September 14, 2007

Ode to Nicholas: A Song for the Unsung

Category: News — Ira @ 7:08 pm

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“……Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the
least of these, ye did it not to me.”
—Matthew 25:45
____________________________________

Every community has that odd family. They’re different. Dress different. Talk different. Act different. The family whose children are mocked and savaged without mercy and without remorse.

In the Aylmer community where I was born, that different family was Solomon Herrfort’s. Solomon moved to Aylmer as a single man. He emerged from the backwater area of the plain and very conservative Milverton, Ontario community. Of his background and ancestry I know little. Herrfort is not a common Amish surname.

In Aylmer, he worked as a hired hand for my uncle, Bishop Peter Yoder. Once, during that time (so the story is told), Solomon was working in a field along the road, building a fence. He hung his coat on a fence post and kept on working. Along came a tramp (I guess there were tramps back then) and took up an axe lying there on the ground and tried to split the post on which Solomon had hung his coat. I’m not sure if the tramp succeeded or how Solomon reacted.

Solomon later married Esther Gascho, daughter of Noah and Nancy Gascho. They settled on a small farm a few miles northwest of our home. He was different, no question about it. He was small, lean and wiry and had a wild shock of unruly orange hair and a stringy dirty-orange beard. He was a bit slow and eccentric and hard of hearing. The children made fun of him and said he had wax in his ears. His typical response to any comment was a prolonged “Ooohhh,” probably because he couldn’t hear what was said to him. A grove of tall trees obscured the dull brick house on his farm at all times, even on the sunniest day. The house itself was spooky, with many sharply-peaked gables. It was always gloomy; no bright lights ever shone from the windows after dark. The only light was the pale, flickering glow of the dismal little kerosene flame lamps that were used in their home.

Solomons never took their turn holding church services in their home like other families. Solomon never led a song in church. They rarely socialized with other families and not at all evenings, as Solomon didn’t like to be on the road with horse and buggy after dark. The family was as close to reclusive as any I’ve ever known.

They were poor. I don’t mean poor as poverty is defined today, but really poor. What Solomon did for a living remains a mystery to me. I suppose he farmed a bit and had some goats. I don’t know what the family ate. It wasn’t much and it wasn’t healthy. Esther, his wife, was always frail and in poor health and could not get her work done. The children wore ill fitting and ill made clothes. They always looked thin, pale and sickly.

And Solomon and Esther had children. Six or seven. Nicholas was the oldest. Nancy was the next child and the oldest daughter. The younger children remain obscured in my mind, as I never was around them much. Aaron and Noah and Katie are three names I faintly recall.

Nicholas was born in 1963, sixteen months behind me. He always seemed much younger because he didn’t start school until he was seven; almost all children from other families started at age six. He was small for his age and always dressed in thin shabby clothes, worn-out shoes some other family had given them, and had a strange haircut. Straight across his forehead above the eyes, then straight back to the ears, then straight down over the ears. It was the old way. Different. And we mocked and scorned him for it.

Children of any age and in any culture are pitiless and cruel and run in packs. And heaven help the ones rejected by the pack. The Herrfort children were taunted and tormented as heartlessly as any I have witnessed, ever. Always, without fail, Nicholas Herrfort provided the perfect defenseless target to be mocked and embarrassed for the general merriment of the crowd.

“Are you a heifer?”

“No, no, Herrfort.”

“Are you a heifer?”

“No, no, Herrfort.”

Repeated over and over to the roars of appreciation and snickers of delight from sadistic onlookers.

His life was particularly harsh at school. He trudged to the little one-room East school house each day or was delivered by his father, scrunched over on an open, unpainted hack hitched to a bony old horse named Ichabod. He was a painfully shy and stam- mering child. I think he failed one grade, a further shameful burden to his already shattered psyche. He was hard of learning. But his first three years at the East school were heaven compared to what awaited him at the West school, where all children attended from the fourth grade on.

