Monday, March 19, 2012

“We are a simple people, don’t you know.”  

So says Amos Levengood as we zip along New Holland Pike in his horse-drawn buggy. He says it so sternly that putting a question mark after his words would seem impertinent. 

Actually “zipping” would not be an accurate description of the pace of this journey. Nonetheless, we are en route to the Shady Maple Smorgasbord, a local landmark with a buffet the size of a football field, located just east of Blue Ball on Route 23, about 12 miles from Levengood’s home in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.  The trip should take about four hours. 

The buggy, a GNL-940, was custom-manufactured for Amos and his family by the Great Northern Livery Company, Inc., of Greenville, Wisconsin. This is about as far a trip as Amos Levengood ever makes.  He has never been more than 100 miles from the house in which he was born. I, by comparison, am a world travel.  But I might as well be a space alien as far as Amos is concerned.  Despite having parents born within the community and having a distinctly Pennsylvania German name, I’m still an “English” to the likes of Amos. My parents left the Amish community in the late 1960s after a botched attempt to establish a break-away community in Delaware.  Our family resettled in Birdsboro, a small, economically depressed “English” town in neighboring Berks County, where we started using electricity, driving automobiles, and shaving.  We also stopped constructing sentences such as “Throw your father down the stairs his hat” (indirect objects wreak havoc in the Pennsylvania German dialect). Amos reminds me of

this linguistic appendage when he mentions that we’ll be making a brief stop as we leave the farm to “throw the cow over the fence some hay.”

Mr. Levengood is deeply suspicious of my hyphenated last name—perhaps moreso because I am male. Tellingly, the Amish alphabet does not even contain the hyphen—a character associated with rebellion in this patriarchal and authoritarian culture.

But the times, as they say, are a-changin’, and nowhere is the accompanying tension so pronounced as it is right here in Lancaster County, the iconic capital of Pennsylvania “Dutch” culture and the Amish religious community that forms it.  Technology seems to be getting its tentacles into everything these days, with nothing and no one remaining untouched.  Historically the Amish have been tenacious resisters.  For example, my tour guide, Amos Levengood, declined to have his photograph taken for this interview piece.  Other Amish—both men and women—are much less camera shy.  Some are even willing to be videotaped.  In fact, seven years ago, Amish youth were featured in a reality television series, Amish in the City, which ran on the UPN network.  It featured a group of five Amish youths living in a house with six “English,” modern American teenagers. 

Central to the series was the controversial practice of Rumspringa, or “running around,” a brief period of letting Amish youth sow their wild oats (in some cases literally) before deciding whether they will fully commit themselves to the lifestyle of the community as adults.  Only about ten percent eventually decide to go their own way, but some say that figure is growing, and suggest that technology is the driving force.  Think Marshall McLuhan borrowing a hat from the Quaker Oats guy. 

Most “English” don’t realize how varied the interpetations of the proper role of technology in the life of the Amish can be or should be.  It is vast.   And some Amish—mostly youth—are more liberal in their interpretations of technology than previous generations, whether or not they are public with their views and practices.  Accordingly, many Amish are using technology “on the downlow.”  I experience this firsthand when Amos asks me to reach into the glove compartment of his buggy to get him some Chicklets.  There, partially but not completely hidden under the owner’s manual, is an iPad 2.  I say nothing and hand over the Chicklets.  

Breaking Away?  Randy Quaid got the
ball rolling in 1996 with Kingpin, the 
story of an Amish bowling prodigy.
An earlier wave of extramural yearning occurred some fifteen years ago, and may have presaged the current tech-inspired exodus of commitment to traditonal Amish values. The 1996 movie Kingpin, in which Randy Quaid portrays an Amish bowling prodigy who is mentored by a washed-out former champ played by Woody Harrelson, had a big effect on Amish youth, especially boys.  Suddenly, bowling became very popular in the Amish community as many boys thought of it as their ticket out.  One of them, Jacob Weissmüller, or “Jake 710,” as he eventually became known, did make it to the Pro Bowlers tour, and is now considered something of a young, Amish version of Earl Anthony. He continues to wear his big black hat while bowling—for good luck.  

The recent explosion of digital technology is making the current generation of Amish youth even more vulnerable to outside influence.  In Amos Levengood’s own community, it has produced a promising young Amish rap artist, Isaac Eisenhauer, better known as “D.D. Ike-1.” As it happens, my dinner companion, Amos Levengood, played an inadvertent role in Mr. Eisenhauer’s ascendance to the hip hop pantheon.  A surreptitiously-recorded iPhone video of Amos doing his impersonation of the local ward heeler at a community barnraising went viral, when Isaac and his friends dubbed some music over the video and placed an accompanying rap track, “Famous Amos,” over the video.  The Famous Amos in question was not amused.

 “I am just a quiet, simple man who desires to live his life unencumbered by the chains of modernity,” he says.  “But I do enjoy doing impressions.”

Unfortunately, some Amish youth have been acting out in less creative—and more destructive—ways.  Last week, Reuters reported—in a story that was picked up in the U.S. by the Huffington Post—another tale of Amish youth gone wild.  Four young men were charged with underage drinking after drag racing their buggies on the streets of Sherman, New York, ultimately crashing one of the carriages into a police cruiser.  Oh, by the way, they were drunk, too. 

“Wine is a mocker,” says Amos Levengood. “But the Word of God is silent on drag racing.” As we wait in the massive serpentine queue for admission to Shady Maple, I ask Amos if he saw or heard about the story in the Huffington Post.

“Huffington what?” he asks me.  “No, no sir, we do not use electronic farm equipment, my friend.”

An awkward silence follows.  I know, as I look around and inspect the massive crowd at Shady Maple, about half of them dressed in traditional garb—a small swell of which is now congregating at the tripe bar—that even if Amos is not familiar with this current Amish remake of Fast and Furious in upstate New York, surely he has heard of some such incident, as similar ones have been been reported in Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  While some view these stories with repulsion, others in the community prefer to take these sour cultural lemons and make lemonade.

Hoping to seize on this newly-realized “need for speed” among the Amish, a group of enterprising young men convened recently in Ephrata, Lancaster County, to explore the possibility of giving organized direction to this racing impulse and perhaps legitimizing it.  As a result, a parent organization, NASCARt, was formed and named its commissioner, 27-year-old Hector Landis of Morgantown, Pennsylvania. An inaugural race, the Elverson 500, is planned for June of 2013. For those readers wondering how many years it would take a buggy to race 500 miles, rest assured that the “500” measures furlongs, not miles.  Accordingly, the race should take only about a year to complete.

Whether or not Amish drag racing has any traction within its own community, the idea is obviously compelling to Hollywood. Already a producer from the Lifetime cable network has been scouting locations for a made-for-TV movie about Amish drag racing.  Slow and Ponderous will air next January, starring Kelly McGillis as a sort of Amish version of Shirley Muldowney.

The Need-for-Speed over Creed?
NASCARt  Commissioner Hector Landis

Amish drag racing.  What will they think of next?

“I do not know,” says Amos Levengood.  “I was young and now I am old (he’s 53) but I have never seen the likes of these current unfoldings.”

As we head back to the buggy after a meal of scrapple fingers and Susquehanna River Sea Bass, the curiosity gets the best of me as we pull back onto Route 23 and Amos brings the horses up to speed.

“So.  How fast can you get this thing up to?”

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