March 6, 2020

The Fifth Son…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:54 pm


And who shall say–whatever disenchantment follows–that we ever forget magic;
or that we can ever betray, on this leaden earth, the apple-tree, the singing,
and the gold?

— Thomas Wolfe

It seemed like a safe thing to say, back when the message came. A request from a guy connected to Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). Soon after Dad died, the guy emailed me. We want to add your father to our database, our encyclopedia. Will you do the short bio for us? We’d like you to. And I thought that would be fine. Sure, I messaged back, relieved that they didn’t need it right that second. I was working on finishing up my book. So I told the man. Let me know when you need it, down the road. I’ll get it done. That’ll get them off my back, I figured. For now, at least. And it passed completely from my mind, that little promise I made.

Until a gentle reminder came floating in, more than a month ago. Greetings, Ira. Are you still up to do that write-up about your father? He didn’t call it a write-up. A bio. He called it a bio. We’d be ready for it, just about any time. No rush. Just when you can get it to us in the next few months. No pressure, or anything. I was busy that week with the blog, so I pushed it onto the back burner, writing Dad’s story in a short biography. The thing kept poking itself into my consciousness in the next few weeks, though. And finally, one night, I sat down to write out a few lines.

Where do you start? How do you start, writing about your father in condensed form? Always before, when I wrote stories about the man, they were mostly just random threads. How I went up to see him, and how we related while I was there. What we talked about, the things he told me. You can meander down all kinds of bunny trails, writing like that. It’s stream of consciousness, almost. I knew the bio would require me to write like I wasn’t used to. Fewer words, not more. Pack every word in there, make it taut. Get it said without emotion. Well, with a minimum of emotion, at least.

I looked at a few sample bios here and there, to get an idea of the structure. Yeah, I’d have to be tight and taut with my words, alright. Say who the man was, give his birth and death dates, and tell a little about what he got done in his life. I thought about it all a good deal, just rolled it around in my mind. And I began to poke around a bit.

His birth and death dates were easy. I knew those. As I knew the date of when he married Mom. February 3, 1942. That stuff I jotted down in my draft. And I got to thinking. His accomplishments. What did he get done? What are the dates of those things? And right there is where I ran into my first issues. When people read about a person in a bio, they trust that the facts therein are true. And here, now, it was my job to make sure they were.

I poked around some more. Checked things in the Wagler book, to see where Dad was in line. The ninth of ten children. And I realized for the first time, made the connection. Dad was a ninth child. I am the ninth child in my family, the ninth in line of my father’s sons and daughters. So that makes me the ninth child of a ninth child. It was a little bit startling. Of course, it’s just coincidence. But so what if it is? I think to myself. It’s still remarkable to carve out a little bit of special lineage.

I grasped early on, probably from the time I was about ten, that I could add forty to my amount of years, and that’s how old Dad was. Well, for most of the year, anyway. My birthday is in August, his in December. He turned forty years older than I was in December. So, I knew of that little link, early on. Just by doing simple math on my own. It took me a while longer, a few more years, to figure out the second remarkable coincidence. Dad was the fifth and final son in a family of ten. I was the fifth of six sons in a family of eleven. I thought it was astonishing. I was the fifth son of a fifth son. I even got that little fact poked into the book, somewhere early on.

Doing my research for Dad’s bio, I gathered information, old and new. He was almost forty years old when I was born. He was the fifth son and the ninth child of his family. As was I. I like the connection, the link back to Dad, a link I can call my own. But I don’t buy the suggestion that the link has anything to do with why I write. Sure, I’m pretty much the only one of Dad’s sons and daughters who followed in his steps, writing wise. That doesn’t mean my brothers and sisters aren’t writers. They are, every single one of them is, if they want to be. They just don’t choose to produce on a regular basis, like this blog. They could, they got Dad’s genes just like I do. It’s their choice, not to. Which is totally fine. To each his or her own. There’s nothing to fuss about at all.

