Blog

My Name

Part Two (If you missed Part One, start here)

My mom believed in the mysteries. The story of Adam and Eve was real, just like Hell, the devil and our daily battles with demons. Battles you could lose just by forgetting to pray before bed.

The snake pit experience became a warning to a new Adam. Be careful. One slip and something could go horribly wrong. Your eternal soul is at stake.

I started to sense snakes.

Can you pick Adam out of the 1987 Mennonite freshman?

Years later, I faced the call from a bearded prophet across crowded high school hallways: “Adam! Wo bist du?” I was just beginning to understand that my attraction to other boys was not something I would grow out of. The best description of how that felt: terror. I thought I was the only Mennonite boy on earth with this problem. Adam, the first gay Mennonite. But I didn’t even understand that ‘gay’ was what I was—I was just evil. Full of lust. A sinner.

So, I hid.

In high school, the memory of the snake pit was challenged. I went with friends to see Indiana Jones. Inspired by his escape from the pit of vipers, after the movie I told my friends my snake pit story; they accused me of exaggerating.

Was I? Could that have really happened? Maybe I dreamed it.

That night I asked Dad. More than a decade had passed; we’d never talked about it.

“I have this memory,” I started. “We were in the swamp after a flood and there were lots of snakes…”

“Hundreds,” Dad said, folding the newspaper over his leg and sitting straighter in the recliner. “I never saw anything like it before or since.”

Part of me was amazed that it really happened, and part was relieved that my memory was true. Still another part of me continued to wonder—why me?

The challenge made me question other odd memories, like Pop Doc. I approached Mom in the kitchen.

“I have this memory of Pop Doc,” I said. “He was covered head to toe in bees.”

“Oh yeah,” Mom said from the sink, shaking a strainer full of steaming spaghetti. “He was a bee charmer.”

The phrase, bee charmer, was new for me. I liked the magical quality of it.

“He would go collect the honey from the hives without any protection. He swore up and down that he’d never been stung.”

 Mom directed me to get out the green canister of grated parmesan cheese, then she talked on about Pop Doc.

“He could touch a mother’s belly and know if the baby was a boy or girl. He was never wrong.”

“Did he predict me?”

“He sure did.”

I told Mom about remembering standing in the barn with my cousins, we had followed Pop Doc to the stall of a collapsed horse. I got woozy as he pushed his arm into the horse, all the way to his shoulder, and then, he extracted a tiny horse.

One of the only pictures I have of Pop Doc, Caldwell Reiter. Connected to animals, he has his hand on the dog’s head.

“He would help people with their animals. With things like breech births—he didn’t have training—but folks knew he was a healer.”

That’s how he got the name ‘Doc.’

Caldwell was his real name. I was surprised when Mom told me that Caldwell was supposed to be my middle name. They changed their minds and picked something from a baby-name book. I didn’t ask why, and I felt conflicted.

The old man I had known squinted at us kids and clomped past. Never talking. We were in his way as he carried on the work of the farm; work he did until he died in his 90s. I remember following my cousins into the chicken coop in the spring. It was a fuzzy yellow carpet of tiny bustling peeps. Pop Doc had tromped through moments before carrying a pail of slop for the pigs. My cousin Brian showed me his footprints. Every few feet, dead baby chickens. My heart hurt.

While I was glad to not be saddled with his name, I wondered about his mystical qualities. His connection to life’s secrets, like charming bees and predicting snake pits.

“He was also famous for his foul mouth,” Mom said, laughing, handing me a stack of plates for the table. “Pop Doc could lay down a curse as fast as cure your cow!”

That was my chance to ask about Pop Doc’s curse of their land. About her belief that the snake pit happened because of Pop Doc. I didn’t ask. It felt too delicate.

Curses. Like being banished from the Garden of Eden. Or to be an animal that moved across the earth on its belly, vulnerable. I didn’t want to ask. Growing up, in my Mennonite universe, being queer was a curse. And death often seemed like the only escape—except that death was not an escape.

“Even if I kill myself,” I thought, sitting in Dad’s car in the garage, key in the ignition, knowing that I could not go through with it, “I will go to Hell.”

1975

When I was four, at my family’s cabin in northern Pennsylvania, my parents sat with me at the kitchen table to tell me about rattlesnakes; they told me about fangs and venom that kills.

“Don’t wander too far off, and stay alert,” was Dad’s warning.

