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Coming of Age Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

After my father passed away, my brother and I helped mom clear away some of dad’s stuff he had accumulated over the years. Stuart Elwood Stanley, known to his readers as S. E. Stanley, was a creative nonfiction writer who traveled with environmental activists around the world and told their stories. His titles included Until We Breathe Again, Through Oily Waters, and Unwelcomed in the Jungle. His passions for writing, traveling, and the environment led to a fulfilling life for my father, and there was always a memento lying around the house as a conversation starter at every gathering. When dad got too old for global activism, we thought he had given up on writing. Even mom thought he had, with the exception of the occasional short story. That is why I was surprised to find a manuscript for a fictional novel in his bottom desk drawer. When questioned, my mother said that was what must have been keeping him up nights.

Mom let me have the manuscript. I took it out by the lake in the back yard where the grass was full and a dark rich green, cool to the touch. As a girl I had a special place where I would go and lose myself in a good book. There’s a rock under the big elm tree where I would lay my head and stretch out in the shade. Now I know a rock doesn’t sound like a comfortable pillow, but this one fits in the crook of my neck just right. The shade of that old tree kept me cool during hot summer days and kept the sunlight out of my eyes or glaring off the pages. It was such a perfect spot, so peaceful that I sometimes read myself to sleep. Those were the best naps.

Dad’s manuscript was simply titled Rumspringa. What I know of Rumspringa is that it is an Amish rite of passage, I guess you could say, for teenagers, usually around the age of sixteen. They get an allotted amount of time away from the community unsupervised to experience the modern world before deciding whether to commit to the church and their way of life, or if they would rather be part of the modern world. In this story the time came for protagonist Caleb Martin during the summer of nineteen ninety-two. He had an older cousin who did his Rumspringa three years prior. Caleb went to stay with him for a week.

In the first part of the book, dad introduces us to Caleb who dad describes as an innocent young man, naive to the ways of the modern world, knowing only the people and traditions of his loving community. Dad tells stories of Caleb growing up, showing us how he grew into such a well-adjusted young man. He’s beloved by his family and well liked within the community for his courtesy, honesty, and work ethic. His boyish charms are not unnoticed amongst the young ladies, especially Elizabeth Wilkinson, someone whom he shares a mutual interest in.

Caleb’s mom cries as Caleb leaves for his cousin Jacob’s (who now goes by Jake), fearing that he will be corrupted the way his cousin was and never come back. Caleb tries to reassure her that he is satisfying a mild curiosity and that is all. Yet, his mom still fears the worst, those being Jacob’s parting words.

I lost sunlight about the time I got to the middle of the book. I took it home with me where Otis, my fat orange tabby, yelled at me for coming home late and missing his feeding. I popped open a can of Friskies with that fwap sound that makes cat frantically verbalize their desire to eat like pigs. As I listened to Otis swallow faster than he could chew, I realized I was famished myself, but was in no mood to cook. Chinese take-out. Appetizers. Finger food. Things I could snack on while reading. Once I had my food, and a tall glass of sweat tea, I propped myself up on my second-hand sofa that sags in the middle, covered myself with the old quilt my grandma left me, and began the second part of the story.

Caleb was culture shocked going from a modestly furnished farmhouse to the one-bedroom apartment his cousin shared with his girlfriend and her little sister, who slept on the couch, where Caleb was supposed to sleep. The place was decorated with band posters that had ticket stubs and guitar picks from shows glued to them. A beaded curtain was all that separated Jake and Lilian’s room from where he and Natalie (Nat) slept. The place was filthy. Pizza boxes and beer bottles littered the kitchen and the coffee table that was pushed to the side, so it didn’t block the stereo and their three hundred plus CD collection. The place reeked of bong water, stale beer, and rotting food. Wet towels grew sour on the floor, and Caleb couldn’t have told you when the last time the sink or toilet were cleaned. A far cry from life back on the farm where everyone pitched in to keep everything pristine. Even his cousin had changed. He greeted him at the door with long hair, what someday will be a beard, T-shirt, kilt, and combat boots.