Anyway, that was a bunny trail from what I was talking about. Dad’s bio. I had the basic dates and facts, now what about his accomplishments? In a long and tremendously productive lifetime of accomplishments, which few were the most influential? Which had the most impact? I thought about it, mulled the thing over for a week or two. Just kind of looked at it from every angle that I could. Two things stand out in my mind. The founding of Family Life made David L. Wagler a household name. And his first attempt at writing a book, well, a real book, I mean, other than little pamphlets. He wrote The Mighty Whirlwind. By the mid-1970s, I think, my father’s fame reached its apex. You could go to any Amish community in the world, pretty much, and the people knew his name. I can’t say for sure, but I think even the most stringent Swartzentruber Amish knew who David Wagler was. Or a lot of them did. The Swartzys are barely considered Amish by the Old Order, so that’s saying something.

So, I emphasized Dad’s accomplishments as best I could. The Mighty Whirlwind was published in 1966, when I was five years old. I remember it. And Family Life was launched a few years later, in 1968. Dad published a few other titles, too. Simon and Susie stories. Stories Behind the News. And, of course, the little four-volume set of memoirs he wrote in the last years of his life. These things, these accomplishments, I tracked down and dated. And I listed them in his bio.

Things always come jumbling in at random, seems like. And it happened right about the time I was focusing on writing about Dad. I heard from my publisher, the people at Hachette. They were looking to get my book read aloud for the audio version. And they asked me. Do you want to read it? I thought about it a good bit. Back for the first book, I never had a chance to read it aloud for the recording. Tyndale never gave me a clue it was even happening until it had. I just got a letter in the mail one day. Congratulations. Growing Up Amish is now available on audio. I never really thought about it, until a lot later. It would have been kind of fun to speak the narrative. I think it would have been. Not saying I would have read it. But it would have been nice to be asked.

Now, Hachette was asking. I wasn’t sure what all would be involved. So, I contacted Chip, my agent. Hey. I got a chance to read Broken Roads for the audio. What should I do? Chip talked to the Hachette people and emailed me. “They want you to do it.” So there was that. At least they weren’t actively opposed. I reached out to a couple of other writer friends. What do you think? To a person, everyone told me. “Read your own book. Your fans will expect that.” If I was interested, Hachette needed a sample. So, one day, I read the Prologue aloud into my iPhone. A little over three pages. It went OK. I sent it in to Stephanie, my Hachette corporate contact. A few days later she emailed me. They liked it. Can I come to the Big City and speak the whole book? It would take about three days.

Well. I wasn’t sure. I know New York City is the center of the world for many things, but it’s nowhere close to the center of my world. I could survive very well without cities. They are loud and dirty and unsafe, you can’t even carry anything to protect yourself, thanks to vile, feckless, leftist politicians. I have been most content in small towns and in the country. But I thought about it. Yeah, I could see going to the city. Checking it out. Hachette’s offices, right in downtown Manhattan. That’s about as big time as it gets, I reckon. Plus, I thought. I don’t know if there will ever be another book. Ride this ride for as long as you can.

And about this time, Dad’s bio pushed its way to the forefront again. I had it pretty much done, with the pertinent facts. David Lengacher Wagler was born on such and such a date. He married Ida Mae Yoder in 1942. And he died on such and such a date. The books he wrote, I listed them, near as I could. It was all condensed into part of a page of writing. I tweaked and revised and rewrote. And then I sent it in, along with one of the last photos I ever took of the man, when he was still with it in the summer of 2018. And that was done. I felt relieved.

The GAMEO man seemed to like it OK. He caught one embarrassing error. Somehow, I got Dad’s Mom mixed up with Mom’s Mom. Joseph K. and Mattie, I wrote. The editor, bless his heart, had done some basic research. He asked me. “Mattie? I thought your Dad’s Mom’s name was Sarah.” And I instantly slapped my head. Yes. Of course. Joseph K. and Sarah Wagler were my father’s parents. So we got that hashed out, the editor and me. I told him to correct it, my apologies. I sent along a good photo of Dad, too. I took it that last summer when I went up to see him. A real good thoughtful shot. You don’t have to use this, I told the man. But you can, if you want to. He did.

