"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," said Paul, the Apostle. Every Mennonite knows that, it goes without saying. If it goes with saying, however, you can get fired. That's what happened to our Sunday School teacher at the time in life when I was busy graduating into the world of home-made learning in Grünthal.
Heinrich Warkentine was lively and intelligent but sometimes his imagination took the bit into its teeth and headed off on its own course. One Sunday when it took off, Mr. Warkentine told us about faith. He said, "Evidence of things not seen but everywhere among us is an example. Not one of you," he said, "has ever seen love made and yet the fact that there are more than two and a half billion people roaming this sinful planet means it happens all the time. Evidence of things not seen," he concluded. "And till next Sunday, let us have faith to further examine faith."
The following Sunday, that Sunday school class was suddenly twice the size, and more than a dozen learning-bent students ("learn-lusty" in German) were standing at the back of the class ready for new adventures in faith.
The door opened and the Sunday School superintendent himself arrived to conduct the class. His name was Abraham A. Martens, a short fellow with a thin neck and a long, sad, red nose who always gulped when others cleared their throats. Mr. Martens expressed weak opinions with a strong voice. No one ever stood close to him because his nickname was Mister Halitosis, the biggest word anyone in our age group knew and understood. He spoke Low German on the street and High German in church and a bit of English once in a while and ended most every sentences with, "And that's for sure?"
He came into the classroom in his usual brown-striped suit with a shiny seat and folded his hands and said the other teacher was sick and we took that on faith. But that was a lie. Teacher Heinrich Warkentine had been sent packing because "his witness left something to be desired."
So we had to start all over again, even if some of Teacher Warkentine's influence could not be repaired. He had said, at the door, after dismissal by the authorities, that he had intended to tell us students that "Money and funerals are the biggest Mennonite hobbies."
I did not know yet that talking about such things was "taboo." Teacher Warkentine was gone just when we thought you could be a good Christian and learn about the unspeakable at the same time.
I had almost forgotten about that episode until last week when a radio broadcast brought it all back to mind. Radio Station CFAM announced that two younger people had stopped their black Jeep not far from Kleefeld, pretending they were in trouble. When an older man stopped to see if he could be of help, they pulled him, John W. Bergen, out of his pickup truck, beat and kicked him and then proceeded to drag him for a stretch on frozen gravel after taking off his pants.
Church members within a twenty kilometre radius took to the phone and spread the news of sin in consternation and much alarm. "Time to really pray seriously for the lost youth," said some. "High time we brought back capital punishment," said others while my buddy Harvey P. said, "Give all those miserable little bastards a fair trial and shoot them."
When the news died down almost as rapidly as it had flared up, only the hot steam of gossip remained. My sister-in-law's Aunt Annie, not knowing that the story had almost blown over, still insisted on revealing many details of the attack, including that the victim had been wearing Loden thermal underwear.
It was then that I investigated. Knowing the victim from happier days of roving together, long back, I quickly decided that wearing any kind of underwear was uncharacteristic of the gentleman in question, so I packed a bottle of Scotch and visited the victim who was expected to be under a doctor's care for some months for treatment of a scraped bum and related injuries.
Of course, I promised John W. that I was never not going to breathe a word about the near tribulation he had sustained in this lowly waiting room to the firmament. But then we both knew how such promises worked. Similar to our neighbour Jacob Neufeld who once shot a deer buck in June just behind his barn with a twenty-two and told everyone about what a great shot he was and how excited he had been because it was so highly illegal and out of season and if the story would ever come out he might lose on the deacon ballot vote in church that fall and don't you ever tell a soul, please don't. Meaning that if anyone was to tell the story he was going to do it himself because the buck and the deliciousness of the story grew with every telling until he, Jacob Neufeld, even had to go secretly to a Mennonite chiropractor to have the spot repaired where the buck bucheled and butted him with his antlers.
