April 13, 2018

Return to Vincennes: Blood and Kin…

Category: News — admin @ 5:35 pm


You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,
…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for,…
back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed
everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the
escapes of Time and Memory.

—Thomas Wolfe

It was around a year ago, I think, when the suggestion first was made. Maybe even a little before that. It came from my cousin, Kathy Yoder Barbush. She’s from Mom’s side of the family. Those people my father cut off from us, because he didn’t want us to be tainted by the contact. The Yoder blood, that half of us we were taught to ignore and renounce. And when you hear a voice coming from that part of your past, well, I’ve learned. You stop and you listen.

Kathy messaged me, back whenever it was. She asked, because she worked there, at Vincennes University. Has been there pretty much since I was a student, way back. The University was having an Open House in the spring of 2018. Would I consider coming and speaking at the Humanities Department? I mean, being I was an author and all, with a bestseller under my belt. She thought VU would be happy to host me. She was pretty sure, in fact.

Well, what do you say to such a thing? Would I consider going and speaking at the first University I ever walked into as a student? It was a lifetime ago, when that happened. It’s always an honor, to be asked to return. Of course I would, I told her. I would be more than honored. Just give me some lead time, if and when it happens. And we left it at that. I kind of forgot about it, to be honest. Things like that mostly never develop anyway, I thought to myself.

But this “thing like that” did develop and firm right up, right along, since early this year. And that’s why I walked into Enterprise in New Holland a few Saturdays back, to pick up a rental. I had negotiated with Kathy. Well, I had told her what I wanted, and she had negotiated with the Humanities Department there at VU, apparently. Travel expenses, including a rental car and a room at the University Guest House. And a few bucks, for a “speaker’s fee.” We got it together, the Agreement. And I stopped to pick up my car on the day before Easter. I planned to spend that Holy Day this year on the road to the Midwest.

I’m irritated at Enterprise, I’ll say right up front. Beyond irritated, actually. They made me mad recently with their pious PC proclamations. Stop telling me what to think. Just shut up about politics and rent me a car when I need one. I don’t know why more big companies don’t have the sense to do a simple thing like that. Stay out of politics. I vowed that I would not rent from Enterprise again unless there was no better option. So when the time came, I checked around a bit. The local Enterprise is just a few blocks away. So very convenient. I can leave my Jeep right on their lot while I’m gone. And I rationalized to myself. Vincennes University is paying for the car, anyway. So it’s no money out of my pocket. The convenience outweighed my irritation, this time. So I went ahead, this time. I guess we’ll see what next time brings.

So there I was that morning, at Enterprise to pick up my car. I asked the nice young man if there was a Charger on the lot. As usual. And as usual, at least lately, he shook his head. No. They had a Toyota Camry ready for me. A 2018 model, almost new. He figured I’d like it. And then the young Enterprise man asked me what the rental car people always ask when you’re picking up your wheels. Do I want any insurance for the car, for this trip? It was only $25.00 per day, for a total of $100.00. They always slide it in so smoothly, and they always make it sound so easy. Just cough up the extra money. It’s really not that painful, for the peace of mind you’ll feel. That’s what they’re saying, when they’re upselling you.

And I shook my head, like I always do. Nah. My Allstate coverage kicks in. But then I thought, all of a sudden. What if I had an accident? Yeah, Allstate would kick in, after my deductible. And I just had that claim, back before Christmas, when Big Blue spun like a top on the ice. My first insurance claim, ever. And now I stood there, thinking. I had never, never before taken the extra insurance with any rental car. But VU was paying for my car. That included insurance. So I changed my mind, right there. Yeah, I said. I’m getting reimbursed for my rental expenses, by the University where I’m going to speak. Yes. Let’s put on the extra insurance. The young man smiled. A sale. An extra. He had done it. He showed me where to initial that I was purchasing the insurance. I took my paperwork, parked Amish Black at the back of the lot, and got into my new Toyota Camry. It took a minute to figure out all the glitzy controls. The car all but drove itself, from the looks of it.

And by 6:30 the next morning, I was on the road. All my bags were packed and loaded. I had packed a little heavy. It was the first time in a while that I was going out to speak at a place like this. The first time since I quit drinking back in August. The first time since I started to groom up a bit and take a little pride in how I look. And at home, I played it out in my head. This shirt with that tie and these pants. And there was this other possibility, too. Round and round I went, with my thinking. And I ended up just filling my garment bag with a number of different colored shirts, and a jacket and a vest. And a couple of pairs of shoes. I’d figure it out when the day came, I figured. And I headed west on the turnpike with my bags and a box with a few dozen copies of my book. You always take a few of those along, wherever you go. That’s what I’ve learned. The Camry hummed along, almost like a Charger, I thought. It sure had the power. It’s bigger and completely redesigned, the new Camry. And it was giving the Charger a run for the money, in my head.

And I thought about things, as I pushed along the road that day. I thought about those days of long ago, when I was a student at Vincennes University. Mulled over those days, as the miles flowed along. But I thought of other things, too. I thought of Kathy, my cousin who worked at VU. And how she had gotten me in to speak. I thought of her and her family.

Mom had a number of brothers and sisters. Most of them were known to us. Most of them were Plain Mennonite, Block Church people who drove cars and farmed with tractors. But Mom also had two siblings that we never knew much about. We rarely if ever heard their names spoken. Mom’s younger sister, Sarah, and her youngest brother, Joe. Those two were so far from the world I grew up in that they might as well have been on another planet.

