Thursday, February 02, 2017

Visiting Uncle Johnny

I used to read The Story About Ping to the children.  Ping was a duck who had "two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins."

I had two sisters and three brothers and nine aunts and nine uncles (if you count spouses too) and I think fifty-two cousins.

It's odd.  When you’re little, aunts and uncles are just part of the landscape of your life, drifting in and out of importance, fun to imitate and discuss, and enjoyable to visit, but you only visit them when Mom and Dad take--or drag--you along.  Or they come to visit you, and you observe that your mom and dad are subtly different people when they are with their siblings.

Then you start a family and live far away, and aunts and uncles get old and die, but you are busy with your life so it's sad but you move on.

Suddenly you wake up and realize that you have lots of questions about family history, the past, and who your parents used to be, and the only people with access to this repository of information and stories are your aunts and uncles, and almost all of them are gone.

A few years ago, I resolved that even though I lived in Oregon and had a busy life, I was going to visit my remaining aunt and uncle, Mom's sister Vina in Iowa and Dad's brother Johnny in Kansas.

Two years ago, I spoke at a ladies' retreat in Illinois. Afterwards, Paul and I drove to Iowa and spent a few days with Aunt Vina.  She told stories while I took notes the best I could while laughing til I cried.

I asked her deep and hard questions as well, and left with a new understanding of my mom.

But I still needed to visit Uncle Johnny in Kansas, a difficult assignment when you live in Oregon.

“You’ll probably come see me when I’m in a box,” he told me during one of our phone conversations. Johnny can be a bit melancholy.

And yes, he talks on the phone despite being Amish.  He also zips around during the week on a tractor.  I think he’s New Order, but I’m not sure.  The Amish church in Hutchinson, Kansas, has always played by its own rules.

When we planned this trip, we had events on two consecutive weekends—the INSPIRE ladies’ retreat in Indiana and the BMA Ministers’ Weekend in Delaware.  But what should we do in between?

“Let’s visit Uncle Johnny.”

So we did.

“Now when you come in the driveway, you’ll be coming around the west side of the house,” he told me on the phone.  “There’s a yard light on the north side.  You can park there, right on the grass, it’s ok.  Come in the north garage door and then go in the west door and there’s a door to the basement.  Your room is west of the kitchen.  Ich hap da fridge aw kschtekt fa eich. [I lit the fridge for you.]”

Got it.

The sign on the door said, “Johnny’s Econo Lodge.” He hosts a lot of guests.

I grew up in Minnesota, so I was used to farmers who orient themselves around the four points of the compass rather than right and left.  “Go north on Highway 4 out of Grove City, then west on 3, and north again on 532nd Avenue.” That sort of thing.

But Kansas was even more of a perfect grid than Minnesota, with no lakes to mess up the graph-paper lines, and Johnny was probably the most direction-oriented guy I’ve ever seen.

“The east one!” he said, when I wasn’t sure which of two switches was for the living room light.  “There’s room for that on the west side,” when I was putting the milk in the fridge.

Johnny’s granddaughter Kimmy said it’s not just him—this is how Kansans are.

At 93, Johnny is still Dad’s little brother and his only living sibling.  The two send long letters back and forth, and when they’re together, like at Dad’s 100th birthday party, they can’t hear each other but still communicate just fine.

They both remember names, dates, and events with unbelievable accuracy and detail.  Johnny is more a natural storyteller than Dad, but both of their tales come bubbling from a deep well of memory, spinning off into lists of facts about who moved to Indiana in 1957 and who went to Garnett, Kansas; who was ordained bishop, and when, births and baptisms and marriages and deaths, interspersed with unexpected details. Lydia was a widow who married Levi Knepp. Their daughter Sarah married a Schweitzer named Manual Zehr, and their daughter Lydiann married Joe Helmuth.

Schweitzer??  Is that a “Swiss Amish”? I’m not sure and didn’t have a chance to ask.

