Chapter 5: Smiling into My Future, continued
The summer after my first grade, Datt was looking for a paying job. I don’t know whether he had the motivation himself to go and look for work, or if Mem or his mother talked him into it. He had been forlorn for so long it seemed no one could have gotten him motivated to get up off the rocking chair. Nevertheless, he left home and hitchhiked to wherever he was going every day. Sometimes he walked down the back road to the railroad track and hopped on a freight train and rode it down to Middlefield. One day he came home and said with a big grin that he had accepted a ride on a motorcycle. He may have wished he hadn’t told anyone because people criticized him for it.
One Sunday afternoon, we were visiting Uncle Sam and his family. He was Datt’s youngest brother, and the son Grandmother favored most. He and his wife had a growing family, and they were making plans to move to Wisconsin to a new stricter Amish settlement.
I was in the living room with the grown-ups at Uncle Sam’s house when the topic of Datt’s motorcycle ride came up, and Uncle Sam looked at Datt and said, “I’d like to know how you think it’s all right to ride on a motorcycle?”
Datt was rocking on a bent hickory rocker. He stopped rocking and looked at Uncle Sam without saying anything for a moment. Then he said, “Well, at least I’m not moving my family out of state.” His crossed feet, pushed off in his rocking chair, and rocked back and forth as Uncle Sam listed all the reasons why he was making such a decision — concern for his children, better farmland, moving away from the bad influences among the young people in our community — and then he ended with a challenge, “And I want to know when you are going to do the same.”
Datt stopped rocking and became silent. Uncle Sam looked at his oldest brother like he knew he’d shamed Datt. I wondered why — in most families the oldest in the family reigned supreme over his or her siblings. I could feel Datt’s shame in his downturned face. It seemed like he wished he could crawl into a hole. I knew what that was like.
My cousin Sarah came and asked me to go outside to play with her. Leaving the living room was like leaving in the middle of a story that was still unfolding.
I wonder whether Datt had to make a public confession in church for his escapade on the motorcycle. As far as I know, there was no rule in the Ordnung against riding a motorcycle. But then again, it was unheard of for an Amish person to do so.
Datt looked for work for a long time. Then one afternoon when we were going about our housework, we heard him joyfully chanting at the top of his lungs, “Ich happ en cho-op! Ich happ en cho-op! — I have a jo-ob, I have a jo-ob!” We looked out, and he was hopping, skipping, jumping, and swinging his hands above his head as he chanted. It seemed like it took only ten leaps to get from the end of the lane to the front door. Mem looked out the window and said, “Well what’s gotten into him?” I knew she wasn’t really angry because I noticed she was trying to hold back her smile.
Datt had a toothless grin from ear to ear. I had never seen him so jubilant in my whole life. He told us he would be working at an orchard. In the spring he would trim trees, and in the fall he would pick fruit.
That job was literally the best thing that ever happened in Datt’s life — at least in the time I knew him. He had a way with trees that was uncanny, considering he had so many other deficits. For years he thrived there, working at the orchard through each spring and each fall. He still spent time on his rocker, sometimes with that forlorn look in his dark eyes, but snapping his eyes and whispering to someone not in the room tapered off and became a thing of the past. He was more functional most of the time.
Then Datt began having fits of rage in which he would give a sound whipping to one of us, usually Joey. Sometimes Mem asked him to punish one of us, as she did the time Joey lied about bringing water to the cow. Other times Datt gave whippings on his own, as he did one summer day after we had attended church. As we were leaving the home where the church service was held, I could tell Datt was upset in the way he said, “Giddapp!” and slapped the horse’s backside. As soon as we were out of hearing distance of others, Datt said, “Joey went swimming on a Sunday!” Mem asked Datt how he knew. Datt reached over and pulled Joey’s hat off, revealing a wet rim around the ends of his hair. Mem didn’t have much of a reaction, but she agreed that Joey deserved to be punished. And sure enough, as soon as Datt had unhitched and unharnessed the horse, he unleashed a whipping in the barn that had Joey howling in pain. From the house I could hear both the loud smacking sounds of the leather strap across Joey’s backside and his reaction to the whipping.
I could not understand why Datt was so upset about swimming on a Sunday. I knew we kept Sunday as our Sabbath, and that swimming was one of the things forbidden on our day of rest, but there was probably more to it for Datt. The boys would not have had swimming trunks with them, so they must have shed their clothes. Public nakedness was considered immoral. Whatever Datt’s “reason” for the whipping, it seemed out of proportion to the perceived wrongdoing.
I knew Datt’s moods mattered, so I watched him closely. I avoided him whenever I saw that dark look in his face because his temper could erupt with little or no warning.
Chapter 5 to be continued…