Sarah married a Catholic man with the last name of McGuire. She was not only English, she was Catholic. And that right there was enough to make Dad make sure we never had anything to do with her, as long as he had any control over who we saw or didn’t. And Mom’s youngest brother Joe, well, his was a tragic story. The man was a hard drinker, addicted to alcohol. I know a lot more about how that is than I’d like to. He married a girl named Lydia Ann, who was from the Amish community in Berne, Indiana. I know absolutely nothing about their lives when they were Amish and young married. I don’t know when Joe started drinking, or if he always drank. Anyway, he and Lydia left the Amish with their children. Several daughters, and at least one son. And not long after they left the Amish, they separated, Joe and Lydia did. Then they divorced. The classic fodder for Amish sermons. See how it goes, when you leave? This kind of thing happens when you go out into “the world.” I know a little bit about how it is when you’re fodder for Amish sermons for reasons like that.

It’s impossible for me to tell how little I knew of Aunt Sarah or Joe and Lydia’s family, growing up. I can’t remember hearing the names of any of them, except in passing, maybe from my older siblings. Mom had a brother named Joe, who was completely English. And divorced, yet. They were pariahs, Sarah and Joe and Lydia, an embarrassment to the Wagler family name. They were Yoders, from Mom’s side. They were judged and reviled in my father’s world. And utterly scorned. It would take a long and broken road for me to travel to where this part of my family was.

The Camry swooshed along, like a rocket ship. The young Enterprise guy was right. I was impressed with the car from the first. When you had to back up, there was a camera on the dash that flashed to life with an amazingly clear live feed of what was behind you. And when you put the thing in cruise control, it wouldn’t get too close to the vehicle ahead. It slowed down on its own to the speed of the car in front, about a thousand feet back. Which was a little unhandy, because you had to get close to pass. By the end of the trip, I had figured out the car’s foibles. I would rent a Camry again. Of course, I’ll always happily drive a Charger, too. If it came to a choice between the two, well, the Charger looks just a little classier.

I didn’t figure there would be a lot of traffic on the roads on Easter Sunday. And there wasn’t. From the turnpike, I got on I-70 West. On and on, through Ohio into Indiana. It’s a long old stretch, out through there. By late afternoon, I was approaching Indianapolis. And here came a text from Kathy. She had the key to get me into my guest room. She would meet me at VU. But she was at her Mom’s house, there in Vincennes. And they had cooked up a big meal. There would be a plate for me when I got there. They wanted to feed me. OK, I texted back. I’ll let you know when I get close. And I thought about it. I was tired, from traveling all day. I didn’t know these people, Kathy’s Mom and sister. I wasn’t sure about walking into the house of a stranger to get fed. Still. They wouldn’t have invited me if they didn’t want me there. That’s what I told myself as the Camry pulsed through Indianapolis, then on west for an hour or more. Then south on State Road 41. Vencennes was coming right up.

It was a long time ago, when I first walked the streets of Vincennes as a student. Next year, it will be thirty years. There have been so many miles since that time. So many roads, some of them hard, broken roads. But still. I always feel a little sliver of anticipation and excitement slice through me when I approach that town. It was a big deal to me, when I first walked onto the campus at VU. A big deal. And time has distanced me from those days. The lights have dimmed a little. But that sliver of excitement always stirs inside when I return.

I texted Kathy. I’m getting close. She texted back. I’ll be waiting outside on the porch. And minutes later, I pulled up to the little house where her mother lives, just off Hart Street. The skies had darkened. A few random drops of rain were spitting down. I parked on the edge of the yard and got out. Kathy walked out. We greeted each other and hugged. I followed her into the house. And there I was greeted by total strangers. Kathy’s husband, Andrew Barbush. Her mother, Lydia. Her older sister, Laura. And her (Kathy’s) teenage son, Avann. They sat there in the dining room. I shook hands with all of them. They seemed excited and eager to see me. I took a seat at the table, and we talked.

I had not eaten all day. I’m still eating only my One Meal a Day (OMAD). And I wasn’t sure how it would go. I had not traveled much at all since starting OMAD last November. And it worked out great, I gotta say. All that day, I had sipped on water and black coffee. At precisely 5:00 PM, I swallowed my daily Superfood vitamin pill. That’s always the first thing I take, to “break my fast.” And now these people, these strangers, my cousins from my mother’s side, now they sat with me around that table. They had eaten earlier. But they asked. Would I like a plate of food? They had ham, and all the fixings. You bet I’d love that, I said. Laura dashed off to the kitchen. The rest of us sat there, just talking and catching up. Well, maybe getting acquainted is a better term. We sat there, getting acquainted. These people are sure easy to talk to, I thought to myself.

And soon Laura brought the food from the kitchen, a large plate loaded with sliced ham, potatoes, corn, greens. I was hungry, from not having eaten all day. I grabbed a fork and shoveled in bites as we talked. And I asked about their history, these people from my mother’s family. Joe Yoder’s ex-wife and children and a grandson. We talked like old friends who had known each other for a long time. It turned out I had met Joe once, at a cookout, probably back in 1986. Right after I had fled Bloomfield after breaking up with Sarah. I remember that evening faintly. I remember Joe, too, but I can’t recall his face. I remember hearing when he died, decades ago, at age fifty-eight. He “drank himself to death,” is what they said. I remember thinking. He’s a stranger to me. But he was my uncle. Here, in this room, here was his family. They were English, as I was. They had seen hard roads, as I had. Completely separated from each other, we had somehow found each other on this day. It’s funny, how that works sometimes.

I settled in and devoured my food. It was delicious. We talked hard and fast as I ate. I asked Lydia if she had a copy of my book. She had seen it, but she didn’t have one. So I walked out to the Camry and fetched a copy. I signed it to her. She smiled and smiled and thanked me. Kathy then rode with me over to VU to show me around and to get me settled in the guest house. We cruised around campus first. The place has expanded vastly, at least in buildings, since my time there. The old Humanities Building looked the same, though. And the parking lot where I used to park, it was about the same, too. We drove down to the river, where VU had cleaned up the banks and created a small park. Heavy rains had raised the river, and it was spitting rain that night, too.

