Friday, December 14, 2012

Wouldst Thou Makest An Offer Thy Can't Refuse?

Hard to believe there is an Amish Mafia.

A few nights ago I was clicking through cable channels and stumbled upon a new program (to me) about the "Amish Mafia". WTF? Is this is where reality TV is going? Have the television producers run out of pop culture misfits, oddball families of midgets and alligator hunting yahoos along with twenty-something low-life skanks and drunks to entertain us and exploit the aforementioned societal debris for advertising dollars? Looks like it.

In this new television program they follow a cadre of so-called "Amish" enforcers that protect their settlements by enacting their own form of justice. They are said to be Amish but live outside the Amish community while members of their tightly knit enclave deny their existence. Amish racketeers? Seriously?

When many think of the Amish they think of the peaceful Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish are not Dutch, they're actually German in heritage. Lancaster PA comes to mind for most. The Amish are not confined to either Lancaster or Pennsylvania but through the east coast media and Hollywood motion pictures such as "Witness" they have been defined as such.

In north central Indiana there is a rather large settlement of Amish people. South central Michigan has a few as well. I have had personal encounters with some of them both past and present.

Years ago when my family would take trips to visit relatives in western Pennsylvania I was lightly educated in ways of the Amish people since we would see them at rest areas on the Ohio Turnpike (I-80) and riding in buggies down the side roads. My parents would uncomfortably answer my questions but I got the idea. In fact, Amish live in enclaves that dot the landscape from Eastern Pennsylvania all the way through Nebraska along the I-80 corridor. The Amana Colony in Iowa is one such well-known Amish settlement.

In Indiana the best known Amish community lies east of South Bend near the towns of Shipshewana, Napanee and Middlebury. Here they set up shops near town to lure tourists into purchasing their homespun goods. It's a chick thing really. Women get off on their quaint Amish bric-a-brack, furniture, comfort food establishments and bed-and-breakfast inns. My wife and her sister would meet there once a year to spend a weekend. I would jokingly accuse them of going there in order to de-frock the young Amish men. She would return with goods such as butter cheese, potato bread, beeswax candles and jars of natural honey in the comb. She also came back with some bric-a-brac and a kerosene lamp or two. They enjoyed it and her absence allowed me to have the run of the house to myself for one weekend a year.

Having spent a lot of time in Manhattan on business I would encounter a similar religious curiosity, the Hassidic Jews, a similar trapped-in-a-time-warp cult/sect similar to the Amish. One can spot them a mile away in their too-tight fitting hats, curly sideburns, macrame belts and black outerwear. And that's just the women. …I kid. They drive around midtown as groups in step-vans with the doors open and are a common sight at LaGuardia airport.

Then there is the sub-cult of the Amish known as Mennonites. Mennonites are different from the true Amish in a way that Orthodox Jews aren't quite as strict as the Hassidic Jews but a similar curiosity. Mennonites drive cars and use public utilities while Amish will use natural horsepower, heat and cook with wood and light by candles or kerosene. The Amish and Mennonites do seem to inhabit the same general geographic areas. Both are very religious and I respect them for that. They hurt no one, man. Or so I thought until I recently discovered …the dreaded Amish Mafia.

My personal encounter with the Amish happened near Centerville Michigan, original home of the one and only Vern Troyer who played Mini-Me in those hilarious Austin Powers films. He is their local treasure and claim to fame. In fact, if you meet an Amish person in Indiana or Michigan and their last name isn't Troyer, Miller or Yoder please let me know.

There was a fellow I knew casually named Jim who was the friend of the bro's brother-in-law. As a sidebar Jim passed away about a month ago. Jim owned a building supply company in northwest Indiana. Jim was a self-made man worth millions but he was as down to earth as a second generation American Slovak can be. He was very kind and generous but had the vocabulary of a longshoreman. Jim owned a large luxury home here in Indiana as well as one on a lake near Centerville. In addition he also had an unusual working farm in Michigan near Sturgis. The farm house held his collection of taxidermy trophies from birds to deer to fish that he shot and caught. Jim was an avid outdoorsman and his farm in the rolling hills of south central Michigan was his playground. Jim raised game birds to propagate his fields for hunting and raised fallow deer for food as well as the usual beans and corn. He shared his farm with a group of us who would go there for weekends to hunt, train the pointing dogs and have a great manly-man old time. He allowed us to spend nights in the farm house for weekend hunts. Jim also had his own personal Amish farm hand named Albie.

Since the Amish lifestyle was mysterious and intrigued me so, I took the time to converse with Albie, who was around my same age. Once I asked Albie if he would pose for a photo with me and he ran away to hide. Amish hate their photos being taken. They consider photos to be unacceptable acts of pride. He wore clothing sewn by his wife, all dark denim and held together with buttons. No modern zippers. His chin had the long beard but no mustache. A mustache is considered to be a military symbol to the Amish who (I thought) despise violence of any kind.

Albie would tool around JIm's farm on a John Deere tractor. I asked Jim what an Amish farmer was doing on a tractor. Jim explained that the Amish are allowed to work another man's land for a profit according to the man's rule but at his own farm Albie used draft horses to plow and harvest his own crops according to the Amish rule. I found this to be quite odd. Jim once claimed he made Albie the wealthiest Amish man in Michigan because he paid Albie $50,000 per year to work Jim's land and be his caretaker when Jim was unable to be on the premises. He trusted Albie and why not? If you can't trust an Amish dood who can you trust?We all got a kick out of Albie but in a respectful way. We never made fun at his expense and treated him as if he were one of us. But in reality he wasn't.

