November 30, 2007

Outlaws, Contraband and Amish Culture

Category: News — Ira @ 5:36 pm


“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
—W. Somerset Maugham

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
—Katherine Hepburn

Recently a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had with his young teenage Amish neighbor. The Amish kid told him about all the contraband he had accumulated. An MP3 Player that could store and play 1500 songs. A laptop computer with wireless card satellite internet access. And a cell phone, the kind you buy off the shelf with prepaid minutes. I asked my friend if the Amish kid’s father knew of these things. He does not. A day of reckoning cometh. Sometime, somewhere, soon, it will all hit the fan. For both the kid and for the culture.

The young will defy and test the previous generation’s boundaries and push them to the limits. It has always been so and will likely always be. This is particularly true in the Amish culture, with its austere lifestyle, where the rules prohibit all things modern, all things sinful such as music, radios, and television. And now the computer and the internet. Like my friend’s neighbor, young people with a spark of life and an ounce of willpower simply will not accept their leaders’ noble vacant admonitions forbidding the touching of “unclean things.” Not without experimenting, experiencing and deciding for themselves.

In my day, we were no different, only the technology was quite primitive. We thought we were really doing it with the little transistor radios. Available in various colors, with a little carry strap. AM and FM channels. Several of my older brothers had them even while we lived in Canada. We would huddle in the hayloft and listen to hockey games, always keeping a sharp lookout for Dad. My brother Steve listened live to the great Canadian-Russian hockey playoff in 1972, which Canada won in miraculous fashion in seven games.


I bought my first transistor radio in 1978, when I was sixteen, at Place’s General store on the west side of the square in Bloomfield. In a time before Wal Mart, Place’s was our most convenient source of contraband, although we had to be very careful, as many other Amish also shopped there, and might witness our furtive purchases. And proclaim the news with great fanfare. Which would create a community-wide scandal. And wouldn’t be good for anybody.

Other than newspapers and magazines, the little transistor radio was my first real window to the outside world. On it, I listened to country music. KWMT out of Fort Dodge, Iowa. 61 Country from Kansas City. 99 Country from Centerville. I hid my radio in the hay loft in the old west red horse barn and often listened for a few minutes when doing chores. Each radio came with a tiny ear plug, which transmitted tinny-sounding music. With this, I often listened late into the night while lying in bed. The old country singers still take me back to that time when I hear them. Johnny Cash. George Jones (who can still make me weep). Haggard. Waylon and Willie. Tanya Tucker. Loretta Lynn. Crystal Gayle (what ever happened to her?). The Statler Brothers. The Oak Ridge Boys. And many, many others.

With the transistor, we became huge college football fans, cheering for the Hawkeyes. They were actually ranked in the top ten a few times back in those days. One of my most memorable football moments unfolded as I huddled behind our old white corn crib with my brother Nate on a fall Saturday afternoon, listening to the closing seconds of the Iowa-Michigan game, probably around 1982. Iowa kicked a field goal as time expired, winning 13-10. “The kick is up, it’s on its way…IT’S GOOD!!!! IOWA WINS!!!
IOWA WINS!!!” We danced and whooped and shouted like maniacs.

During the late 1970s, the 8-track tape player was cutting edge technology for our music. The gang of six guys I ran with had one or two among the lot. My best friend and future brother-in-law, Marvin, was very skilled and efficient in adapting the 8-track players to our large 12-volt buggy batteries. Marvin could also repair any torn tapes with glue and little bits of sticky tape.

Panasonic 8-Track tape player exactly
like the one we had, color and all.

Getting caught with such contraband had definite and potentially severe negative consequences. At the very least, whatever was found would be confiscated, and one would receive a good stiff bawling-out. And perhaps be grounded from going to the singing for a week or two. After we grew a bit older, the only negative was the disappearance of the radio or tape player. Once or twice, my transistor radio just disappeared. Nothing was ever said.

One night I got home very late, probably around 2 or 3 AM. I had the tape player in the buggy, and our collection of tapes. We kept them in a fifty-pound paper feed bag, Nutrena Feeds brand. It was so late and I was tired, so I did not hide the bag in the barn like I normally would have, and should have. Next morning after breakfast, when I reached into the back of the buggy to retrieve the bag, it was gone. Dad had been on the prowl bright and early.

