Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

When a plane flew overhead, it marked our day. My brothers and I lived, after all, in the mountains, a hundred miles from the nearest airport, and in a time when many still traveled by rail. So when we spotted a plane, we’d stop naming the clouds, no longer caring one was a ship sailing across the sky and another a face staring down at us—three kids in our yard. We’d watch the plane’s tracks fade into blue and wonder how someone could get lucky enough to fly.

Until I was forty-years old I didn’t. My first flight at the roundtrip cost of $38, was one hour long—from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago, Illinois. But in that hour, I knew I had been right as a kid. To fly is to be fortunate.

And I haven’t lost the marvel. In the many times I’ve flown since, I want to elbow the people around me—the ones who close their eyes and plug their ears and pull down the shades.

“Look down,” I want to say. “And you’ll see how the world fits together—the checkerboard fields and rivers running down mountains and across the land and into the ocean. From up here, you can look down on clouds.”

I sometimes wonder if there are still wide-eyed kids down there staring up from their yards, hoping a plane will streak across the sky.

In a few minutes, I’ll board a plane. We’re meeting our son and his family in Rome and traveling with them through Switzerland and Germany and the Netherlands. We’re going to see the sights—ride the Glacier Express through the alps, boat through canals, visit art museums, and hike in the Black Forest. We’re also going to trace church history—explore how the reformers broke from the Catholics and how the Anabaptists (including our forebears) broke from the reformers.

We’ll walk through the villages and farms where our long-ago family lived and visit places they hid before they fled from persecution, first in Switzerland and then in Germany. Finally, we’ll tour Rotterdam, the port city in the Netherlands, where they boarded ships to journey to America.

For months we’ve been planning this Rome to Rotterdam trip.

But right now, I’m going to board a plane and be amazed. A 400-hundred-ton metal cylinder, carrying a cabin-load of passengers and all their stuff, will lift off from the ground and soar across the sky.

My Last Lecture; My Last Call To Do Good in the World

After teaching thousands of classes, today I taught my last. At least in a formal sort of way.

Seven years ago, I retired from full-time teaching, but since then I’ve been teaching education classes as an adjunct. Today, I gave my last lecture, led my last student exercise, and issued my last call to do good in the world.

And I received my last teacher gift. Apples, fragrance, candles, pens, paintings, clocks, pads of paper, and packs of pencils—all these gifts and more have filled my desk for decades on the last days of school. Some of these gifts are still scattered around my house.

Today’s gift symbolizes for me what I hope I’ve done at least a few times in my thirty-seven years of teaching. It’s a book, handmade by a student.

And on its cover, my student painted her interpretation of a poem. In “Root Cellar” by Roethke, feisty plants refuse to give up life in a damp, dark cellar filled with mold and manure. In this cellar, Roethke says, even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.

But my student didn’t stop with Roethke’s imagery. In her dark and gloomy painting, she hung lightbulbs.

“Thanks for giving me hope,” she said when she handed me the book she created.

What she can’t realize is how much hope she and her classmates have given me.

Today I spent a moment of class, just looking at faces.

My grandchildren, I thought, would be in good hands with them.

Something Old for My Birthday

For my birthday this year, my parents gave me something old. And something I’ve long hoped to own. Not because it has monetary value, but because of a magical moment I spent in front of it some sixty-four years ago. Three years old, I had been sitting on a bench in front of it—a small children’s bookcase in our living room in Grantsville, Maryland. My parents had read the books on its shelves so often to me that I had memorized parts of them.

That morning for some reason, a few of those words popped out to me. Unexpectedly, I knew them. And they were on other pages. I tugged on my mom’s skirt as she changed my brother’s diaper.

“Look!” I said. “I know this word. It says ‘jump.’ I’m reading.”

I wanted to know every word in the world. All that day, I followed my mom from the kitchen sink to the ironing board to the rocking chair, always tugging on her skirt.

“What’s this word?” I’d ask her. “Is this word ‘laughed’?”

I can read, I told myself that night in bed.

The next morning before I opened my eyes. I thought something good had happened. And then I remembered—I could read.

I’m not sure where to put this little old bookshelf. In our living room? In my writing room? In a bedroom? And will I fill it again with children’s books? Or poetry? Or my Pearl S. Buck collection? Whichever room and whatever it holds, I’m glad to have it where I can see it often and remember the day when words began popping from pages to widen my world.

Circle of Life

They call him Dr. Miller, so he’s got to be smart. But my nephew Jonathan doesn’t know the history that’s practically under his feet. And I didn’t know either. Not until a recent road trip my dad and I made back to western Maryland so he could pay respects at a funeral.

“Want to see Jonathan’s office?” my dad asked, and he directed me to drive to the last street at the very edge of the town.

We sat in the car, my dad and I, in the parking lot of the medical center where my nephew hangs his shingle.

Inside that office, Jonathan takes medical histories and orders diagnostic tests. He reviews labs and x-rays and writes treatment plans. And he teaches patients about healthy lifestyle choices and disease prevention and helps people take control of their health.

My dad sat silent. He watched the people coming and going from his grandson’s office. Then he turned his head to look over the fields that had come out to meet the town. Finally, he stirred.

