Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Distant Roads

“I am dying to know what kind of insult from a girl 20 years ago could have led to this."

So said a neighbor of Charles C. Roberts, after learning of his murderous assault on an Amish school in Pennsylvania.

I suspect that the neighbor's use of the word "dying" was unintentional. At least I hope so.

According to local police, Roberts was, in his reeling mind, avenging a slight suffered from a girl when he was 12. Why he chose to kill as many Amish girls as he could before he offed himself may never be known, unless he left some kind of written or recorded statement that has yet to be released. (AP now reports that Roberts may have molested younger relatives all those years ago, and that he feared he would do this again.) Suffice it to say that Roberts was seriously fucked in the skull. And God help the families of those murdered and wounded girls, as well as Roberts' own family. I cannot imagine the nightmare they are currently experiencing.

I normally don't dwell on domestic crimes like these, since our violent condition is ingrained and ceaseless, and extensive commentary is largely pointless. But I must confess to having a soft spot for the Amish, near whom I lived for several years in my late-teens. Remembering their quiet, peaceful demeanor makes yesterday's bloodbath even more horrific to me.

Next to Pennsylvania, northern Indiana has the largest Amish and Mennonite population in the States. You see them everywhere, primarily on rural roads, their horse-drawn buggies a daily sight. Driving through Amish areas is as close to a trip to the 19th century as you can get; and while I try not to fetishize them, I've always found their rejection of modern living fascinating. Not that I've ever been tempted to shuck my sweatshop threads and don their humble, home-stitched attire. And anyway, I'd look ridiculous in that hat.

Corrupted and spoiled though I am by advanced technology and graven images, I can still appreciate, in a weird primitive way, how the Amish keep to themselves. Of course, that kind of tribal existence doubtless contains numerous emotional and psychological pitfalls, as is usually the case in such arrangements. And it must be near-impossible to maintain the pastoral bubble in this global instant message age. The young Amish are aware of all the sparkly, glittery toys and enticements that lay just outside of their farms, and while I haven't researched this, my personal experience tells me that more than a few of these kids leave the fold just as soon as they can.

It was common knowledge, back in the day, that Amish teen girls would come into a town like Goshen, go into a gas station's bathroom, and change into t-shirts, halter tops and jeans. No surprise there. That's what cultural repression does to a growing, sexually-aware person. I come from a Catholic family, so I've witnessed my share of kick-out-the-jams apostasy. But I really got a dose of this yearning on a remote country road, on a warm Autumn afternoon.

When I worked the garbage man gig, just a few months out of high school, my favorite day was Amish day. Once a week we had a strictly Amish route, and this was the easiest labor you could ask for. The Amish didn't put their trash out in big metal cans, unlike the modern world inhabitants of trailer parks, who crammed their cans with pretty much anything they could drag or carry to the curb (smashed TV sets, shit-smeared clothes, dead cats). Amish trash was neatly wrapped in brown paper parcels, tied with twine. Either they produced almost no garbage or were among the most creative recyclers alive, but either way, their trash was light and made convenient for us. The truck kept rolling as my co-worker and I jogged down the road, grabbing the parcels and flinging them into the truck's smelly bin. By noon or 1 PM, we were done for the day, as opposed to trailer park routes (we had several), which oftentimes lasted well after dark.

On one of these early days, as we were riding back to Goshen, our driver steered the truck onto the soft shoulder of the road. Why he did this I still don't know. There was no other traffic in sight. My co-worker and I, who were mostly at odds (he'd get offended if I brought a book to read), were actually having a friendly chat while hanging off the back of the truck, enjoying the breeze and the peaceful rural setting when we felt the truck start to tip sideways. Within seconds the whole thing fell over at what must have been 35-40 mph, throwing me and him off the back and into a ditch. Save for a few minor cuts, we were unscathed. We ran to the truck's cab and began yelling for the driver. The windshield was cracked, but we could see into the side window, from which the driver pulled himself, shaken but remarkably unharmed. Once out, he circled the fallen truck, then began kicking it and cursing up a storm. I asked what we were going to do. We were stuck in the sticks in the pre-cell phone era. The driver kept yelling at the truck, ignoring my query. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, several older Amish men, followed by a few kids and teens, walked up and asked if we were okay and if they could help. The driver immediately ceased cursing and said he needed to phone our office. Of course, the Amish didn't have phones, but one of the men offered to take the driver to the nearest gas station, which was about 10 miles away. So the driver walked off with a couple of the elders, who drove him by buggy down the road.

My co-worker and I were told to stay and watch the rig, though why anyone would or could do anything with a downed garbage truck was beyond me. But there we stood, standing guard over that stinking heap. The Amish teens stuck around and, with the elders gone, began asking us all sorts of questions, mostly about beer drinking and rock music. They spoke a stiff, halting English, as if trying to bridge the gap between the way they talked at home, and the way we denizens of Moloch butchered the language. They seemed curious and envious, and kept looking back to see if any elder was approaching. The Amish girls were very flirtatious, giggling and batting their eyes under their bonnets. One girl asked me if I liked the band Heart, which I didn't, but said that I did, just to see where she was going with this. Turned out that the girl was into a lot of contemporary rock, her eyes lighting up just mentioning the music. I felt an immediate attraction to her, but how the hell do you ask out an Amish girl amid her peers, while making sure that chop-shop predators don't strip clean your garbage truck? Not the most alluring scenario. Still, I made genial small talk with her, and she smiled and giggled, which caused the boys to look on with nasty expressions.

All this ended when an elder appeared and brusquely told the kids to get home for supper. He glared at us, said nothing, turned and left. About an hour or so later, a tow truck arrived with our driver, and we all returned to our materialist paradise.

I think about that girl now and then, not so much in sexual terms, but in a pleasant, almost innocent way. I wonder if she remained Amish, got married, had kids and kept the tribe going. There was a clear spark in her that suggested she might find a life of her own. Either way, I hope she's happy, even if that means she still listens to Heart.