He never said a word about it, just smiled a secret little smile. There were probably thirty or forty tapes in the bag, two or three hundred dollars’ worth. An accumulation of much furtive buying and trading. Now reduced to ashes. I was highly irritated, furious, actually, but did not even bother to confront my father. Instead, the following week, I seized one of Dad’s old shotguns, a Savage pump action 12-Gauge with a tendency to misfire. I trundled off with it to Jim’s Auction House in town and sold it for $150.00. And kept the money. And smiled a secret smile. I figured we were about even. And that’s the way it went.

We hung out at the Drakesville Park on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes at one of our homes or at the local Amish school yards. Listened to music and smoked. Maybe had a beer or two, although I never enjoyed beer much and still don’t. Occasionally we got a bit rowdy and did stupid things. I’m not condoning what we did. Or bemoaning what we did. It’s just the way it was. And history is not undone just because one pretends it didn’t happen, or destroys the evidence.

At the school yard on a Sunday afternoon.
A very rare photo.

Late one Sunday night after the singing, a few of us were hanging out at the school house, just horsing around. One of my buddies was somehow pushed into the front screen door. After a choice phrase or two, he tore the door right off its hinges. I don’t know why; to him, it must have seemed like a natural thing to do at the time. Of course, the next day, shock waves reverberated throughout the community. The wild, wicked young boys had torn up the schoolhouse. What would they do next, burn someone’s house down? How can it be? What could be done? Everyone clucked sadly and dramatically.

My friend Marvin and I (considered the two most rebellious boys at the time) were instantly and conveniently blamed, although neither of us had anything to do with it. Tongues wagged from one end of the community to the other. One young Preacher even began spreading the rumor that we had admitted to the damage. Marvin and I were indignant. Things were getting out of hand. Should we just hunker down, or confront the situation head on? After discussing our options, we got together one night and went to visit the young Preacher.

We rattled into his drive and tied up the horse. Although stunned to see us, the very thugs currently the subject of so much talk, he greeted us politely enough, if somewhat stiffly. We visited for a brief strained minute about other things. Haying. The weather. Then we bravely plunged into our subject matter. We told him he had been mistaken, and that we had not damaged the school house door. But we did not betray our friend who had done it. The Preacher was in a bit of a quandary. He was convinced in his mind we’d done it, but there we stood, telling him we hadn’t.

We were polite, but firm and insistent. And innocent. He stroked his long reddish beard thoughtfully, perhaps trying to imagine how he could incorporate this experience into a fire-and-brimstone sermon the next time he preached. But we remained polite and respectful, giving him nothing he could wring his hands over and preach about. No shocking behavior, no backtalk. After some moments of consideration, he gulped and cleared his throat several times.

Then he said carefully and deliberately, “I can believe it and I want to believe it and I will believe it, that you didn’t do it.”

His grim, stern visage did not soften. Not even a fraction. We thanked him and left it at that. He was true to his word, whether he actually believed us or not. I have always respected him for that statement, although in the ensuing years I have respected him for little else.

After I left the area and the Amish, my nephews continued the tradition of contraband. By that time, they could buy little TVs that were as small as or smaller than our old transistors had been. So where we listened to music and football games, they were watching concerts, baseball games and Nascar. I’m sure they had their own music systems as well, cassette tape players smaller and of much higher quality than any-thing we could have imagined.

Today, as exemplified by my friend’s teenage neighbor, Amish youth buy MP3 Players that can store more than a thousand songs. And can play movies on a tiny screen. The MP3 Player is about the size of a credit card. Easily concealed. Easily transported. That, combined with the wireless laptops and prepaid cell phones, pretty much ensures that technology will continue to invade and affect the Amish culture. Deeper and deep-er. I can’t imagine, long term, that it will not have a drastic impact on the continuity of the Amish as a people. The best and brightest and most inquisitive will explore. And taste. And enjoy. Many will not stay, or will keep bits of the technology, like cell phones and MP3 Players, with them even as they join the church. Which, if the church is supposed to be separated from the modern technology of the “world,” kind of defeats the purpose.

