March 6, 2020

The Fifth Son…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:54 pm


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

— Thomas Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The broken road of the second book rolls on.

February 7, 2020


Category: News — Ira @ 5:31 pm


Spring, summer, and fall fill us with hope;
winter alone reminds us of the human condition.

—Mignon McLaughlin

I remember after we moved to Bloomfield, way back when I was a young teenager, a lot of years ago. We moved in October. I can’t say it was that next spring for sure, but it probably was. Dad was always nosing around, always looking for any little opportunity to make a few bucks. And somehow, he found a hybrid seed corn company up in northern Iowa, a small regional enterprise. He signed up as a dealer. I can’t remember that he ever did such a thing before, being a seed corn dealer. He never did much with it, maybe moved a few dozen bags of seed each season. Plus, what he planted himself. He got a discount, of course, as you would. The thing that remains firm in my mind about that little seed corn company was its name, from a town of the same name. Winterset.

I’ve wondered, over the years. What kind of bleak and barren snow-swept landscape could ever be so terrible that its inhabitants would call it Winterset? Think of it like sunset. A place where winter sets in and stays a while. What kind of people would even live in such a desolate land? Did the sun ever shine there? Was there summer in the land of Winterset? The town’s most famous son was the actor, John Wayne. He was born there. He didn’t stick around long, though. Which I figure is totally understandable.

The whole Winterset thing came to me in the last few weeks as I was brooding and getting a little mopey about that very thing. It’s winter. We’re smack dab in the middle of that long and dreary stretch of time that comes around every year. Winter. It always comes slinking in. And once it starts, it’s pretty much endless. January seemed about three months long. Then the first week of February then came limping through the door. And here we are, and that’s how it is.

Except for the incessant dreariness of it, I can’t complain much about the winter, so far. I always want to see at least one major snow storm, a storm where things shut down and you slowly creep home from work early along the icy roads. It’s always exciting and fun that way. Once. But this year, so far, at least here in Lancaster County, it’s been zilch. Nada. The ground barely got covered, a few times. It’s rained a lot. And it kind of grinds down on the heaviness of it all, the fact that we can’t even get a respectable snow storm. Almost, one could get cranky.

I can’t remember that I got this down for a few years. In January, I mean. This year, there’s one factor I can think of that would cause that tautness inside, like it is. The book. I’m done. And there’s not much to do now but wait. Back to that a little later. I got a few bunny trails to go down, first.

Last week, the powers that be marked the event, like they do every year. This time, I took a little more notice for some reason. The Challenger disaster. It happened thirty-four years ago, in 1986. You always see the headlines. This year, I saw them, and a lot of memories came washing back.

I remember quite clearly when it happened. It was a bitingly clear Tuesday winter morning. On Tuesdays, in winter, I went to town. Drove the Stud up to West Grove and tied him in Henry Egbert’s old ramshackle barn. Caught a ride to town with the coffee loafers, or stood beside the road and caught a ride with my thumb. There, I hung out at the Bloomfield Sale Barn with my buddies. Bought a lamb or a calf now and then. And that morning, I was sitting there in Chuck’s Café with the regulars, swapping small talk and tall tales. Sipping strong black coffee. And all of a sudden, Chuck came bustling through the front door of the little café. He had been working in his shop, where he had a radio turned on. He was excited, you could tell.

“Turn on the TV, turn on the TV,” his voice was quietly urgent. “The space shuttle just blew up.” I can’t remember that I had even thought of the space shuttle that particular morning. We had read all about it in the paper, about the school teacher who was going on this trip. I have remembered her name through all the years since. Christa McAuliffe. It was a big symbolic deal, her inclusion with the crew. The news of it even reached the Amish world I was in. She was going to come back and tell her classes all about it, and probably talk on TV. America was excited about it.

“Turn on the TV,” Chuck repeated. Mrs. C stepped back into her little kitchen, where she had a small black and white television stuck up in the corner. She turned it on, and we all crowded around, watching, mesmerized. I remember the great clouds of smoke and debris that littered the skies, where the Challenger had blown up. I forget which TV channel it was. The announcers spoke in hushed, shocked tones. We stood around, absorbing, silent.

