By John Thomas Tuft
The little town lies fifty miles north of Pittsburgh, with the dubious distinction of lying approximately halfway between Youngstown, Ohio and Grove City, Pennsylvania—neither of which is known for being particularly forward thinking. Before you come at me, both my son and daughter in law are graduates of Grove City College, but this story takes place in New Wilmington, PA, home to one of their rivals: Westminster College. New Wilmington, population 2204, and the surrounding pastoral Lawrence County is home to a large population of Old Order Amish. The 16, 17, and 18 year old version of Jack, as I was known then, worked summers there, laboring to set up in preparation, serve during and deconstruct for the feeding, sheltering and cleaning up after the attendees of the New Wilmington Missions Conference. It was 12-14 hour days of hard labor from constructing a dining hall, lugging hundreds of mattresses, thousands of tables and chairs, to digging endless postholes, dishwashing for 3600 settings each day (I still have nightmares about the pots and pans), to cleaning the fieldhouse bathrooms for 500 high school boys loosed upon the earth like a pestilence.
It was all done under the supervision and bright, but irascible, eye of Doc Wayne Christy, a wiry New Testament professor and tennis and volleyball afficionado. It’s hard to tell which meant more to him, sports or scriptures, and saints preserve you if you missed setting up a spike in the nightly volleyball matches in his yard against the dreaded college kids. With all due respect to those nonwinners, we didn’t dare lose. The work hardened our young muscles, the sun tanned my skin and bleached my blonde hair, and I point that out for no better reason then that there were 700 high school girls there, also, for the conference. Amen. Come along if you will, and I’ll show you the tree on the campus of Westminster College that I sat under each evening of the conference with the lovely Miss Linda Michaels, but couldn’t muster the courage for a kiss until the last minute of the last evening…Jack’s a shy guy at heart, but you already know that.
Slippery Rock Creek runs through the area, past the old grinding stones of McConnell’s Mill, through the gorges and forests seeking rivers and runs. Some say there are intimate mysteries and shaded shadows of ancient tales that rise with the evening mists along its tree lined banks. Drive the back roads, through the hills and pastureland, past the neat frame houses under giant trees, sturdy barns standing like sentinels in the evening dews and damps, steering around the ever present horses and buggies of the Plain People, until you are lost on a dirt lane, that leads to a hidden path, that leads to an old cave. It is home of the primed depths where stories begin–form and rise; some unbidden, some needing a gentle midwife. Some kicking and screaming, newborns breathing oxygen for the first time.
The guardian of that sacred grotto, that repository of our stories, all our poems and songs, is the griot (gree-oh). Earth’s only true royalty, much in demand at weddings and funerals, family reunions and cultural gatherings, books and prayers, the griot began their existence in West Africa, but now their spirits freely roam the land. Collecting and inspiring storytellers of all stripes. I met one my second summer in New Wilmington.
Summer mornings in New Wilmington would find four teenage boys pushing a 1949 Chevy flatbed truck down Market Street past The Tavern on the Square restaurant, Doc at the wheel ready to pop the clutch. The first chore after breakfast was to humor the cranky starter and get it going with manpower. Get it up to speed, legs churning-arms burning, into gear, and grab the slatted sides and swing up onto the back of the truck because you didn’t dare stop, and ride on down the street to campus, hair flowing in the breeze, sun on our faces, fearless and unbowed. We pulled up to the back of the fieldhouse on a small incline, loaded folding chairs onto the back; 100 on, 1100 to go. Leave the slats off the rear, easier to unload them. Climb on top of the chairs. She won’t start. Doc drifts it down the slope, pops the clutch, and I go flying.
The pavement is rushing at my face. In a blink, I’m face to face with the rear tire. Chairs tumble around me. Everyone screams. Everything stops. Except Doc. Unaware of the calamity he drives on. Having hooked my one foot into a side slat before we started is all that saves me. I’m swinging wildly, pavement an inch from my face, the tire grabbing at my shirt. All ends well. Later, I’m stacking chairs in the belly of the outdoor auditorium stage, alone, when he steps out of the shadows. “Jack,” the griot says, quietly. “I have your stories. Come for them when you are ready.” Then he is gone. I step back into glare of sunlight beating off the waters of Brittain Lake, knowing that some day I will be back. I will be back to reclaim those stories.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.