And then I drove over to the VU Guest House, where the University offers rooms to VIP guests. Like me, I thought, and chuckled. Kathy was eager to check out the house, as she had not seen the inside of it. It’s a beautiful place, very tastefully furnished with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, and about four or five independent guest rooms upstairs. I was given the key to the Red Skelton room. I guess he was a native of Vincennes, so that’s why my room was furnished with many photos of a clown. Kathy helped me carry in my bags, and then I took her back to her mother’s house. And before too late that night, I settled into my comfortable bed in the Red Skelton room.

Monday. Moving along, here. The day came at me. There was an old friend I wanted to look up in town. I called him, and he gave me his address. We had connected on Facebook before I came, so he knew I was around. I left my cozy guest house and headed out to find a cup of black coffee, and gas up. Might as well get that done. Parts of Vincennes are a little run down, I thought as I pulled into a raggedy station. I forget the brand, some sort of Midwestern logo. I filled my tank and punched the button for my receipt. The decrepit little printer made squeaking noises, but failed to spit out any paper. Ah, come on, I groaned. You piece of junk. I was pretty irritated.

But I needed coffee anyway. So I walked in and poured a cup, strong and black. The attendant, a large busty blond woman, greeted me with a raspy smile. One cup of coffee, I said. And I need a receipt for Pump 4. She nodded, and printed the receipt and handed it to me. Thanks, I said. I owe you for the coffee. She smiled at me again, a big bright smile. “Ah, honey,” she said. She was a smoker or had been at one time. “Tell you what. Since you had to come in for your receipt, the coffee’s on us.” My irritation flashed out the window, whoosh, just like that. I smiled back at her. Thank you, I said. I appreciate that. And I did. It was a classy and cool thing to do. I thought happy thoughts as I drove away. It’s amazing how a simple little act like that can affect your frame of mind.

Twenty-nine years ago, I was an excited and eager student at Vincennes University. Before getting there, I had asked the University people. I need a room to board in, during the week. I’ll go back to my home in Daviess for the weekends. I don’t need an apartment or anything fancy. Just a room. And they had very kindly connected me with a guy who lived across town. He had a third floor attic room for rent, for a little bit of next to nothing. One fifty a month, or some such thing. I went and looked and rented the little attic room on the spot. And over the two-year window when attending VU, I boarded in my little room. I got to be good friends with the landlord. His name was Lyndon Phillippe. He was divorced and lived alone in the house with his adult son. There was room for one or two more. I had not seen the man since graduating from VU in 1991. And this morning, the morning of my free coffee, I was going to his home to visit.

We had connected on Facebook, back a number of years ago, Lyndon and me. He knew about my book. We had communicated a few times via instant message. He had wanted to come hear me speak this time, but he let me know up front that he probably wouldn’t be able to make it. Well, I said. If you can’t make it to hear me, I’ll come to you. And that morning, I went. I parked along the street outside the house he now lives in, about a block away from the one where I had rented that attic room. I walked up and knocked. The door opened. I would have recognized him, I think. He’s not that tall, and a little heavy set. His face looked about the same, just older. He greeted me and spoke my name and smiled. I smiled back and spoke his. We gripped hands, as we had not done since I told him good-bye in 1991.

He’s retired now, and he walks with a cane. I followed him inside. His house was cluttered, like it had always been. Stuff stacked about. Just like my house. I was instantly comfortable and at home. (At least those two shedding cats were gone. I asked about them, and he told me the details of the demise of each. I murmured sympathetically.) He sat in his favorite old worn armchair and I sat on the couch. And we caught up from almost thirty years, me and my old friend. He told me about his family, his son and daughter and their families. He showed me pictures of the grandkids on his computer. And we talked about knives and guns and pickup trucks and smoking pipes and such, the stuff men talk of when they hang out.

I stayed a while, over an hour. As we wound down, Lyndon handed me three treasures as gifts. Two Erik Nording freehand briar pipes, and a handmade hunting knife he had picked up decades ago at a swap meet. The pipes were works of art, the knife beautifully crafted. I tried to protest, a little weakly, but he waved me off. He wanted me to have these things. I thanked him and took the gifts. I will always treasure them, I told him. I signed his copy of my book, then. And I told him I’d send him a copy of my new book when it came out. He saw me to the door, and we shook hands again. And then I left.

So far, so good, here in Vincennes. Tuesday would be the big day. I had two speeches to make at the auditorium. But this was Monday. And Kathy had asked me. She worked at the Writing Center, there in the Humanities Building. A place where students came, to work on their writing. And she wondered. Would I consider coming by on Monday sometime, and give a talk about writing? Of course, I said. I’d like that. I strolled into the Center early, around 2:30. Kathy was sitting at her station. A few students sat about. I met Tyson, Kathy’s coworker, who was the tech guy. He would introduce me at my main speeches on Tuesday. But for now, we were here, a dozen people or so. Including a couple of VU professors. English teachers. Right at three, Kathy stood behind the little podium on the table, and introduced me. There was polite clapping as I stood to take the floor.

Writing. How does one speak of what it is to write? I told the students a little bit of how it went, back in 2007, when I started writing seriously. How I started posting on my blog after my marriage blew up. How I had never pushed myself out there, how the book came on its own, from me sitting at my corner desk and writing. And I told them. You write how you talk. At least I do. That’s why you see fragments in my book. Incomplete sentences that an English teacher would mark all up in red. Still. You speak from your heart. Don’t pay all that much attention to the rules. Just like you don’t when you talk. That’s what works for me, what has worked for me. I took questions, then, and expounded on what I think writing is. I wasn’t sure there was enough interest to keep me going for an hour. But the time whooshed right by, and four o’clock came. Time to wind down. If anyone has a book, I’ll gladly sign it. And they brought their copies. One down, I thought to myself. Two to go. Tomorrow. Two speeches.