I was barely listening. Longing for the cool air outside. When excused, I made a break for the door. On the stoop was a snake. I stepped on it. With bare feet.

I don’t remember the snake. I don’t remember the screaming or falling or lingering unconsciousness that are my parents’ story of this event. I remember dying.

“I am dying,” I said.

They laid me on the kitchen table where I stayed, still, repeating the mantra aloud.

“I am dying.”

Visions of the Illustrated Children’s Bible glittered behind my eyelids. Why didn’t I listen to my parents? The story of Adam and Eve. The piles of writhing snakes in the swamp. Warnings from God. To me. About me. About consequences. I had not paid attention. Now I was paying the price.

“I am dying.” I went on this way for over an hour.

“Adam, it was a garter snake,” Dad said.

Each time I repeated my line, Mom stroked my forehead and said, “No, honey, no you’re not.”

Mom was right. She was probably right about the horse being a cow too. My contrary spirit.

I did not die.

The book of Genesis says that God didn’t set Adam and Eve outside of the garden gates naked, God made clothes for them. But now they had to work to survive. God made Adam a farmer. He was in touch with the earth and animals, just like Pop Doc. Pop Doc touched Mom’s belly to predict my sex. Did he know I would be queer? If I was Adam Caldwell, would I understand life’s mysteries the way Pop Doc did? Would we have shared a queerness that goes back to the garden, where bees were friendly?

Advertisements

My Name

Part One

My name is Adam. The story of Adam from the Bible is the first account of human disobedience. My mother knew the Bible, she chose the name, and in her mind, I had a contrary spirit from the start. Throughout my life, when I disobeyed or contradicted her, she told me the story of the cow.

“You could barely talk, just a baby really, but when I showed you a cow, you insisted it was a horse.”

Mom believed that I lived up to my name.

In the Garden of Eden there was Adam, Eve, lots of friendly animals, and the devil in the form of a snake. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was there; Adam and Eve were never to eat the fruit, but the snake talked them into it. God used to come hang out with Adam in the garden, but God has never hung out with me. The snake, on the other hand, has been a constant in my life.

I live in Tucson, Arizona. In desert mountains infamous for snakes. One afternoon while hiking, a creeping sensation slithered up my spine. My internal snake-sensor—I am familiar with this tingling. Slowing my pace, I studied the path ahead. I saw two snakes. I stopped, squinted, and they came into focus: a manhole cover and a stick. Not snakes after all.

But as I walked on, just after the manhole cover, there was a snake. A real one. A rattlesnake, its cascabels in the air. I jumped back, startled, and then found myself smiling. I knew you’d be around here somewhere! I greeted the snake with a bow of respect.

I sense snakes. When working in my desert yard, trimming branches or watering fruit trees, if the creeping feeling climbs my spine, with a little scanning, I find a snake. The creeping feeling could be described as the hair standing up on the back of my neck, but my connection to snakes is not just fear. Perhaps it’s something in my soul. A past life connection. A spiritual intertwining.

Or maybe it’s because of my name.

Why did my parents name me Adam? I have mined this mystery for meaning all of my life. In the Hostetter family, every first-born son has been John or Jacob since the immigrant (Jacob) from Switzerland in the 1700s. But my parents disliked both names, so they “started over” with Adam. That’s the story they tell.

Can you find Mr. Dietz amidst the other Mennonite teachers?

I was the only Adam in my Mennonite high school. Mr. Dietz had a special greeting for me. An ancient teacher with a long white beard, Mr. Dietz wore a traditional black collar-less coat, buttoned to the neck; the other teachers wore suit jackets and ties. When he saw me in the hall, he would shout out in Pennsylvania Dutch: “Adam! Wo bist du?” As he passed me, Mr. Dietz would smile and wink. But I felt shame, and the presence of God.  

 “Adam! Where are you?” God called to Adam in the garden. Naked, aware of his vulnerability, and ashamed, Adam was hiding from God. Mr. Dietz exposed me: a sinner on par with that first great sin.

When I sense a snake, death is my body’s first reaction. A jolt of anxiety, stiffening of the spine and joints, hyper awareness, adrenalin pumping. When I can take a moment to relax, exhaling as I scan for it, the knowledge that a snake is there comforts me. I locate it before any damage can be done, and I bow with respect, grateful to have sensed it.