That was the story I told John W. and then I added a few hunting stories myself in which I poached half of south western Saskatchewan empty of mule deer and antelope and even an elk which have been almost extinct in that area for over five thousand years. To give a little more credibility to the story I suggested, "Let me go to my pickup and see if I still have a roast or two of an illegal deer along by chance. John W.," I said, "I want you to have something as good and as special and as rare as a coconut is to an Eskimo." And sure enough, I located a good sized roast which was from a senior wild boar and smelled ripe even frozen and through the paper but no "self-respecting gourmet would have it any other way" and so John W.'s eyes sparkled when he said "Thank you, lots" as I steered him into the conversational stanchion.
I told John W. a few choice, well-aged stories yet from Germany when I had allowed a few Fräuleins to thank me in their own way for my version of Care packages.
This got him going because, while seventy-five, John W. is a Mennonite and as such, is competitive as hell and even capable of stretching a story to match mine. When I told him of meeting missionaries and the would-be convert turned more than tables on the lot, he started slapping his ass when he wasn't busy de-regalizing Chiva and then he laughed and said, "You don't say?" and asked me to repeat the stories.
Even though the Scotch started making me see the world as it ought to be rather than it is, I still had enough critical curiosity to extract a story from old John W. who was slapping himself more often with "You don't say?" with one hand while the other hand accommodated a parched gullet and a tongue now willing to engage in a little comparative unspeakables.
We were into bottle number two with a full head of steam when John W. finally opted for nothing but the truth and got on with his story. "Ever since retirement life has been a little boring and sometimes I can hardly stand it. In summer it's not bad because there are a lot of fish waiting to get caught. In fall it's not bad either because then you can still sit outside with a warm jacket and let nature tell you a story; it's always a good time to listen."
Our talk now rolled to a stall and did a bit of "Dai Bozhe" or "Bottoms Up!" ("Sure," she said, "but let me finish my drink first!") at which John W. roared lustily and said, "You don't say?" and then he put down his drink to scratch his missing thermals. "Where was I? Oh yes, it's the winter that tries to drive you crazy. Well, why shouldn't a self-respecting person who's worked hard all his life not have a little fun and a joke once in a while, I thought to myself.
"And so, for a few years now, I sell what I call farm fresh turkeys before the Christmas season. People like that and they are used to me coming around. And if they are a little happy even in the city, why not in the country, I thought."
"In the city, they become a little happy?" I asked.
"Sure," answered John W. "Haven't you heard the one about the woman in River Heights who asked the mailman in just before Christmas and gave him $5.00 and a drink of potent egg-nog and invited him into bed for a quickie? This mailman couldn't believe his luck because the woman still had late-model lines. So he asked her, `Is this a trap, or what the devil is going on?' `No,' she replied, `It's all very simple. I asked my husband last night, Jim, I says, what are we going to give the mailman for Christmas?'
`Oh, the mailman,' he says, `Give the bugger five bucks, a stiff drink and screw the overpaid joker,' he says.'"
Then I slapped my ass and said "You don't say?" and added. "I almost became a mailman myself," and then we drank to it.
Then John W. said, "That was just the way I saw it with the turkeys and I had one lady lined up who had long ago given me the come-on with her eye. So it worked good for four years but this Christmas we got carried away a little because I punched in for overtime and double shift. And then her man came storming in, boots and all, home from the city, while I was just getting myself respectable.
"And you know what this come-on lady then did? She tells her man, she says, `Jakob, now you just look what turkey suppliers you invite into the house. This guy here he gets personal with me and won't even get out when I tell him!'
"Well then Jakob Loeppky gets kind of wild in the eye and tells me `Out and I mean now!' So I leave, but then he has a change of heart for the worse and comes after me with his boys in their pickup and then it's three against one. Well, Jakob I could handle but then the boys got me behind the Kleefeld road and then they caught me and pulled off my pants and threatened to de-noodle me.
And what remained for me to do but to turn a little holy and pray like the Old Testament David, `Let a light shine' I yelled because I had from the corner of my eye already seen a car coming down that road. And now they thought I was some kind of a prophet and they quickly gave me a kick in the nuts and threw me into the ditch. So I played dead but the woman in the car she must have seen me. And then she made all the trouble."
We drank another round or so, both hopelessly sober after the telling of the tale.
Before I left an hour or two later, John W. asked me, "Say, you wouldn't be interested in buying a New Year's turkey or two, would you? I'll give you a good deal, okay.?"