We all made fun of Nicholas and his sister Nancy; that is just a fact. They were always the last ones chosen for playground games. Neither could sing; their flat, toneless voices rang in jarring dissonance when it was their turn to lead a song. Nancy once picked a song that no one knew; the whole classroom snickered and scoffed at her mistake. She buried her face in her arms on her desk. The jokes we made, the cutting comments, the scornful words, all must have had the cumulative effect of crushing any seeds of confidence that may have sprouted inside them. I cannot even imagine what their existence must have been like, but they must have developed a dull numbness to the cruel horrors that constituted an average day of their threadbare and joyless lives.

And it was wrong of us, so very, very wrong. All of it; all the mocking, all the tricks, all the jokes, all the hurts, all the laughter, all the torment, all the pain.

At the West school, several bullies, who will remain unnamed, took a particularly twist-ed joy in making his life hell. They delighted in torturing Nicholas and actually hurting him. The rest of us did not, but we did stand by and watch. We did nothing to stop it. One particular thing occurred repeatedly at school that still haunts me at times. I can see it as clearly in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

The school had an outdoor privy located across the yard from the school house. When Nicholas needed to go during the noon hour, one of the bullies kept careful watch with his evil eye. When Nicholas took off running down the walkway at full speed, legs churning desperately, arms pumping, hair flying behind him, the bully raced after him. Always he caught up around the swing set, and in full stride, kicked Nicholas in the butt with all his might. Laughing and cackling all the while. I remember many times that Nicholas would lurk furtively inside the safety of the school house door, peeking out and awaiting his chance to sprint to the privy without getting kicked.

In winter, the bullies delighted in chasing him around to the back side of the school house, trapping him there and pelting him with iced snow balls and rubbing his face and hair with ice and snow, belittling and cursing him for just being who he was. It bruised him physically. It had to hurt, bad. I can’t fathom what it did to him emotion-ally. And we did nothing to stop it.

Once, one bully egged on another student, younger and smaller than Nicholas, in the school basement. The younger student ran at him full speed, grabbed his long hair, and actually swung himself off the ground and around Nicholas while hanging onto his hair. Nicholas stammered and staggered, crying, “ouch, ouch, ouch.” The bully whoop-ed and clapped and guffawed and cheered. This happened two or three times; we stood around and watched it until the younger student’s uncle (also a student) finally stepped in and stopped his nephew. The scene still sends shivers of horror down my spine.

Out of the dark tragedy of his dreary life, I have one bright memory. On our walks home from school of an afternoon, Nicholas was himself as much as I ever saw him. On those walks, I often talked to him and Nancy, person to person. (My sister Rhoda was always kind to Nancy. Others were too. I remember that Hank Wagler befriended Nicholas many times.) They were both starved for even the tiniest crumb of human kindness. I can still see Nicholas as we walked along the road in the late afternoon sunlight, stammering his words, smiling hesitantly and shyly, his three front teeth missing, glancing furtively at me now and again to see if I would mock or scorn him. Gaining confidence when I didn’t. On the road, we had many normal and light-hearted conversations. Laughing and chattering as children do. I suppose that was as close as I ever came to seeing the innocent, relaxed child as he would have been in a safer, saner world. At the corner by the print shop, they turned north and Rhoda and I headed on east toward home. So we parted. Until the next day’s torment.

It is no surprise that from the brutal foundation of such a tortured life, Nicholas devel- oped a mental disorder as he grew older. While some of those mental problems likely were genetic, I am convinced that no normal child could have remained sane after enduring what Nicholas did growing up.

I can’t recall seeing him after we moved out of Aylmer in 1976, but I’m sure I did at least once, in church or at a wedding when visiting the community. If I met him then, I don’t remember it. As a teenager and later as an adult, he grew ever more reclusive and erratic and alone. His peers tolerated him, I suppose, with pitying condescension.

The Solomon Herrfort family moved to Bland, Virginia in 1994. What drew them there I do not know. It was poor and remote and plain community. Of Nicholas’ life at this time, I have few details. Some say that after the move to Virginia, he stopped taking medication for his mental problems. Whatever the facts, I do know that his mental condition deteriorated steadily.

In June, 1996, my nephew, Phillip Gascho, got married in the Aylmer community. Solo-mon and his family were invited to the wedding. (His wife Esther is a sister to Phillip’s father and my brother-in-law, Joe Gascho.) His parents decided to take Nicholas along and leave him with relatives in Aylmer. He was becoming a bit much for the family to handle in Virginia.