Starting as early as infancy, sitting on Mom’s lap in the green rocker-recliner with the Illustrated Children’s Bible, I learned the story of a woman reaching out to pluck fruit from a tree. A snake with a broad head and fangs hangs from a branch. A naked man watches from his seat in the grass. I can’t remember how Mom explained it, but I knew that when God found out what Adam and Eve had done, he kicked them out of the Garden of Eden. Because they disobeyed, we would all suffer and die. And the snake was cursed.

I turned to the image of Adam over and over. This is Adam, I thought. I am Adam.

“Adam,” Dad called, “Get your raincoat. Let’s look at the creek.”

March 1975, I was four years old, and our new house on an eastern Pennsylvania hill overlooked an old-growth woods with towering trees, swamps, and a winding creek.

A rain storm had washed the snow away and caused the creek to rise. The woods flowed with brown rapids. Trees were down. Power was out, but that morning we had sunshine.

Dad and I walked into the swamp where the creek curved around a low place. We stood on a mound of high ground.

“Hey look,” Dad said, “there’s a snake.”

I saw the snake.

And then I saw another.

“There’s another one,” Dad said, pointing. And another. And another.

We realized we were seeing a bed of snakes. Snakes upon snakes upon snakes. The ground was alive and moving. The entire low spot was writhing with thick gray water snakes, golden colored snakes, green striped garter snakes. They were fighting their way toward higher ground, toward us.

“They’re cold blooded,” Dad explained as I slipped my hand into his and leaned hard against his leg, “That why they’re moving so slowly. They must have been washed down by the flood.”

My heart was racing. I wanted to close my eyes but could not look away. Let’s go, I thought. But Dad stayed, crouching down to get closer, fascinated.

Back in the house, Dad was exhilarated. I was melting down. Dad told Mom. As soon as Mom looked at me, I crumbled to the floor.

“We can’t live here! I don’t want to live here!”

I was remembering a prophet and his message. 

Pop Doc, my mother’s grandfather, had visited the land before Mom and Dad started building the house. A white-haired giant in blue-jean-overalls and heavy leather boots, he clomped and slid as he walked. That sound—CLOMP, slide, CLOMP, slide—was how we would hear him coming. He terrified me. Everyone started yelling when he came around.

“HOW YA DOIN’ POP?”

I clapped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. Everyone sounded so angry. As a 4-year-old, I didn’t understand that Pop Doc was deaf.

On his first visit to Dad and Mom’s new property, he irritated Mom with a shot of pessimism; Mom referred to it as his ‘curse.’

“You can’t build here,” Pop Doc said. We were in the driveway, beside a hole, home of the electrical transformer guarded by a medieval-looking metal grate and a constant hum.

“This is a snake pit,” He said.

Frightened, I looked into the darkness of the humming hole, expecting snakes.  

Later that afternoon, Mom complained about him to her sisters over the phone. I heard her retell the story three times. Each time Mom’s voice sounded angrier, as if Pop Doc had literally cursed her ground. Anxiety hung over me like the broad-headed viper in the Illustrated Children’s Bible hanging over Adam.

And then, just a month after moving in, the snake pit was real. Dad, a computer engineer, brushed it off. Mom, squeezing me in, wondered aloud, “Maybe Pop Doc was right.”

Come back for more snakes, mystics and Indiana Jones in Part Two!

Gorilla!

Part Two – starting here? Read Part One first!

Mark snapped me back to my job: keeping campers safe.

campground.jpg

“I’m calling the police.” I said, a spontaneous reaction that pleased me. Maybe I really did know what to do. Maybe I knew more than the security guard. More than the adults. With renewed confidence and a sense of duty, I marched back to the office.

As I reached for the phone, I thought, what do I say? Campers were crowding in.

The dispatcher had questions: “A gorilla? A real animal? Is it loose?”

“Well, probably a person in a gorilla suit. Riding a bicycle.”

“Is anyone injured?”

“No. I don’t think so. He’s scaring people. Throwing bananas.”

“Throwing bananas.”

“Right.”

“Can you see the gorilla now?”

I turned the question to the campers, “Can you see the gorilla?” They clustered at the windows, tucking their heads into the ruffles. Mumbling, no…it’s dark…there a glare, let’s turn this light off…

“No, um…we can’t see the gorilla.”

By the time I hung up, the gorilla had disappeared. Campers headed back to their families. Alone, I locked myself in. I worried. I wondered where Mark had gone. I paced. After a while, I nodded off. It was almost midnight when the police arrived. Flashing blue and red lights lit up the office. Out on the porch, the campground seemed normal, quiet and peaceful except for the flashing lights.Officers Arrive

“We got a call about a gorilla?”