That first night there, Caleb slept with his clothes on, on top of the blankets. He had never felt so tense or in such an inappropriate position in his life. He could hardly sleep between the sounds of sex in the next room and the noise of the bar down below. Nat sensed his tension and offered to get him high, telling him it was something he had to try before going home. They sat in bed smoking and talking for hours. Caleb saw something exciting in Nat, found her to be pretty too, once he really looked at her. He enjoyed the sensation of being high. He loved laughing and loved having someone to laugh with. Nat took him for a walk that night to show him the city. To him, everyone looked strange, but he was the one standing out in his nicely pressed shirt, trousers, and suspenders, toped of with a straw hat. Everyone else had cut their jeans into shorts and wore flannels around their waist. They wore big heavy boots and even the guys had long hair, some had their hair sticking up in spikes. They were loud and rowdy, especially when they heard angry music. Nat bought him food out of a truck before going back inside. It was the highlight of Calebs day to see food being served from a truck.

Jake introduced Caleb to drinking. Caleb didn’t care for the taste, but his cousin told him to keep doing it for the effect and eventually he would crave the taste. So, Caleb drank beer like it was Mrs. Hartwell’s freshly squeezed lemonade on a hot afternoon after a day in the fields. He quickly went from apprehensive to relaxed and having the time of his life to stumbling his way to the bathroom. The next thing he knew, Nat was wiping his chin and Jake was telling him its always like that for a rookie, that he just needs to keep drinking. Caleb crawled into the tub and slept it off that night.

The next day Caleb was introduced to the hangover, and it was the same day as Lalapalooza. Everyone was stoked to see an assortment of bands including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers perform on one venue all day long. They were not about to let him sleep it off. On the way there, Nat told him to stick out his tongue. When he did, she put something on his tongue. He asked if it would help with his headache. She laughed, and said, “Oh yeah.”

Caleb noticed that everyone with torn-up and worn-out clothing came out of the woodwork for this event. The place was massive. There were seats and there was a field, where they hung out at, and concession stands where people insisted on buying him beers, and vendors selling all sorts of trinkets and paraphernalia. Caleb was overwhelmed. It was much bigger than their barn dances back home. He even asked Nat if there would be dancing. She laughed, and said, “Oh yeah.”

When the opening band hit the stage, the acid Nat gave Caleb started taking affect. The lights radiated and traced across the sky. He thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen, but he wanted to dance despite the music not being his choice for dancing. He asked Nat where everyone was dancing at. She pointed to a swirling ocean of people at the front of the field, just before you got to the seats. “It’s called a mosh pit,” she told him. “Do you really want to try it?”

Nat grabbed Jake and Lilian and informed them that Caleb wanted to try moshing. Jake went with him. They got to the edge where people were pushing and shoving, jumping all around. Jake asked Caleb if he was sure, but before he could answer, he was knocked in, Jake along with him. They were pushed, they were pulled. They were kicked, they were hit. Before they knew it, they were sucked into the middle of the human whirlpool that was the Lalapalooza mosh pit. Caleb thought he was in the depths of hell. Contorted faces from the acid were grabbing at him, hurting him. The good thing about growing up Amish and working so hard is that you grow up strong. He shoved, he punched, he kicked, he even threw people to get out of there. Once he was out, he was sweating and breathless. Nat asked him how it was. All he said was that his headache was gone. Caleb stayed away from the swirling gateway to hell for the rest of the night. He stayed to the back of the field where he drank, got high, and enjoyed the music and the lights.

Most of what Jake and his friends did was eat greasy food, listen to music, and get wasted. Caleb partook right along with them. But before Caleb had to make the decision to return home or not, a large group got together for a sober day at an amusement park. Caleb tried every ride. Nat insisted. He loved the roller coasters and water rides, but some of the rides shot him in the air and dropped him too quickly, spun him around and made him too dizzy. All-in-all he had a good time. He had himself a turkey leg and an eight-dollar soda for lunch.