Nicholas was vehemently opposed to the plan. He did not want to leave Virginia. His parents insisted that he go along with them. At 4:30 AM on the morning they planned to leave, Nicholas got up and left the house. His brother Aaron heard him leave, but did not follow him, as Nicholas had a habit of getting up and walking about at all hours. After the sun rose, he was nowhere to be found. They searched and searched. Some- time around mid-day, or it may have been early afternoon, they found him, lying face down in a shallow pond of sixteen inches of water. He had taken his own life by drown- ing. By the time they found him, the turtles had eaten away his nose and part of his face.

No one can know the depths of his mother’s raw and bitter sorrow for her oldest son, her first born. Or the silent suffering of his father and siblings. The hopeless tears. The infinite regrets. And the deep, biting anguish and guilt they must still feel, as fresh now as it was the day he died.

A few days after Phillip’s wedding, they buried Nicholas in a remote little country grave yard in Pearisburg, Virginia. A bus load of relatives from Aylmer attended the funeral. A simple wooden marker was erected above his grave, and today goats graze over it. Other than the horrible details of his death, which are discussed occasionally in hushed tones, he remains as forgotten and unsung as if he had never even walked upon this earth. Or suffered the cruel injustices inflicted upon him by those who should have known better and should have protected such a weak and defenseless child.

Until now. The annals of my memory churned when I first heard the horrifying news of his untimely and tragic death, and I knew that one day I would write of him to the world and publicly call to account all those who rejected and so savagely mocked him and his family so many years ago. Including myself. Not by accusation or in anger, but by simply relating what I remembered and knew of his lonely and anguished passage through the desolate wilderness that was his life.

There are a lot of us out there. And we know who we are. We can mourn and grieve our thoughtless and cruel actions, we can say we were just children, we can say we didn’t mean it, we can say others were worse than we were. We can ask forgiveness from the Herrfort family and from God.

But not from Nicholas. Not ever from Nicholas.

He was of the least among us. His span of years and all that he was or might have been, forgotten. His death remembered only because of its tragic and unspeakable horror. But on this date, on this site, on this post, we acknowledge and honor his life. And belatedly mourn his passing with sadness, regret and deep remorse:

NICHOLAS HERRFORT
BORN: January 17, 1963 in Tillsonburg, Ontario
DIED: June 19, 1996 in Bland, Virginia
AGE: Thirty-three years, five months and two days

Today Solomon and Esther Herrfort reside in Hillsboro, Wisconsin. Solomon is almost completely blind. Their remaining sons, Aaron and Noah, are married. Aaron has three children. Solomon’s daughters, including Nancy and Katie, remain single and live with and take care of their ageing parents. The family is lonely; almost none of their relatives bother to visit them. And so they exist in the numb, silent fog they have known all their lives, as invisible and ignored now as they were reviled thirty-five years ago.

I like to think that God’s immeasurable grace enveloped and embraced Nicholas as his last breath fled from him and that his weary, wounded soul was gently gathered into the Father’s arms with a tenderness and compassion he had never known. And that he is now forever free from all the suffering and scorn and pain and contempt and sorrow and rejection that defined his life. I don’t know that, but I like to think it was so. And is.

I am glad that I never saw him when he was a mentally troubled adult. He remains forever in my mind the shy, stammering, smiling child, laughing and chattering as we walked along the road in the afternoon sunlight on the way home from school.

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(17 Comments) »

  1. Wow… what a sad story. It brings tears to my eyes. Humans can be so cruel to each other. This is a plea for kindness and a reminder to love one another- even the least of these!

    Comment by ella — September 15, 2007 @ 9:00 am

  2. Good old A.M.C.D.S. must have went downhill from the time I ‘graduated’ from it in ’66, to what you described as the boy’s peer, the bad things that happened there in your time. My, where were the teachers? Or the teacher. As I remember it, one teacher took care of the whole school. At my time there, that was the only school in the Amish community. The older students tended to protect their siblings, guess that did not work for him as he was the oldest. I would not blame the bullies, because they always go only as far as allowed.