I tried to tell them everything. Pointed out the bananas on the ground.

They nodded. Took notes in tiny spiral notebooks.

“Where is the security guard now?” one of the officers asked.

“I don’t know, he’s usually in the booth, but…”

They checked the booth. Mark wasn’t there. The officers split up to walk around the campground. Moments after they vanished into the shadows, Mark was beside me.

“I never saw it again,” he said, squinting. He adjusted his cap.

“Maybe the police will find something,” I said.

The police talked to a few campers but found nothing.

“Well, if the gorilla comes back, let us know.”

We watched the officers get into their car and drive away.

“Fucking nuts,” Mark said.

I watched his bow-legged walk as he went back to the booth.

That night I had nightmares about the Planet-of-the-Apes-eyes behind the mask. About Bigfoot lurking in the campground. My mind whirled. Was the gorilla real? What if something happens during the night?

The next afternoon I asked Darlene, the morning shift gal, if she heard anything.

“About what? A what?”

“Right, I know. Crazy. But last night there was a gorilla here.”

No one had said anything. I was disappointed. I had expected a buzz in the campground. I imagined basking in praise. Being recognized for outthinking security guards and adults. I wanted to be held up as a model employee.

“It really happened!” I said. Darlene was busy getting her car keys from her purse.

“It was scary!” I said as she maneuvered around me toward the door.

Darlene left; I was alone in the office. The ruffled curtains made me feel sad. The gold wall phone seemed to accuse me. Call the police for any stupid little thing. I wondered if the gorilla had really happened. Maybe it was a dream. Then Mark came in.

“Last night was fucking hilarious!” he said. “Can you believe that shit?”

I blinked. Laughing, Mark slapped the counter. He turned away shaking his head and leaned back on his elbows.

“That dude was one realistic looking gorilla,” he said.

I exhaled. It had happened. To Mark and me. I waited for Mark to tell me what an amazing job I did handling the situation. He didn’t. He wasn’t quite as sexy to me after that.

Later that evening the owner, my big-boss, eavesdropped on a phone call. Other employees had warned me that he did this, to ensure an employee was on-point.Wall Phone

“The village seems expensive. Is it worth it?” a caller said.

Whenever a caller asked me this question, I answered truthfully. They had to know that Amish buggy rides across the covered bridge cost ten bucks per adult and were not included in the entrance fee. I owed it to them.

This may have been what my mom meant when she called me “too honest.”

“Well, are you planning to camp here, in the campground?” I asked the caller.

“Yes.”

“Then it is totally worth it because the entrance fee is part of the campground registration fee-.”

“WHAT?” The big boss’s voice barked through the line. Startled, I dropped the phone. As I grappled with the curly cord that attached the handset to the receiver on the wall, I could hear him bellowing.

“ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT THE VILLAGE ISN’T WORTH THE PRICE?”

“Hello?” I heard the caller trying to understand what was happening.

I considered hanging up as I slid the handset against my ear.

“Hello?” the caller said again. Then she hung up.

In the static silence I heard the owner’s heavy breathing.

“ARE YOU THERE?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you just tell that woman that the village WASN’T WORTH IT?”

“I told her that camping here was—“

“Don’t EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!”

The line went dead. I placed the handset into the silver cradle on the wall. No one told the big-boss about the gorilla! He had no idea that I had single-handedly saved hundreds of campers. I grabbed the phone’s handset, ready to dial the big-boss and tell him. But then, I hung up.

I’m so stupid, I thought. Weakness in my knees, I sank to the stool behind the front desk. I knew that I would be fired, if not tonight, soon. For a flicker I thought I could walk out right now and never come back. But I didn’t. Instead I applied for a new job.

I was surprised to get an immediate offer, just a few miles away in Paradise, PA—a brand new steamboat-shaped hotel surrounded by a moat in the middle of a cornfield. I worked both jobs for a few weeks, then one day, I was fired. By the big boss’s mother, who ran the country-crafty candle-perfumed gift shop. Her exact words were: “We don’t need you anymore.”

I didn’t need them anymore either. What I had needed from my evenings in the office I got, not from Mark or the big boss or the demanding campers, I have the gorilla to thank. He taught me that I could do something.

