January 4, 2008

Fame and Hospitality….(Sketch #5)

Category: News — Ira @ 7:02 pm


“Fame is a fickle food – Upon a shifting plate.”
—Emily Dickinson

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
—Benjamin Franklin

My father was a famous man, in his world and in his time. As a writer, he was widely known throughout the vast majority of Amish and Mennonite communities in North America and even some foreign lands. He was a well-known “Budget” scribe for many years before I was born. But after he co-founded Pathway Publishers in Aylmer and launched and edited the monthly magazine “Family Life” in the late 1960s, his name became legend.

“Family Life” was (and is) a very nice little magazine if you like didactic stories in which the protagonist always repents after harboring heretical notions of leaving the Amish faith, or some such similar crisis. And the wayward son always returns in true humble repentance to court the plain but upstanding girl who is actually very beautiful inside, which as we all know is what really counts anyway. A glad light springs from her eyes as she modestly welcomes his return. Or maybe the glad light springs from his father’s eyes. I can’t remember. Whatever. The fiction was all pretty formulaic and predictable.

To be fair, a lot of useful practical stuff was also published. Farm tips and such. Inter-esting and well-crafted editorial opinions from my father and later, Elmo Stoll. And David Luthy’s in-depth historical research on extinct Amish communities always was and remains of the highest caliber.

Unrealistic, certainly, a lot of the magazine was (and is), but nice. And widely read, with great gusto and satisfaction, across a broad spectrum of Amishland. Nothing like it had ever been done before. I give my father a lot of credit; he had a vision and pursued it to heights even he could not have imagined. I should note that a pocket of hard-core conservative Amish people resented and resisted my father’s efforts, especially “Family Life.” These people felt that one should read only the Bible. Any supplemental reading was unnecessary and possibly detrimental. These people still exist out there.

Growing up, and for years after leaving, I could never admit my last name, Wagler, to any person remotely connected to Amish background without being asked if I knew David Wagler. I always admitted reluctantly that, yes, I knew him. Reluctant, not because I was ashamed or anything, but because it just got old, really old, really fast. The questions always continued: Are you related? Again, a grudging affirmative. More persistent and increasingly excited questions followed. Eventually the truth always emerged to reactions ranging from rapturous exclamations to clutching at the heart, and fainting (just kidding on those last two).

In the mid-80s, my brother Nate and I lived in Sarasota, Florida for a few months over the winter. We enjoyed chatting with old folks we met around Pine Craft. One elderly man from Arthur, Illinois, asked the usual litany of questions and finally got us to admit who we were. After our confession, he leaned on his tricycle in stunned silence for a few moments. He seemed drained.

I couldn’t resist, so I said playfully, “Just think, now you can go back home and tell everyone you met David Wagler’s sons.”

He stood mute for another moment, still leaning faintly on his tricycle. I thought he might not have heard my comment. Then he quavered, “They probably won’t believe me anyway.”

And that was about as classic as it got. Nate and I still chew that one.

The Aylmer community considered itself an example for the lesser elements, the “shining city on a hill,” from which grave noble proclamations could be issued on how one should live. The proclamations were particularly harsh on the communities that allowed tobacco use and/or “bed courtship.” And on fathers who worked away from home instead of farming. On spending money eating out in restaurants. On how one’s children should be raised and disciplined. Much of the latter, especially, was written by authors who had no children or whose children were very young. In those heady years, a lot of concrete (with rebar enforcement) was poured into some very deep footers.

Fame begets pilgrimages from admirers. Many people flocked in to see for themselves the perfect church. My earliest memories include strangers in the house, company from other communities, people who stopped by for a meal or for a day or for the night.

They came from all over. In vans and in cars. On the train and on the bus. From the small communities dotted about in the various Eastern and Midwestern states. From Michigan. From northern and southern Indiana. New York. Wisconsin. From the hills of Holmes County, Ohio. And yes, from the blue-blood enclaves of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

They had a wide variety of dialects and dress. Daviess County, Indiana (my ancestral home) people talk fast and sloppy, with many English words mixed in. Holmes County people converse in a slow drawl, taking forever to get anything said. Even their English taxi drivers spoke Dutch. And Lancaster, well, those people used old German words we had never heard before and had no idea what they meant. We thought the Lancaster people the strangest. They were certainly the most unlike us. Men wore wide, flat-brimmed black hats and the women sported funny little heart-shaped coverings. We heard rumors that even their buggies were quite distinct from those in most other communities.

