An Amish Angel
The Lesson Was An Example
The year was 2003, and I was undergoing the worst crisis of my life. I lost all faith in mankind, saw no good in anyone, and had begun a journey into bitter withdrawal from the rest of the world. God, in His mercy, sent a person to teach me, in the most simple way, that there are still people in this world who are good, despite all those who are bad. It was a lesson I will never forget. Here, then, is that true story.
An Amish Angel
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Mike. I was just standing there gazing out over the field of items at the auction, people milling through the plethora of items to be sold like so many cattle grazing, and for a moment, it had all begun to glaze over as I took a respite from bidding and buying, hauling more items to my truck in an automatron kind of work mode. Bid on an item, try to get it low enough for resale, win the bid at a respectable price, carry it back to my truck and come back for more treasures—I was just staring at nothing, really...and suddenly, there he was.
His round-brimmed, Amish straw hat, tilted slightly back on his head, crowned his blond hair more like a halo than a hat, and his bright blue shirt seemed perfect for that blond hair and the handsome face under it. Mike had stepped into the row of items going up for bid as the auctioneer went down the row like a saw methodically eating wood. He stood there, surveying what this was all about with a look of the sweetest curiosity, all with expressive eyes that shined innocence like music. One could not help but notice that he was built like a workhorse, with very strong arms sticking out of those rolled up sleeves, and it was obvious that this was a guy who knew and loved hard work for what it gave his soul.
Over the course of the day, we were often side by side looking at the same items that were coming up for bid, and occasionally parting temporarily as one of us won a bid and had to go load the item for the journey home at the end of the day. I have always admired the Amish for many things, one of which is their hard work ethic, another being their tremendous loyalty to honesty. And I especially love the simplicity of their life compared to the stress-filled one in which most of us live. Maybe their buggies don’t go as fast as my car, but maybe we need to learn that we really don’t need to get there as fast as we thought, “there” being most of the destinations in our lives. I engaged Mike in conversation, as much as anyone can with one’s being non-Amish and trying to carry on a conversation with someone who is Amish. Most Amish do not believe in idle chit-chat, so the conversation has to be relevant and needed, or you may find your Amish heading off in search of work to do. So, we talked, and strangely enough, we enjoyed spending time together... and talking.
I asked Mike his last name. “King,” he said. “King?” I questioned. “That doesn’t sound very Amish to me,” I said jokingly. I have a few Amish friends, and I was used to such Dutch-sounding names as Esh, Stoltzfus and Zook. How was King an Amish family name? But we laughed about the comparisons, talked about Amish people we both knew, and I asked Mike what he did for a living, since many young Amish men work part-time as carpenters when they are not working on the family farm. “Demolition,” Mike said. “You blow up things?” I asked intrigued, since I had never heard an Amish man say this line of work before. And Mike slowly, patiently told me that they take down old buildings and resale the wood. Makes sense. I once heard the owner of a building company say that the reason he paid more for Amish laborers than the regular person was simple. “Look at where they wear out their clothes. Most guys wear out the seat of their pants from sitting so much. Not the Amish. They wear out the elbows and the knees from working so much.” I knew some employer was getting his money’s worth out of Mike King—look at those arms and that chest. He didn’t get that way lifting weights. All lots of hard work. Yet, typically Amish, no ego.
I think that is one of the astounding things about Mike—no ego. You take a guy this handsome and muscular, and he is going to be driving the hottest car around and flashing his appeal like a peacock. But, this guy is Amish. They drive buggies, not cars, and they are not into “self.” In fact, they don’t even allow pictures to be made of them, and I don’t think the word “egotistical” is even in their vocabulary.
Sometimes we visit a place that at first we take for granted, but with each visit there, it becomes more of a special oasis we anticipate for the solace it brings our lives. Like such an oasis, this kind, selfless, soft-spoken individual began to grow on me more as the day drew us closer to the last items up for bid. I guess you could say I was slightly mystified by Mike. He fit no pre-conceived model from either Amish, or non-Amish, worlds. His innocence was priceless. I think there is something within all of us that wants such a person to never change, to never become corrupted by the evil that is all around us in this world. A feeling of protectiveness wells up inside, and it is sort of like watching a child walk through a field of scorpions while not getting stung. Your heart implores you to go ahead of this person and protect them from all the ugliness that you know does exist. Yet, this lovely person somehow made it thus far on his journey unsullied by all that is wrong with this world, all without my help, and doubtless, he will continue to flower into the extraordinary person his destiny must surely hold for him.