    You make the case for the children, but for the old man, you’ve got a tough sell. The Amish call a person like that ‘Not a nice man,’ when they can sometimes mean ‘mean as a snake’. There was probably much more wrong there than met the eye. In today’s world, the state would [and should] intervene, in a big way.

    The Aylmer Amish were for some yrs. [early 70’s] not allowed to attend any non-Amish funerals. [Carl Sansburn’s mother’s death was one]. This was at the insistence of this strange and unhinged man’s thinking that ‘If you’re not Amish you are going to hell, why would we celebrate someone going to hell?.’ No, I’m not making this up, that did take place.

    Well, time for more coffee.

    Comment by grampa jess — September 15, 2007 @ 9:48 am

  3. This tragic tale needed to be told and you have done very well in doing so. For some reason the older sisters of mine often elected me to go help there at their home. I cringe at how young I was and likely immature. Always Saturdays, it was when I went to help. Sometimes, but Esther was always quite apoligetic about that, I washed clothes with a hand wash machine. I think that was Solly’s chore; he simply did not always get it done. Regardless how long I made the agitator go by hand, the clothes smelled funny. Every time they had a baby the whole neighborhood came while Esther was still in the hospital to clean. Likely it hadn’t been deep-cleaned since their last baby. Esther was always very appreciative of my help Saturdays.

    But even while we lament their situation, these things are happening today. In the last 12 months I was present after the father’s death in a community I will not name; I prayed to God that the stigma this family grew up with would be absent at this sad time. I was wrong. That feeling was there that first day after he had left this world. I could give details, but I won’t as there are many Christians in that community who have Christian actions. We cannot judge this whole community by one church’s actions, but I will give one instance told to me by the widow herself, later. After this family had gone through the heart-wrenching ordeal of laying their father/husband to rest, after they had returned and eaten, 2 or 3 of the ministers singled out the new widow and wanted to correct her about something that had happened over the funeral. In such cases there are always 2 sides, but that day and that way, nothing justifies such action. If you think mockery and scorn all happened long ago, wake up and smell the coffee. Keep your eyes open and lend kind words to such people; it could be us.

    Comment by rachel — September 15, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  4. Well done, Ira. Thought provoking, heartbreaking, convicting, childhood memories still tender. God help us all.

    Comment by sms — September 15, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  5. This one tugs at the heart strings very strongly. This is a great lesson for me as I never really knew how it felt to be on the receiving end of cruelty such as that. But do go out of my way now to prevent such insanity. But I will say this, it does not bother me as much to see it happen to an adult as to a child; that, I will not tolerate. Even if it is in a store and I see a parent beating or screaming at a young innocent child that has no idea what’s happening. An adult can actually do something to help themselves, and kids can’t.

    Bless your heart, Ira, that you befriended him, even if it was out of sight of the bullies. Someday you will be rewarded for that.

    Comment by Andrew — September 15, 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  6. ” Few people have the imagination for reality ” – Goethe

    Comment by Senior High "Heifer" and Kindergarten "Bully" — September 16, 2007 @ 9:10 am

  7. Ira,

    I think that the bullies should be held accountable. You do not wish to name names. Please reflect deeply. I am concerned about any group of humans that allows this kind of evil to continue without that community’s leaders strongly intervening. From this kind of continued hatred and persecution are born the psychic monsters that become serial killers and death camp guards or worse, the “good” people who allowed evil to flourish by doing nothing.

    If the United States ever institutes a military draft, the younger bullies may have a hard time explaining why they should be exempt from the opportunity to blow in the side of a house and then try to kill every Al-Quedaist inside who is going for both their 72 virgins and every infidel they can take to Paradise with them as their eternal slave.

    I am very busy with the possibility of a career change so please wait on my next essay.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — September 16, 2007 @ 10:53 pm

  8. This is sickening. I never knew Nicholas had to live with all this.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — September 17, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  9. Thanks Ira, good writing.