Guests frequently arrived unannounced, often just minutes before meal time. Mom always scratched together enough food for everyone. Cheerfully. Only later in life did I ever consider how inconvenient it must have been at times. My sisters, too, have commented sometimes how they would bake a cake or some other delicacy, only to see it wolfed down by hungry guests they never saw again.

Some left their impressions, positive or negative. Once, when I was about four years old, a couple stayed with us for the night. The man was salt and pepper-haired, with a sharp pointy little beard and piercing eyes. I was terrified of him for some reason and thought he looked quite evil. The next morning, as they were getting ready to leave, he looked right at me and asked if I wanted to go along home with them. They needed another little boy, and I would be just the ticket. I was horrified and speechless and wildly shook my head. He was, of course, only joking, but I didn’t know that. It left a lasting impression.

My sisters sometimes wearied of all the intrusions. And all the extra dirty dishes that needed to be washed after the meals. After one late evening meal, a guest lady offered to help my sister Rachel with the dishes. Rachel graciously told her not to worry about it, that she was company. The lady replied, “Oh, that’s all right.” She helped with the dishes. For some reason, we thought that line was hilarious and we chewed it for years. “Oh, that’s all right” became a sarcastic little retort at our home.

Once, several couples from Lancaster stopped by for a late afternoon meal. Only Dad and Mom ate with them. They had cold peach soup, which consisted of cold milk, peaches and soggy lumps of bread. We had heard of cold peach soup, but never eaten it. Such things were common in Lancaster County, we heard. They all sat there primly, visiting and eating the cold gooey mess like they enjoyed it. We children lurked behind the curtains and peeped in to actually view the atrocious concoction being consumed. Nobody collapsed after eating it, so it must have been OK.

Single men made the pilgrimage to Aylmer, emerging from the hills of who knows where, on a mission to find a wife. Wild-eyed and shock-haired, they came, sometimes lurking about the community for a week or two. I remember few names. None, as far as I know, was successful in his mission. One long-bearded youth once stayed with us for a few days. The first day, he asked for a basin of water and towels, then disap-peared behind our large barn to “wash up.” I don’t know why he didn’t just use our bathtub. Maybe they didn’t have running water where he came from.

My brothers and I were a pretty rip-roaring, uncouth bunch. Tow-headed, raggedy, gallused and barefooted little savages. Always ravenously hungry. When we sat to eat at the table, we turned our full attention to the business at hand. (When we ate cereal with milk, we scrunched down over the plate and the spoon never stopped rotating. By the time it came back up to our mouth, we’d swallowed the last gulp. We greatly prided ourselves on this rare ability.) Such eating habits caused many strained, tense mom-ents when we had company.

After the meal was blessed, we piled great heaps of food onto our plates. Dad and Mom and the guests began eating at leisure, conversing between bites in moderate, measured tones. Not us. We went “slurp” and our plates were empty. In minutes. The food gone, just like that. We then sat back and dawdled on the bench, waiting im-patiently for everyone else to finish so we could have some dessert. Many a guest cast startled, discomfited glances that our embarrassed parents could not ignore. Many a time Dad chuckled grimly and said, “The boys eat too fast.” So we did. The guests just smiled politely. I’m sure they were usually horrified.

When we had overnight guests, devotions after breakfast always provided their own little ritual. Dad reached back and got the Bible and the Prayer Book and invited the guest husband to lead. It was standard accepted protocol for the guest to humbly protest and urge Dad just to do it.

“We usually have devotions. You can read a passage of Scripture and then lead the Morning Prayer,” Dad said.

“No, no, you are at home here, you go ahead,” the guest protested.

“No, you are company. Go ahead.” Dad persisted.

And so it went, back and forth, like a carefully orchestrated dance. This ritual was followed to the T, regardless of which community the guests came from. It must have been a universal Amish thing. I can’t remember a single time when the guest accepted the proffered duties without protest. I suspect it would have been considered prideful. I’m sure the ritual still unfolds today exactly as it did back then.