We went out to eat, then. Kathy and her husband Andrew, and a few friends. At a nice little pub on the other side of town. I parked and walked up to the front door, and there was an old familiar face. One of my old professors at VU, Dr. Bernard Verkamp. The man spent his career teaching philosophy at Vincennes. I took a class he taught in all four of my semesters at VU. We had become good friends before I graduated. I knew he had retired, and was spending his time researching and writing. He looked about the same, just a bit older. As we all are, I suppose. I walked up and greeted him, smiling. We shook hands. It was a pleasant surprise to see my old friend. He’s still looking spry. “Call me Bernard,” he insisted. I laughed. It just don’t seem right, I said. To me, you are and will always be Dr. Verkamp. My professor and friend.

We were seated around a large table. Kathy told me to order what I wanted. VU was paying for my meal. So I ordered an appetizer, a steak and a couple of side dishes. No wine or whiskey, though. Just water to drink, with lemon. Dr. Verkamp sat across the table from me, and we instantly launched into a discussion of lots of things. The man weaves his philosophical thinking into every conversation. He asked how I have been doing, and what I’m thinking these days. Umm, I said. I am an anarchist in the classical meaning of the word. Not a black-clad thug, breaking windows and rioting. That’s what the media wants you to think anarchists are. In truth, we are the most peaceful of all peoples. We simply don’t believe in having anyone rule over us. No ruler. No king. (We do not dispute about the qualifications of a master; we will have no master. Cato’s Letters, No. 23) We stand by the non-aggression principle, or NAP. All aggressive force is always wrong, no matter where it comes from, the individual or the state. All defensive force is always justified, no matter who or what it’s against. I will leave you alone, always, to live in peace. But if you come at me to hurt me or mine, I will hit back at you so hard your head will spin. And you might die.

And I told him. It’s bred into who I am, from my Amish heritage. You never, never, never trust the state. Never. My people were hunted down like animals and killed by the state, the government. It is a vile, false idol. I will never bow my knee to it. I tend to get a little worked up, talking about it. The state is a monster. Dr. Verkamp nodded and looked interested. He wasn’t all that dubious, even. He asked what my religion is these days. I’m in the Reformed camp, I told him. A Calvinist, right across the board. It’s the freest thing I’ve found. He didn’t seem shocked by that, either. I don’t think the man would have been shocked at anything I might have said. He was always calm, that way. Like a good philosopher should be.

The food came, then, and we all feasted. I was hungry for my one meal. The steak was excellently done. And I even took dessert, a large slice of moist carrot cake and coffee. As we parted, Dr. Verkamp mentioned that he planned to come hear my talk the next day. Oh, boy, I thought. Now I’ll be judged by my old teacher. It was good, though. I was honored that he would take the time.

And it was back to my room at the Guest House, then. The Red Skelton room. A cold rain drizzled down. The weather had been unsettled all the way across the country. And I settled in to sleep again. Tomorrow was Tuesday. The big day, the day I had come for. And soon enough, it dawned. A clear morning. The sun shone nice and warm. I looked at my shirts and ties and pants. And settled for a nice white shirt, red power tie, and black dress pants. A patterned brownish jacket and black shoes. Pretty spiffy, I thought. I then stopped at McDonald’s for a good cup of black coffee. And by ten or so, I was in the Humanities Building on the VU campus. The Shircliff Building. That’s the name of the place where I took most of my classes as a student. I strolled into the auditorium, carrying my box of books. My friend Tyson was bustling about onstage, getting ready. There was a large wired podium off in the corner, but it looked like it was anchored to the floor. I asked Tyson. Where’s my podium? He shrugged. He didn’t know for sure. Eventually, we figured it out. We brought up a white folding table and set a small wooden podium on top of it. It was the right height, and comfortable to stand behind. Tyson allowed he could scare up a nice blue cloth to cover the table. And off he went to find it.

Kathy bustled in and out of the room, too. She had located a couple of mannequins and dressed one as an Amish woman, complete with bonnet, the other as an Amish man, complete with barn door pants and galluses. And a straw hat. The “man” wore a straw hat. I was impressed. Good backdrop, right there, I thought. The minutes ticked by as the time for my talk crept closer and closer. And soon, people began drifting in and seating themselves. The auditorium would be far from full. But there would be at least a few dozen students and other listeners. Kathy had found a short clip online that had been filmed about me back in 2012. The 700 Club people had stopped by for over a day. They had planned to run a short documentary on me and my book. Well. They got started with the film, but they quit about six minutes in. What is done is very beautiful and professional. But the clip just stops, cold. And Kathy had texted me the night before. Would it be OK if they ran that short clip as an introduction, before I spoke? Of course, I said. That would be great. I knew the clip was good stuff, but I also figured I would have to be onstage for at least six fewer minutes if they ran it. So it was a good deal all around, I thought.

Dr. Verkamp strolled in and took a seat toward the back, on the right side of the room, facing the stage. I waved at him. Other people, too, filed in and got seated. And promptly at eleven, Tyson walked onto the stage. After a brief but very complimentary introduction, he started the short six minute film. And there was my face, much larger than life, on the large wall screen behind the stage. After the film, Tyson walked on and said, “And now, here is Ira Wagler.” The people clapped as I walked to join Tyson. We shook hands, and I walked up behind the podium on the table, now covered with a nice blue cloth. I had laid out all my stuff, my notes, my glasses, and a book. And I had stacked a pile of books on each side of the table, facing out. It looked good. I held the mic and looked out over the room. Amazingly, I didn’t feel all that nervous. I began to speak.