One evening, just a few months after starting my new job, some concerned guests approached the front desk. They told us that a man in full military fatigues and boots walked into the Steamboat’s swimming pool. The two adult front desk clerks twitched and wrung their hands. They all looked at me. I stepped out from behind the front desk and made my way to bow of the boat.

“I’m so sorry sir, but you’ll need to get out of the pool. I’d hate to have to call the police.”

He complied and dripped on the carpet as he walked back to his room.

Relieved guests thanked me. “Of course,” I told them, brushing it off. However, walking back the lobby, I stood straighter, adjusting my bow-tie and red polyester tuxedo jacket. I felt like a superhero. I remembered the gorilla, and my heart softened.

Who was that gorilla? I wondered.

gorilla 2

Gorilla!

Part One

mill-bridge-campground-705My senior year of high school I worked at a Pennsylvania campground, adjacent to a “colonial village” with a restored eighteenth-century grist mill, a working water-wheel, and everything from a do-it-yourself butter churning shop to Amish buggy rides. I manned the office, and by closing time I was the only person around. One night, just as I was beginning the close-out checklist, a gorilla was reported in the campground.

“He’s on a bicycle,” the frazzled camper said, bursting into the office. “He won’t talk to anyone! He just grunts!”

I blinked.

“The guy in the trailer next ours got hit with a banana!”

I knew how to check-in campers, take payments and sell mosquito spray. The problems I could solve included posting information for late arrivals and fixing clogged toilets.

“You have to do something,” he said.

The phrase buzzed between my ears. A feeling of shame heated my face. I imagined what I could do. Stay in the office and lock the door.

A second camper entered slamming the office door. “He is throwing bananas at us!” she said.

“See?” Camper #1 said.

Camper #2: “We were at our picnic table and heard a bicycle,” she said.

Camper #1 folded his arms.

“Once he was in the light we realized it was a gorilla. He terrified the children!”

I nodded. Both campers looked at me. Expecting something.

Camper #2: “Well, I just asked him who he was and what he was doing and he started grunting and howling.”

Just then three more campers arrived.

“Someone has to talk to this guy!” one of the new campers said, slamming his flat palm against the desk. “He’s out there scaring folks.”

Adam 1990
Adam, 1990

These were adults staring at me, commanding me to action. They were angry at the gorilla, but it felt personal. A hollow feeling in my stomach. I felt hot; I touched my forehead and noticed my hand was shaking. I was kid, but I knew I had to do something.

Then, I thought of Mark, the night security guard.

Mark. I was in love with him.  The way his Levi’s hung, his green John Deere hat, his small, tight farm-boy body. He was my age, and he was the first security-type man who didn’t intimidate me. My heart fluttered when he leaned one hip against the front desk to chat. I pretended to know about football and even lied, saying “oh yeah” when he asked me if I liked Metallica. Every night at closing time he was asleep in the booth.

Feeling a sudden sense of knowing-what-to-do, I said, “I’ll get the guard.”

Outside, the campground looked unchanged. Dark and quiet, lightening bugs glowed near the creek. I could see a few campfires burning and smell hotdogs. While the campers stayed on the porch grumbling, I started toward the guard shack at the campground entrance.

I didn’t get far.

I was illuminated by the headlights of an RV turning into the driveway. It was a huge one. The kind with multiple slide-outs, solar panels and satellite dishes. It crept toward the guard booth, then stopped.

RV tires quiet, I heard the sound. The bicycle, I thought, freezing in place. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Out of the darkness, a gorilla on a bike passed under a dim light post. Then it went back into shadow.

The RV driver turned on a giant spotlight. I lifted my hand to my forehead. Blinking, I heard the sound of a skidding bike tire. Looking into the pool of light, I saw the gorilla’s long shadow.

The bike was on the ground, in the road. The gorilla was knuckle-walking toward the RV. He raised one arm toward the windshield, waggling a banana.

“There he is!” a camper yelled.

Do something! I reacted, running toward the gorilla and grabbing the bike. I looked up as the gorilla reeled back and launched the banana directly into the RV’s windshield. The driver pulled the air horn. I cringed. We never heard the splat.

Mark burst from the guard station with his hands over his ears.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The gorilla started screaming—grunts and screeches—waving long arms—it ran toward me. Toward the bicycle I was holding.

I gasped for a breath, then said, “I need to know who you are.” Did my voice crack?

The gorilla took hold of the bicycle, shaking me. My heart was pounding.

