We hit Shoals
[Indiana] Sunday afternoon, ready for company. After pitching camp in the
riverside park, we headed for the Methodist church to take in the evening
services. With less than a dozen people there, our presence attracted quick
attention. The minister, a stocky man gracefully entering middle age, detached
himself from a consersation and headed our way. "Hi, I'm Howard Bell. Are
you new in town?"
He chatted for a moment, then parted to start the
service. "I'd like to thank everyone for coming tonight," he said, stepping
to the lectern. "Unfortunately, our organist is on vacation tonight." Turning
to us, he asked, "Do either of you play?"
We shook our heads. "I guess, then, we'll do without
accompaniment." He asked for requests, then led the congregation in a
capella song. After a half-dozen songs, he closed his hymnal.
"I have a sermon I'd planned on giving, if you want
to hear it. However, we have guests tonight, and if you'd prefer, maybe
one of them would speak about their novel journey." A show of hands nixed
the sermon, so Howard beckoned me to the podium.
For twenty minutes I talked about our trek, focusing
on the spirit we'd seen in the people across the land. From 'instant family'
in Maine, through schoolkids bearing gifts, to small towns which couldn't
stop giving, I wove a picture at odds with the nightly news. "I never imagined
we would find so much caring, so much heart in the land."
They received my message warmly, asking more about
the voyage. Even Sue, tired and ill at ease earlier, relaxed and took part
in the questions and answers. After the service Howard invited us to stay
at his house, but since Sue was exhausted, we declined.
Sue hit the sack early, while I stayed up to read.
At 9:30 I put down the book, turned off the flashlight, and relaxed to
the murmur of the White River. As I collected the energy to move to the
tent and my waiting sleeping bag, I realized I had company. In the half-light
of the starlit night, I could see he was well-dressed, wearing pressed
pants and a print shirt. He was near forty, and looked deep in thought,
niether smiling nor frowning. "Didn't mean to startle you," he said. "Just
out for my evening stroll."
He sat at the picnic table with me and began to
talk. I listened, too tired to contribute much, but interested in hearing
of his Amish life.
"I don't always get along with my neighbors here,"
he confided. "Sometimes they don't care for how we do things. For example,
on an Amish farm, we always leave a field wild for the birds and insects
to have a place to feed. If I tried that in town, they'd have a fit. Call
it an eyesore and probably fine me.
"Nature has a way of taking care of things, if we'd
let it. If you have an infestation of insects one year, you'll probably
get more birds to balance them out. Used to be, when you had too much tall
grass, you'd have extra bison to eat it."
He rambled on, his voice sometimes flowing softly
like the river just out of sight, other times his voice turning strident.
"People shouldn't have more kids than they can support. The Amish, we take
care of our own. We run benefits for widows and orphans, because they're
part of our lives. Me, I had a son at age fourteen, and I had to take care
of him and his mother. I did, too, for eighteen years."
He paused, and I turned to see him with his eyes
closed, his face lined with sadness. "When my son left to go among the
English -- that's what we call anyone not an Amish, Mennonite, or Quaker,
the 'English' -- I warned him he'd lose his way, he wouldn't make it. After
four years out there, he took poison and killed himself." His voice grew
softer. "He kept saying, 'I can't find the answers.' I tried to tell him,
'There aren't any answers to find because there are no questions.' By twenty-one
or twenty-two, you should know the path you are on in life. If you stray
from that path, you're going to get confused, and look for ever more answers
to which there are no questions."
He lapsed into silence, the white noise of flowing
water surrounding us. When he spoke again, his voice had regained its strength.
"The trouble is, people always need a thrill, they always need to feel
good. The don't realize life isn't all 'feel good', there's pain involved,
and 'feel good' is relative. If I have a bad toothache, I feel good when
the ache is cured."
After nearly an hour he left, vanishing into the
night much as he had appeared, leaving behind not even a name. Subdued
but fascinated, I joined Sue in our nylon castle, drifting off with his
words replaying in my head.