Thank you all for being here. It is a huge honor for me to be invited to speak by Vincennes University. And right then, the mic went blank. Just shut off. Tyson walked back up and we fiddled with it a bit. It worked again, until I had spoken about two words. Then it blanked out again. I looked out over the room. It wasn’t that big, really. I come from the Amish, where the preachers have to shout across vast rooms filled with people, to speak their sermons. So I set the mic back on its stand. And I stood there behind my podium, behind my table, and just spoke to the people with the voice I had.

Ira VU speech

I have a fairly basic spiel, when I get up to speak in public about my book. I give a very condensed version of the story in my book, especially the parts about Rumspringa and leaving home. The talks are usually just a little different in details here and there, because there are so many bunny trails one can meander down. One day, it’s this trail. The next day, that one over there. And there are always new trails to find, too. I have a very rough outline to guide and nudge me along. Otherwise, it’s free talk, almost. And that’s what I did that day in that first speech at Vincennes. I looked back and remembered a good deal about my experience at the school, and wove that in, too. I’ve talked before dozens and dozens of groups. And it always goes better when I’m relaxed. Well, I was relaxed that day.

I went a bit overlong, though, because I thought the speech was supposed to last 90 minutes, all told. So I was geared for that. Tyson managed to politely signal and shut me down at just a little over an hour. Fifty minutes was more what they’re looking for. It was all good, though. I was very willing to shut down. And I signed a few books that people brought by, and sold a few of my own, too, there right after. I mingled for as long as anyone wanted to. Then I headed back to my room to rest a little. The skies were dark and dangerous when I parked and walked into my room. And soon, I heard the hard thumping on the roof of the house. What in the world? I pulled back a curtain and looked out the window. Great white clumps of ice were raining down, hard. They bounced off the pavement and they bounced off cars. Including my Camry, sitting out there all unprotected.

A quick little bunny trail, here, about another gas station. I had seen the sign, when I came in along sixth street earlier that day. At Huck’s. A big banner out front. Livers and Gizzards: $3.98. It made my mouth water, just the thought. And that afternoon I broke my fast a half hour early. At 4:30. I had to speak at six. So I thought, eat a little early and get that food settled in before. I drove out to Huck’s and sauntered in, all dressed up for my speech. A black vest with black pants and a white Steampunk shirt with blue dots and a dark blue tie with stripes. Which is better than a striped shirt with a striped tie going opposite. Well, according to some people, it is. Not me, necessarily. I get a lot of flack from certain friends about wearing stripes with stripes. Striped shirt, solid tie. That’s what they keep hollering at me. I just smile at them. I like opposite stripes. Just not that day. I can wear about whatever and get away with it. People expect a writer to be a little weird, dress a little different. So that perception helps.

And that was a bunny trail in a bunny trail, right there. I sauntered into Huck’s, all dressed up, and asked for an order of Livers and Gizzards. The young attendant didn’t think that strange at all. He piled my little container high, as far up as he could stack. I paid the guy, took my precious cargo and walked over and sat at the side bar to eat. Sprinkle a little mustard on those fried chicken innards, and eat them with a plastic fork. That’s what I did. That little meal right there I wouldn’t trade for the finest steak and caviar, if those two things are even served on the same table. You can’t find fried food like this in Lancaster County. They’re too stuck up and blue-blooded. I enjoyed every bite of my feast, right down to the last crumb.

And soon enough, I was back at the campus, getting ready for my second speech that day. I now know a little bit how a preacher feels, if he has to preach at two services on the same day. I mean, I was talking about the same things both times. Just a little different trail, maybe. Kathy had told me, early on. My Aunt Sarah was planning on coming to hear me speak. She wasn’t sure which one. We had to see what the weather brought. The weather was bad through much of Tuesday. But by evening, it had cleared. And they arrived together, the people from Mom’s family. Aunt Sarah. And Joe’s ex-wife, Lydia and her daughter, Laura, and a couple of grandchildren.

“We need to take a picture with all of us in it,” Kathy said. I agreed. Yes. We definitely need to get that done. I met them as they walked up to us. Aunt Sarah hugged me. She’s 93 years old, the only one left in Mom’s immediate family. She’s been a widow now for many years. I hugged Lydia, too, and Laura. I greeted all of them. Kathy and Aunt Sarah, I had seen and spoken to both of them many times before. All the others in the group were complete strangers to me when I arrived in Vincennes. We lined up and seated ourselves on a couple of rows of seats and smiled for the camera.

Ira and Daviess family
My Mother’s blood. Front, from L: Laura Yoder, Sarah McGuire, Lydia Yoder.
Rear, from L: Ira, Kathy Yoder Barbush, Leah Bullock, Avann Mickens.

And then people trickled in. Some of them I knew, and some of them I got to know later. The crowd was small, probably the same size that had attended earlier that day. I looked out and recognized some of the Wagler family from Daviess, the people who had taken me in back in those frantic days when I was running hard. Dean and his wife, Wanda. And Rhoda and her husband, Marlin. I smiled in wonder. Old friends, from way back. They came. I connected with them later. They had seen the little blurb in the newspaper that afternoon. And they had dropped everything and come to see me.

Tyson did his little introduction and played the short film again. And then he called my name. I walked onstage for the second time in a few short hours. We shook hands, and he gave me the mic. Supposedly it had been fixed. Sadly, it had not. It didn’t even pretend to work at all. So I set it aside again. And I just talked to the people again. This time, I was highly conscious of the clock. After about forty minutes or so, I opened for questions. There are usually plenty of those. As there were that night, too. A few minutes in, someone in the back asked about the relationship my parents had. About how Dad had kept Mom from her family. There is a brief mention of that fact, early in the book.