    Comment by David Miller — September 18, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  10. Ira,

    I can’t describe my feelings after reading AN ODE TO NICHOLAS. I was deeply touched, and want to commend you for remembering and honoring him and for rebuking the rest of us. You described them exactly as I remember them. I too went to school with the Herrfort children. Do you remember us? I am Ida, dau. of Sam and Katie Yoder. We moved to Aylmer in ’73 or ’74 and lived there until ’80. I was in the same grade as your bro. Nathan and also Mary Herrfort, the third child in that family was in our grade. My sister Rossanna was in Nancy’s grade.

    We may have seemed a bit different too. At least we felt that way having moved in from Juniata Co., Pa. to a world of Waglers, Gaschos, Eichers and Stolls. It was quite a culture shock. We never quite felt like we ‘fit,’ but that is not to say that the people weren’t good to us because they were. We have good memories of our years there. I remember your mother as a friendly person, and also your sisters Naomi and Rachel helped my mother with housework at times.

    My husband David Miller and I live Milbank, S.D. now and have 8 children. Back to the Herrforts, I too, deeply regret the mocking. Maybe for a lot of us it’s more what we didn’t do. Where we could have shown love and compassion, we instead ignored and rejected them. I liked your last paragraph… We lived in North Carolina at the time Nicholas died and we attended that sad funeral. I like to think that like poor Lazurus in the Bible, he was taken to Heaven where all tears are wiped away and all sorrows cease. We can’t undo the past, but we can make a difference in the lives of the Nicholas’ and Nancy’s we have in our midst today. May God forgive all who took part in this terrible injustice.

    Mrs. David {Ida} Miller

    Ira’s response: I do remember your family very well. Thank you very much for your comments and for taking the time to post them.

    Comment by Mrs. David Miller — September 18, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

  11. Sad, sad story about NICHOLAS. It touched my emotions, shed some tears. LORD, give us compassion for the down cast .

    Comment by Anonymous — September 19, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  12. As I struggle with many mixed emotions, this sad story sends me down memory lane trying to rekindle my childhood memories of Nicholas Herrfort. I was one of two people that started in grade one and continued through grade eight with him, the other being his cousin Noah Gascho. From my earliest recollections come the feelings of competitiveness, being almost a year younger although also being born in 1963. In the middle grades, I remember a tinge of exasperation at the pace our class was moving, almost like trying to drag him along. In the last several years of school, I was more accepting of him moving and learning at his own pace and I could entertain myself in other ways like being a royal pain in the teacher’s rear, probably from lack of being properly scholastically challenged. I don’t even remember all the names of the teachers in the earlier grades, but I will state the name of our seventh grade teacher Martha Eicher, now deceased, bless her soul. She was completely overwhelmed and unequipped (in my humble opinion, of course) to manage a whole school of little savages, her first and last year of teaching, I believe.

    I don’t recall the physical abuse you mentioned, but I surely do remember a lot of poking fun in his direction. One of my greatest secret fears was that when the children had lunch exchange day I would end up with one of the Herrfort children’s lunches, not knowing whether to just say I’m not hungry that day or completely refuse, knowing full well that I could never touch any of the food they brought.

    I think some of the bullying you mention, Ira, was traditionally believed to be the responsibility of the eighth grader who had waited their turn in line to be top dog and was willing to dish it out to anybody unable to defend themselves. Nicholas certainly made an easy target.

    I remember one day having a brother for a substitute who threatened to whip me or have my dad do it for him if I didn’t stop belittling Nicholas. I was so surprised at his statement, I can honestly say I thought I was being falsely accused. After reading your piece I realize how guilty we all were by not befriending and including him in our social circles. After the school years, the memories become more distant even though I lived in Aylmer until 1983, seeing him on Sundays and talking less and less to him unless he approached us with one of his famous patented opening lines “Vas sind dier alls um shaffer?”

    I also remember hearing of his passing with a sudden jolt thinking what a waste of life.

    However, in reflection, was it really a waste or was it God’s way of reminding the ones that knew him how kindness, or lack of it, at Nicholas’ expense affects all humans? Now that I have children in middle school, I will certainly try to express to them how hurtful being singled out and made fun of can be. I also hope they’re not on the receiving end of such cruelty.

    Ira, you have written many interesting and thought-provoking articles, but none have brought me to actual tears the way this one did. Keep up the good work. Here’s to “Saint Nick”.

    Cousin H.

