Almost Amish, by Walter Schmidt
Memories of That Summer never faded, and now as an old man whose sleep comes in fits and starts, I am visited nightly by the same questions, the same longings, and the same images of the loveliness that briefly befell then. Although years fly by, the poignant memories taken root long ago remain fresh and clear. Memories are the only things that can stand still. And I know it is the same with him.
The Big Flood of 1948 washed out the Fleck River Bridge, Hardyville’s only bridge. Over the winter the county passed a bond issue and by the spring of ’51 the contract was won by Phoenix Steel. We began work in early April. At seventeen, I was the youngest worker on that construction crew.
The construction of the bridge began across the river on the south bank. Travel across the river was by the company’s boats, war surplus Navy landing craft called LCVPs and by a ferry that operated intermittently during daylight. Construction headquarters were in a shack we built on the south bank. Two company trucks and a jeep were usually kept on the town side. Our crew lived that summer in two Quonset huts with two rows of bunks, lockers, with a bathroom and shower at one end, a kitchen and ping pong table and radio at the other. Half the girders had been stockpiled on each bank. My job was roustabout. For the most part I fetched and carried supplies, plans, messages, whatever, but I also shared housekeeping duties in our Quonset hut with the Negro cook Charles who was a local and lived in Hardyville’s shantytown.
Most of our crew were hard working vets, blue collars with no interest in the GI Bill, workers in steel and concrete and wood, for the most part young men who before the war had been farmers, steel workers, welders, carpenters and who by now had begun families. But it was with those single johns that I bunked and played ping pong, cards, and with whom I sometimes rode in the back of the truck on Saturday nights to the dance at the Planktown roadhouse where when a partner could be found we danced, and where with or without a partner we drank beer and laughed. It was a swell life.
Two or three times a day the boss sent me on an across to the town site to pick up mail or supplies. If the LCVP’s were busy moving beams or concrete, I took the ferry. This meant that I often had to wait on the town side for an hour or longer for the return trip. The town ferry landing was at the base of the city park, and there one Saturday while waiting for the ferry I first saw my Amish boy. Hardyville’s city park, built by the CCC in ’36 had been a beautiful strip of lawn alongside the river. The gazebo, a large playground with swings, slides, and a jungle gym, as well as a dozen sheltered picnic sites had been swept away by the flood. Emile Hartz was the youngest among the volunteer team of Amish from nearby farms rebuilding the park in the spirit of community. Skilled carpenters with hand tools: draw knives, hand saws, rasps, braces, bits, and hammers were on site constructing benches, a new gazebo, and playground structures from rough hardwood lumber their horses and wagons had hauled from the sawmill near Berlinville. Near the landing where I waited for the ferry the Amish boy worked alone unloading two wagons of heavy rough cut oak timbers. I walked over and offered to help with the heavy pieces. Saying nothing, he nodded and we set to. Neither of us spoke until the ferry sounded its bell.
“I’ve got to go now,” I said.
Crossing the river I looked back. Fair skinned, about my age and size, in woolen black trousers with suspenders, under the Amish straw hat his face presented a pleasant profile. He looked to be my size and age. He must have been very shy, like me, as we had exchanged the minimum of words. I caught his glance as he turned his head to look for me and we each raised our hands at the same time to wave, staring at one another for the minute or so of the ferry’s crossing.
That evening I declined the weekly trip to Planktown and stayed behind to help Charles prepare Sunday morning’s cinnamon rolls. Our cook Charles was from this part of the state and familiar with the Amish of whom I knew nothing. I asked him to tell me about them. He had a nice soft, slow way of talking that I loved, and as we rolled out the dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar he spoke.
“They’s plain folk. All wrapped up deep in that Bible, oh my yes. Don’ use no machinery. Don’ use no ‘lectricty. Won’ drive no car or truck, no, and don’ have no tractors neither. They’s plain people. Mostly farmers and ain’ they good farmers too. Won’ marry nobody outside theyselves. Keeps to theyselves, the Amish.
“What’s with the black clothes and beards?”
“Dunno, they’s jus’ particular. Onct a man he marry, he gots to grow him whiskers, but jus’ whiskers. You ain’ gwine see no moustache on no Amish man. . How come you axin ‘bout them Amish, Walt Boy?”
