March 14, 1994
The boy adjusted his gallouses and tried not to look over his shoulder as the family farm disappeared slowly behind him. The red barn was the last to fade, reminding him of the life he was leaving behind. It was early afternoon, and the snow he trudged through was only about sixteen inches deep. He 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 for the rest of his life. The men in the community who had become his father since his own father had passed two years earlier, were not going to rule him and his life ever again. He was an adult now. He would make his way and live the sinner’s life that he had been warned about since he was a child sitting between his little brothers on the hard church pews listening to the bishop preach against the evils of the world. Now he would live the life that he wanted to live during this short time on earth, and then he would die, go to hell and face the consequences of his actions there. It was a decision he had wrestled with for years, but now at fourteen, he was finally ready.
Garth Brooks came through the earplugs 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.
Two hours later he walked down the snow-packed driveway of the milkman who picked up the milk every morning. They had become friends, and although he had never dared to voice his desires, he was sure the milkman would allow him to live at his place. Maybe the milkman would even keep his whereabouts a secret.
Martin Hartz did not answer the door when he knocked. This was not a surprise as he was probably out ice fishing again. People of the world never had to work. They lived the life of ease and money flowed to them in gentle green rivers of fives and tens. He would wait for Martin to come home.
The unlocked doorknob turned, and he passed into a world unknown to him. The television was on in the living room. As the World Turns was playing a scene of betrayal. By and by he lost interest and began exploring 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 one would grow plants with no produce either underground or above. What could be the purpose of growing plants that produced nothing?
Back upstairs he browsed through some videos under the television and marveled at the variety of pictures on the covers. Somehow, they must play through the tv, but he couldn’t seem to figure out how to get them to play.
The sound of tires on the snow outside brought him out of his trance and he went outside to meet Martin. Martin was very surprised to see him and after telling Martin his entire plan, he was surprised and confused to learn that Martin was not at all keen about giving him a home. Martin went on and on about irrelevant technicalities that related to harboring a minor; about kidnapping, and the wrath of all the Amish community coming down upon his head. As the sun slowly sank over the treetops in the western Wisconsin sky, the boy bid Martin, his only connection to the outside world, a farewell and trudged back out the driveway. He would find another place to live. A place with no connections at all to his past.
As dusk crept across the road the first few pangs of guilt and remorse crept in. For a few miles he fought a gallant battle, but inevitably his footsteps seemed to be taking him back in the same direction from which he had come earlier that day. 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, in the exact same order he had milked them that very morning, and the same way he had a thousand times before. When he had left earlier that day, he had vowed to never touch a cow again. But here he was, back at square one.
His story of spending the afternoon hunting squirrels unsuccessfully, only got his ears boxed by his older brother. Small punishment for the narrow escape he had avoided.
Martin forever kept his secret, and over the next few years they formed a relationship that would seem odd to an outsider. A lonely bachelor milkman born into the outside world, and a miserable Amish teen who managed to keep a secret. The secret of the first time he 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 men within the Amish community after they turned twenty-one. This time the boy found himself at the farmhouse of Randy Clark, an English neighbor on the other side of the community. Randy had hired the boys a few times to help with work around the farm, and he seemed sympathetic to the tough confines of the community. Randy was not surprised to see the boy at his doorstep, and immediately offered to give him a home. He could use the extra help around his dairy farm, and he knew it would come cheap. But almost immediately things took a strange turn. Randy and his wife were traveling to Florida and would be gone for two weeks. The boy was faced with the abrupt decision of traveling to an unfamiliar state that seemed worlds away, with people he barely knew. Sure, nobody would ever find him if the world swallowed him up, but was the change a little too abrupt?
Randy gave him a second option. He could stay at the farm and help the hired hand with the chores until Randy returned from vacation. The boy chose the latter.
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, turn on the TV, or even use a shower, he sat on the soft couch and the world closed in. He weighed his options carefully, and another epic battle raged within. The Amish came to this farm regularly to use the phone. He would be found, and at sixteen, would not be able to withstand the pressure brought down upon him from the entire community. On top of that, he already missed his little brothers and sisters. Was it the right time after all? Was life in the community really as suffocating and depressing as he had led himself to believe?
At 10:15 p.m. he heard the amber alert come across the waves of his battery-operated radio. Authorities were looking for the missing sixteen-year-old Amish runaway, believed to be currently fleeing to live with an uncle in Columbia, Missouri. The boy cowered on the couch.
At 1:45 a.m., after several unsuccessful attempts at sleep, walking beneath the clear moonlit skies of Wisconsin, he 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
He could hear the gut-wrenching sobbing of his little brother behind him, whipping the horses into a gallop, fleeing home to get help. The boy had lured his little brother into going with him on 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 with him. Two days earlier he had been caught with a radio. The news had broken hard and fast. He was the first in the community to have a radio, and the rebellious, fatherless teen had to be made an example of.
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, they couldn’t touch him. But he needed at least a month of complete disconnect with anyone and anything he had ever known. Only then could he resist the harsh judgments that would follow.
He trudged for fourteen miles, the snow and ice breaking up with spring that was just around the corner. The wee hours of the morning found the boy knocking on the doors of a farmer a great walking distance outside the community. They would never find him here. He was worlds away. Even the Amish reach wasn’t this far.
Simon Potts took in the kid from the community. He was a good worker and came really cheap help. Really, all the kid wanted was to eat and listen to country music.
For six months, Potts watched the kid 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 they came one at a time. 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 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 tried the world and had sown his wild oats. 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 everyone expected him to be. The world had had its chance.
July 4, 2002
It was springtime in Yoder, Kansas. He had spent five years back among the Amish, four of them teaching school. He had weathered a heartbreaking love gone wrong and had become baptized into the Amish faith.
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 the one that fit his inquisitive personality. Yoder Kansas was about the most lenient community he could find. Here he would settle down for good.
But first he would travel. He would go west; a place where he had heard tales of great open plains and towering mountains. He had to see that before he settled down entirely.
The same world that had felt threatening and intimidating at sixteen, now needed a second chance to be explored. When he came back, he would impress the other lads with the tales of his travels.
Yoder KS 2001
Boarding the train for the west coast he hardly looked 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, 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 having babies. The elders of the community; the same ones who had once had such a grip on him, now only looked sadly at the young man who had chosen his destination in a community so liberal that they could not even touch him. Although they had lost their grip, they must have marveled, the liberal community was still better than the outside world.
On the last morning before boarding the train back to Kansas, he stood in his room on the second floor of the farmhouse he grew up in. 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 came to him. And with it came a peace unlike anything he had ever known.
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.
This time there was no deceit. No sneaking out while backs were turned. He had the conversation over breakfast. Perhaps they had seen it coming. Either way, there were tears and prayers. But even the toughest of them knew it was done. 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 remembrance of my time spent within the Amish community and the impact they had in 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 independence of my own.
Happy 4th of July America!