After two or sometimes three such rounds, the guest always reluctantly allowed him-self to be persuaded. We boys listened keenly, as the man would be severely judged by the tone and quality of his delivery. Especially the Morning Prayer, which is usually intoned with some measure of inflection and rhythm. If the prayer was powerful and loud and rhythmic, we were impressed. If it was dull and slow and squeaky, we napped. We soon learned not to judge before actually hearing the prayer. The most unassuming quiet little man might well have the most impressive intonation, his voice reverberating throughout the house. Conversely, a giant of a deep-voiced man might well prove disappointing, with a weak and barely audible delivery. Either way, we often discussed the man and his method in detail later, while working or choring. Sometimes we imitated a particularly impressive rhythm. It was actually a compliment, of sorts.

Today, my father is still well known and actively writing, but his star is receding. The middle-aged to elderly still speak of him, but the younger generations increasingly know him not. I deeply respect his accomplishments, but sometimes wonder how far he could have gone had he not been hampered by Amish rules and restrictions. And whether he could have found a broader audience for his writings.

I still meet people who tell me they visited our home in Aylmer, back in 1969 or 1971 or some such remote date. I rarely remember specific guests. But if they say they were there, I’m sure they were.

Overall, I consider our hosting experiences as a positive thing. Our little world was quite provincial and inhibited. These people from all the various communities greatly expanded our exposure to other places and practices different from those we knew. Our guests provided lots of fun for us children. And lots of stories.

The New Year arrived uneventfully. I stayed up to watch the NYC ball drop on TV. On New Year’s Day, I putzed about. Ate my annual meal of pork and sauerkraut from the Leola Fire Hall. Watched an endless stream of college bowl games. GO, LSU. Beat the Buckeyes.

The NFL playoff picture has emerged. The vile Patriots took it on out with the refs’ help and ended at 16-0. My only hope now: that some team will travel to Foxboro and stomp the (bleep) out of them in the playoffs. I am not optimistic.

The Iowa caucuses were held last night (yawn). I’m about as uninterested in the process as I’ve ever been for more than twenty years. I don’t like or trust a single candidate except one. Ron Paul. And he has about as much chance of winning as I have, and I’m not running. Although I didn’t raise $11 million dollars in two days like he did. One positive development; Hillary got stomped by Obama. Her policies would actually be less harmful to the country than his, but the thought of a screeching Nurse Ratchet delivering the annual State of the Union Address for four years just over-whelms my mental capacity to process or comprehend as even a remote possibility.

This week I received an unusually spiteful and vitriolic email from a now-former friend excoriating me for my whiny “Woe is me, poor little Amish boy” post last week. All carefully couched in “I’m your friend and want the best for you” language, of course. Kind of caught me off guard. I thought it was perfectly valid to reflect at year’s end on events that had transpired, positive or negative. And yes, I got a bit melancholy in the last post. That’s my temperament. If you read this blog on a regular or irregular basis, you know that.

My response to the vitriolic email: “If you don’t like what I write, don’t read it.” Instead of reading it and getting all worked up about what I should or shouldn’t write, how I write it, and whether it’s whining. Seems like a pretty basic concept to me. I can’t force anyone’s mouse to click on my site. It takes a hand to hold and direct the mouse. A finger to click it. Onto this site. Perhaps it’s time for another reminder: It’s just a blog, folks, for crying out loud. Oh, and one more thing. It’s MY BLOG.

Constructive criticism I can take (or try to); spiteful vitriol I will not tolerate. Not any-more. That now-former friend and his household are hereafter banned from comment-ing on this site. And I don’t want to hear any howls about free speech. This is the free market. As defined by me. I can’t keep anyone from posting anything, but I can delete any posted comments. I will delete his and those I suspect might be. And any follow-up personal emails he might send. I’m just done with all the mind games about my writings.

Finally, despite my Grinch status, I had a fine Christmas. Thanks to Steve and Wilma for providing several sumptuous meals, to my sister Naomi for the box of outstanding homemade candy, and to my sister Maggie for the box of baked goodies, including my favorite, tarts.