While at the auction, I found that Mike liked to pick up straw baskets, and often these would be items left behind while the bidder took only the more valuable items from the auction lot. Mike explained to me that, at Halloween, he would decorate them with little pumpkins and gourds of various sizes and sell them at their roadside stand. I began to pitch in. If I saw a basket he missed, I made sure that he got it. Who could not help but want to do everything they could to show kindness to this wonderful person? At one point before he left, Mike told me that he might not be at the auction for another year. It somehow came across as a simple, un-egotistical way of saying, “I’d like to see you again.” But I am a little slow in the “signals department,” and I simply asked, “You won’t be here for another year? You don’t come here every auction?” I was perplexed, since I assumed that every person here was a buyer who did so for resale. Somehow our conversation led to Mike giving me his business card, if you can call it that. His brother makes furniture, and the showroom is at Mike’s house. Mike asked me if I would like to see their furniture sometime, so, I promised Mike I would come up and visit. Of course, I also admire the stoic beauty of Amish buggies, but I felt guilty asking for a ride in Mike’s buggy. So, I told Mike that I had a bunch of higher-quality baskets in my garage that were going to waste, you know, the project that you always intended to get back to? At any rate, I would trade him these baskets for a buggy ride. We had a deal.
Following Mike’s directions, I drove about thirty minutes up into Pennsylvania, and as the land became more rolling and hilly, pastures appeared, farms dotted the hillsides, and at the end of the directions, there was Mike’s house. Amish do not explain the word “plain.” They live it. Their clothes are plain, yet beautiful. The solid blues, lavenders or greens worn against the all-black attire seem almost exotic to me, and probably to most people, and the houses are usually starkly simple, all while extremely neat and orderly—inside and out. Mike’s house was the ideal Amish farm-house, and the long driveway of raked and level gravel was made even more pleasant by the sight of the fresh-cut flowers stand that Mike’s mother had at the entrance. In deference to the Amish way of living, I parked my car on the road and left it there. This was not the city, there was virtually no traffic, and I knew no one was going to come and bother my car out here. In this place, I could probably have even left my wallet on the front seat with the doors unlocked. Looking around at the rolling green hills of crops, I felt like I should be paying someone just for the privilege of such relaxing scenery. But there were no ticket-takers at the gate, just Mrs. King’s lovely flower stand and rows of extremely well-kept flowers all the way up the driveway to the house. And Mike came, if I can say, almost bashfully out of the house to greet me, his gaze shifting from my face to the baskets in my hand and back again. I wasn’t sure which he was most happy to see, the baskets or me, but it didn’t matter. I was enjoying this indescribable step back into time as I basked in the immensity of no electricity, no phones, no MTV, CNN or war in Iraq. Just the dogs barking, the cows moving through the barn, and Mike’s two youngest brothers, David and Melvin, staring at me, at that moment in time, unobserved from the safety of the barn.
Mike hitched up Brownie, his male horse, to the carriage. Making small talk, I asked Mike, "So, how did you come up with the name Brownie?” “That was the only thing I could think of,” came the honest reply. We spend so much time learning to varnish the truth that it is almost abrasive to encounter the honesty of the Amish. I sat for a moment savoring Mike’s ease and total comfort with the fact that his horse did not have some exotic name, because he could not think of one, or did not try. Nope. No embarrassment here. Mike stated it exactly as it was, and Brownie pulled us down the lane and out into that restful Brigadoon he knew as home.
The steady clip clop of those hooves, the rolling whir of the wooden carriage wheels, the gentle summer breeze blowing through the inside of the buggy, all conspired to win my soul. Why wasn’t I born Amish? No phones were ringing with demands on my time, no schedule of things to be done ticked off like a rolodex in my head, and we would not be stopping at some noisy gas station for a re-fill. No. It was just Mike and me, and the busy, manic world I came from slipped away like an echo of some discordant note that everyone was tired of anyway.
The conversation was light and occasional, like when I asked how to say “How are you?” in Pennsylvania Dutch. I practiced that one with Mike for a while, trying to remember not to wear him out with the language lesson. Honestly, I don’t think I could wear Mike out. There seems to be no end to this Amish person’s patience. He told me later, when I noticed that Brownie walked up to the barn un-assisted and asked if he had ever run off, that once Brownie did run up into the field. I asked how he had responded. “Oh, I said ‘Brownie, I’m too tired for this,’ and I just sat down and waited for him to come back.” I thought of how many of us would have given a manic chase and fretted until the horse was back “in sync” with our “paradigm.” Not Mike. He allowed Brownie the time to kick up his heels, and when Brownie had had enough, he did indeed return to where he belonged, the barn. Once more, I marveled at the things Mike was unconsciously teaching me as I simply listened more with my heart and soul.