Eventually, because of technology, the Amish church itself, or a good portion of it, will not be able to maintain its current identity, as it exists today. That the church will survive I have no doubt; there will always be conservative elements that will hold back. Hard core traditionalists may even retreat into the ever-receding hinterlands and regress ever deeper into the old ways, merely for the sake of preserving them. But overall, the Amish will morph into something other than what we now see. Within a generation or two. This I believe. I don’t celebrate these conclusions. I don’t lament them, either. It’s just the way it is. And will be.

Last Monday and Tuesday, Pennsylvania pretty much shut down for its annual state-wide holiday; the opening of deer season. Many rural schools even close for the day. We had a skeleton crew at work as most of our yard guys, and yes, even some from the office (no names will be mentioned), left for the mountains. There they shacked up in primitive, leaky cabins and cooked their own food. Slept on bad, hard beds and got up hours before daylight.


They joined a million nimrods throughout the state and tramped and stumbled and crashed about in the woods, all in pursuit of the innocent little wide-eyed Lyme-diseased bambis. This year they endured a full ten hours of solid and incessant drizzle on opening day. More power to them, I guess. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, although I do enjoy a bit of deer bologna upon occasion.

Congratulations to all you MIZZOU fans out there. Enjoy the view from the mountain peak while it lasts.




  1. Ah yes. The thrill of forbidden technology.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — December 1, 2007 @ 10:42 am

  2. Yes, I vividly remember as a little boy playing in Dawdy Wagler’s hay mow, and we found a round black thing with knobs. We monkeyed with it for a short time. We had no idea what it was, so we put it back under the hay and gave it no more thought. Years later it dawned on me. We were probably about 5 or 6 yrs. old.

    Ahh yes, us MIZZOU fans are enjoying the view from up here on top. We will prevail and remain #1 till next year.

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — December 1, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  3. Ira, well written subject that not many are willing or even able to address. One does wonder if the contraband items will perhaps be the undoing of the Amish as we know them today. We all know it happens to individuals. And yet, it’s always been a part of history as we know it. Why is it that forbidden fruit seems so sweet and delicious? Remember Eve?

    It was a pleasure to meet you last Fri. and again sense your heart’s cry. Blessings to you as you determine the direction of your future as a writer.

    Comment by Ray Yutzy — December 1, 2007 @ 12:07 pm

  4. Here in Holmes County Ohio cell phones are getting to be common even among the married folks unless you happen to be a preacher. I don’t think they are offically legal according to their rules but it will be very acceptable before many moons.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — December 1, 2007 @ 7:59 pm

  5. Ira has given a good illustration of Moore’s Law and raises the potent question of what will exponentially increasing technology do to a traditional culture, especially one that is fitted into one of the world’s most technology dependent societies.

    Moore’s Law is the name applied to an observation in Electronics Magazine made by Gordon Moore in 1965. His observation was that the number of components that made up an integrated circuit doubled every 24 months. If a 1965 integrated circuit had 32 elements, a 1967 circuit had 64 elements, a 1969 circuit had 128 elements, a 1971 circuit had 256 elements, etc. See how the elements are doubling. Given a few more doubling periods, there are millions of elements on an integrated circuit. He was one of the powers of Intel, one of the most important companies in history, the primary source of today’s computer revolution. Intel manufactures microprocessors, the foundation of computers. In 1965, Intel built integrated circuits. This is the chip, the single electronic platform that contains many electronic components such as transistors. Steven’s transistor radio was probably a component level electronic device with individual parts such as transistors, capacitors, resistors, etc. hand placed and soldered to a printed circuit board. This was how electronics were build before integrated circuits. By the time Ira, Marvin, Rudy, etc. were buying radios and tape players, they would have used low-density integrated circuits. This means that a single part actually was several components made together using photolithography to shoot the components onto a piece of silicon in one flash. Then a number of these integrated circuits were machine placed and soldered to a printed circuit board. The MP3 player uses high-density integrated circuits. The single parts are now many components made together in one flash. Just a few of these much more capable circuits are aggregated on that printed circuit board.

    Science historians and futurists now observe that Moore’s Law may have been operating for some time in history before there were integrated circuits, that it appears to apply to technologies that are not integrated circuits (i.e. disk drives, display terminals) and that it should continue after integrated circuits stop doubling in density because quantum mechanical interactions at the atomic level keep the components from getting any closer to each other. Namely, electronic and information age hardware just appears to double its capabilities every two years.