By his last night there he was comfortable enough to sleep under the covers in just his boxers with Nat, and he was sleeping much easier. That night, however, something woke him up. Nat was close to him. He could feel the smoothness of her leg rubbing against his. Then she drapes her leg over his and she presses up against him. He feels aroused by this and she knows it because has a firm grip on his manhood. “There’s one more thing you need to experience before you make a decision,” she purred into his ear.

Caleb sprang out of bed, surprising, and offending, Nat. “No, no, no. No. I’ve made my decision. I’m going home to Elizabeth. I love her and when I get back, I’m going to ask Mr. Wilkinson if I can court her properly. Then when we’re married, I’ll experience that.

Nat understood, although she had hoped she could seduce him into staying the way her sister did Jake. Jake and Lilian and all the other people he had met understood as well. Jake took him home the next day, to Caleb’s mother’s relief. They had a good old fashioned barn dance to celebrate his return. That night he asked Mr. Wilkinson if he could court Elizibeth with the intentions of marriage and family. He said yes. Caleb and Elizabeth danced as a couple for the first time that evening.

I guess we are all like Caleb. We start out innocent and naïve. Everything we need most is right there at home. Then one day we see that there is a whole world of things to experience, and we set off to sow our wild outs before returning to where we were, maybe a little bit wiser, but back to having all we really want and need right at home. Whereas Caleb only needed a week I, at twenty-eight, needed a decade and my father’s manuscript to realize that I’ve reached that point in my life where I’m tired of changing addresses more times than I do my oil. I’m no longer satisfied with casual relationships. I don’t want to run around partying and seeking attention anymore. I just want that stability I had when I was younger back and someone to share it with. It makes me wonder why my dad wrote this but didn’t attempt to have it published. Is it a personal reflection of himself. He was away more than at home when I was a child. Was he still sowing his wild oats all those years until one day he had to say no more? Did he hit a point in life when he started to miss the comforts of home and the familiar warmth of his wife’s touch? Did my dad experience his own Rumspringa? Do we all?  

Sunlight returned, peaking through the living room curtains. Otis left his spot on my belly to check out the birds chirping outside. My eyes were tired. I don’t think I had ever done that much reading in one night. Before going to bed, I called mom and asked her what she thought about publishing dad’s last book in his memory. She loved the idea.

May 24, 2024 03:23

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7 comments

Myranda Marie
18:57 May 25, 2024

I was thinking as I read, Rumspringa is truly an experience we all go through , most without the proper title. I think being given permission and opportunity to experience life is probably healthier than simply stumbling through years of bad choices. There's such a great lesson here.

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Trudy Jas
13:11 May 25, 2024

Choices and decisions. Meeting dad at last.

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Alexis Araneta
12:37 May 25, 2024

A very poignant tale ! One thing I will say, though, is that whether one chooses to be like Caleb and choose what is familiar or like Jake and choose a life outside that is more them, it is THEIR decision, and we should respect them. No choice is more valid than the other. Brilliant work !

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Ty Warmbrodt
13:16 May 25, 2024

That's a very good point! Some people need longer to sow their wild oats than others. The point of the story is that we all have that desire to sow them no matter how long it takes. Thank you for reading!

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Kristi Gott
01:07 May 25, 2024

The concept of finding the father's manuscript after the father passed away invites the reader to feel the father's presence may still be there for the son, providing wisdom when the time is right. The contrast between the rumspringa and the path the son chooses at the end makes this story show the main character changing from the beginning to the end, so there is a good story arc for the character. The details made the characters come alive. Very well done!

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Darvico Ulmeli
09:38 May 24, 2024

I used to watch many documentaries about Amish life, so most of the material in this story is familiar to me. But that didn't stop me from reading your story until the end. Nice work.

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Mary Bendickson
06:23 May 24, 2024

Pretty good lesson in there.

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