I forget the exact wording of the question. And my response was not planned at all. But it hit me right then and there. They were here. Mom’s blood. Mom’s family. The two siblings whose names were never mentioned. They were here, or their blood was. And I stopped for a little bit and thought of how to say the words. I gathered them in order, in my head. Just speak your heart. That’s all you have to do. It’s all you can do, at this point. And I stammered a bit and fumbled with the words. But they came.

Yes, I said. It’s mentioned early in the book, how Dad took Mom and moved her away from her family. It’s true, that he cut her off from them. And tonight, they are here, some of that family. Mom’s people. They are sitting right out here in front. Those two short rows. I pointed. I went on. These people are my family. They are my blood. It was not right, what my father did to keep us apart. It was wrong. And tonight, I claim them as family. Our relationship will never be what it would have been, and it will never be what it should have been, had we not been kept apart. But it can still be strong and beautiful. Family is family, and blood is blood.

And I didn’t really think that much about it, right there when it happened. It only hit me later, kind of sideways, upside the head. How symbolic and significant that moment was. It will affect the narrative in the book I’m working on right now, I’m thinking. And, yeah. My voice shook a little. And yes, I fumbled for the words. But they were spoken, and they were spoken in public. I rejected the actions my father took so many years ago. He did what he thought was right. But he was flawed, as we all are. It wasn’t right, to cut Mom’s people off like that. It was wrong. My family will always be my family. I don’t care how many broken roads any of them walked, getting to where they are. Family is family, and blood is blood. It will always be. I mourn for those who are trapped in the grip of harsh and zealous judgment, those who have never opened their hearts to this simple and powerful truth.

After a few more questions, I wrapped up the talk. Read a favorite quote from Thomas Wolfe. And I thanked the people who had come. Everyone clapped. And then Kathy walked onstage. She handed me a little bowl of tickets. Everyone had been given a ticket with a number, coming in. Now we would draw to give away four signed copies of my book. I shook the basket, mixed up the token tickets. Pulled one and read the number. A winner. Then another. And another winner. I read the third number. Aunt Sarah gasped, loud enough for the room to hear. “Well, that’s mine!” Aunt Sarah won a book, I said, cheering. Let’s all give her a hand. And we did. Later, I signed all the copies brought to me, and I also posed with Aunt Sarah. I would have gladly given her a book anyway, but I was happy for her, that she won one. And I was so, so honored that she came.

Ira Aunt Sarah
Aunt Sarah, holding the book she won.

Wednesday morning dawned. I was up early. By six, I had loaded my bags and hit the road. I texted Kathy on the way out. Thank you so much for everything. I had a super great time. I left the keys on the kitchen island, and the door to the house is unlocked. She texted back. Thanks for being here. I pushed hard that day, on the road. At precisely five that afternoon, I pulled into my drive in New Holland. Eleven hours. That’s how long it takes to drive from Vincennes to my home.

The next morning, I returned the Camry on my way to work. I was sipping my black coffee and thinking pleasant thoughts. The car had been real nice to drive. I won’t ever grumble if they give me a Camry instead of a Charger. I parked and walked in. Another customer was checking out a vehicle. So I waited for my turn.

The young Enterprise guy took my keys and went out to inspect the Camry for potential damage. He wasn’t gone long. He walked back in, looking a little excited. And he asked. “Did you drive through any hail?” I thought for a moment, then nodded. As a matter of fact, there was a hail storm, yes, I said. On Tuesday afternoon. Why? And he took me out and showed me. If you held your head just right and looked, you could see. My car had about thirty pronounced little dents on the hood, the roof, and the trunk. That all right there was going to take some fixing. But there was nothing to worry about, the nice young man assured me. My special insurance would take care of it. There wasn’t even any paperwork to fill out. No claims to sign. I just took my receipt and walked out and boarded Amish Black and drove off.

And right that moment, I was pretty astounded. I still am. Either the Lord is looking out for me, or I’m just walking free. I think that’s it. I’m walking free. The thing is, I work for Him. He doesn’t work for me. Whatever comes along is just fine. I’m not looking for any special little things to happen, but I’m thankful to the Giver of all gifts when they do. And this little trip to Vincennes was a gift, all right. From the moment I walked out the door of my house until the moment I walked back in. And right up through the moment I returned my rental car. It was all a gift, freely given. And a gift freely received, with a grateful heart.

And I gotta say. It’s a beautiful thing, to walk free like that. Even on broken roads.

March 16, 2018

Vagabond Traveler: Amish Black

Category: News — admin @ 5:52 pm


The sight of these closed golden houses with their warmth of life
awoke in him a bitter, poignant, strangely mixed emotion of exile
and return, of loneliness and security, of being forever shut out…
of being so close to it that he could touch it with his hand…

—Thomas Wolfe

It was a lazy Saturday, a few weeks ago. And I didn’t have much of anything particular on my mind. Well, other than normal, I mean. I’d stop by the home of some of my good Amish friends for coffee that afternoon. The late February skies were spitting random specks of snow and drops of rain when I pulled into their drive around two, all spiffy in my new black Jeep. I showed myself in through the first door and walked up the stairs and knocked.

The housewife opened the inner door and smiled in welcome. “Come on in.” I smiled back and thanked her, then took a seat at the kitchen table at my usual spot. And the housewife walked to a doorway and called into the back room, where her husband was working in his office. I heard the words clearly, even though she wasn’t talking to me. “Ira is here,” she said. “Come for coffee. Then we will go shopping with Amish Black.”