    What does this have to do with Amish and any separatist movement that is trying to keep itself unspotted from the world (China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban, Al-Queda, the Pakistani madras?). This means that the liberation of information and the transformation of the meaning of manual labor are coming at us like a high-speed freight train that is well into the other end of the tunnel we are walking through.

    Because of Gordon Moore’s Law, we think that sometime between 2016 and 2020, the total sum of human knowledge (books, movies, recordings) will be stored on an I-Pod sized machine. Think of the deacon trying to find some young person’s 6 terrabyte personal assistant stuck into her apron and that the young woman can jack into with a virtual reality interface and immerse in the virtual world, picking up knowledge and experiences (good and bad from the Christian perspective) and having command of the sum knowledge of humanity to that moment (which is itself doubling about every three years). This phenomenon has the potential to unleash a major war in the Middle East as the Islamic reactionaries try to abort historical inevitability, overthrow the Chinese government if it does not liberalize its politics to match its capitalist economy and prepare humanity for a Singularity event that is the abolition of manual labor.

    This brings me to the second issue, the transformation and probable abolition of labor. A Singularity event is some transforming event for the human race that changes what we are. The invention of agriculture is probably the only previous Singularity event and that happened in the first generation after Adam and Eve. The invention of writing and the first Industrial Revolution approach Singularity status, but I do not think quite make it. The exponentially climbing accumulation of human knowledge, the Indian and Chinese rush to join the first world and Moore’s Law’s continued juggernaut like progression is pointing us to the probability that we will build viable Von Neumann Self Replicating Automata by 2050, the Singularity that I refer to. Dr. Von Neumann invented the idea in 1946, about the same time he was inventing the modern computer, and it now appears this more fanciful invention may actually exist within 100 years of his first stating the idea. This is a machine that can both reproduce itself just like your favorite cow but is also a universal assembler that can make anything, just like your favorite cow producing milk, yogurt, apple juice and Jack Daniels No. 7 Tennessee sipping whiskey on demand. At that point, human labor is worthless. The Automata will make anything from the constituent elements and churn out a cornucopia of wealth for almost nothing in economic terms (remember that once you create one, they keep making copies of themselves). If you want a car, the machine needs iron ore, copper, tin, carbon (green plants have it and carbon dioxide is filling the atmosphere), aluminum (bauxite will do as the machine will extract the aluminum), hydrogen (same green plants the carbon came from or from water), oxygen (from the air), nitrogen (same place), silicon (sand) and a few trace elements, and it will manufacture a car. The quickest way for the Automata to make you a car would be to dissemble the one made for you six months ago and assemble the newest model from the elements. Probably, several Automata would work together to specialize on the car’s subassemblies and produce them even faster just as today’s human centered automobile industry specializes. The affect on humanity in the presence of Automata may probably best be studied by looking at the lives of the elite class plantation owners in the ante-bellum American South. They held fabulous wealth, had slaves performing any kind of labor and lived in sumptuous luxury. The Amish emphasize hard work and constantly inveigh against sloth, idleness and the dangers of higher education that lead to these sins. What happens when manual work has no value? Maybe some extreme conservatives can continue with near subsistence farming but what about the majority who work in labor intensive factories or labor intensive home businesses that sell to the general public or labor intensive small farms that will not be needed when a nano assembler can take in carbon (carbon dioxide from atmosphere) oxygen (that pesky atmosphere again), nitrogen (this is getting old but guess where), hydrogen (water) and phosphorus (shovel some in) and out comes milk. This is not some end of the world speculation that maybe or maybe not could appear in several hundred years but should arrive in the lifetime of the younger readers here. Notice, nature is full of self-replicating nano assemblers. A bull and cow are in the same pasture. Several months later, a small cow comes out of the big cow. The heifer grows up, dallies with another bull then in time she is fresh. Not only has she replicated just as her mother did, she now takes in hay, grain and water and transforms it into milk to feed the calf and / or us. The Automata is just human technology catching up.