    Comment by Henry Wagler — September 20, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

  13. Ira, you have reminded us of our bygone school years. Well written!

    I was in Nancy’s grade. Fannie Stoltzfus later joined us in about fourth grade. Nancy was a gentle little girl. I remember her response to mean jeering was usually just a smile; a rather sad one.

    Sometimes Solomon took his scholars and would haul old Ichabod to a halt alongside us as we walked, and offered us a ride. This seemed to please Nicholas and Nancy. We then got in the back part (or the box) with Solomon up front on his old wooden chair!

    They always had a large packed lunch, including a glass baby-food-jar of tomato juice….

    Comment by Rhoda — September 20, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  14. I also went to school with the Herrfort children and was the age of Nicholas’s younger brother Aaron. I could add a lot of stories to the ones you recounted. As I remember, the abuse was mainly instigated by a few individuals. As a ten year old boy I was in the shoes of many others that stood by and did nothing or simply laughed and went my way. My parents left Aylmer when I was twelve years old and I had the privilege of growing up in a much healthier setting. I now look back in dismay at this situation and wonder how it could have happened. However, it was no doubt a symptom of a much bigger problem going on.

    I remember how the young people ran in packs, especially after church services with usually one charismatic leader leading out in the mischief. These were children ranging from six years old to twenty. You could not be a part of this group if you were barefooted, and anyone that tried it was threatened with having to eat boa constrictor soup. No doubt the parents and church leaders’ hair would stand on end today yet if they knew the extent of what went on in the barns and hay lofts those Sunday afternoons and evenings.

    Should people have to give account for their actions? Absolutely! That day is coming for all of us.

    Andrew S Yoder

    Comment by A Yoder — September 21, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  15. Thank-you Ira for your boldness to step out and say what needed to be said. I found myself repenting once more as a flood of memories came back. I was aware of some of this (had no idea it was so bad though) and sadly involved with some of it. After I became born again, God clearly convicted me of this and one night I paid the family a visit and asked for their forgiveness. Anyhow thanks again.

    Comment by Jonathan Jantzi — September 26, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

  16. Whoa. This was hard reading. That poor, sweet little boy. I wonder why no one told an adult to make it stop. This story is beyond sad.
    As the mother of a boy with special needs I have always paid close attention to my son’s school life. Things got particularly hard when he entered 1st grade with the “typical” kids. What an adjustment. When 3rd grade rolled around he was being bullied verbally. I wrote to his teacher and spoke with the school principal three times. Nothing changed. We took him out about 4 months into 3rd grade and never looked back.
    Some people sniffed at the idea. Particularly those in the education field. I didn’t give a rip. He was my son and I wasn’t going to stand by and watch him being bludgeoned every single day of his school life by other kids and his gym teacher, whom I also called and gave a piece of my mind. My boy’s name is also Nicholas.
    At church it’s the same deal. His peers, whom he’s known for about 8 years, don’t talk to him. I’ve seen them literally get up and move away from him when he sits by them. I saw the same thing at Scouts. Everytime it happens my heart breaks a little more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried over my boy and what he has to face in this world. But I’ve also taken an active role in his life, as has my husband. We do it to protect him.
    I have found some solace amongst a group of homeschoolers. Nick and I bowl every Monday with them and they have shown kindness and acceptance of him. Most of the kids are a little quirky which I think is awesome. I have a great time with the other moms. I stink at bowling, but none of us cares. We just enjoy each other and are happy our kids have found a safe place.
    You gotta be tough if you’re going to make it in this world. And those who aren’t able need to have someone be tough for them.

    Comment by Francine — April 26, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  17. Ira, I read your blog about Nicholas today and it brought tears to my eyes. I immediately thought of my Uncle Benny who was my dad’s older brother. He was mentally challenged and lived in the north (dawdy) end of our house when I was growing up. There were several cruel-hearted teen-age boys in our Amish community who seemed to actually ENJOY poking fun at him and teasing him. Sadly, I guess Amish kids are just as likely to do that as any other people. (or at least they were back in the old days) Thank you for writing this sad story. I think many, many people from all walks in life need to read this.

    Comment by Jonathan Fisher — February 28, 2017 @ 8:11 am

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