March 14, 1994
The boy adjusted his suspenders and tried not to look over his shoulder as the family farm disappeared slowly behind him. The red barn was the last to fade away, reminding him of the life he was leaving behind. It was early afternoon, and the snow in the fields was only sixteen inches deep. The boy pulled apart the middle two strands of the barb wire fence and climbed through. His mind was made up. The world held too much potential for him to remain captured within such a small circle of acquaintances for the rest of his life. The men in the community who had disciplined him since his own father had passed away two years earlier were not going to rule his life. Ever again. He was an adult now. He would live the life of the sinner—a life that he had been warned about since he was a child sitting between his little brothers on the hard church pews while listening to the bishop preach against the evils of the world—a world he was now going to explore. Now, he would live the life that he wanted during his short time on earth, and then he would die. After that, he would go to hell and face the consequences of his actions. It was a decision he had wrestled with for many years, but now at fourteen, he was finally ready.
Garth Brooks was the first artist that came through the speakers of his battery-operated radio, reassuring him as he crossed the frozen creek and hit the gravel road. He now walked on the fringes of the community and was keenly aware that he was almost out of reach of the judgmental people he had come to resent.
The earliest ever photo of me. At sixteen during my 6 months out.
Two hours later he walked down the snow-packed driveway of the local milkman who picked up the milk at the home farm every morning. He and the milkman had become friends, and although he had never dared to voice his desires, he was sure the milkman would understand his decision and allow him to live at his place. Maybe, the milkman would even keep his whereabouts a secret.
But Martin Hartz did not answer the door when he knocked. Not a surprise as Hartz often spoke of his love for ice fishing. People of the world never had to work. According to the Amish, they lived a life of ease, and money flowed to them in gentle green rivers of five and ten dollar bills. The boy would simply wait for Hartz to come home.
Hartz’s door was unlocked, so the boy opened it and passed into a world completely foreign to him. The television was turned on in the living room, and As the World Turns was playing some riveting scene of betrayal. By and by though, he lost interest in the TV and began to explore the house. In the basement he found some bright lights with what must have been about a hundred small green plants. He found it odd that someone would go to so much trouble to grow plants that produced nothing, either above ground, or under. What could be the purpose of growing plants that produced nothing? And what was it with the funny skunk smell that came from them?
Back upstairs the boy browsed through some videos under the television and marveled at the variety of pictures on the covers. Somehow, the videos must play through the TV, but he couldn't figure out how to get the picture to come onto the screen.
The sound of tires in the snowy driveway outside brought him to the door to meet Hartz, his new landlord. But Hartz was very surprised to see him and, after telling Hartz of his wishes to live there, he was both surprised and confused to learn that Hartz was not at all keen on the idea. In fact, Hartz went on and on about minor technicalities such as ‘harboring a minor’ and ‘kidnapping’, and how the wrath of the Amish community would rain down upon his head. As dusk approached the Wisconsin sky the boy bid Hartz, his only connection to the outside world, a farewell, then trudged back the way he had come. He would find another place to live—a place with no connections at all to his past.
With darkness came the first few pangs of guilt and remorse for his sinful decisions. For a few miles he fought the gallant fight, but alas, his resolve weakened, and soon enough, his footsteps began to guide him back the way he had come. Fear and dread hit him, and he swallowed a lump of bitterness and despair as he crossed the creek and climbed back between the same two strands of barb wire fencing.
An hour later he was sitting in the barn milking the same five cows he had sworn he would never milk again—milking them in the exact same order he had milked them that very morning, and the same way he had milked them a thousand times before.
His lie of spending the afternoon unsuccessfully hunting squirrels only got his ears boxed by his older brother—small punishment for the bigger sin he hadn’t been caught in.
Hartz forever kept the boy’s secret, and over the next few years they formed a relationship that would seem odd to an outsider. A lonely bachelor-milkman born in the outside world, and a miserable Amish teen, bonded by a dark secret—the secret of the first time the boy had tried to break the chains of bondage that he was born into.
February 22, 1996
The chores were done. His four older brothers had left for the day, working on various jobs that brought a little income to the Amish men in the community. This time the boy’s footsteps led him to the farmhouse of Randy Clark, an English neighbor on the other side of the community. Randy had hired the boys a handful of times to help with work around the farm, and he seemed sympathetic to the tough rules of the community. Randy was not surprised to see the boy at his doorstep and immediately opened his home to the outcast. Randy could use the extra help around the farm, and he knew the labor would come cheap. But almost immediately things took a strange turn. Randy and his wife were traveling to Florida, and they would be gone for two weeks. The boy was faced with the sudden decision of traveling to an unfamiliar state that seemed worlds away, with people he barely knew. What if the world swallowed him up, and his Amish family never learned what had happened to him?
Randy gave the boy a second option. He could stay at the farm and help the hired hand with the chores until Randy returned from vacation. The boy made the safe choice and stayed behind. That evening after chores were done and the hired hand went home, the boy found himself in a cold, lonely, dark, house. With no knowledge of how to cook food in electrical ovens or microwaves, how to turn on the TV, or even how to use a shower, the boy sat on the soft couch and slowly the world closed in. He weighed his options carefully, and the battle raged within. The Amish came to Randy’s farm regularly to use the phone. The boy would be found, and at sixteen, he would not be able to withstand the pressure that came from the entire community against only one. On top of that, he already missed his little brothers and sisters. Was now the right time, after all? Was life in the community really as suffocating and depressing as he had convinced himself?
At 10:15 p.m., he heard the amber alert come across the waves of his battery-operated radio. Authorities everywhere were looking for the missing sixteen-year-old Amish runaway, believed to be fleeing to live with an uncle in Columbia, Missouri. The boy cowered lower on the couch.
