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Monday, January 30, 2012

AMONG THE AMISH

Calvin with horses Maude and Owl
In 1982, I was playing chess with my friend, Michael Robertson, in the basement restaurant across the street from the Bellingham City Hall, where I worked as a finance clerk. Michael and I would often play chess during my lunch hour. But this time it was different.

My high school buddy, Calvin Vos, had moved to the Missouri Ozarks a few years before, to have a dairy farm where there's less mud to contend with, and Calvin and his wife Carol offered us a corner of their land for free if we wanted to come live there.

My job was humdrum. I had held it longer than any other---three and a half years---and was hungry for something new, something different. Over the chess board, I told Michael that I didn't think I'd go back to work after the game. So throughout the rest of the chess game that I lost as usual, Michael did his best trying to convince me to stick with the job. But after lunch, I drove home to Agate Bay, and Micki and I decided to accept the Vos' offer. That afternoon, Don Hoffman, the finance director, telephoned me and asked, "What are you doing?"

"I think I quit," I said.

Since our trailer and location weren't suitable, Michael and his wife Robin offered to let us use their garage for a garage sale. We sold off much of our things, including our car with the slipping clutch, and Micki has never lived down selling my perfectly good umbrella for a nickel. For a surprise going-away present, my Mom gave us a Ford Maverick! This would give her one less thing for a mother who deeply loved us to worry about. We loaded it up, and Micki and our three-year-old son Leif and I headed off for the Ozarks.

Calvin and Carol lived in the country between Marshfield and Seymour. This was Amish country, especially around Seymour, where the largest Amish family had the last name of Schwartz---so large that the community sang with the Schwartzs Song-Book. And there were so many men with the first name of Sammy that they had to distinguish each other with their middle initial.

Calvin and Carol, although Seventh-Day Adventists, were greatly influenced by the Amish and their way of life. They had two horses, Owl and Maude, and a horse-drawn wagon. This was their truck. Calvin had a beard but no mustache, and wore some Amish apparel, including a wide-brim straw hat. He was remarkably tall, over seven feet, with the nicest smile, a knowledge of frontier lore, and loyal and lasting friendship.

Speaking of his height, he and I were traveling in his little truck in Washington one day, and the sun was shining through the top of the windshield and blinding me. I put down my sun visor, and, as a matter of courtesy, reached over and put down Calvin's as well. He then had to bend way down in order to see under the visor where he was going, and he sarcastically muttered, "Thank you." The silliness of it dawned on me, and I laughed until I cried.

The Vos Family with our wagonload of logs
Micki and Leif and I lived with the fast-growing Vos family in their one-room house (not counting the sleeping loft) for two months. As good of friends as we were, it's never easy for two families to live together, but we made the best of it. I loved thinking of the pioneer life, but didn't want to be as austere as the Amish, whereas the Vos family was even more austere in some respects. They had no inside bathroom, but used an outhouse that already had a filled-up hole. And when their kitchen sink drain clogged up and Calvin couldn't unclog it, he simply pulled out the pipes and put a bucket under the sink, which had to be emptied often. Even the Amish balked at these things, for their homes, even without electricity, are very comfortable.

Meanwhile Calvin and I bounced across the field in the horse-drawn wagon, and went into the woods to cut down a lot of straight-trunked oak trees. After cutting off the branches, Calvin would lead one of the horses into the woods and hitch it up to each log, which the horse then dragged out to the wagon. I was amazed at the horse-power. If she made a wrong turn and the log angled into two standing trees, instead of getting stuck, the horse was strong enough to knock one of the trees over with the then-freed, dragged log.

Calvin and Me building the log cabin
The logs were heavy, green oak, but small enough for the two of us to handle with grunts and groans, and it wasn't too long before we had a wagon-full. We then made the half-mile journey to the corner of the land Calvin and Carol had given to us. We made foundation pillars out of stones and mortar, and began cutting logs with Calvin's chainsaw and stacking them like Lincoln Logs. The floor and roof and windows and door would come later, and then chinking, and for the upcoming winter we could push bales of straw up around the foundation for some insulation. I had very little money, not enough to buy easy-to-work-with lumber, but found a local farmer who had a little saw-mill, and he cut and sold me green oak lumber, for joists, rafters and floor boards. The boards were heavy, and, despite the fact that they would shrink as they dried, we immediately nailed them in place with concrete nails, for oak would be too hard to work with when dry.

Meanwhile we cleared enough trees to form a narrow driveway, despite the viciously-thorned honey locust trees, and Micki hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of gravel from the dried creek bed to cover the driveway. She also tried single-handedly to build a chicken coop, and Calvin and I got a kick out of watching and teasing her from the top of the log cabin walls until finally her structure leaned and folded and fell.