“I just been seein’ them over cross the river rebuilding the park.”
“Yep, they’s good about he’pin’ out. Some po’ fool’s barn burn down, here come the Amish in they wagons totin’ they tools ready to he’p out. Free labor, don’ charge a penny. But outside of he’pin’ after some ‘mergency they don’ want nothin’ much to do wif other folks. But you know somethin’, my granny used to carry hens to town of a Saturday; they was a little market in the square. Next to where she sell her birds was Amish family they sell strawberries, tomatoes, you know garden things. One day granny offer to trade a hen for some greens, they say no they got hens a plenty but they jus’ give her any greens left over come the end of the day from then on; ‘fo years they give that ole lady greens. Ever’body ax her how do she come to be friends wif them Amish peoples, on account of most peoples was maybe little bit ‘fraid to talk wif them Amish. No, Walter, they’s good folk but gen’ly they wants to be leff ‘lone wif they Bibles and they whiskers. Ha, ha, ha.”
“So are they like holy rollers? Do they hop up and down and babble and scream at church?”
“Dunno Walt Boy, dunno. I never got into all that Jesus bidness. My daddy claimed to be sanctified and mamma she was a saved woman, but me, soon as I was growed up ‘nuff, Jesus and He church seen the last of Charles. I reckon you gotta ax one of they what do they do, do you want to know the truth. But lissen, Boy, one thin,’ don’ go passen no judgment on nobody fo’ they religion. Even tho’ I ain’ of a religious mind, ever who gots religion, well, it woik fo’ they. Good fo’ ‘em. If it make they worl’ bettah, it ain’ nobody’s bidness ‘cep theys. You unnerstand what I’m sayin’?”
“Yep. I understand, Charles. I ain’t gonna ask anybody about their religion. My family, we’re like you. We’re not church-goin’ people. Somebody goes around asking church people about their beliefs then the next thing you know they’re pestiferous as all hell tryin’ to get you to come to church with ‘em. No thanks. Yeah, and you’re right about passin’ judgment on other people’s beliefs. My dad, he come over here from Germany back before the war; he says half the troubles in the world come from people sittin’ in judgment of others like if they was God, and I believe it.”
“But you right, they kin get pesky too. I knows what you mean. Jehovah’s Wetness peoples pested me fo’ three weeks at my house ‘til I tole that ole lady nex’ time they car come by I let the dog loose. But might be different with the Plain Folk on accounta they don’ allow no outsiders in. Don’ want ‘em.. Nah, they ain’ like yo’ Baptists and yo’ Jehovah’s Wetness peoples, no they ain’ never gonna ax nobody that ain’ Amish to come ‘roun to they church.”
“So they don’t make friends with people who ain’t Amish.”
“My ole granny’s the onliest one I ever hear tell of.”
Again I was waiting for the ferry the next time I saw my Amish boy. He sat at a picnic table where he and four bearded men sat eating from dinner pails. He tilted his head every so slightly in acknowledgment. I returned the gesture with a smile, and headed to the landing. A few minutes later he came to the bench where I sat with a thick slice of bread loaded with jam.
“Thank you for helping me last week. Here. For you.”
“Thanks. Sit down, please?”
“I must get back to work, but we can step over there, ja?”
It was clear that he didn’t want his people to see him talking with me. We stepped behind the boat house. Immediately I was thankful for the schooling Charles had given me.
“I’m Walter,” I said extending my hand.
“Walter, Emile Hartz,” he said smiling and taking my hand. Rather than the firm handshake boys are taught, his was easy; not soft, not firm. My natural urge to squeeze I countered, and matched his easy touch. Too, I noted the slightest German accent.
“Walter Schmidt. Nice to meet you, Emile Hartz. That your dad you were eating with?”
“Ja, my father and two uncles. How old are you, Walter?”
“I’m seventeen. You?”
“The same. I think you and me, we look alike but for your hair.”
“I’ve been thinking the same. Look here Emile, we don’t work on Sundays and sometimes I go fishing up the river. Let’s go fishing Sunday, you and me. It’d be fun.”
“I would like to, yes. Sunday is, of course, our religious services day. If I can think of some excuse . . . .”
“Do it. I can get one of the company’s boats and wait here at the landing, say from nine in the morning?”
