book’s release. The mind wanders, after you produce intensely for a year or so, then just stop cold. After you get through a long old slog, and suddenly you are turned out to pasture. Hurry up and wait, that’s how it felt, back then. The days edged by slowly, oh, so slowly. I fretted and drank. And drank some more. Thank God for the whiskey, I thought to myself.

This time, there is no whiskey. And I’m pretty much in the middle of that la-la land of meaninglessness and nothingness. Just kind of shifting along. May. That’s still out there a good ways. Part of me is stretched into intense tautness. And part of me is as relaxed as, well, as I could hope to be in a place like this. It’s a bit strange, I will say.

Virginia made sure I got my share of galley hard copies of the book. It was great, to hold in my hands for the first time. And I sent some here and there, mostly to my mover-and-shaker friends. The ones who will make some noise. I try to tell my friends who get a copy. This is not the first book. That was then. This is now. This book is its own story. Growing Up Amish was the lost and searching youth, on a hard and turbulent road. That voice was young, inexperienced, impulsive, brash. This book, this is me, talking today. From where I am today. It’s a different voice. More mature. Lots of it is a hard and turbulent road, too, but not as a youth. Broken Roads picks up where the last book left off. And it brings the journey along, all the way to the death and burial of my father.

Anyway, I mailed out a few dozen galley copies. A copy that’s close to done, but still needs some editing. There are mistakes, here and there, that you’ll find. One friend who got a book was my old editor from Tyndale. Susan Taylor, the lady who did the actual editing of my first book. She’s the only one from my old crew that I’m still in contact with today. I reached out to her. Hey, do you want a copy? She did. It was purely out of respect, that I sent her one. And some old memories of another time.

I guess Hachette is sending out galley copies to reviewers, too. That’s what Tyndale did back then, I remember. And strangely enough, a few early reviews have sprouted on Amazon. Mostly good. One review struck me, though, just the wording and detail of it.

“Ira Wagler writes in an unusual way. I wonder if it’s a reflection of his Amish childhood. It’s very understated when it comes to emotion, and sometimes the small details overwhelmed the larger themes. For example, he’ll tell about what chain hotel he stayed at or where he got his coffee, and this is stated and takes up almost as much writing as the events that are the theme of the book—how the old age and eventual death of his parents affected him, as a man who had left their lifestyle behind.

In this style, Wagler tells of his struggles with issues many of us face—the collapse of a marriage, fighting addiction, finding a community to support your faith, forgiving others. While reading, I wished often he would be more direct and clear with his narrative, but when looking back at my reading, I realized he writes much like we experience life, in a flurry of details with the big issues being there among the everyday.”

Umm. Yeah. I thought that’s what writing is. A flurry of details. Just tell the story. Don’t worry about a message. Some will get one thing, some another thing, and some will glean nothing at all. I wasn’t in the least offended by this reviewer. She gave the book four stars. I’ll take it.

And finally. The other day, a small-time builder walked in at work to pick up some trim. He’s probably about my age, I’ve known him for years. As I was writing up his invoice, he asked, all chatty. “Got any more books coming?” You don’t usually have to ask me that question twice. I beamed. Yep, as a matter of fact, I do, I said. It’s coming out in May. I walked back to my desk and picked up a galley copy of Broken Roads and showed it to him. He looked interested. “I bought your first book,” he said. “I gave it to a friend and never saw it again.” I nodded, but didn’t ask if he’d read it. Just in case he hadn’t.

I told him a little bit about the new book. It’s about my parents and their passing. My marriage blowing up. And so forth. He looked at me shyly. And he stammered a little, telling me. He and his wife had some major issues lately, after 30 years of marriage and raising a family. He wasn’t real comfortable talking about it, I could see. I told him. My marriage didn’t make it anywhere close to that long. Seven years. We couldn’t make it past the seven-year itch. If you guys hung in there for 30 years, I’d say it’s worth fighting for.

He told me a little bit about it. They are getting counseling and going to church. I applauded. Great. That’s great. Fight, fight, fight for it. And then I said something I don’t say often, because it usually just sounds trite, and people often spout the words without meaning them. I’m going to pray for you, I said. Both of you. I meant it. His stubbled face broke into a smile. “I appreciate that,” he said quietly. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”



  1. I was teaching when the Challenger blew up. My first grade class and every class in our school were watching the lift off on TV when disaster struck. It was a sad day.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — February 7, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

  2. Another good post, Ira. I look forward to your new book.

    Comment by Em — February 7, 2020 @ 11:42 pm

  3. Keep sharing those details; they anchor readers to the scene. The fact that you drove Amish Black to Sheetz for strong coffee makes the event more concrete, more real to readers. Details can also divulge character–they can even enhance theme.

    Comment by Christine in Maine — February 8, 2020 @ 10:02 am

  4. I like your response at the last part of the blog to the one who had marriage problems after 30 years. It bothers me to hear people who readily promise to pray for people or circumstances. I am like you in that respect of being careful who I promise to pray for and then be sure I honor that promise.

    Comment by Rachel — February 8, 2020 @ 8:43 pm

  5. Do it once. Do it right. Remove the old shingles.

    Comment by Milly Weidhaas — February 8, 2020 @ 9:11 pm

  6. “That was then. This is now….it’s a different voice.”

    Looking forward to reading about milestones of Anabaptist history from such a unique perspective. Gonna be groundbreaking….

    Comment by Phyllis — February 9, 2020 @ 4:25 pm

  7. I like being honest, but I don’t want to be honest about everything, because it might put me in a bad light. You, you get honest about it all. I think I’m remiss. I can be honest about the dogs, 8 of them. I can be honest about the chickens, the gone husband, church today…but some things I’ll only be honest about to my closet friends. Some things are too private. Too controversial. Too political. Some things I just don’t want you to know. I told a bunch of stuff to a close friend and she sent me help to remedy things. It’s a blessing and a curse. Well, not a curse…I just wasn’t sure about it. I’m still not. But I like it. For the most part. I now have a brand new platform and steps to the coop. Before it was a chance encounter to catastrophy climbing up on the one good step to the decimated platform, to get inside the coop for the eggs, now it’s a walk in the park. I’m so grateful. I also have a new wheel on the front gate. It’s so much easier to move it, to drive in the place, now. I’m so grateful. I’m giving people a place to stay/live, they are repairing things on my broke down farm. It’s a good trade. Honesty is great, if people believe you, but if they don’t it can create a whole other fit of unhappy, that can really get to you. It has me. I’m working on how to get that unhappy happied.

    So, guess I’ll get to it. Loved your first book and really looking forward to this new one. Thanks for writing. A fan, honest!!!

    Comment by Patricia Groshong — February 10, 2020 @ 5:10 am

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