Micki and Leif and our cabin, as high as we go
One day we came to our cabin site to find that another local farmer had hauled over an old, two-seater outhouse for us, and it was sitting over a hole Micki had dug for the purpose. Ozark people are very friendly and helpful, a big contrast from the city, and during this time we had no TV or radio or newspapers. Our new world extended only to the horizon, and this was a nice experience. But at one point, our little family of three sneaked away and drove thirty miles to Springfield and went to Chuck E. Cheese's. It was like going to another planet---glittery, noisy and blindingly bright. When we returned, we didn't tell our austere community what a blast we had. Even the photo booth was a wondrous delight.

My only source of income at the time was being a taxi driver for the Amish. None of them had cars, or phones, but they would go to a little local grocery store to use its phone, and they would pay 25¢ per mile for someone to drive them places. On one of the Amish farms was Fannie's store, and I was a regular customer. I had a constant cold while in the Ozarks, and Fannie sold a lot of old-time remedies---Poho oil and various liniments, etc., as well as other goods, including Amish clothing---not stylish but well-made. I bought and took the medicine, but, come to find out, the Ozarks is riddled with pollen, enough to give the healthiest people constant sinusitis.

But Fannie and I became friends, and she let me put an ad on her bulletin board that I was available as a taxi driver. I provided many trips at 25¢ per mile, but my only customer was Fannie. Whenever she had to travel somewhere out of the community, I was her ride. And not only did she pay me the taxi fare, but often she would treat me to a meal at a restaurant. This obviously Amish woman, and obviously not Amish I, would get a lot of looks as we ate and talked together. In her store, I remember her subtlely, politely and respectfully preaching to me about the "Gospel." In a restaurant in Seymour, she asked me what I thought of the Amish religion. This was after Micki and I accepted the opportunity to attend an Amish church service.

Their worship services are held in large homes on their farms, and last about three hours. After that, they make a day of it, spending the Sunday playing games and enjoying the rest in the good company of their whole Amish community. In the house, the church service is held in two rooms at once, men in one, women and younger children in the other, and the minister standing in the doorway speaking to both. We sat on hard, backless benches. The words were spoken in Swiss German, and so we couldn't understand them. Now and then the congregation would whip around and kneel on the floor, facing away from the speaker, and Micki and I followed suit. At one point, while the speaker was speaking, many of the people got up and left the room, which really confused us. We asked why some were leaving, even as the minister was speaking, and were told, "This is the time he reads Scripture and we all know that, so it's a good time to break and go to the bathroom or whatever." Micki and I were dumbstruck.

After the long church service, a meal was provided for the whole community, at a long table. First the older men were served, then the younger, then women, then children; and since we were treated as honored guests, both Micki and I were among the first to eat, with the older men. It was during this meal that I learned that a creamy mixture of peanut butter and Karo syrup on white bread tastes really good! After the meal, the women came and quickly wiped off the dishes we used, so they could be used by the next people to be seated. It seemed unsanitary to me, albeit expedient, and I was relieved we had been among the first to eat.

And so, days later, in the restaurant, Fannie asked me what I thought of the Amish religion, and, without pressure, invited me to join them. I told her that it was all very beautiful in its simplicity and lifestyle, but that it seems to me a very ethnic experience among those of Swiss German heritage, and that it's just too foreign to me. She was quiet and thoughtful after that.

Carol and Micki
We had obtained some booklets about Amish beliefs, and read them---booklets defending child baptism, head covering, etc. And one day I found Micki with her hair up and wearing a scarf, as Carol was always doing. The influence of the Amish was encroaching on Micki's appearance, and I didn't like it. Micki had flowing, beautiful hair, and with her slender neck and narrow face, her hair being up did not do justice to her. Feeling we had enough self-imposed laws binding us already, I stood against this new and unattractive inconvenience, and strongly suggested she not give in to it. In respect for the wishes of her husband, Micki removed the scarf and let her hair free. She was all the more beautiful, and smiled. But this religious friction hurt the relationship a little between Calvin and Carol and us, especially me. I began feeling like the odd man out.

Once upon a time, Randy drove into the Amish community in his Corvette. He was so fascinated and impressed with the Amish that he wanted to join them. He got rid of his Corvette, bought a little farm, and began living devoutly like an Amish man. The community accepted his wife Nancy, but Randy, because of his Corvette and previous, obviously wild life, was placed on a sort of probation. If he could live as an Amish man for so long, he would eventually be accepted into the Amish community as one of them. But time passed, and we never saw the probation end. Meanwhile, though, Randy and his family were, in fact, Amish in every way. Randy and Calvin became friends, and they would help each other on their farms.