    Hang on tight. You all are now trapped in a wave of exponentially accumulating knowledge and change. As the Borg say, “Resistance is Futile”.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — December 2, 2007 @ 11:23 pm

  6. Tradition is a guide and not a jailer…. Those are true words, true words. Your story brought back many old memories! I agree that resistance to technology is futile and often counterproductive.

    However, looking back over my childhood, I do not feel growing up Amish was a deprivation. They were rich years and the absence of TV was, I feel, a blessing to me and an aid to my intellectual development. How many 11 year olds do you know who have read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ on their own accord? Not that I was gifted or anything, but there just wasn’t a lot else to do at our house but read (besides work!).

    To Mark: sounds a bit utopian to me. How does that jibe with ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you eat’? Not that I’m denying that your technology exists and is viable and all that… just wondered.

    Comment by jason yutzy — December 3, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

  7. Jason,

    This is not something that I hope for or propose as utopia, but rather what appears to be a juggernaut about to roll over us. Before you think that an Automata is a blessing, consider this. The Automata uses the basic constituents of matter to manufacture an organized output such as a copy of itself or something such as an automobile. Say, I program the Automata to seek out petroleum products and manufacture hydrogen and carbon. Now I have a way to destroy the world’s liquid energy supply. Now suppose I program the machine to find automobiles and manufacture metal rods two feet long and 6-inches in diameter and drop the rods on the ground. A universal assembler is also a universal dissembler. Given the depraved nature of humanity, universal assemblers are not a blessing.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — December 4, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  8. The view from the top was short for the Mizzou fans, now they can all go be Hawkeye fans again.

    Comment by Rudy Yutzy — December 5, 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  9. I feel a need to respond to Mark. Sorry I’m coming in late here, having been out in the village where they still use oxen to plough with handmade wooden, single blade ploughs, even though satellite TV is available.

    Automata need creators. Artificial intelligence must be programmed by intelligent beings. And we have more capabilities than we can analyze.

    It is only a few eggheaded elites who can siphon off the gains of those who will always work and labor that can dream there is no need for human labor. And that vision crashes down like a Babel every few centuries, until humanity can forget the lessons again. (You might read the book of last decade, _The Sovereign Individual_.)

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — December 20, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

  10. I know of one Mennonite boy from Grandin, MO who hid his back-up radio in the church attic.

    Comment by RagPicker — January 23, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  11. Still browsing through your attic.
    Look at you young toughs! Smoking and drinking and trying to figure out who the heck you are. It doesn’t surprise me that boys leave the Amish more readily than girls. I just don’t believe God created boys to sit still, be submissive, and not wonder what’s beyond their noses.

    I remember once flipping through a National Geographic and it just hit me what an incredible world we live in. Of course, there is evil, but look at all the sounds and tastes and sights that are good and enjoyable and made by God. Look at all the different faces on people. The different customs and cultures. Look at history and all the people that walked before us. God has given us so much to savour. To be shamed or yelled at for wanting to partake is wrong in my book. Imagine life without ever hearing a Patsy Cline song, a baseball game broadcast on the radio, or watching a BBC murder mystery. Or in your case the Simpsons. Well, maybe it’s better to not have a tv in that case, but you know what I’m saying.

    You boys were lovers of life. Curious, intelligent, searching. Normal. Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you would have been encouraged to explore your areas of interest? If you were told God loved you and gave you special gifts that you should not cover up, or be shamed for having? That you were doing everything right and maybe just needed some guidance? Well, I sure have. Dang it!

    Eight tracks. HaHaHa! The big dinosaurs. And I don’t know how many times I sang into my tape-recorder in the depths of my closet so no one would hear me. Or how many dances my best friend and I invented while “Ree eee ing, ring my bell.” blared from my kid sized record player that spun .96 cent forty-five records at three speeds. Man I wish I still had that thing. I didn’t have to start hiding things til I started smoking. I never felt comfortable smoking in front of people.

    Yeah, well. To go back to it? Nah! I like where I’m at minus the minor aches and pains. Life is good-most of the time.

    Oh, I saw your name mentioned in Jerry Eicher’s book, “My Amish Childhood.” He thought you were very kind and a good friend. Someone who saw the real you.

    Comment by Francine — June 13, 2013 @ 1:42 am

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