And suddenly, the screen switched to the White House. And there stood president Reagan, all somber in his suit. His speechwriters had cobbled together a brief statement. I don’t remember much of what he said, except when he wound down. The astronauts, he proclaimed, had reached out and touched the face of God. Chillingly beautiful rhetoric, that was. And that’s all it was, rhetoric to cover the brutal and horrifying fact that the bodies of the crew had been blown to a thousand smithereens. You might as well say they touched the face of God, because in another dimension, perhaps they had.

And I thought about it this year, more than usual, looking back. The year was 1986, when it happened. Right that moment, my life and my mind were in tremendous turmoil. That spring, I would make one of my final, frantic flights from Bloomfield, Iowa. Fleeing the world I had figured to settle in. It had not worked. There was no way it ever could have. From today, I can see that and say that. It all just was what it was. It can never be told any other way.

Twenty years ago, Ellen and I got married. And we moved into this old brick house I still live in. I’ve lived here ever since. Sometime in that first year, we got a new roof installed. Shingles. Twenty-year shingles. And this year, it’s getting right at twenty years. The shingles are getting a little worn and thin.

I mentioned something to Levi, my Amish contractor friend at work. We go way back, Levi and me. I’ve mentioned him a few times before, and he’s in the book on page 203. I had told him about it, but I never thought to show him until one day a few weeks ago. He stopped in for a quote. We were just chilling, there at my desk after we got the quote done. Chatting a bit before he rushed out the door. And I thought of it for the first time. Hey, do you want to read about yourself in my book? I showed him the galley copy, opened to the right page. Levi took the book and stood there reading. A smile crept onto his face. Great, I thought. At least he’s smiling about it. He seemed mildly pleased. I guess it’s not every day you get to read about yourself in a book.

Anyway, I mentioned it to him, about my roof, back last fall already. Next year (which is now) I need a new metal roof on my house. I need you to get me a labor quote. I’ll get the metal, myself. I can get a discount. I need the labor. Levi promised he would come around to measure up the house sometime before spring came.

Well. Last Saturday, I was hanging out with some of my Amish friends, drinking strong black coffee. My phone rang abruptly. I glanced at the screen. Levi. I walked outside to answer. It’s rude, to talk on your phone when you’re with people. Hello, I said. Ira here. And Levi’s voice crackled. “What are you doing this morning?” he asked, somewhat vaguely. Oh, just hanging with friends, I said. What are you up to? Are you coming around to measure my house? He was. And he did. He and his driver showed up about an hour later, after I had run my errands. They stacked a ladder against my porch, then another ladder from the porch roof to the house roof. The driver got up and shouted out numbers as Levi took notes on a large yellow pad.

I chatted with my friend. He’s figuring to get to my house in March sometime. Providing the weather is good, of course. I will buy all the materials at Graber, where I work. Levi will not remove the one layer of 20-year-old shingles. He’ll leave them right where they are. Install lathe over the shingles, spaced at 2 feet on center. Then attach the metal roofing to that. My house roof isn’t that big, but it has lots of hips and a valley or two. And a couple of dormers, too, sticking out. It’s pretty broken up. I told Levi. I’m thinking Shiny Black metal will go well with the red bricks. He agreed wholeheartedly. “Yes. That will go well, the color of it. It’s going to look good.” And that’s how we left it. And now I wait. Until March.

OK. Back now to the book. I remember nine years ago, about this time. The Tyndale people had told me. After the book’s done, and you’re waiting for it to get published, that’s called the waiting game. Or the death march. It’s when most authors go a little bit wacky. At that time, I half shrugged it off. Hey. I was at a place few people ever see. I’d be OK.

Well, I wasn’t, exactly. From the final edits to publication is usually a matter of some months. Five or six. I came very close to cracking up, waiting for the book’s release. The mind wanders, after you produce intensely for a year or so, then just stop cold. After you get through a long old slog, and suddenly you are turned out to pasture. Hurry up and wait, that’s how it felt, back then. The days edged by slowly, oh, so slowly. I fretted and drank. And drank some more. Thank God for the whiskey, I thought to myself.