Calvin rented or borrowed a big hay truck to go some distance away to load it with hay for his cows, and Randy and I went along to help. It was a two-day job. Because of my pollen allergies, working with the hay made me feel like I was dying. So the next day, I wore a pollen mask, an object of jovial ridicule from Randy and Calvin. Not only that, but bales of hay get terribly heavy after awhile, and I wasn't used to farm work. I was the middle man in loading the bales onto the truck, but became so pooped that Randy would finally toss the bales over my head to Calvin. Oh well.

On the way back, the three of us stopped at a buffet to eat. It was here that I laughed the hardest I've ever laughed in my life. Maybe exhaustion had something to do with it. But Randy went to get some ice cream, and came back with a spiral of vanilla ice cream almost a foot tall balancing haphazardly out of the tiny bowl. Calvin and I cracked up laughing, asking Randy what happened. "I couldn't shut it off," said Randy, and we practically rolled on the floor in hysterics. A few minutes later, after regaining our composure, Calvin went to get ice cream, and when he walked back sheepishly balancing a foot-tall pillar of ice cream, that did it. We were done for.

Sammy C. was the leader of the Amish community, and we had the privilege of accepting his invitation to have dinner with them in their large, beautiful home. Micki and I were amazed at how attractive simplicity can be. There were no adornments, no pictures of loved ones (an Amish no no), but its plainness was all so pleasing to the eye. For our little son Leif they pulled out a rolling bed-box full of old-timey toys, and he had a blast sitting on the floor playing for hours. Sammy C. and his wife took us down into their basement, which was a massive pantry supplied with canned food in jars enough to feed an army, or an Amish community. They loaded us up with armfuls of food to take home with us---very generous people.

It was during dinner at the table when Sammy C. explained a lot of things to us. He said that not having cars helped keep young people from leaving the community. He talked to us about Randy and his situation. When we asked him about evangelizing, he explained that it's not Amish practice to go out and get converts. Instead, they wait and have people come to them, and tell them about the Gospel. All in all, it was a wonderful visit with a charming couple.

We also ate at Randy and Nancy's home, on their smaller but pleasant Amish farm. Apparently they, too, had had trouble with their sink drain, and also had a bucket to empty in the cabinet beneath. While we still sat at the table, Randy pulled out the big bucket full of dirty water and went to heave the contents out the back door. I watched as he heaved the bucket, but the bottom of the container slipped from his hand, the bucket flipped around and the water splashed all over Randy. It was great slapstick. It was then that I saw an Amish man whirl around and face us, and without yelling it, mouthed a very definite "Shit!"

An Amish Farm, near Seymour, Missouri
It was from Randy and Nancy that we learned more about the various Amish communities. This one was very strict, but some communities, even though not allowing cars, would allow tractors, because the farms were so large. But some would insist their tractors ride on metal rims instead of rubber tires. It all seemed confusing and a bit silly to me. We knew that unmarried Amish men are clean-shaven while married men have beards, but they explained that Amish men did not have mustaches and used hooks instead of buttons, because both mustaches and buttons were proudly worn by the ancient Romans who persecuted the Christians.

One day Fannie hired me to drive her out to buy eggs. Simple? Not. We drove some distance, to another Amish community; and this Amish community and that Amish community were having some sort of feud in which they were not allowed to speak to each other. But, the other community had better egg prices. So I ended up being the interlocutor between the two women in the egg transaction. In the other woman's hearing, Fannie would tell me what to ask her and what to tell her, and I would repeat it. Then the other woman would tell me what to say to Fannie. It was ridiculous, but necessary under the biased circumstances, and as a result, one woman made a big sale, and Fannie got a good deal.

Winter came on suddenly, and our little log cabin wasn't finished. The farmer who was supplying our green oak lumber stopped cutting for the season, and the cabin had no roof and the floor wasn't completed. I wasn't about to impose upon Calvin and Carol, living with them through the whole winter. So, determined to make do, we covered the roof joists with a weighed-down tarp, and laid enough floor to have room for sleeping bags and a woodstove. And we put the straw bales around the foundation. But the log walls hadn't dried enough to chink yet, and the wind blew right through the structure. The stove gave out enough heat to keep us alive, but not enough to find comfort. Yet I was relieved finally to be independent enough to attempt sleeping in our own place.

That relief lasted a few hours, until the rain started. That first night we had what Ozarkers call a "gully-washer." It poured, and the roof tarp couldn't stop it. We were getting wet, and cold. I had had enough.

We got up and went to a motel in Marshfield, finally spending a comfortable, warm night in a bed. The next morning we went to the Vos farm and found Calvin and Carol in the milkhouse. I told them that I didn't want to impose upon them through the whole winter and that the cabin work was stalled without lumber until spring, and so we were returning to Washington. Micki wasn't really content with the idea of giving up and leaving the peacefulness of the Ozarks; it had been like stepping a hundred years back in time; but she went along with me, silently crying for two days. (You can find a continuation of our adventures in I Wrote the Bible.)