  1. Thanks again for providing insight into life in general. Not only is it interesting to hear the provincial, I like the lessons I unavoidably glean. And that they’re preached without preaching or moralizing.

    On Iowa, for those interested, these are good links on the truth about “Huck”:
    > on his actions as Governor: http://www.newswithviews.com/Duke/selwyn79.htm

    > on his choosing the head of the CFR as advisor, see http://www.chuckbaldwinlive.com/c2007/cbarchive_20080104.html

    I disagree on only one item, Ira. I believe Ron Paul can win, even after the Republicans reject him and even while Big Media continues to ignore him. A lot of people have seen behind the curtain.

    Regardless Presidents, stooges, and any fall of the dollar, it’s going to be a great year! Thanks for providing some humor in it, too. Mountains are often ringed by the mists of criticism. It doesn’t wear much away.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — January 4, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  2. Great reading your blog again, hope you boys weren’t as dirty and sloppy like you seem to remember. We did still have a lot of good times, guess we took a bath once a week. Recently I was thinking of how we were snowed in once and had no more place to store the milk, so we filled the bath tub, guess it wasn’t Saturday.

    In our recent power outage (12 days), Rhoda filled their jucuzi tub with water. Yes, I still go into a panic if company comes and we have a mess.

    Let me be the first to congratulate Sara (Marvins); it seems as if she left on a date with a Nisly. He is a decendant of one of the first plain folks who came here to pioneer, when there were no trees, wells or fenceposts in the area.

    I want to share what I feel is a very positive step I took at New Years, besides dieting, jogging, etc. I attended an Altheimers support group in Hutch. I cried more in that meeting than I ever have about Mom’s condition, but I could feel free to do so. Every person there had a loved one like that, even the coordinator. I would highly encourage it for everyone like us.

    Comment by rachel — January 4, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  3. Uncle Ira, I look forward every week to reading your blog. In fact yours is my favorite one followed by likes such as Cal Thomas and Michelle Malkin. You do great work, keep it up!

    On the politics, I feel you should consider Mr. Huckabee. I have been actively campaigning for him for about a month now. See www. Mikehuckabee.com.

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — January 4, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  4. Sorry Andrew, Mr. Huckabee belongs in the Democrat Party with his populist friends. Go Ron Paul, and when you drop out, go Mitt.

    Comment by gideon yutzy — January 5, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  5. Dear Sis, let’s not jog, at our age it will do our knees in. A fast walk will do, or the gym thing-a-ma-ging is the way to go..And what’s this about Sara Y, if she goes that route she’ll never make it back east [Where the wind doesn’t blow all the time].

    Ah, dear nephews, the great race heats up. The 1st time in 80 yrs. without an incumbent in the race. It should concern us that they all have soft white hands. The last ‘working’ pres. we had was Jimmy Carter,and he’s still trying to prove his time in was good. Before that it was LBJ, who dropped out of College to bust rock on a Rd. crew for 7 mo. before returning to school. Ms. C knows how to bake cookies, she may come back yet.

    Obama is on the roll, and may make it.He reminds one of JFK, who never had much to show for before he became pres. either except he looked & SOUNDED GREAT. JFK never got far on the legislative train, either, till he was done in, but is our 3rd most respected pres., after Washington and Lincoln.

    Mitt and Obama are both rich club type, blue blood raised and all, in spite of all they say. Not sure what Huck. is, tho he was a preacher once, that should be a concern. [Much noise & little result?]

    Comment by happy grampa jess — January 5, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  6. Yest. I had an e-mail from “Hil the Shrill”, she said we have our work cut out for us & asked for a contribution…Spare us all if it’s her, at least she got her sails trimmed alittle bit.

    As for the New Year, don’t fret about the past or the future. Focus on the present. When stressed take a deep breath. WALK at least 10,000 STEPS A DAY!!!

    Comment by wilmawagler — January 5, 2008 @ 11:55 am

  7. Sorry, grampa Jess, in MY opinion JFK was one of the worst prezzes ever, ranking right down there with FDR and what’s-his-name Buchanan. Bay of Pigs, anyone? How about the Cuban missile crisis to say nothing of the womanizing…. Ah politics!