Amish Black. Oh, my, I thought. Where did she come up with that? Was that my new nickname, now? You never know, around these Amish places, what they’re calling you behind your back. It was fine, though. Nobody meant anything bad, I was sure. But still. I asked her. What in the world is Amish Black?

“Your Jeep,” she said. (She might as well have said, “Duh.” But she didn’t. She just explained the obvious to a simpleton.) “Your Jeep. It’s Amish Black.”

I laughed. Oh, my. I said. I’m not quite sure how I feel about you naming my Jeep like that. I guess if it sticks, it sticks. She smiled. She didn’t say it, but thought it, I’m sure. “What do you mean, if it sticks? Of course, it will stick.”

We sat at the table and drank our coffee and caught up with our visiting. And then I took them on their Saturday afternoon shopping run, in Amish Black. First, our usual stop at Miller’s Health Foods, on the other side of Monterey. And then on to Lantz’s Discount Groceries just outside Leola. As is the custom, I got to sneak a few items into the cart, that my friends paid for. The perks of hauling Amish around, I guess. And it was a little tight, having a person in the back seat with boxes and bags of groceries. There’s not a lot of room in a two-door Jeep, not the kind of room Big Blue had. But we made it work.

And I have thought about it a lot since that day. The name the housewife gave my Jeep. Amish Black. It sure has a ring to it. And that ring might echo all the way to the title of the book I’m working on sporadically these days. It’s catchy, and people will remember. Amish Black. File those two words away in your head. You’ll see them again down the road, I’m thinking.

A few days later, then, the next week at work. An Amish builder walked in one morning to order a few items. He’s young married. I’ve known him, or at least known who he was, since he was a kid, going to work with his Dad. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I spoke his name. He spoke mine. And we chatted for a few minutes, before I realized something was different. I looked closer. He was all cleaned up, with stubbled face, and wearing an English denim jacket. Which is no big deal, for the Lancaster Amish. Around here, the young guys dress about half English, anyway. I glanced outside. There was no driver sitting in his Suburban, waiting, like Amish drivers do. He had driven himself.

He’s a quiet guy, and a little shy. So I slipped it in, after we had written up what he came for. So how long have you been driving? He grinned. “A few months,” he said. And I asked him how it went. I remembered his father well, he was a good friend of mine. He passed away unexpectedly several years ago, the father did.

And I remembered a little thing that happened, soon after my book came out. The father, who will remain unnamed, stopped in one day for some materials. I was gone that day. He placed his order, then asked about buying one of Ira’s books. My coworkers told the man. “Ira is gone today, but we can sell you a copy.” The father considered the offer for a moment. Then he shook his head. “I’ll wait, and get it from Ira,” he said. I was touched, later, when they told me. The next time the father stopped in, he bought a signed copy of my book. I never forgot.

And now, here stood his youngest son, or close to the youngest. He was the first in his family to leave the Amish. It had to be hard on his widowed mother, I figured. Not that I mentioned any such thing. I just asked how it’s going with the family. He smiled again, a little shyly, and my heart went out to him. “They’re taking it pretty hard,” he said. “I haven’t seen any of them in a while. But they’ll get over it, I think.”

I nodded. Yeah, I said. I hear that. I know how it is, a little bit, to walk that road.

Another weekend came, then. The Saturday before, I had stopped at the thrift shop over in Leola. I rarely do that, but that day I had a few minutes for a quick walk-through. I found a pair of brand new khakis, just my size. (Well, my new size, since my One Meal a Day diet.) Tommy Hilfigers, still with tags. 38 x 32s. They’d never been worn. I shelled out the $4, and dropped them off at the dry cleaners. I got them back the next Saturday and tried them on. The waist fit fine, but they were one fold too long at the bottom. I grumbled to myself. Come on, the tag lied. It was what it was, though. I thought about my options. And I settled on a plan.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled my Jeep into the drive of the home of some Amish friends, where I often stop for coffee on a Saturday morning. No, this is not the place where my Jeep was unceremoniously dubbed Amish Black. This here was another couple I’ve known for years and years. I count them among the best of all my friends, anywhere. That’s how well I know them, how long I’ve been coming around. I parked and knocked on the front door. It was almost lunch time, but they knew I wasn’t hedging around for food, what with my One Meal a Day and all. (And yes, I still feel fantastic, every day. And no, not a drop of alcohol since late August. Knocking on wood, here.) After greeting everyone and visiting a bit, I laid my khakis on the table. And I told the goodwife. Esther, I said. These pants are too long. I have a flicca job for you (Flicca means mending in PA Dutch.). She took the pants from me and I showed her. One fold up, inside or out. That’s all I need done.

She scoffed. “Inside is where you want it folded, not outside,” she said. “Do you want to look like Farmer Brown, with your pant legs rolled up?” No, I said weakly. But an outside cuff can be stylish, too. She scoffed some more. OK, I said. Inside it is, then. I’ll just leave them here and pick them up next week sometime.

“What’s wrong with right now?’ She asked. And the woman unlimbered her sewing machine and got to work with nimble hands. The sewing machine hummed and clacked. She snipped away at the thread, and it was done in ten minutes or so. I sat and visited with them all, there at the table. And then I hemmed a bit and said I must be going. I thanked the goodwife, took my Hilfigers, and left. And I thought to myself, as I was driving along in my Jeep. I bet there’s not a lot of single guys out there who got such good connections as I have, to get stuff like this done while you wait. I mean, it really is quite remarkable.

The days rolled on, then. And looking back, I can’t quite remember that such a thing ever happened before, there at work. A husband and wife stopped in to price some snow guards for the roof of their pole building. The building package had come from Graber a few years ago, through a local contractor. They really liked it, they both claimed. But all that snow this winter coming off the roof tore the gutters right off the building. So they wanted snow guards. I priced what they asked for, the stainless steel snow guards we stock. They got to telling me, then. They needed someone to install the snow guards, and there was some more repair work other buildings to do, too, from the snow damage. I was writing up their invoice, when the door opened and another man walked in.