Later Calvin and Carol wrote and told us that Fannie had left the Amish community and had joined the United Pentecostal Church, much to the dismay of her family and community.

Calvin later became a fire-and-brimstone preacher and had a little church. He visited Washington afterwards and gave a sermon at an Arlington church, where we went to hear him. Eventually he and Carol and family moved away from the Ozarks, to Wisconsin. When I asked Calvin why he left the Ozarks, he said only, "I didn't see any future in it."

But Micki and I missed the Ozarks, and I considered it another failure in my life, that I gave up on the dream so soon. Then came a full-page ad in The Wanderer about Star of the Sea, a Catholic community being built between Hardy and Ash Flat in the Arkansas Ozarks. This time, instead of quitting over a chess game, we bought a lot in Star of the Sea, and I put in for a transfer in my postal job. Branson was the nearest opening to our new dream, but a 150-mile commute was too far to build anything on our Arkansas land, which we still own. Meanwhile the whole Star of the Sea project fell through, and so we're Branson residents. This tourist town is much different than the countryside between Marshfield and Seymour, but that's how life goes.

Last year we learned that Fannie had returned home to the Amish community, and on January 26, 2010, she and her husband were sentenced in the County Circuit Court, her husband for sexually abusing two of his teenage daughters, and Fannie for not reporting the crime to authorities. Her husband was sentenced to two seven-year terms in the Department of Corrections on the statutory sodomy charges, to run concurrently, and two 10-year sentences on the child molestation charges, to run consecutively but concurrent with the other terms. Fannie received a suspended imposition of sentence, with five years supervised probation. She conducted a hundred hours of community service and received counseling, and was instructed by the court to meet with a parole officer. The article I found online says that as her husband "approached the bench in shackles, his wife used a white handkerchief to collect the tears that streamed down her face." Four Amish bishops were also charged with failing to report the molestation.

As written about in Faulty Cruise Control, in the mid-1980's, I took a trip to the New Orleans World's Fair, leaving Micki at home, and stopped at Calvin and Carol's Ozark farm on the way back. I spent some time on our corner of land, our dream, staring at the ruins of our cabin, and wandering over what would have been so good. The barbed wire I had strung from tree to tree to keep Calvin's cows out of what would have been our garden, when the cottonmouth snake rolled out of some tree roots and over my foot and into the creek, was gone. The outhouse was gone, and the funny, chicken coop was gone. But there on the ground were still the thousands of rocks that Micki had spread over our makeshift driveway. I sat down and cried. Then I picked out a rock, put it in my pocket, and continued my journey.

When I got home, I stuck the rock in the back of a drawer for a time. Then finally took it to a jeweler. He cut it, polished it, and set it in silver and hung it on a silver chain. I gave Micki the necklace, along with a little booklet I made with this poem:

THE PRICELESS STONE

On a day when we were no longer content,
We sold many things in a sale;
Then we took our new money and new car and went
Along a Missouri trail.

Without going into every detail,
There are some things that I must say;
Although the adventure would finally fail,
It succeeded in many a way.

One thing that'll always stick in my head
Is how you took load after load
Of stones from the bottom of the river bed
And with them you built us a road!

I watched you work then, as I've done 'fore and since,
Watched you without your knowing;
You maybe don't know -- or have any hints --
That I love you for the love you are sowing.

But to now let you know that I knew what you do
I returned to our homestead again
For a rock from the road that you built -- yes it's true --
A fact little known to you then.

It lay in my desk for years until now,
One rock among thousands you carried;
I wanted to use it to show you somehow
How happy I am that we're married.

You've labored so very hard in your love
For your loved ones, for us, and I love you;
And I'm sure that our Father in Heaven above
Will, for your efforts, reward you.

Meanwhile this rock has been taken in glee
To a jeweler whose hands are not reckless;
A chip of this rock in silver placed he
As a symbol of your work in a necklace.

It's priceless, this stone, though no diamond or gold;
It's more priceless than the stars above;
For within it the knowing eye can behold
The work of the woman I love.

So I hope you will wear it and know in your heart
That your toil, your labor, your strife,
Has not been for naught, and my love I impart
To my dearest, most wonderful wife.


Little turns out the way we expect. Few plans come to fulfillment. But we continue to dream and to move on, to struggle, to fail, and to try to make up for it, with more dreams and again moving on. Sometimes we hit it right. And whether we do or not, we can always write it down.

______
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1 comment:

  1. You did such a great job sharing so much of our Journey among the Amish and our friends the Vos' in the Ozarks. Your definitely an artist the way you can write and use the illustrations(photos)to enlarge your meaning. I'm in tears reading this because you make it all come alive and I can relate to the people in it. Also I'm so touched by the lessons you shared in the poem "a priceless stone" about how I'll know that my toil etc. was not for naught and so happy that I have you to share life and the realization of love with! Your Traveling Companion, Micki

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