Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intercourse News

Here then is my belated account of Thanksgiving with a religious community in Pennsylvania.

I was transported on a coach out of New York with fifty-odd foreign students from various nationalities. We were told that we would be separated into two groups: mine, alas, was bound not for the wonderfully-named town Mount Joy, but prosaic Lititz. There, we were told, devout families would earnestly await our arrival. For six in the morning, there was too much enthusiasm in the coach. It's a problem I often encounter: I'm not an enthusiastic person, but occassionally, a curious one, and often in life the two feelings are so confused as to lead to the same situation. Anyhow, there I sat, with enthusiasts, who always hasten time with photographs and card tricks, until we pulled into Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, where a horde of persons more enthusiastic still clustered, they were almost rabidly enthusiastic, and waving placards.

On the placards were all our names.

One by one the names were announced, and the foreing students led off, the understanding on their faces fitting for persons facing the firing squad. But, of course, the enthusiasm. A Taiwenese girl was mobbed by a family with six heads, and bundled into the black range-rover waiting. There a frail Japanese boy was smothered in an embrance that became a transporting clinch to the nearby car. It was one of the single most sinister sights of my life. I cringed below window-level in the overly-conditioned bus, shouts from outside, anticipatory cooing inside, and the deep gnawing fear that my language would be nowhere near exotic enough. In the melee, I made out my name, scrawled loosely onto cardboard, thrust aloft my three young boys with identical fringes, whose strength was clearly already beginning to flag. I had disappointed them. I had disappointed them already in my slowness. Finally my name was announced, and with a face I tried to push as far from hangdog-gallows as possible, I descended the coach into a restrained hug with the three fringes.

I would like to tell you, of course, that the family, three-fringes and all, belonged to a strange religious cabal. (Curiosity once again that compensation for want of enthusaism.) But the truth as often proved plain, hospitable and generous. If it helps fuel American steroetyping somewhat, two of the three children were home schooled. But the four days I stayed seemed designed to offer an object lesson in community, to a poor atomized individual like myself. No sooner had I arrived, then the mother of the family took me on a tour of the neighbouring area, which took in a children's playground carved from wood. As the firing squad reference from earlier might imply, I'm no military strategist, but I'd say this imposing structure was larger and harder to scale than Alcatraz. My host mother informed me that it had been planned, financed and constructed by the local community.

I knew that any melancholic furrowing of my brow would be badly taken, but I could not but recall the rusting imitatition tractor-frame, clambering upon which so many of my own childhood hours had been half-enjoyable whiled away. Three spots of snow drifted down. We clambered into the all-purpose-terrain car.

Driving home, a man was bent almost double by the side of the highway, wearing nothing over a lumberjack shirt, pushing his bony thumb out at the traffic. That, said my host mother, is Norm. Norm, it transpired, was severely handicapped, showing signs of celebral palsy, and lived on his own. The church took care of him. My host mother stopped the car, and for once I felt useful, opening my door and offering the seat to Norm, who wished to get to K-Mart. My host mother asked him when there if he wished us to wait. No, replied Norm, jerking his lumberjack shirt into the masses of K-Mart.

That night I fell asleep early, and woke in a young boy's bedroomm, with Lego on the floor. I was beginning to lose the last sixteen years of my life, which had proved so crucial in forming value-judgments.

I went to a chocolate factory, which began to assume a strangley appealing air. The factory was built by Charles Hershey, the world's first chocolate baron. Hershey deemed that not only should his workers receive a decent wage, health insurance and the like, but they also required - that universal American right - a playground ride. Not only this, Hershey constructed an entire town in which to house these factory workers. At the intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues, my host family informed me, tourists could often be seen scratching their heads in wonderment. We returned home. I began to play a promiment part in the grace said by my family before mealtimes. As in:

"Lord, thank You for bringing Ewan to our homes, to educate us in many things."

Or, the next day:

"Lord, may Ewan have a good day, with many good conversations."

The whole while grace was said, the hyperactive family dog yelped uncontrollably. I felt like the yelping dog.

The final full day in Pennsylvania was spent chasing Amish, the resident religious community notorious for spurning such technological innovations as electricity and modern hairstyles. Photography is to the AMish "graven images." The women wear their hair tightly slicked-back. This and about three other facts I learned in a trip through AMish country, or what purported to be it, yet seemed suspiciously like tourist bric-a-brac. An Amish horse-drawn carriage (such is their form of transport) moulded into a keyring! Amish jam! A vendor dressed as a real Amish! More fun was had in the towns through which we travelled, which seemed purposefully constructed around the industry. Each building looked like a residential unit, until you entered and found someone trying to flog you a stick of rock. One town, my favourite, was called Intercourse. There were bumper stickers procaliming I LOVE INTERCOURSE. I picked up six copies of the local rag, "Intercourse News" - those who ask first, are elcome to them...