“Know what I remember about these fields?” he asked.

And he told me how he’d driven sows across those fields from his father’s farm to the Hershberger farm to get them bred or slaughtered, according to the need.

“Look up through those trees,” he said. “See that barn up the slope? That’s where I took them.”

I tried to picture my dad, a barefoot farm boy in coveralls, who had never dreamed he’d move from the mountains of Maryland. And who decades later never dared to hope that one of his grandchildren might find a partner in back in those mountains and settle there.

This was a circle-of-life moment for my dad, sitting there with the fields of his childhood on one side and the medical office of his grandson on the other.

At the next family reunion, I hope my dad gathers Jonathan’s five children, who now run barefoot in the mountains. I hope he tells them about how he once drove sows to slaughter just outside their father’s office. And I hope that after Jonathan hears this story, he occasionally looks toward the fields as he leaves work at the end of a long day and thinks of the people who toiled there before he was born.

My Cousin Beat Me To It

She got what I had wanted—my younger cousin—a little house on a patch of ground at the curve of the creek near the edge of the lawn of my childhood home.

“When we move in, come visit,” she said. “We’re as close as anyone can get to that bit of land you tried to buy when you were a kid.”

My cousin was referring to a story I tell in my memoir Yoder School. Eight years old and about to move from the mountains of Western Maryland to live in Flint, Michigan, I cast about for a way to find some comfort. And walking up the lane one day after school, I found it. The lane, the creek, and a row of trees formed a triangle around a parcel of land maybe twice as big as my bedroom.

I’ll buy this land, I thought. The land would wait for me while I was gone. And later, after I became a teacher, I’d come back and build a small house on this land and teach at Yoder School.

I sat under the maple tree and looked around. Along the creek, shepherd’s purse plants waved in the breeze. Bees flitted in the daisies.

The land belonged to Luella and Meely, two ancient sisters with silver hair who wore ruffled aprons over their plain dresses and bustled around every Wednesday baking cinnamon rolls. They sold these cinnamon rolls for spending money.

If I bought this plot of land, I thought, they’d have even more spending money.

In my bedroom I climbed on my desk to get my piggy bank from the high shelf. The pink pig with a big belly, a red hat, and blue coveralls sat on its hind legs staring out of big black eyes. I’d be willing to give up my entire savings for the land, I decided. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for over a hundred years, and I belonged here, too.

I held the pig in one hand and knocked on Luella’s and Meely’s door with the other. This was Wednesday, and I could smell the cinnamon.

“Come in!” Meely said.

And then I didn’t know how to start. So I stammered around explaining that I needed to own some land and I wanted it to be near my house and the triangle between the creek and the lane and the trees would work fine and I was prepared to give them all the money in my bank for the land.

Meely looked at Luella. Luella set the spatula beside the cinnamon rolls she had been frosting. She squatted down beside me and explained that, no, they didn’t want to sell their land, not even this little part of it, not even for all the money in my piggy bank—not even if I saved for another year.

I swallowed and blinked so I wouldn’t cry and said that, no, I didn’t want a cinnamon roll. And I fled.

This last week, sixty years later, I drove along the curving creek and saw the land I tried to buy. And sure enough, there was my cousin’s small house nestled into the rise of the earth at the outer edge of a retirement village.

I’m looking forward to drinking tea in that little house. And I hope she doesn’t forget to invite me.

Don’t Look Like You’re Lost

My uncle had one piece of advice for his country relatives when we visited New York City—When you go somewhere and you’re lost, don’t look like you’re lost.

As he stood on the city street in pointing us toward the subway, doubt would flicker across his face. And he’d wonder aloud if he should have taken a day off work to show us around.

But he hadn’t. So while he supervised students in an electronic microscope lab at New York University, we’d bumbled our way through a few of the 80 some museums in the city and explore Central Park, our walk never quite brisk enough and our colorful t-shirts too tawdry in the sea of cosmopolitan black.

But we kept going. And when we missed a subway stop and couldn’t find 5th Avenue and couldn’t remember which way was north, we tried to act confident when we weren’t.

A couple years later, I used my uncle’s advice again. Just before walking into class on my first-ever day of teaching, it hit me—I don’t know how to teach. What if no one listened to me? What if a fight broke out? What if my course requirements were too hard? Too easy? What if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I wanted to walk out the school door and go home and wrap up in a quilt. But I had to go in there. Students were waiting.

“Don’t look like you’re lost,” my uncle had said.

So I breathed in deeply. And out. I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders. I picked up my books and cleared my throat. I made my steps brisk and walked through the door.

And I taught my first of thousands of classes.

I’m glad we ventured into New York City, even though we bumbled our way through. And even though I bungled lots of classes, I’m glad I walked into that first class on the first day of my first year of teaching.

Funerals are for Finding Old Friends

“I saw you during the funeral, and I’ve been looking for you,” a long-ago school chum from Yoder School said this week. And he dropped into the empty seat beside me at the after-funeral meal.

It was Wayne Beitzel, the funniest guy in my second-grade class, the guy who always had a story.