Once, while we were in the buggy, a dog came out from a house and began chasing and barking at Brownie. It didn’t just bark and go away. It followed relentlessly, incessantly, annoyingly, until I was ready to jump out of that buggy and give this dog what he deserved. After all, wasn’t he tormenting that horse? Wasn’t this all unnecessary? If only I had a rock! Yet even as I opened my mouth to shout at the dog, I felt as if doing so would disrupt the reverie I enjoyed inside that buggy, a world out of time and out of step with the word hectic. I never shouted at the dog. Instead, I found myself simply saying out loud, “Bad dog! Bad dog!” Mike, on the other hand, never opened his mouth. I think back often and wonder if my over-reaction to the dog had been somehow “un-Amish?” What greater peace, perhaps, in learning to accept more than we try to change? Thus Mike went on teaching me, even though he once told me that he could never be a teacher. He was a greater teacher than he’ll ever know. I had traveled to far distant lands, sat with the Dalai Lama in a private audience, even met Elvis, attended a luncheon with President Ford and hiked the Great Wall of China twice, and I would put time spent with Mike right up there with the best of these moments. If ever someone made me want to become Amish, Mike King certainly did.
And so it was, I found a way to interject myself into this wonderful world of slow down, smell the roses, talk to people, really care, work hard, be honest, be kind, keep your word, speak softly and love deeply. I would bring all the baskets I could find each week at the auction to Mike, buy some of his mother’s beautiful flowers, and hopefully, that would entitle me to an occasional ride in Mike’s “time machine” powered by a horse simply-named Brownie. Off we would go across hill and dale with not a care in the world. I would learn more Amish words and phrases, incorporate “slow-down” into my manic schedule of “must accomplish so much by life’s end,” and marvel at how unselfish these people are, wondering frequently if I could ever really learn something that seemed to be part of their genes.
Sometimes young “jerks” will speed by Mike’s buggy, honking their horns, screeching their tires, and yelling obscenities. Wouldn’t your blood just boil? Wouldn’t your road rage just kick in? Wouldn’t you...what? Mike just laughs and says, “My horse just keeps right on going,”... as if that is all that matters. No ego. No need to prove himself better than his tormentors. No need to get even. Mike said gently and non-judgmentally, those kids just weren’t raised right. God! That speaks volumes. Stop and think about that for a while.
I stopped in unannounced on a Thursday night to drop off the weekly tribute of baskets. Mike had been working until late, and came out in his socks, shoes somehow having gotten in the way of his dinner ritual that evening. Sometimes honesty, Amish honesty, can be mistaken for brashness. Mike said, “I wasn’t expecting you.” Now, where I come from, if someone says that, it means that you have imposed on that person’s schedule, and isn’t the “schedule” almighty? I noticed that Mike also had some food around the corner of his mouth, and I said, “Oh, you were eating. I’m taking you away from your dinner.” Mike quickly shot back, “No it’s alright,” with a tone that said “I’m glad you’re here. Please stay.” So, “I wasn’t expecting you,” did not translate “You are imposing.” There is not a mean bone in Mike’s body, nor could he ever intentionally hurt someone. Who could not admire this angel who was teaching me lessons in living that I had thought I already knew? And at twenty-one years of age, Mike was living the example many can only dream of, or ascribe to great spiritual sages who have relinquished the material world in exchange for enlightenment. There in a blue shirt, black pants and a plain straw hat was my teacher and friend. If I could have imposed, I would have stayed a lot longer, but my manic world filled with schedules and quid pro quos demanded that I politely leave before wearing out my welcome. I reluctantly left, but not before bartering my next buggy ride with Mike. He knew I always keep my word. Wednesday it would be.