This time, there is no whiskey. And I’m pretty much in the middle of that la-la land of meaninglessness and nothingness. Just kind of shifting along. May. That’s still out there a good ways. Part of me is stretched into intense tautness. And part of me is as relaxed as, well, as I could hope to be in a place like this. It’s a bit strange, I will say.

Virginia made sure I got my share of galley hard copies of the book. It was great, to hold in my hands for the first time. And I sent some here and there, mostly to my mover-and-shaker friends. The ones who will make some noise. I try to tell my friends who get a copy. This is not the first book. That was then. This is now. This book is its own story. Growing Up Amish was the lost and searching youth, on a hard and turbulent road. That voice was young, inexperienced, impulsive, brash. This book, this is me, talking today. From where I am today. It’s a different voice. More mature. Lots of it is a hard and turbulent road, too, but not as a youth. Broken Roads picks up where the last book left off. And it brings the journey along, all the way to the death and burial of my father.

Anyway, I mailed out a few dozen galley copies. A copy that’s close to done, but still needs some editing. There are mistakes, here and there, that you’ll find. One friend who got a book was my old editor from Tyndale. Susan Taylor, the lady who did the actual editing of my first book. She’s the only one from my old crew that I’m still in contact with today. I reached out to her. Hey, do you want a copy? She did. It was purely out of respect, that I sent her one. And some old memories of another time.

I guess Hachette is sending out galley copies to reviewers, too. That’s what Tyndale did back then, I remember. And strangely enough, a few early reviews have sprouted on Amazon. Mostly good. One review struck me, though, just the wording and detail of it.

“Ira Wagler writes in an unusual way. I wonder if it’s a reflection of his Amish childhood. It’s very understated when it comes to emotion, and sometimes the small details overwhelmed the larger themes. For example, he’ll tell about what chain hotel he stayed at or where he got his coffee, and this is stated and takes up almost as much writing as the events that are the theme of the book—how the old age and eventual death of his parents affected him, as a man who had left their lifestyle behind.

In this style, Wagler tells of his struggles with issues many of us face—the collapse of a marriage, fighting addiction, finding a community to support your faith, forgiving others. While reading, I wished often he would be more direct and clear with his narrative, but when looking back at my reading, I realized he writes much like we experience life, in a flurry of details with the big issues being there among the everyday.”

Umm. Yeah. I thought that’s what writing is. A flurry of details. Just tell the story. Don’t worry about a message. Some will get one thing, some another thing, and some will glean nothing at all. I wasn’t in the least offended by this reviewer. She gave the book four stars. I’ll take it.

And finally. The other day, a small-time builder walked in at work to pick up some trim. He’s probably about my age, I’ve known him for years. As I was writing up his invoice, he asked, all chatty. “Got any more books coming?” You don’t usually have to ask me that question twice. I beamed. Yep, as a matter of fact, I do, I said. It’s coming out in May. I walked back to my desk and picked up a galley copy of Broken Roads and showed it to him. He looked interested. “I bought your first book,” he said. “I gave it to a friend and never saw it again.” I nodded, but didn’t ask if he’d read it. Just in case he hadn’t.

I told him a little bit about the new book. It’s about my parents and their passing. My marriage blowing up. And so forth. He looked at me shyly. And he stammered a little, telling me. He and his wife had some major issues lately, after 30 years of marriage and raising a family. He wasn’t real comfortable talking about it, I could see. I told him. My marriage didn’t make it anywhere close to that long. Seven years. We couldn’t make it past the seven-year itch. If you guys hung in there for 30 years, I’d say it’s worth fighting for.

He told me a little bit about it. They are getting counseling and going to church. I applauded. Great. That’s great. Fight, fight, fight for it. And then I said something I don’t say often, because it usually just sounds trite, and people often spout the words without meaning them. I’m going to pray for you, I said. Both of you. I meant it. His stubbled face broke into a smile. “I appreciate that,” he said quietly. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”