“You won’t believe what happened,” he said.

With Wayne, something always happened. He made sure.

Take, for example, the time surveyors came to mark the route of the new Interstate 68, which would bisect his family farm. Early one morning he and his kid brothers set up a lemonade stand right in the surveyors’ path.

The surveyors took this in good humor, buying all the lemonade before asking the boys to move their stand. Eminent domain, after all, includes compensation when property is seized. The Beitzel boys didn’t let such opportunity pass them by. The next day, surveyors came back to the Beitzel farm to find the lemonade stand back up, just further down the path. And the day after that.

These daily lemonade sales were making the Beitzel boys a fortune. But the path of poles and flags were reaching the edge of the farm. So one evening, the boys found a way to prolong sales. They complicated the next day’s work by moving poles and flags.

“That’s why there’s still a curve in Route 68,” they like to tell people.

This was a story from long ago, but Wayne had a new story.

“The other day,” he said. “I was browsing for books on Amazon, and I saw Yoder School.”

Was this his Yoder School, he wondered, and clicked on the link.

“When the book came,” Wayne said, “I opened it to a random page. And the first words I saw were Wayne Beitzel was a Mennonite, and his dad owned the Springs Store.

Wayne and I chuckled over this 58-year-old memory—how Amish Lizzie thought Wayne was lucky because in his packed lunch were fancy cookies from his dad’s store but how Wayne thought Lizzie was lucky with her wonderful homemade cookies. But they found a way to both feel lucky, trading cookies each day at lunch.

It was fun, sitting there over funeral food with Wayne Beitzel. Funerals, I’ve found as I’m getting older, are for mourning. But funeral feasts are for finding old friends.

My 89-Year-Old Father Gets Himself a Bedside Manner

I’ve got something to say about my 89-year-old father.

This is the father who spent decades writing organizational policy and writing sermons, who reads and writes history for pleasure and because history matters, who would rather sit in a committee meeting with goals to reach than go to a party, where it’s hard to know what to say.

This is the father who brought me up to do deskwork—to balance household ledgers and pay bills and type letters from his dictation. He oriented me to his elaborately subdivided four-drawer subject file. He taught me to scan articles in periodicals to determine their foci. And if it was an article, for example, about what amillennialists believed about the Great Tribulation, to file it under ES-AM-GT. This is the father whose idea of having fun with me was to help me trace my ancestry to the other side of the ocean.

This is also the father who has been known to faint at the sights of needles and blood and who avoided diaper changes when he could and gagged through them when he couldn’t. Although I’ve heard lots of people say nice things about my dad, I’ve never once heard anyone rave about his bedside manner or say he is a natural caregiver.

But these people haven’t seen my dad lately.

My mom’s been through some tough times—a series of falls and fevers and digestive disturbances.

When I checked in by phone this morning, her voice broke.

“Your dad has been so good to me,” she said. “I feel sorry for what he’s had to clean up after me.”

“You should have called me,” I told my dad.

But he had another view.

“Sixty-eight years ago,” he said, “I made a promise that I intend to keep.”

I’ve long admired my policy-writing dad. But never as much as I do now when I watch him count pills and fix sitz baths and tuck my mom safely into bed.

It’s only then that he goes back to his study to write some more history.

Someone Else’s Grandkids

We took our grandkids to prison today. And this right after they visited their saintly 98-year-old great-grandma. We thought the contrast would provide an interesting day. And besides, the old Ohio State Reformatory was on our way home.

The kids were incredulous when we drove up to the reformatory.

“This looks like a castle,” one of them said.

And from the outside, it did. The architect used three styles—Victorian Gothic, Romanesque and Queen Anne—to inspire inmates, to help them become ready to re-enter society. But once inside, life was anything but uplifting.

The prison, built to hold 1,500 people became quickly overcrowded and notorious for poor conditions. Kitchens were overrun with rats and their droppings visible in food. Punishment involved water hoses, sweatboxes (for non-white inmates), electroshock, and confinement in a hole in the ground.

A federal court finally closed the prison because of inhumane conditions, but not before the deadliest prison fire in United States history broke out. As smoke filled a block of 600 cells stacked six tiers high, inmates begged to be let out. But most guards refused to unlock doors. When the roof collapsed on the upper level of cells, 160 inmates burned to death. And by the time the fire was under control, 320 people had died and another 130 were seriously injured.

I had learned these stories while teaching at a state prison decades ago. But I had never seen what touched me most on this tour—the writing on basement walls, where overcrowding had turned storage areas into dormitories.

“Use the flashlight on your cell phones,” our tour leader said. “And find the writing on the walls.”

Two of my grandsons, both of them towering over me, one of them the age of the youngest inmates I had taught, joined me in reading name after name. Important dates were listed under some names and inmate numbers under others. Under still others were numbers counting the years since sentencings.

“I’m here,” these markings seemed to say. “I’m a person. I matter.”

Standing In that dim dungeon of a room with my grown-tall grandsons, I caught a new sight of those young inmates I had taught so long ago. They were someone’s grandchildren, someone’s great-grandchildren. If I could teach them again, I’d try to keep this firmly in mind.