“Good. That’s good Walter. But if I ain’t here by ten you go on by yourself, ja?”
“You be there Walt. Use your head. You don’t have to bring nothin’ – we got all kinds of poles and stuff.” We heard someone in the park whistle and Walt had to return to work, but just before turning he patted my shoulder and said, “See you, soon then.”
Anticipation set in immediately. It was the same feeling I’d had as a little boy just days before a birthday or Christmas and I wondered if Emile’s head was already full of fishing together come Sunday. Saturday evening I once again declined the Planktown trip.
Of all the crew, I liked Charles best and I believe he genuinely liked me. Back then there was still the big divide between blacks and whites. Out on the bridge works there were nigger jokes but fortunately not in the Quonset hut where Charles always deferred to everyone, smiling, and nodding always with a grin or chuckle. One of the LCVP drivers, a coarse red neck asked me if I was a nigger lover because I played chess with Charles some evenings. Charles was older and although he’d only gone to six years of school, I believe much wiser than any of us whites. I was probably the only person who knew that he had a paraplegic wife at home in a wheelchair and a grown son in prison. Sipping coffee waiting for some dough to rise, I told him about the fishing trip with Emile in the morning.
“Ain’ that sweet, Walt Boy. Ain’ that sweet. You done made you a fren’ wif a Amish boy. Now ain’ you special, ha, ha. I’s proud of you, young Walt Boy. He ain’ gwine to church, that boy?”
“He’s gonna skip, if he can. We’re gonna take the little blue boat up to that bend where that big tree fell in the water. Hey, maybe you can come, Walter. That’d be swell. Breakfast will be all done with by the time we’re ready to go, c’mon, say yes.” Breakfast was the only meal served on Sunday so I knew Charles would be off.
“Nah. It ain’ I don’ wanna go wif you boys. I gots to carry my wife over to her mamma’s on Sunday afternoon. But y’all sure to have you a time. You catch them fishes and clean ‘em, put ‘em in that blue enamel pan in the ice box. We fry ‘em up come Monday. Ummm ummm, I kin tase’ ole catfish now, hee, hee.”
The next morning after breakfast with the crew as I was getting ready to leave, Charles whistled for me. He’d packed lunches with a jug of cider in an empty lard pail. He handed me a little one pound coffee can stinking like a bucket of shit.
“Here’s you some chicken-blood ‘n cheese catfish bait. Now you boys catch you a mess o’ fish, you hear.”
I started up the little five-horse Johnson on the boat and putted across to the landing where I was most happy to see Emile waiting with a grin.
“My sisters are covering for me. They’ll tell father I’m at another service because there’s some girl there. My father and mother will like that.”
Half an hour later we dropped the anchor in a bend in the river where I’d caught plenty of catfish. Fishing on the bottom was busy with Charles’ nasty bait and we spoke little and brought in four or five nice fish then decided to put ashore to stretch our legs and eat lunch.
“I gotta piss like a race horse.”
“Me too.” Stepping under a huge sycamore tree, I unzipped my pants and taking out my dick glanced over at Emile close by. His black woolen Amish pants had no zipper or even buttons, so to piss he slipped his suspenders and let his pants drop. Completely exposed as he was it was impossible not to check him out, as boys will do, and noticed he was doing the same. When our eyes met we each looked away a little embarrassed.
The sun had just passed its zenith and the water shimmered so bright it hurt the eyes. We stretched out on a cool sandy spit shaded by an oak tree and dug into the sandwiches and pie Charles had packed. Then for the next two hours, on our backs gazing into the sky, sometimes laying on our sides face to face, there in the shade we talked and talked. Emile was full of questions about my school, which he called “English” school, about my family, my work and eventually about me, what things I liked and what things I disliked. And I picked his brain for the very same things. He was surprised that I spoke German which my family spoke at home as my father was German. Back and forth the information flowed – sometimes in German but mostly in English. His German was quaint and while I understood most, it seemed awkward and clunky. He said my German was “not so clear,” he called it “English” German. His schooling was so much different, only eight years, with lots of Bible study, reading, math, German but not so much English language study. All his teachers had been women, his sisters, aunts, and cousins, all of them.
