For Part I of Joseph’s story, go to Feb. 11, 2018; for Part II, go to Aug. 26, 2018
It took every bit of Joseph’s strength to pull the dead weight of his brother out of the car. Jacob’s head lolled dangerously and Joseph steadied it as he stretched the limp body on the grass. Rumspringa had hit Jacob hard. When Joseph heard the car’s engine break the nighttime hush he knew there was trouble. The car should have been left at the back of one of the fields where it couldn’t be seen by Amish neighbors. Jacob wasn’t supposed to have a car at all, and certainly wasn’t allowed to disgrace his family by parking it in their lane in plain sight. But Jacob was too drunk to know or care that he’d flouted his father’s orders. Joseph wondered how he’d ever made it home.
Now Joseph would have to wake Pop for help getting his brother into the house and up to his bed. Mom would cry and the sisters would whisper behind their hands, wide-eyed at such sin in their own home. Joseph wondered again why some Amish young people chose rumspringa, literally “running around.”
Before they were baptized and formally joined the church, youngsters in their mid-to-late teens could sow their wild oats. Some stayed close to home, content with decking out their buggies, coming home late on Saturday night and maybe having a portable radio. Others, more daring, chose the worst options their communities had to offer in the 1950s: reckless driving in unfamiliar automobiles, binge drinking, smoking tobacco and pot, and promiscuous sex.
Amish elders kept hands off, but watched and worried. The theory was that the kids would become so sickened by excess they’d want to return to their roots, to the plain, wholesome lifestyle in which they’d grown up. Usually, that’s what happened. Sometimes, though, an Amish boy or girl wouldn’t survive, dying in a car wreck or succumbing to alcohol poisoning. Joseph knew that’s what worried his folks as Jacob, their eldest son, careened out of control.
Joseph and Pop sat at the kitchen table with coffee cups in front of them. It was four in the morning, not quite time to get up but too late to go back to bed. They’d confuse the cows if they started milking too early, so they made a pot of coffee and broke out some of Mom’s homemade sweet rolls. Pop hadn’t said much as he and Joseph had half-carried Jacob into the house and dumped him in bed. Now he looked at Joseph searchingly.
“So…do you think you’ll go on rumspringa when the time comes?” he asked.
Joseph shook his head. “It doesn’t look like much fun,” he said.
“What would you do instead, if you could?” Pop asked.
Joseph looked up in surprise. Was Pop talking about choices? Were there any?
“I guess I’d stay in school,” Joseph said. “I really like learning, especially science.”
He didn’t add that he also really liked Patty Lanahan, the local doctor’s daughter. She was pretty, funny, college-bound – so far out of his league that he was astonished when she made a point of talking to him. Gradually, their conversations grew from casual discussions of class assignments and school gossip to sharing viewpoints, philosophies and feelings. Now he felt closer to her than he’d ever felt to anybody. They met in homeroom every morning, eager to resume the conversation interrupted by the last school bell. There was no question of them getting together outside of school; Amish and English kids didn’t socialize, let alone date.
“Maybe,” Pop said, peering into his coffee cup as if he was looking for answers, “we should think about letting you graduate high school. Your teacher told me you have – what was the word he used – aptitude, that was it. He said it would be a shame if you couldn’t continue your education.”
“But we don’t do that,” Joseph said, scared and filled with hope at the same time. Amish kids left school as soon as they were sixteen, and he never expected to do anything else.
“Most of us don’t,” Pop agreed. “But once in a great while…well, someone comes along who…” His voice trailed off. “I’d rather see you stay in school than go out and get drunk like your brother. At least you’d be safe.”
“What would Mom say, though?”
“We’ve talked about it. Mom is afraid you won’t stay Amish, but she wants what is best for you. We hope you’ll join the church some day. Well, we don’t have to decide anything right now. You’ll be sixteen next year. You have a year to decide.”
Joseph’s head filled with possibilities. If he could finish high school with a high grade point average, maybe he could – did he dare? – think about going to college. He’d told no one his secret dream of becoming a doctor because it was so out of the realm of reality. Now he could hardly wait to tell Patty.