Johnny and Dad both have clear memories of their school days in Oklahoma and the odd mixture of cultures—Amish, white American, and Native American—a Cheyenne/Arapaho mix.  “The Dutchman, the White Man, and the True American, we called ourselves,” Johnny told me.  “The Amish and Indian girls were alike because they always wore dresses and wore their hair in long braids.”

When they exchanged names for Christmas, the Amish kids liked it when the Indian kids got their names because they would actually have money to buy gifts, thanks to the government stipends they got. When Johnny was 7 or 8 years old, Richard Tallbull Bearhead had his name and gave him a little cast-iron car.  He still has it.

Cousin Freeman's daughter Kayla modeled the shawl.
Johnny also brought out an embroidered, tasseled shawl he got from an Indian man.  “Maybe he’ll do the Indian dance,” said Kimmy.  “He still knows how.”

To my disappointment, he didn’t indulge us.

Bertha has been gone for a couple of years now, and you can tell that Johnny still grieves deeply for her. He was 18 when he asked Bertha for a date.  She turned him down.

Her dad said,  “What’d you do that for? You’re 16 now!”

Her mom said, “Oh, if he really wants you, he’ll be back.”

He did, and he was.

My dad was away in CPS during that time.  Johnny had gotten the farm deferment, and he and his dad, John A, Senior, worked like horses, doing the work of three or four men.

In addition, John A. had been ordained bishop, which meant he had to travel to other churches to hold communion services.  One weekend he was gone to eastern Oklahoma.  “Meet me at the bus stop in Weatherford at 2:00 Monday morning,” he said.

Johnny and Bertha went on a date which must have gone late, because Johnny didn’t bother going to bed.  He took the horse and buggy to town and tied them up behind the grocery store, then waited out front.  Bill Evans, the policeman, was parked in front of the store.  He was leaned back in his seat, with his hat over his eyes, looking sound asleep.

The bus came and it was full of army boys.  “But no Dad.”

He waited some more.  After a while another bus came.  This one was also full of army boys. And no Dad.

What now?  He asked around.  No, they weren’t expecting a third bus.

So Johnny untied the horse, headed for home, and went to bed.

The next morning he got up at 5:00 to do chores. 

[I can’t see how he could have gotten more than an hour of sleep.]

He came downstairs and there was John A at the kitchen table.  “Where were you?” Johnny said.  “Where were YOU?” said his dad.

A third bus had arrived after Johnny left.  His dad was on it.

Bill Evans, who was somehow aware of everything that had transpired despite seemingly snoozing in his car all night, told John A. that his son had been there, parked behind the store, but he left after the second bus came.

Bill said, “Hop in.  I’ll drive you home.”

Three miles from home, Bill looked at his gas gauge. “I can’t take you any further.  I have just enough gas to get back to town.”

John A said he could give him some gas from the tank at the farm, but Bill refused. “I’m not supposed to do that.”

So Bill went back to town and the tired bishop who had just spend the weekend away at the thankless task of helping a church with communion, and who faced another week of endless physical labor on the farm, gathered his things and walked the three miles home.

“He was all about peace and love,” Johnny says.  Other bishops would lay down the law, but John would give people a chance.  A man in the church who was good at leading singing “had a problem with tobacco. Other people said, ‘He shouldn’t have any responsibilities in church.’ But Dad went and talked to him. ‘We’ll keep you on as song leader, and you see if you can’t do something about that habit in the next year.’ And Dad let ‘em go if they wanted to leave the Amish and go to the Mennonite church.”

Not all bishops are that gracious when people want to leave the church.

Then it was time for a joke.  “I never quit smoking,” Johnny told us, looking serious.

We thought, “WHAT?!”

“I never started either,” he said, and laughed and laughed.