“I love very much reading, but father and mother is so old fashioned and don’t allow much books to come into the house, mostly just Bible stuff and agriculture books. I have two books The Charles Dickens Reader and Robinson Crusoe. I love them books, Walter, I have read them many, many times.”
“Aw shit, Emile. If you would come to my house, you’d be amazed. We have maybe a hundred books. Some German books too. I love Robinson Crusoe and especially David Copperfield and Great Expectations. You’ve never read Goethe or Schiller or Shakespeare?”
“No Shakespeare. Too English, too dirty for father and mother. The same for that Goethe, too wicked. Maybe someday. I hope. Who is this other one, Schiller?”
“He’s a poet, a German poet.”
“No, not him neither then. Father says that poems is the language from the devil.”
Our conversation on books and stories continued for a long time eventually leading to personal likes other than books. His people believed we “English” were too worldly and contaminated by things and the devil. Association with us was discouraged at all levels, especially children. Without outside contact, without radio, without television Emile believed his people’s days were numbered. While he longed for the freedom his culture deprived him, his loyalty was set firmly and he knew no other path for his future.
“Hells bells Emile, can’t you just leave, go off on your own? It’s a big, wide, wonderful world, full of books and movies, and even naked girls.”
“You are the only English I know, or who I have just begun to know and I like you so much, Walter. But no I cannot, there ain’t no way to go away. Even when I don’t like it, I am belonging like if I was a piece of yarn wove into that black cloth. Aren’t we all prisoners of our society? Think about it Walter, you could not walk out of your society into mine. It would make you crazy, ja? I can’t even talk to others what things I feel inside of me like I can talk with you and I don’t even know you since three weeks. In two or three or four years I will marry, grow some ugly whiskers, and begin to make babies while I work the farm like always. And Walter, you know what, I ain’t never seen a naked girl. Have you? I ain’t never even seen nobody naked except for babies. I don’t know how to fuck or what’s right or what’s wrong. Sure I got feelings but, you know, they pile up like logs in the river sometimes, and…”
I started to tell him that my father had walked out of his German society, but I could see tears welling in his eyes. I reached across and squeezed his arm gently. He scooted closer and took my hand in his and soon we were in an awkward embrace. I eased away gently sitting up slowly. I could tell he felt ashamed.
“You think I don’t feel those same things, Emile? God, how good it is to know you. In a month the bridge will be finished. The company has a bid in on a bridge someplace down in Kentucky, more than anything I wish you would go with us. I can talk to our boss.”
“I can’t, Walter, such a thing just cannot be…”
“I know that. It’s just that, just that . . . you see . . . I reckon I want to preserve the specialness of this moment. It feels like, like some kind of bond, maybe what I imagine love is like.”
“Exactly, such is my feeling Walter; it is inside me the same. Like some strange love thing. But sad too like someone is just about to die.”
At that moment a boat rowed by two men came into view.
“Catch any?” they hailed.
“Naw. They ain’t bitin’. Too hot.”
The spell of the magic moment broken and the sun going down, we collected our gear and returned to the boat. That morning coming out Emile in the prow had faced forward, looking ahead up river. As we headed back to the landing, seated on the same thwart he faced me, our eyes conducting a kind of passionate concert.
The next day the Amish work on the restoration of the park was finished. All morning I had pinged on the boss but there was nothing to be picked up across the river. No matter. I later discovered that Emile had not been there. I hoped that his ruse for the fishing trip had not been discovered. I despaired that I might never again see Emile and remained miserable for the longest time. Charles sensed my distress, and I think he divined its cause.
“Walt Boy, don’ be worryin’ so. This is gwine to come along fine. Charles know, thangs gwine to come along jis fine, Boy.”
The month ended, the bridge was finished and we were two days away from packing out when a little girl from Hardyville went missing. The boss committed the crew to the large search party being organized. I stood among the dozens of men assembled in the park above the landing as the sheriff gave instructions through a bullhorn. The park smelled of the fresh cut oak the Amish had used to rebuild the structures. I felt a hand on my shoulder, turned and there was Emile. I believe some things are providential. My heart leaped into my throat. We were to leave in pairs, receive an assigned sector from the deputies who had grid maps laid out on the hood of a patrol car. Emile and I drew our sector, were issued whistles and flashlights and sent out to a thick section of woods to search. For half an hour we searched diligently then paused to listen and to rest.