The battle was lost at 1:45 a.m. after several unsuccessful attempts at sleep. Walking beneath the clear moonlit winter skies of Wisconsin, the boy trudged the three miles back home.
The next morning when the rest of the family entered the barn to begin the morning chores, they found him sound asleep on a pile of hay.
March 30, 1997
The last thing he heard was the gut-wrenching sound of sobs coming from his little brother as he whipped the horses into a gallop, fleeing home to get help. The boy had lured his little brother into a day of hunting, but after driving three miles, he had suddenly and without much warning broke the news that he would not be returning back home. Two days earlier he had finally been caught with his radio radio. The news had broken hard and traveled through the community fast. He was the first in the community to have a radio, and the rebellious, fatherless teen had to be made an example of. But the boy had other plans.
Years of planning, plotting, and trial runs had wizened him to the ways and judgments of the community. This time he would disappear forever. By the time they found him he would be so hardened to the world and its ways, that their religious methods of manipulation would never be able to touch him. He estimated that he needed at least a month of complete disconnect from the community in order to gain such strength and resolve. Only then could he resist the harsh judgments that would follow.
The boy trudged for fourteen miles, the snow melting and the ice in the Black River breaking up with the coming of spring. In the early hours of the morning the boy knocked on the doors of a farmer several hours distance from the community. Now, he was worlds away. They would never find him here.
Simon Potts took in the kid from the community. The boy was a hard worker and required almost free labor. Really, all the boy seemed to want was to eat and listen to Country Music.
For six months, Potts watched the boy labor on his farm, seldom saying much. Sometime during the second month word got back to the Amish community, and Simon watched as the Amish began arriving in droves. They came randomly, often, and unannounced. At times they came fifteen at a time. Other times, usually after a moving Sunday sermon, some well-meaning member would show up early on a Monday morning. And all came with the intentions of breaking down the will of the boy who seemed determined to live his life in the outside world. Simon marveled at the kid who seemed able to go toe to toe with the most well-versed and hardened Amish preachers and bishops.
And then, one morning, it was all over. The boy bid Simon farewell, thanked him for allowing him to stay, climbed into a buggy, and disappeared back into the Amish community. He had given the outside world his best try, and he had, once again, lost the battle. The Amish had won.
The boy entered the community with a look of determination on his face. He could make it as a good Amish man. He would settle down, marry, and start a family. He would be the man they expected him to be. The world had had its chance to take him.
July 4, 2002
It was springtime in Yoder, Kansas. The boy had spent five years trying to convince himself that the Amish life was for him/ Four of those years had been spent teaching school. The boy had weathered a heartbreaking love-gone-wrong and he had become baptized into the Amish faith. But beneath the determined resolve, the world called.
On the last day of school, the boy closed and locked the schoolhouse door. He would spend the summer doing construction, but in the fall he would be back to teach again. True, he had moved from one community to another, trying in vain to find a community and a set of rules that fit his inquisitive personality. Yoder, Kansas was about the most lenient of all the communities he had found. Here, he would finally settle down for good.
Yoder, Kansas 2001.
But first, before marriage, he would travel. He would go west—explore a nation that he had only read about in books; a nation consisting of great, wide open plains and towering mountains. He had to see the beauty of all that before he completely settled down.
This time things were much different. The same world that had felt so threatening and intimidating at sixteen, now seemed like a much better fit. But it didn’t much matter. He had made his choice. He would explore it, and when he returned, he would impress the other lads with the tales of his travels. The boy boarded the train for the west coast, barely bothering to look back. The tracks stretched endlessly before him. First stop. Las Vegas, Nevada.
The five weeks that followed bore tales too many even to write a novel about. Miles and miles of vast wilderness with not a building in sight. Mountains covered with snow, even in the heat of spring and early summer. Concerts in Vegas. Rafting in the mountains of Idaho. Biking to the ocean in Anaheim, California. A harrowing adventure, on foot, into the mountains of California—a distance that looked a mere five miles from the hotel room but turned out to be more like thirty.
The journey, as planned, took him back through Wisconsin, where he visited family he hadn't seen in three years. He was shocked to see that the boys he had grown up with—boys he had corrupted with his radio songs, had all married and were now having babies. The elders of the community, the same elders who had once held such a grip on him, now looked sadly at the young man who had chosen to live in a community so liberal that they could not possibly touch him. Although they had lost their grip on him, they hardly disapproved of the boy’s choices. A liberal community was, after all, a much better choice than living in the outside world.
On the last morning before boarding the train back to Kansas, the boy stood in his old bedroom on the second floor of the farmhouse. Here he had been born. Here he had spent countless hours of misery, despair, and a few rare moments of joy. And that morning, the answer finally came to him. And with it came a peace unlike anything he had ever known. Suddenly, clear as someone standing right before him in the flesh, a voice spoke. The voice said:
It is time. You are ready. You have outgrown the Amish life. Go live the life of freedom you have longed for since you were a child. There, you can serve better.
This time there would be no deceit. There would be no sneaking out while backs were turned. The boy had the conversation over breakfast with his family. Perhaps they had seen it coming all along. Either way, there were tears and prayers. But even the toughest of them knew that it was over. The ties that had been formed at birth were forever severed. He had chosen his lot in life. He had chosen the world. But he had chosen freedom.
This blog was written in recognition of my time spent among the Amish and the impact they had on my life. While most of America is celebrating the independence of being a free country, I can expand upon that by celebrating fifteen years of my own independence. While I hurt many people when I made the decision to leave, I can honestly say that it was the best, albeit the most difficult decision that I have ever made. In closing, I will say with all sincerity that I have never, not even for one day, regretted pursuing my freedom—my worst day of freedom is better than my best day was in chains.