Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The English (meaning everyone who is not Amish, including Irish, French, Italians and Poles) think the cute little Amish boys in their straw hats, dark clothes and bare feet are as holy as they look.  Don't judge a boy by his cover.

My brothers and I were not particularly unusual in our juvenile hell-raising.  In fact, we were much tamer and more well behaved than the run-of-the-mill Amish boys in our community.My first and most serious crime spree was theft.  At around ages 7, 8 or 9, when we looked our cherubic best, several of my brothers and my cousins and I would steal our fathers' cigarettes and smoke them, sometimes a whole pack at a time.  Like Bill Clinton, we did not inhale; we just puffed, so we did not get sick from the nicotine.

Although smoking was technically against the rules in our Amish church district, my father and several of my uncles were on their way out the door from the Amish church and did not find the rule against smoking to be one they cared to obey.  My father was in his late twenties to early thirties at the time.  Several of his best friends were English farmers who came over on rainy days and congregated in his shop, telling stories, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.  He never smoked in the house, but he never tried to hide his addiction from my mother, or, really, anyone else who wanted to know.

I don't know how we discovered where my father kept his cigarettes.  I just kind of always knew where they were.  My cousins, Floyd and Freeman, had to do a little detective work to find their father's stash.  They noticed that he always went out to his shop  (shop in the Amish vernacular is not a place to sell things, but a place to repair and build things, like machinery and furniture) and they looked until they found his cigarettes hidden in the ceiling.

When we didn't have cigarettes to smoke, we lit up and tried to smoke almost everything else flammable.  We would wrap corn silks in paper towels and although they almost had the shape and appearance of a cigarette, you could only get one or two puffs before they went up in flames.  Most of these activities took place behind the barn.  I have no idea how we managed to avoid setting the barn on fire.

One of the most dreadful moments of my life occurred early on a cold winter day when my brother, Wilmer, and I were helping my Dad milk the cows.  We had Surge automatic milkers which hung from the cows' mid-section and had four teat-shaped cups which squeezed the milk out of the teats.  We would first wash the teats with warm water, then hang the milkers from the strap around the cow's mid-section, then plug the milker's vacuum hose into the vacuum line and attach the teat cups.  The milkers, usually two or three going at a time, made a soft ch-ch- sound as they worked.  No matter how cold outside, the dairy barn was always cozy warm from the body heat of the animals.

On this particularly winter morning, our cozy little routine was interrupted after Dad got the last milker going and then said, "Boys, I heard something today which makes me very sad."  I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized there were quite a few transgressions that he could be talking about.  I just hoped it was nothing too damning.

My father went on to say that he had heard that Wilmer and I were smoking.  He didn't say anything about the stealing.  I'm not sure if he knew about that sin or not.  We were always careful to only take a few cigarettes at a time.  If we took a whole pack, which we did at times, we took it from the back of the carton, so its absence wouldn't be so glaring.

Dad acknowledged that he smoked, but told us that smoking is not harmful for adults, but for children it was extremely harmful.  My brother and I knew that a very severe spanking was coming.  My parents believed in the axiom that "spare the rod and spoil the child," and did their best to keep us from being spoiled.  My parents, unlike some Amish parents, however, did not beat us.  Spanking by Mom usually consisted of using a small switch.  Part of the punishment from her was that we had to go out to the tree and cut our own switch.  This involved careful consideration and some intuition regarding Mom's mood.  The trick was to get the smallest switch that would serve her need to teach us a lesson without getting one so small that  she sent us out again to get a bigger one, or worse, got a bigger one herself. My father sometimes used switches, sometimes used a paddle, sometimes used his hand, but he never beat us the way we heard some fathers did.

After fully expecting that the not-sparing-the-rod exercise would start as soon as we finished milking, Wilmer and I were surprised to hear our Dad saying, "I'm not going to spank you this time, but if I ever hear of anything like this happening again, you are really going to get a beating."

His approach was excellent strategy.  I was so impressed with the lesson and the fear of what would happen if Dad found out that I had done it again, that I never smoked a cigarette after that.  I did smoke a pipe for a few years after college when I thought  a pipe would make me look more intellectual. I smoked a "victory cigar" a few times when I won a particularly satisfying court battle.  But after a few years I decided that was arrogant and stupid, and that gloating invited bad luck.  So I stopped smoking more than 25 years ago and have never been tempted since.

In comparing notes with my cousins in more recent times, I have discovered that our parents used  tried and true police interrogation tricks to try tofind out more about who was responsible for our crimes.  My cousin Milt's mom told him that my parents told her that Milt had supplied the cigarettes.  That was not true and I'm sure I never ratted Milt out.  He still looks at me suspiciously, however, when I tell him his mother lied to him.  I also just found out that my cousins, Floyd and Freeman, were told by their father that Wilmer and I were getting a beating, but that he, Uncle Henry, was going to give them a pass this time but they better never do it again. Uncle Henry made, or tried to make, Floyd and Freeman give all the cigarettes to him.  That was particularly disappointing to Floyd because he had just gotten a fresh supply from Wilmer and me.  So, he gave part of his stash to his Dad and hid the rest for later use.  All of us cousins have always wondered who turned us in.  I always thought it was our cousin Jonas, who wasn't really involved in the stealing and smoking.He was highly regarded by the adults as a fine, upstanding young man whom we younger cousins should emulate.  But yesterday I asked Jonas  if he had tattled  and he denied it. Well, sort of.  He didn't actually say, "I didn't do it."  Instead he laughed and said "How would I have known about it?"  So, he's still a suspect in my mind, but if he did do it, I'm sure he was well motivated and it was probably for my own good.


Steve Shoemaker said...

Confession, even decades later, may be good of the soul. Do you think we have souls?

Debra Hope said...

Funny story. Incredible how wise our dads were, ain't it? I came home from IMS with a "D" in Geometry and when Mom saw it, she said, "I think you need to show Dad." I dragged my feet to the barn where he was working and silently handed him my report card. He looked at it and said, "Well, if that's the best you can do, I guess that's best you can do!" I had a "B" the next marking period. Amazing what humiliation can do!