“Walter, father found out I was out fishing with an English and he got so damn mad he strapped me.” He dropped his suspenders and lifted his shirt to show me the welts. I wanted to see you Monday but all that park work, it’s done. Ja?” I miss you so much.”
“I missed you Emile. I didn’t have any way to contact you and I don’t want to get you in trouble. You know we’re leaving tomorrow or the next day?”
“Aw shit, Walter. Aw shit. We ain’t never going to see each other no more?”
“I dunno, I dunno. Don’t say that. Don’t say never. Please don’t say that. Listen, we can write letters. Gimme your address.”
“I don’t write English so good. And then we got them damned Elders’ wives they’re the ones handle the mail and they don’t like no personal mail with the English. Old women, widows they fetch all of our mails. They open up the envelope, read the letter then gossip, gossip, gossip.”
“Emile tell me your address. I can remember it. Lemme try to send you some Shakespeare or this guy Hemmingway I told you about. I’ll put a Bible cover on the books.”
Then we heard whistles approaching, signaling that the little girl had been found. Walt came to me, we embraced and he kissed my cheek, and then I moved to his lips and for just a moment we kissed each other passionately. Seconds later we broke apart as we could hear and see the flashlights of another pair of searchers approaching.
“Hey c’mon guys, they found the little girl asleep in a hen house. They got hot cocoa back at the trucks.”
The next year I was drafted into the Army. After infantry training a troop ship carried me to Japan. There I had sex for the first time with a tiny prostitute who chewed gum and read a comic book. After two weeks in Japan my unit was sent to Korea where I left four frost bitten toes somewhere near the Yang Do Pong River. From the hospital in Japan where I was recovering I wrote Charles and sent to Emile a Penguin Complete Portable Shakespeare disguised as an agricultural text. I wrote a letter to Emile to reiterate my feelings but did not include it for fear of its discovery by Emile’s black-clad mail censors whom I pictured like Macbeth’s witches.
Back home I completed a civil engineering degree and went to work once again for the Phoenix Steel company. Probably because I spoke German, I was for fourteen years the company representative in Germany, Austria and Belgium. In 1982 on my way back from an engineering conference I drove to Hardysville. I missed Charles who had passed away the year before. I spent an evening telling stories with his widow and his son who had been released from prison. In the morning at the post office I got directions to Emile’s farm. I parked on the dirt road and got out of the car by a lush pasture with two frisky colts enclosed by horse fencing. Across the road a field of tobacco stood knee high. I walked to a tall fence post and stood surveying the farm. Soon the figure of a man emerged from the barn. He was about my size, a fair skinned bearded face under a broad brimmed straw hat and wearing a leather apron and holding a pair of tongs. He lay the tongs on a stump and approached slowly in wide strides, squinting and then smiling.
“Ach! Scheiße, Scheiße, Scheiße! It’s you! Mien Got in Himmel. My Walter! Walter Schmidt! So this shit of a fence stands between us, ja?” and clutching hands we both laughed. The afternoon passed with a giant lunch at a table with his jolly fat wife and five pink and blond children, all pretty girls, stair-stepped in ages from seven to twenty. He showed book shelves lined with classics, including the Complete Works of Shakespeare I had sent disguised as Organic Grange Management Techniques. After lunch we sat on a bench near his forge with glasses of schnapps recounting the years. Just before leaving he squeezed my shoulders.
“Walter, never did I forget you. So many times I think there was just them three times we was together. You know what I remember most? That we could be so free in speaking yes, but also that time we pissed together. I remember looking at your prick. Most of all though I remember the kiss, Walter. I think and I make pictures in my head what if we had had just one more hour together after That Kiss, what would happen then? We came so close, ja? Oh That Kiss. There wasn’t nothin’ wrong with That Kiss. When feelings is so strong there is a purity in them. Ain’t that what your man Schiller says? Maybe the rest of the world don’t understand such things, but you and me know the rest of the world is shit, ain’t it. I remember you. Late at night I remember that kiss and I remember you. Thank you, my dear Walter. God bless you.”
“Emile, It’s the same with me my dear, dear friend. Forever.”
Walter Schmidt lives far, far away with his wives and two big dogs where he grows apples and writes.
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