I thought I would have to work faster than usual, since attending an auction on the same day that I was also going to visit Mike would mean a trip home to unload the truck and pick up my car before going to Mike’s house. As luck would have it, the auction was a shorter one than usual, and I loaded up the truck and headed on home ahead of schedule. Arriving at Mike’s house, I parked the car, as usual, out on the road. I never brought it into the driveway and up to the house, even though Mike had told me that they were okay with that. It was my humble way of showing respect for their beliefs, a little token of my love for what Mike and his family had continuously given to me. I expected any minute to see Mike come walking down the stairs of the front porch, excited to see how many baskets I had gotten this time, because I really had hit the jackpot this time. I just knew Mike was going to be very pleased. I once asked him, sort of in “my world’s” way of wanting to know if I were imposing, if he ever got to where he had enough baskets, to let me know and I would stop bringing them. I remember Mike smiled and said, “No. Keep bringing them. Never stop.” And I felt so welcomed and loved. I thought to myself, “I will keep coming and bringing you baskets and buying your mother’s flowers, and feeling somehow selfish that I am getting more out of this deal than I could possibly be giving.” And the further up that long lane I walked, the more I wondered when Mike was going to appear. “Maybe he’s in the barn” I thought. Any minute now, Mike will show up with that wonderful smile, look at all the baskets with awe as if these are the best yet, and in that soft voice that knows no guile, he will ask me how much he owes me for all those baskets. He always asks me, after looking them over, how much he owes me for the baskets. And, as always, I will say, “Oh, nothing. They were free. How can I charge you for them?” Then, with a smile, I will say, “ I’ll trade you for a buggy ride.”
As I got to the yard, Mike’s father came down the stairs of the porch. I thought of saying “How are you in,” in his language, but somehow didn’t. I showed Mr. King the many wonderful variations of baskets, one even shaped like a little duck. Mike had promised me that he was going to make me a very special basket this Halloween, and at times I would wonder what his artistic creativity was going to come up with. But no matter what it eventually turned out to be, just coming from Mike was going to make that Halloween basket award-winning. And all the while I was showing Mike’s father the baskets, I kept thinking, “Where is Mike?”, and the longer I talked to Mr. King, the more I started to think, “This is it, isn’t it?” “I have worn out my welcome, and Mike’s father is the go-between, the ambassador sent to tell the representative of the non-Amish world that it is time for this to end. Then, the words came.
“I have to tell you something bad about Mike,” he said. Do angels lose their wings? Can a person be un-born and cease to exist? Because if that is not possible, then it is equally impossible for Mike to have done anything bad. And I listened in silence, a silence that was only seconds before Mr. King continued, but one that seemed interminable as I wondered what Mike could have done that was so “bad” that he was not here right now. Whatever it was, I was sure we would get through it and save Mike from further harm. After all, this was the child who walked through the field of scorpions unharmed. So, this must be some sort of mistake.
“Mike drowned Saturday night. We buried him yesterday,” came the unbelievable words. His family had tried desperately to get in contact with me to let me know in time to attend the services, yet in all my basking in this land that time forgot, I had never introduced Mike to the pain of phone numbers, including mine. I stood in numb sorrow and disbelief, and even that does no justice to describing the enveloping hurt that came with that moment. When angels have delivered their messages, they return to God. The angel whom God had sent to teach me that love and kindness still exist had left me and gone home.
Mr. King placed one finger over his top lip to keep from crying, and for a moment, tears formed as he fought to keep composure. I was being selfish to want to grieve at MY loss, when here was his father who had just buried a very beloved son. And being the “toughy” that I am, I tend to cry out of sight of anyone, to grieve alone like a lone wolf. I fought back the tears and spoke for a while with Mike’s father, planning on letting my emotions go as I drove home.
A long ride home it was. Beginning with the road that Mike first took me on, I slowly re-traced the sights I had seen from his carriage, my classroom, but knowing that it would never be the same without Mike taking me there, I sadly turned the car homeward. The thirty-minute drive became several hours as I just drove around, grieving out of sight of those who could never understand. And I guess for a long time to come, I am going to catch myself looking at passing carriages when I am up that way, straining to make out the face of the person inside and see if it is Mike, aching for that heavenly smile. Some dreams do fade slower than others. The words to that song came to mind, “We’ll meet again…,”and I thought of how that will be one solace, my belief that we do reunite with loved ones after death.
The coming years will soften this sorrow and shock at the loss of an Amish angel I once met, but his lessons in a deeper and more spiritual love for others will stay on with me forever and, hopefully, will help me to become more like the person I admired in him. In the midst of my greatest crisis, when I was in peril of losing any faith I had left for the goodness in human beings, I met someone who reminded me that good people do indeed still exist. I only wish that this one had lived a lot longer. But this I know, whenever I am tempted to think that everyone is selfish, self-centered and unkind, I will remind myself that there was someone who taught me to realize that, for all of the unkind people in this world, there are still some angels left.
Mike King died Saturday, August 2, 2003.
He was buried Tuesday, August 5, 2003.