And bouncing back now to Hachette. One day out of the blue, an email came from Stephanie, my Hachette contact. She was sending me three professional auditions from three professional readers. Just to make sure they covered all the bases. See what you think. I listened to the five-minute reading of each one and marveled. I wouldn’t be able to read that well. No way. Still. I told Stephanie. I’d like to come and read the book for the audio, if the logistics can be worked out.

She emailed back to schedule a phone call, and we connected that afternoon. I had never spoken to Stephanie before. We got along fine, just chatting, and she felt it out, how badly I wanted to come. I didn’t, really, and she instantly sensed that. And she came up with an idea. “Why don’t we get you to read a short introduction, just for the front of the book?” She asked. “It would be a part of the audio version, only.” I jumped at the lifeline. Yes. That’s perfect. I can write something and we’ll fit that in. One day, that’s all I’d need to spend in the Big City. I sagged with relief. I have to say, on the journey of this book, things have just kind of worked themselves out, so far, somehow. I stay grateful.

And so it now stands. Next Tuesday, I will embark on a great adventure into the Big City. That vast and breathing “concrete jungle” Thomas Wolfe often talked about. I figured it would be wise to have someone go with me who knew the lay of the land a little better. I ended up asking my ex-brother-in-law, Paul Yutzy. A good old country boy, Paul is equally at home in the largest city. He’s been to the Big Apple lots of times. He knows the place. He’s fearless. I don’t figure I could ask for a better traveling companion through unfamiliar terrain.

Come Tuesday, we will take up our traveling staffs, me and Paul. (Like Willie sings, We received our education, In the cities of the nation, me and Paul.) I’m leaving the logistics completely up to him. If he wants to go in by train, I’ll get the tickets. If he decides to drive in, I’ll pay for fuel and parking. I think Hachette will pay a little something for my time. Whatever. I’ll take what I can get. What I can’t get, I won’t sweat. The door to this road may never open to me again. Just keep walking, I tell myself. Tell of your journey as your father told of his before you. Keep walking.

The broken road of the second book rolls on.



  1. Ira,
    Best of luck in the big city. Like you said “ ride the train as far as it takes you “.

    Comment by Marcus — March 6, 2020 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Shall be thinking of you and Paul on Tuesday. What an adventure it shall be. Cannot wait to read the blog about it!

    Comment by Jerilyn Gainsford Henderson — March 7, 2020 @ 12:06 am

  3. Ira,
    I read your first book and felt connected, although I know little about being Amish. I grew up 30 east of Arthur, Illinois. I have read many biograhical books and listened to many autographical audio books. I have found that the ausio books that were read by the authors were better than those read by professional readers. They read well, but the inflection and intonations of the author read books seemed to connect better with me, as I’m sure yours will be.
    Godspeed, Ira.
    Jim Hiatt

    Comment by Jim Hiatt — March 7, 2020 @ 3:46 pm

  4. “The door to this road may never open to me again.” That sentence stopped me cold; I’ve been needing a nudge to go through a certain door of opportunity in my own writing life. Thank you, Ira! :-)

    Comment by Christine in Maine — March 7, 2020 @ 6:33 pm

  5. So, Ira, Growing Up Amish has helped me understand the conflicts I experienced while spending 40 years getting myself out of a couple other religious boxes. Thanks.

    Comment by Deborah Crawford — March 9, 2020 @ 12:07 pm

  6. Loved this read, thank you.

    Comment by Jacob Dienner — March 14, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

  7. Hmmm…bad Coronavirus timing for NYC.

    Comment by Sho — March 17, 2020 @ 9:09 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags):
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .