by Brian Kerstetter
E.T IN AMISH COUNTRY
“He is afraid. He is totally alone. He is 3 million light years from home.” This tagline from the 1982 movieE.T. characterizes my sentiments, one afternoon in the winter of 2003, when O. loaded a ragtag collection of friends into a borrowed diesel station wagon and transported us across state lines to the land of the European Free-Church Family of Mennonites, Brethren Quakers and other denominations. Otherwise known as the Amish.
Our objective was to film a scene in which we would outfit ourselves as urban hooligans and chase O.’s assistant, Kevin, attired in Amish costume, over the cropland of an Amish farmstead, strip him wholly naked, pull a synthetic E.T. mask over his head, and continue to hound him wielding golf clubs in the air. But I’m putting the cart before the horse, and that doesn’t do anyone any good in Amish country.
Looking back, I’ve never grasped why O. wished to impose a naked version of the 1980s iconic Hollywood character on our Amish brethren. They are, after all, a harmless people called to God via a simple life of faith, discipline, and humility, inclined to disregard the “English” and their dissolute ways and are generally afforded the same disregard in return. Were O. questioned as to why he imported E.T. to the Amish, I’d be willing to bet he would shrug his shoulders, as though pondering it for the first time, and say, “No idea. I like E.T. I like the Amish.”
Being Swiss German, O. felt instantly at ease in the Amish counties. Settled in the passenger seat as I steered our motley assortment of friends through the rural landscape, his head buried in a 1974 map entitled The Amish in America, O. proclaimed that we were now in the land of a subgroup of the Old Order Amish, known as the Swiss Amish, who speak the Swiss German dialect, like himself.
“Did you know, the Swiss Amish only use open top buggies,” he stated proudly, reading from the What You Should Know about the Amish portion of the map. “And we are more traditional than most other Amish.”
“We?” I asked, not aware that O. intended to associate himself with his Swiss Amish kinsfolk.
“We’re all from the same family,” he asserted, matter-of-factly. And gesturing to a passing carriage harboring an Amish family. “I’m probably related to them, I mean, way back.”
“Do the Swiss Amish practice yodeling too?” I inquired, hoping to blister this unforeseen genealogical fervor.
“We’ll see,” O. replied, folding the map and closing his eyes. “We’ll see.”
I navigated the ramshackle station wagon randomly through Amish pastures sowed with corn, wheat, tobacco, soybeans, and barley in search of a homestead that resembled a tourist’s idyllic vision of Amish country. On the outskirts of a township called Intercourse, we rounded a corner and there before us, perched on a hillside, framed by black shutters and a serpentine driveway, sat a whitewashed farmhouse and a field of harvested crops, just like a post card. I cut the engine and we piled out to admire the pastoral vista.
The incidental horse and buggy clip-clopped past us, accommodating Amish families comprised of husbands in dark straight-cut suits and coats without collars, chunky boots and voluminous beards, accompanied by wives in powder blue frocks constructed of mid-weight gauze, their children in bonnets and wide-brimmed hats installed behind them. At the rear of each carriage was affixed a bright orange triangle with the word SLOW, as a warning to “English” roadsters.
Hauling our gang member outfits from the back of the car, we transformed ourselves into urban hooligans in track suits, baseball caps, and heavy combat boots – resembling an indigent mob of Ali G’s. Felix, a bulging black fellow from Queens, knotted a yellow bandana around his head, bringing to mind the rapper Biggie Smalls. Ron and Noa, both with shaved heads and body-builder biceps, resembled a pair of menacing Ben Kingsleys. O. dislodged a bag of rusting golf clubs from the trunk and allocated a club to each of us. Displeased with my designated club, the putter, I bemoaned the lack of verisimilitude of a supposed gang member trotting about flailing a putter overhead.
“Really,” I complained. “The putter?”
O. pondered for a moment.
“You’re right,” he said, and snatched the putter from my hands, held it up to his mouth, spit-shined the metallic head until it gleamed as new, and handed it back to me.
“Now you can definitely see it’s a putter,” he said, and threw the E.T. mask in my direction to conceal in my pocket.
Meanwhile, Kevin slipped into his Amish costume – white shirt, suspenders, handkerchief, boots, and a straw hat with a black sash – the spitting likeness of Hollywood’s matinee image of a young Amish leading man, replete with rosy cheeks and square jaw.
Emerging from around the corner, as if on cue, an Amish farmer, with his young son seated next to him, steered his horse and buggy in our direction. This prodded Kevin to begin wending his way along the road, playing the part of a typical Amish strolling homeward. O. pressed the record button on his camera and ditched behind the station wagon. As the horse and carriage trotted past, our gang surged from behind the car and started pursuing Kevin like he was a Rockefeller with a gold pocket watch.
Kevin took flight, galloping off into the farmlands, looking fearfully back as he swerved back and forth, in the exaggerated style of a silent movie actor, toward the clapboard house on the horizon. We tailed him, howling like a pack of unhinged inmates, flailing our golf clubs overhead, tackled him, tore off his Amish clothes, and while the others restrained him, I pulled the big floppy E.T. mask over his head. Wriggling from our grasp, Kevin bolted, zigzagging left and right, naked except for one black sock and the E.T. mask on his head. We tracked him like blood-thirsty urchins closing in on a redheaded stepchild, while O. scurried behind filming the chase.
The Amish father hastened his buggy off the road when he caught sight of the proceedings and both he and his son craned their necks out of the carriage, eyes bulging, to ogle the scene. The son clamored over the father to get a better view. Far from being aggrieved, the father showed every sign of being enchanted by the events, as though a spectator at a live theater production. He winked and elbowed his son, poking his chin toward the episode unfolding in the field. Waves of amusement shook his torso up and down, causing the springs of the buggy seat to squeak and their heads to bob up and down. The son’s eyes sparkled, as though watching his first Sci-Fi and porn movie all in one, as he eyeballed the naked E.T. with one sock hurdling across the horizon.
Witnessing the farmer’s reaction to the events, it occurred to me, I’ll be honest, that he might be mentally unbalanced. The Amish, like the “English,” must have their percentage of lunatics, mustn’t they? Only days later, safely back home, did my research uncover a plausible explanation for the man’s unbridled glee: Rumspringa.
Rumspringa, or “running around”, marks the period during adolescence, when the Amish youth are encouraged to experiment and explore what “English” life has to offer – dating, partying, drinking, sex, and in exceptional cases, wearing denim.
To this day, though not irrefutable, I surmise that the Amish farmer mistook the naked E.T. proceedings to be a joyful, ingenious, rebellious exhibition in a local Amish boy’s Rumspringa. A bawdy insurgency, if not to be commended, to be conceded good-naturedly. The boy had gumption, after all, constituting a crew of “English” to stage the production, surely in the hopes that his family, or better yet, a church bishop and his wife, would stumble upon the events. Not to mention, the E.T. mask struck a chord with the farmer, transporting him back to his own Rumspringa, in which he would sneak off to town with a bottle of Coca-Cola to watch Clint Eastwood movies at the local theater.
The scene wrapped, we collected Kevin’s Amish clothing dispersed over the landscape, while O. strolled over and chatted with the man and his son. O. patted the horse’s hind quarters and displayed the video camera to the son. O. gestured toward the field, mapping out the scene’s narrative with his hands. The conversation appeared to intensify, culminating in the man lifting his arms to the Heavens, pointing to the house on the horizon, and then at the boy next to him. O. recoiled just in time to stave off being lashed by the buggy whip, as the farmer sent it crashing down on the horse’s back, provoking the buggy to lurch forward and careen off down the road.
“Not fans of E.T.?” I asked, my arms loaded with fictitious Amish vestments.
“They thought Kevin was Amish,” O. said, befuddled. “A real Amish.”
“You mean he’s not?” I queried.
O. glared at me, not amused, bewildered by what had just transpired with the farmer.
“Are we Amish too, you and me?” I asked, zipping up my Adidas track suit and handing him my putter.
“He said ‘Devil work, go home, English!’” O. said, recalling the man’s curses.
“You know what happened, don’t you?” I asked plainly. “You’ve been shunned.
”Huh? I’ve been what?” O. grunted, raising an eyebrow, clearly unfamiliar with the Amish tradition ofmeidung, or shunning, in which the Amish community forever turns its back on one who offends their teaching.
“Shunned,” I repeated, matter-of-factly.
Then, to bring the others up to speed, I called out as they crowded back into the car, “O.’s been shunned! O’s been shunned by the Amish!”
I started the car and we set off back to New York. In the passenger seat, O. gazed out the window, brooding the magnitude of being blackballed by the Amish, his progeny. After a few moments, he leaned toward me, so the others in back couldn’t hear.
“You really think I’ve been shunned?” he asked.
I leaned toward him, looked him in the eyes, and whispered, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
Then I reached over, placed my hand on his shoulder, and said, “Just a reminder, you’re not Amish.”
As we drove, O. placed the video camera on his lap, rewound the day’s footage and watched the scene unfold from start to finish on the camera’s screen, a faint smile materializing along his upper lip. Turning off the camera, he placed it on the floor between his legs, reached behind him, took the E.T. mask off the back seat and secured it over his head. In the distance I saw the buggy carrying the man and his son. As we reached them, I slowed down, drew alongside their carriage and drove next to them. O. rolled down his window and sat motionless looking straight ahead, wearing the E.T. mask. We coasted next to the Amish farmer and his son for a while, O. dangling his arm out the window like a fractured chicken wing, until we gently gained speed and, in the rear-view mirror, the horse and buggy disappeared into a puff of diesel fumes.□