“I’m serious,” I said, gripping the cold metal of the bike frame, knowing campers were watching me from the office. “You’re scaring people.”

The gorilla looked up at me, scouring my face with fast moving eyeballs. I held my breath—the mask was so realistic. Was it a mask? The gorilla leaned in and howled in my face. I let go of the bicycle, but not my resolve.

I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled back at him: “WHO ARE YOU? ARE YOU A CAMPER HERE?”

I opened my eyes to see him swing up onto the pedals and ride off into the darkness.

Mark was beside me now, hands still over his ears even though the air horn had stopped. I could see his dirty fingernails on either side of his John Deere hat.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The RV turned off the spotlight and a thick darkness fell. Campers were clicking on flashlights. I was blinking to adjust my eyes, I felt dizzy.

“Mark,” I said, “there’s a gorilla—” but before I could explain, a bicycle flew from the shadows, the gorilla skidded to a stop and faced Mark and me.

The gorilla and I made eye contact. Its eyes didn’t look human. Not enough iris. Maybe it really is a gorilla, I thought. It held out a banana. I watched as my arm reached out to accept it. Peace offering?

I noticed Mark backing away and knew I was on my own. The campers were watching. I took charge. “Look dude,” I said to the gorilla, “you gotta take the mask off. People are freaked out.”

The gorilla was still, breathing, holding my eyes. The banana in my hand, I felt curious. What is this gorilla’s story? I felt a sudden a softness.

“Talk to me,” I changed my tone. “You don’t want to be scaring people, right?” gorilla

He grunted, lifting his chin to me. For a moment I thought I had earned his respect; that he knew I wanted to protect him. Just as my heart was opening, he howled, stomped and waved his arms in my face. I closed my eyes. When I looked, he was riding away into the darkness.

I lost him. A sensation, like I might cry.

“What. The. Fuck?” was all Mark could say.

Find out what happens in Part Two!

Trachselwald Castle

Part Three – click here to visit previous sections Part Two or Part One

On the bus ride into the Emmental region of Switzerland, everything seemed familiar. The hillsides of forest separated by fields and meadows, the cows and neat front yards. The Emmental looks like where I grew up in Pennsylvania. Even my Kentucky-raised husband thought so.

“It’s weird.” Jim said.

The Swiss end-of-summer air smelled of mowed grass and manure.

“Just like home,” I said to Jim.

When we got off the bus, Ruth was there to meet us.

“Have you eaten?” she asked, after hugging us both.

We hadn’t.

“So, I’ll make you spaghetti.”

2 - 1 (8).jpg
Our window at Ruth’s house

A friend who had done a similar Amish/Mennonite pilgrimage, connected us to Ruth. We had the entire top floor of her home. It looked Mennonite: do-it-yourself wood paneling, practical shower surround, simple, functional furniture. Cedar closets with padded wooden hangers. Even the view from the window–I felt like I was home.

After the spaghetti, Ruth laughed as she told us about a past guest’s mishap with her whipped-cream maker. “You must be gentle,” she said, handing the canister to Jim.

Jim aimed at his fruit bowl, but cream shot all over him, the table, Ruth and me. We laughed. Ruth laughed the hardest.

Then Ruth told us about Anabaptist history in Switzerland.

We learned that the Anabaptists here are known as taufers. There were men called tauferjagers, Anabaptist hunters, who tracked them down. They hid in the Emmental’s rural hills in caves, tunnels and secret rooms—the taufernests.

2 - 1 (5)
Adam and Ruth in the kitchen.

“I’m not Mennonite,” She said. “But growing up around here, you know about the taufer. For two hundred years they hid here.”

She told us that Anabaptism split families—some converted but not all. Parents or siblings would alert their Anabaptist family members so they could hide as the tauferjager approached. Many of those families still live in the area, in the same farmhouses with the tunnels and secret rooms.

In the New World, everyone with names like mine has Anabaptist heritage; Schmuckers all come from one Amish immigrant, Christian. I never had a reason to think about the Schmuckers in Switzerland who had stayed with the Reformed church. How had they treated their radical Anabaptist family members? What had they felt watching their Anabaptist siblings or children be tortured and killed? I felt schooled by Ruth, a non-Anabaptist who knew my people’s history from a different angle.

“We didn’t learn about it in school,” Ruth said.

In 2007 the government made an official apology. Now there are interpretive signs along hiking trails, plaques on churches, even a taufer history treasure hunt designed for children to explore Bern.