Believing in peace and love carried a higher price then than now.  Mose Yoder—was he Johnny and Dad’s cousin or was he Bertha’s uncle? I can’t remember—was drafted in World War I.  Years later, he would sit at “Bendick Dawdy’s” and tell stories.  Since there were no provisions for conscientious objectors, he was in the camps with the “army boys.”  It was really tough.  Johnny didn’t give details, but I know there were Anabaptist CO’s who died in similar situations.   But then the army boys started getting sick, one after the other, and pretty soon almost all of them were down, but Mose never got sick.  He would go around and take care of the others, bring them water, clean up after them, and even clean up their puke.  And thus he won their respect. Things went much better after that, and he was put in charge of the CO boys.

This is why it’s good to visit elderly aunts and uncles.  You get a glimpse of the “great cloud of witnesses” in your past.  And you start to understand that posting a Peace and Love meme on Facebook is a very different thing than cleaning up your enemies’ vomit.

Like Dad, Johnny is fascinated with how life cycles around and comes full circle. After World War II, Dad worked with MCC, Mennonite Central Committee, helping to settle Mennonite refugees in Paraguay.  Among their many other projects, MCC has a portable meat canner staffed by volunteers who take it around to different farming communities and process meat to be sent to places like tuberculosis hospitals in North Korea.  The canner came to Kansas last year, and the young men in charge of it stayed at Johnny’s Econo Lodge.  Two of the young men were from Paraguay, grandchildren of the Mennonites my dad had helped out in 1947.

How cool is that?

No wonder I’m fascinated with stories, connections, and history.
Uncle Johnny's horses, the Kansas sun and wind, Paul's shadow, and me.
Quote of the Day:
“I look at Kim Jong Un and I think, he’s like five years older than me and he’s dictator of a country! What am I doing with my life?!”
--Johnny’s zippy granddaughter Kimmy Yoder

Kimmy talks with her hands. Like I do. So
it must be a Yoder thing.


  1. I love this story of your history. I have often thought, "I wish I could ask my grandmother stories of her past".

    1. There are so many things I still want to ask my mom.

  2. Oh so interesting! I only live an hour from Hutch. I was tempted to come to your book signing but really didn't have the time that day.

  3. Is John Yoder your cousin? He took some of us ladies fabric shopping during a dairy meeting one time...He has a very nice friendly wife.

    1. John Earl Yoder, married to Janice, is my cousin. They are very nice people.

  4. The Lydia you mentioned was my great grandmother. You and I have a mutual grandfather in Eli V. Yoder. The Joe Helmuth, you and mentioned, passed away several weeks ago. Maybe that's what brought up the subject of Lydia Knepp. Keep on writing. I enjoy your posts.

  5. So So interesting! Family history come to life.

  6. Love these "old stories". Was sad when the article ended.

  7. I love it too.... Makes me so homesick. More, please!

  8. Schweitzer is the dialect of German that my father grew up with. He was a Schrag. It is still spoken in the region of Switzerland where his ancestors came from. It may also be the name of the region, I'm not sure. So much fun to hear stories from my neighbor, Johnny. Glad you enjoyed your visit in Kansas.

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  10. Someone told me about this blog,so I had to find it right away this morning!
    Lydia Knepp was my grandmother,Emanuel Zehr,my father,and Lydian Helmuth,is my sister. My grandma Lydia had a very interesting life and history, which I'm sure you would be intrigued with.
    I was so sorry to miss Inspire 2017, several years ago we braved blizzard's and deep snow to get there. Thats how important it is to me! Lol I would love to meet you. We always visit Jonny when we go to Kansas. He called me several weeks ago, on his cell phone!
    I will have to read more of your writings! I enjoyed,your way with words. PS: I am told if I would sit on my hands,I wouldn't be able to talk! Lol

    1. So interesting! I've heard some Lydia Knepp stories. And I also heard about the Inspire that was held in spite of a blizzard.

  11. Oh my, yes. When I visited my relation in KS they were always talking about East, West, North and South. My Southern self has zero sense of direction (much to my KS born dad's dismay!) and I would stand there helplessly confused as to which way I was to go... But then I would smugly watch while they tried to figure out whether to tell me to go left or right!! :)