    To Ira, how about a ‘More Pictures II’?

    Comment by jason yutzy — January 5, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  8. I love your Aylmer stories because I lived there for over 13 years.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — January 5, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

  9. Honesty is really hard for some to swallow.
    Go, Ira!

    Comment by sms — January 5, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  10. To my readers:

    The person who was banned has now posted two poisonous and vitriolic screeds. Other than the opening sentences, I did not read them. I deleted them both (after making hard copies to keep records of what was actually said). I figure that less than twenty people actually got to read them before they were deleted.

    It’s like extinguishing rats; vermin always shows up when your attention is diverted for a moment. To combat it, I have adjusted some site settings.


    Comment by admin — January 5, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  11. Hi Ira,

    It was great to get to know you a little while we were with Paul and Anne Marie. Tonight we finally took time to read your website and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    All the best in the New Year,

    –Jerry and Jeannette

    Comment by Jerry Vandervalk — January 6, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  12. Ira,

    Great blog! I laughed out loud. My home was the opposite of yours- nobody knew us. Our only visiters were lost travelers who thought our half mile long lane was a short cut to Wooster. So it tickles me now that my children are experiencing a little of what you did with your well known dad (even I knew who he was- and I was ganz hoch!) People find out who my children’s dad is and they say, “Sawks net!” My children roll their eyes and act unimpressed, but deep down I think it makes them feel good. And I can tell that deep down you are impressed with your Dad.

    Keep up the great writing. Go Buckeyes!


    Comment by John Schmid — January 7, 2008 @ 9:42 am

  13. Another comment, if I may. You said, “…but sometimes wonder how far he could have gone had he not been hampered by Amish rules and restrictions. And whether he could have found a broader audience for his writings.”

    I understand what you mean. But when I read this article to my children, I stopped here and noted that he was great, at least in part, because of who he was right there, that he was faithful, that he raised his family, and that he did something that he thought would help the community he was part of. I said it better to them, but that’s the gist of my unavoidable reaction to some unspoken presupposition.

    One more thing, directly related. We’re here in Mexico. We homeschool. But the Wycliffe folks here once had a regular school for all children of Bible translators and support people. The reading curriculum chosen? Pathway Publishers. And we are using it with our children, too. It’s in the library for homeschoolers. It’s excellent.

    When we were home, we bought the set (cheaper than annual fees, with 7). I found it amusing that I could buy it on the internet, but not directly. And that there was mention of a diesel operated press. Listen, if the grid ever goes down (y3k?), the Old Order won’t miss a beat. I think they’ve got it right on the Wilder-like “free and independent” bit. But I’ll admit, I never lived there.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — January 7, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  14. Go Colts! Maybe we can have a repeat of last year’s championship game and beat the dirty Patriots!

    Comment by glen wagler — January 7, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

  15. ‘Fraid that won’t happen, Glen. They (Colts) might be able to beat Jacksonville, tho.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 7, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  16. Interesting that your dad was editor of Family Life. Although I did not grow up in an Amish household, Family Life was one of the regular publications passing through our mailbox. It was a window into a world that was not like mine but not entirely unlike it either.

    Right now I am in the process of helping my parents prepare their house and belongings for auction. You would not believe the collection of Family Life magazines I have found! And I keep finding more and more as I go through stuff. My mom must have saved every issue and I’ve found them dated all the way back to the 60’s. Who would have guessed that they’re collectables?

    Comment by Rhoda Snader — January 12, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  17. I have a bunch of Family Life magazines here. Was gonna sell them on eBay or something. Your memories makes it feel kinda profane or something. I have the complete first year too.

    Comment by RagPicker — January 23, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  18. Ira,

    When my Dad asks visitors to lead in prayer, they do not resist.

    The comment about about your Dad being “inhibited” by the Amish rules makes it sound like you are against the Amish. Just remember, there are good people in every church, country and all around the world.


    Comment by John Henry Troyer — February 4, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

  19. This article was hilarious. You have a way of nailing the truth dead on. How refreshing.

    Comment by Enos Y. — March 10, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

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