“Now we sleep,” she said, with a little clap of her hands. “Tomorrow, breakfast at 8:30 and at 9:30 we leave for Trachselwald.”

In our room I stood by the open window I smelled freshly mowed hay. I thought of my Poppop and Christian Schmucker. I wondered, what do you do before a visit to a place like Trachselwald? What do you think about or pray about or meditate on? I thought of castles, towers and dragons. The sound of cow bells outside was peaceful, comforting. I thought of Thict Nhat Hanh and the Five Touchings of the Earth meditation. This was an unfamiliar place, but I felt so at home.

Thank you, I whispered into the night.

Thank you, Christian Schmucker. Thank you, Poppop. May we experience the transformation of these wounds.

Ruth took us to Trachselwald Castle on a beautiful, sunny day. We were greeted by cows and the gentle clanging of their bells. Ruth vanished into the shadows. Walking fast to catch her, we started up a dark, covered stairway, vines closing in around us.

I was nervous. And excited.

I snapped photos of Ruth as she wiggled a skeleton key into the lock. Then she pushed the massive wooden door, and we were in, standing in the same arched portal, on the same stones, looking up at the same tower that Christian Schmucker had seen while in chains. The Martyrs Mirror had already been published. Had he been he afraid? Proud? Resigned?

“The modern jail was in that section,” Ruth said, waving her arm toward a red half-timbered section of the structure. “This was the seat of the regional government until 2009.”

“Did you say two thousand nine?” I asked.

Ruth nodded as she marched toward a different area of building.

By 2009, the castle was at least a thousand years old.

We reached the foot of the tower and looked up.

2 - 1 (4)

“When this was the prison, there was no ground-level entrance to the tower,” Ruth said. “A ladder was used.”

Her words stopped time.  I was transported to a dream.

She pointed up to a high window. “That was the only way in and out.”

I was frozen in place. A dragon spreading its wings through my chest and looking out at the tower through my eyes. We all looked up together.

Thank you.

I felt buoyant. I felt joyful.

Ruth unlocked a small portal that we ducked through and started up the stairs.

I know my mouth is shaped like my mother’s—like my Poppop’s.  Was it passed all the way down from Christian Schmucker? What is time to our DNA? I wondered as we climbed.

What had been ancient—things like castles and towers and martyrs—felt present.

We climbed and on each floor of the tower there were different kinds of cells. On the highest there were chains embedded in the rock walls, and a small wooden platform with chains and stocks for holding legs. I touched the chains, I sat on the edge of the platform.

It felt right to be there.

My grandfather, Christian Schmucker, had lived in hiding as an Amish preacher all over Switzerland. He worshipped in caves in the forests. He had been a prisoner and a penniless refugee. He had opened forests on William Penn’s land to create a new home. He died a rich man in an Amish community free to live and practice their faith. All of this in one lifetime.

Any feeling of distance was melting away.

Christian Schmucker lived the truth of his times with courage.

In my times, I needed to live my own truth. I faced a terrifying dragon with the same courage.

At Trachselwald castle, I wondered about our dragons and our journeys toward healing. How different was my truth from my Poppop’s and Christian Schmucker’s truths? Were we connecting across time? Looking at the chains, I recited what I could remember of the Buddhist meditation. Wisdom. Suffering. Strength. Gratitude.

Then, Christian Schmucker whispered to my heart his own respect and gratitude.

For me.

For the healing I had done. I felt as though my ancestors were touching the earth in my honor. Thanking me for my courage.

I was humbled. Grateful. Stunned.

My ancestor’s message at Trachselwald Castle was simply: Welcome. You are the continuation, the transformation of our suffering. We are glad you came.

Photo album posts next!

img-4620

Trachselwald Castle

Part Two – click here to start with Part One

I knew the stories of persecution. Not only were they passed from grandma to grandchild, but the most important Mennonite text, second only to the Bible, is The Martyrs Mirror, published in 1660. Stories about preachers who had their tongues screwed to the tops of their mouths to keep them from preaching. Stories that include hot branding irons, stocks and the rack. For a twentieth century child flipping through The Martyrs Mirror, this history was titillating.

And ancient.