He came right up to the counter and interrupted us. Inserted himself, is more like it. He wasn’t shy at all. He was just driving by, he told me, and he wanted to stop and thank me for referring my Amish contractor friend, Levi, a few months ago. He had called different people who claimed to do remodeling work, and no one would pay him any attention, or give him a quote. Until he called my buddy, Levi. He came out, he gave a quote, and then he came and did the work. Levi did what he said he would, and he did it right. The first couple looked on and listened with extreme interest. Then they got to asking the second man. Who was this Levi, and what had he done for the guy? They were looking for someone, too, to come and do repairs on the snow damage on their pole building.

The second man jumped at the open door. He got all dramatic and descriptive, all of a sudden. He waved his hands this way and that. And he told the man and wife. He had almost despaired of finding a contractor. Then he stopped in and talked to Ira, here. (A wave at me.) And Ira connected him to Levi. The man then pulled out his smart phone with a flourish. He had before and after pictures. He whipped them up on the screen. The husband and wife “ooh’d” and “aah’d.” The first pic showed a dilapidated old building, on the verge of collapse. The second pic showed a beautiful building, all new and dressed up and gleaming with painted metal roofing and siding from Graber. I didn’t even have to say much, other than exclaim at the contrast the pictures showed. The second man did all my selling for me. The husband and wife practically salivated. They wanted Levi’s phone number. They were going to call him right away. I wrote the information on the back of my business card and gave it to them. Mention my name, when you call Levi, I told them. He’ll take care of you. It could have been a scene in a movie.

They all walked out then, and I saw the second guy standing there, talking and waving his arms with great vigor, practically accosting the other couple. He was still selling for me and Levi, right out there in the parking lot. You can only shake your head in disbelief when such a thing as that comes at you. I mean, the timing has to be perfect. I just smile and look to God with a grateful heart for all the little blessings flowing around me in the course of an ordinary day.

Another weekend came, and I went on an adventure. There was a gun show at the Harrisburg Farm Show Complex. It had been a few years since I attended a gun show. Pre-Sandy Hook, I think. And that was in 2012. I called my buddy Amos, the horse dentist, the day before. Hey, it’s been a while since we hung out. Do you want to go the gun show with me tomorrow? Of course he did. The place opened at 9:00, we got there around 9:30. There was a long line outside, about four people wide and several thousand feet long, snaking halfway back around the building. It took us half an hour to get in. Many stern signs warned. NO PICTURES. STRICTLY ENFORCED. I couldn’t blame the show organizers for that. All kinds of whack job leftists would be taking all kinds of unflattering photos and posting them with false narratives as fake news.

Amos and I went our separate ways and agreed to meet up front around noon. I strolled about, taking my time. I am very much at home at a gun show. The place was packed out with a very diverse crowd. There were a surprising number of women (that’s my kind of woman, right there, someone who is totally comfortable around guns), and I saw several young couples holding toddlers or pushing a baby carriage. Getting’em started young, there. I loved it. Warmed my heart, it did.

And I looked at all those people. Young and old, and every age between. Graybeards, moonshiners, rum runners, and just plain old country redneck working class, a lot of them were. Plenty of professional people mixed in there, too. And I thought about it. These were the people who voted Trump into office. Salt of the earth, they were, the kind of people who would feed you if you were hungry. They’d shoot you, too, if you tried any stupid stuff with them. And these were the people the left is determined to disarm, with their silly little high school walkouts. It’s so ludicrous and so wrong, that young people are being manipulated into marching and demanding to give up their rights. Only a brainwashed people would do or support such a thing. Shades of “1984.” It simply boggles the mind. Whatever the brainwashed students think they’re “marching” for, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The left will keep trying, though. Disarming the common folks will always be a wet dream to people who love and worship the vile false god that is the state.

I bought a few odds and ends, stuff I didn’t really need. But you gotta get something at a gun show. I did pick up my first ever Zero Tolerance assisted-open knife at a better price than I’ve ever seen on the internet. So that was my splurge for the day. I overheard snippets of conversation, here and there. One old vendor stood behind his tables loaded with long guns and other shooting stuff for sale. The man had a magnificent gray beard flowing all the way down to his chest. I overheard him chatting with a prospective customer. “Yeah,” he said. “My wife is a vegan.” The customer looked startled, and I hung close, straining to hear what Graybeard would say next. He chuckled. “Yep,” he said. “She’s a vegan, she is. People are surprised when I tell them. We make it work.” I drifted on, then, as the old man muttered illogically. “I sure do love my dog.”

Hey. That’s the kind of scene you see and hear at a gun show. Amos and I met up, then, and headed out for home. It was great, just to catch up with my old friend. Amos has some really fascinating theories about Amish blood and Amish history. He makes a lot of sense, too, I gotta say.

And the next day was a Sunday. The Amish had church at a farm about a mile from Chestnut Chapel that morning. I saw all the buggies parked in rows on my way to church. And I saw their service was over as I was heading home from mine. A young Amish girl had just left and was walking home along the side of the road toward me, in my lane. She was a teenager, maybe twenty, and she was alone. Her face glowed with life and health and joy. She smiled and waved at me as I approached and passed. I waved back, pleased and a little startled. I’m not used to seeing pretty young Amish girls waving at me for no particular reason. But then the realization clobbered me over the head like a sledgehammer.

She wasn’t waving at my handsome bearded face or my Territory Ahead shirt and matching tie or my Burberry trench coat. She was waving at Amish Black.