One Saturday morning the bro and two others in our hunt group decided to visit the local Amish grocery for provisions. After a trip down one-lane dirt and two-lane county roads, over hills and through the woods we came upon Miller's Store at a country intersection. The store was the only building there. It was made of cinder blocks and had no gas pumps but there was a gravity-fed kerosene tank. A few of those traditional horse drawn buggies were parked out front. We had to watch where we stepped to avoid the horse poop. It wasn't easy.

Once inside there were rows of shelves made out of wood planks and cinder blocks that held merchandise above the stark, cold concrete floor. There were Amish goods such as kerosene lamps and sewing materials, tools and kitchen utensils. Above the shelves were lamps that were gas fed through a long central tube for lighting. The grocery offerings were rather modern and pedestrian in nature such as boxed Kellog's corn flakes and Kraft Mac N' Cheese. And there were jars of oats, barley and other breakfast and baking grains as well as a complete line of canning equipment, mason jars and spice mixtures. I was puzzled that the cheese was kept in an electric grocer's cooler and not in an ice box. Even more curious was the young Amish woman at the checkout counter who took the money and made change using a digital electric calculator. So much for shunning modern conveniences. I didn't bother asking why electricity could be used for some things and not others. I didn't want to appear to be nosey and allow them some respect. We strolled the aisles, bought some things and parted.

Later in the evening Jim mentioned that he spoke to Albie earlier that afternoon. Albie told Jim that our foursome was well noticed at Miller's store. Word got back to Albie's farm that Herr Miller and his family were worried about this big, burly group of English strangers who came into the store that day. They feared we were there to rob them. Now that's real Amish country where modern folks like us are looked upon with suspicion instead of tourist Amish country where outsiders are looked upon as a source of profit.

Another Amish encounter I had was commuting on the train into Chicago when I was working daily. A woman that became friends with and sat in on our commuting enclave was nearly my age. Denise had short blonde hair and was quite attractive. As time went on I learned that she was the wife of my son's math teacher in middle school. One day she referred to her Amish upbringing. Wow. Who knew? Seems that the previous weekend she attended a family reunion on a farm near Shipshe (as the locals call it). She told us about the two segments of her family, the ones who were still Amish and the ones who had left the reservation, so to speak. As she described it, the two groups were friendly and respectful but sat at different tables. Then I popped the question. Are you a Miller or a Yoder? She grinned and admitted she was a Miller.

On a rather frequent basis groups of Amish come into the world's foremost outfitter big box store where I work. They keep to themselves and rarely ask questions or socialize. They know what they are there for, hunting supplies. Most are into muzzleloaders of course and archery equipment. Yoder and his muzzleloader, hey that rhymes! One would think guns represent violence and very un-Amish but in reality the Amish are hunters of game for the table and from what I hear are quite good at it. They are amused by monitors placed in the store showing professionally made hunting and fishing videos and gather around to watch in amazement. The younger ones head for the hunting arcade video games to play shoot the rhinos. They gather to stare in at the huge collection of exotic African taxidermy.

One thing I don't like about the Amish is that they have no respect for animals. You would think that coming from one who hunts this is hypocritical for me to write, but no. The Amish treat horses and dogs as beasts of burden and have been known to abuse them. They believe God put animals on this planet to serve man but to me there is no reason to inflict unnecessary pain on them. Domestic livestock seems to be no different from livestock in the pasture and in pens. Not too long ago an investigative reporter from the Chicago news media did an expose about Amish animal abuse at horse auctions near Shipshe complete with hidden cams. Watching it made me cringe. They whipped the horses mercilessly and used electronic cattle prods. Go figure.

On the other hand I have a lot of respect for the Amish. There are a number of reasons. They keep to themselves, hurt no one and attempt to be as self-reliant as possible. The Amish place a high priority on family values and staying together. Amish are devout Christians. They avoid modern conveniences and shun popular culture. But in my personal experiences they are hard to figure out. While they appear to be self sufficient, devoutly religious and shun modern forms of convenience they also seem to relish partaking in them and breaking their own rules on occasion. They must know that walking around in mesh bonnets, long skits, wide-brim felt hats and Captain Kangaroo style hair cuts with long beards will draw attention but have the desire to be ignored. Me? I simply smile,nod and try not to stare. They prefer to be left alone and I respectfully honor their wishes.

The most puzzling aspect is this Amish Mafia program. Next week I plan on watching that show in it's entirety to find out what the bit involves. There is either something to it or it's simply another pre-rehearsed, highly directed and overly edited reality TV POS hustle. I bet it's the former.


Dan from Madison said...

"Have the television producers run out of pop culture misfits, oddball families of midgets and alligator hunting yahoos along with twenty-something low-life skanks and drunks to entertain us and exploit the aforementioned societal debris for advertising dollars? Looks like it."

Oh we aren't out of idiots by a longshot. They are making a "reality" show about devout Packer fans next year. Now THAT's entertainment.

Gerry from Valpo said...

Devout Packer fans? Why not, at least they are able to enjoy frequent championship seasons.

How about devout Cub fans? Now THAT'S funny!

The Cub fans have no clue what a championship season is yet remain as devout, clueless fans.

Better still, why not drunk Bear fans?

Carl from Chicago said...

That's some interesting stuff.

I never knew any Amish but did meet up with the Hutterites in Montana. I don't know the differences between the two but they were both outsider cultures.

Sadly enough they made a TV show about them.