2 - 1 (1)
Image from the Martyr’s Mirror

At my Mennonite high school Anabaptist History was a required course. Anabaptists—adult baptizers—grew out of the Reformation. While the Reformers ended some practices of Catholic Church, the Anabaptists wanted to return to the ways of Jesus. For them, the personal decision to live as a Christian was a serious commitment. Not a birthright. And not a mechanism for the state. So, the Anabaptists stopped baptizing their babies and started baptizing each other.

Once, my entire high school watched a movie about the martyrs, a bloody true story set in Switzerland. It was meant to humble and inspire us. But we left laughing, and watched classmates zombie-walk, moaning, “Burn them. Burn them all.”

At my computer, Jim and I zoomed in on the satellite image of Trachselwald castle. A cluster of red-tile roofs. Then I saw the tower, evident by a long dark shadow that cows in the adjacent meadow seemed to be avoiding.

img-4620Christian Schmucker’s booklet started with a short history of the Amish, who broke away from the group that would become the Mennonites. The schism happened because the Amish felt that sinners must be excommunicated.

Staring at the image of Trachselwald castle, I thought of my Poppop. He had been shunned. I was told there was a funeral, and church leaders forbade the family from having any contact.

2 - 1 (3)
Poppop, Maurice Smoker

His sin? He enlisted in the navy to fight in World War II.

Mom told me stories. He used to barricade himself in his bedroom with a shotgun and cry. He said, “No one loves me, no one loves me,” sobbing, for hours, while Mom sat on the other side of the door telling him that they did love him, and please, not to shoot himself.

The tower’s shadow made my heart heavy. It made me think about torture, and shunning—the core of the Amish origin story. I remembered standing near my grandparent’s refrigerator, peering into the dark living room. My Poppop, sitting, silent, by the window with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He stared out at tree branches. Birds. The garden. Cows in the meadow. The ragged edge of the creek. But what did he see?

I could have been excommunicated too.

My sin? Being queer.

As a kid, being cast out felt like a real threat. Queer kids don’t have to come from religious families to face the terror of being disowned.

Christian Schmucker was a prisoner in the tower for four days in April 1745. Was he tortured? Chained? Threatened with death? I don’t know. The booklet says that after he was released, he took his family and hid in the Jura Mountains until they could get passports for a voyage to Pennsylvania.

I wondered if Christian Schmucker suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After coming out, a therapist suggested that I had PTSD.

Did Poppop have PTSD too? When I was in high school, my Poppop told me about a dream. “I was driving up Gap Hill trying to get home,” he said, “and the car kept getting slower and slower. Other cars were passing me, honking. Folks were shaking their fists at me, but I had the petal to the metal!”

I laughed.

“Little Volkswagens passed me. An Amish buggy passed me, and they shook their fists too! It was terrible,” he said, chuckling.

I laughed with him, but I could hear the pain in his dream. He was alone, trying to get home and everyone was angry at him, no one offered to help.

I wondered, did Poppop find peace in this life? Had Christian Schmucker found peace in this life?

There is a famous story of a reformation-era Anabaptist who escaped from prison and ran across a frozen lake to avoid his captors. He made it safely to land, but the prison guard fell through the ice. The Anabaptist went back to help. He saved the guard. The guard took him back to prison and soon after the anabaptist was put to death.

Like that anabaptist, Christian Schmucker was willing to stand against the government and the state church, facing prison, torture and death. My Poppop went against his community to fight tyranny. They all had a fearless trust and followed their hearts.

I tapped their courage when I came out as queer.

I wondered, what would happen at Trachselwald castle? Would old wounds open? Would the love expand? Both? Something else?

Just before leaving for Switzerland, I turned the page in the Thict Nhat Hanh book I was reading and found his meditation called The Five Touchings of the Earth. Thict Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. The first of the five touchings is a meditation on blood-family ancestors.

Reading it, I was tingling again. One line stood out to me: I am the continuation of my ancestors and it is their suffering that I am transforming. 

The next morning Jim and I flew to Europe.

2 - 1 (2)
Stained glass window at the Reformed Chruch in Langnau im Emmental Switzerland

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I dreamed I was standing in a medieval castle courtyard looking up at the tower. There was one window at the very top. A woman beside me said, “That’s the only way in or out.” I turned to look at her, but before my eyes could take her in, a shadow passed over. I looked back toward the window and saw a winged dragon sitting on the ledge. My knees buckled. I wanted to run—wanted to scream—but I was frozen in place. The dragon twisted its neck to look down—at me. Its eyes seeing into my soul.

In Part Three, Ruth takes us to the Castle