The rain spitballed us all morning on the slow drive through Ohio’s Amish country where the grass was green, and the corn fields were planted, and the remnants of simple lives waved from clotheslines stretched from homes to barns.
At the Lehman’s store in Dalton, Ohio, my friend and I fought off urges to buy meat grinders or 5-gallon fermenting crocks in the 32,000-square-foot Amish supercenter that can leave your mind reeling from too much of a quaint thing.
A little Amish goes a long way.
“You should try Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen in Mt. Hope,” the checkout clerk suggested. “It’s simple Amish food. Just the basics.”
She was right about the food. The visit was more complicated.
When I saw the first Amish dwarf or midget or little person standing near the doorway, I suppressed this outburst: “Holy Moses!”
When I saw the second tiny Amish woman, slightly taller and leaner, exit the restaurant, this thought crossed my mind: “Jumping Jebidiah, it’s a family of Amish wee ones.”
By the time we pulled open the restaurant door and landed in a lobby filled with 21 female Amish dwarfs, it took everything I had in me not to shout, “What in Zacchaeus’ name is going on here?”
Well, I really didn’t say any of those things, but if I were Amish, I ‘m sure the thoughts would have crossed my mind. The real story gets more weird so buckle up.
Everyone in the restaurant acted as if it were just another day in Simple County. We sat down without speaking a word. We pulled out our reading glasses and picked up our sticky menus.
“That,” my friend finally sighed, “was some weird shit.”
A waiter approached our table, and I eyeballed him to see if he would fess up to what was going on down here at the Yoder’s joint. I couldn’t imagine how he could keep a straight waiter face after his last customers. My first words as a waitress would have been: “Did you see that?”
Instead, he said something like, “Have you decided what you want to drink? Do you want the buffet?”
My friend appeared to be biting her lip as she stared at her menu to keep inappropriate words at bay.
“We’ll take two iced teas and the buffet,” I said. “And what was up with those Amish midgets that just left here?”
“We think it was a convention,” he said.
“A convention of Amish midgets?” I blurted.
“That’s what we think. I’m really not sure.”
I asked him to snoop around back in the kitchen.
He grabbed the menus and his order pad.
“I’ll try,” he said and hurried off.
A few minutes later, he came back with silverware, two iced teas and a half-finished story.
“No one knows. We just think it was a convention. We didn’t recognize any of them.”
Across the restaurant, people chomped on cornbread and swirled chicken noodles onto their forks and spooned mounds of coconut pie filling into their mouths as if 23 mini-Amish happened by their lives on a daily basis. We could barely concentrate on our mashed potatoes, roast beef, hot rolls and beets without choking on phrases like “What kind of freak show was going on here?”
We weren’t laughing at them, but with them, really, although they weren’t laughing, and they had already left.
“I’m googling it,” I said and attempted to break through an internet connection so slow I thought it might be powered by a band of butter churners.
Amish midgets. Good clue. Crazy answer.
“Did you know there are Amish midget porn sites?” I said before canceling an upload called “bonnet porn.”
A few minutes later, I overheard a man talking to an Amish man about a beard-cutting crime spree that made headlines last year. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/31/judge-rejects-ohio-amish-hate-crime-law-challenge_n_1559744.html)
“Were you interviewed by the FBI?” I heard him ask before he leaned to hear the Amish man whisper his answer.
Oklahoma. Pennsylania. Iowa. Kansas. Indiana. I’ve visited Amish communities many times. Their neat farms and quaint lives soothe me like a good massage. Midget, porn and beard-whackers were not part of my peaceful Amish mindscape.
We left a good tip for the waiter. I was betting he might need a beer after work.
On the long drive back to the Kenyon Inn in nearby Knox County, we tried to find the 23 Amish dwarfs or midgets or little people. Every horse and buggy that passed by received a close inspection in hopes of unraveling the mystery. Later that night, we asked a few locals about the sighting.
“I know there is an Amish stripper down at the Fox Hole,” one guy said.
“What? I said. “How does that work? No breast implants? No bikini waxing?”
“Well, they might not be real Amish,” he said. “But they look like Amish, and they strip like, uh, strippers.”
“People are going faux Amish to make a buck at strip joints?” I shot back. “That’s sick. Are aprons involved?”
Later at the Kenyon Inn bar, a psych major argued that maybe the women were part of a sisterhood, a commune, maybe, formed out of the need for acceptance.
“Or maybe, they are part of a medical study,” I said as a possible explanation surfaced from the brink of my second glass of wine.
Here is where the story ends for most people. Here is where the story begins for writers.
It took hours of venturing into unknown internet territory to unearth enough circumstantial evidence to piece together something worth believing. Some shocking discoveries detoured me often.
Here’s just one tidbit that took up about 30 minutes of my time: Amish recycle outhouse waste onto their gardens, a practice that causes a stink with local town officials ( http://amishamerica.com/outhouse-stink-spreads-to-kansas/).
Several persistent phone calls to innocent strangers finally led me to another discovery: The Budget Newspaper http://www.thebudgetnewspaper.com/, a news source for the Amish Community. The editor hadn’t heard about the mini-Amish convention, but she did know about several genetic studies underway and a nearby research project focused on genetic abnormalities among Amish communities. She gave me a good lead.
Windows of Hope ( http://www.wohproject.org/) formed in 2000 as a population-based medical project dedicated to the detection, characterization, and treatment of inherited health problems. About the same time that I was chomping on fried chicken at Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen, some doctors from London were in the county for a study of Amish women with genetic disorders, including Ellis-van Creveld Syndrome. The syndrome affects bone growth causing dwarfism, polydactyly conditions and other abnormalities. The highest incidence rate in the United States is among the Amish.
It made a lot more sense than a convention. Considering no one at the restaurant knew the women, the odds are good that the women came from other communities across the country.
Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen offered a chance for the study group to see how the other Amish live and eat. Perhaps between all the questioning and medical tests, the 23 women enjoyed the sights of the area. Maybe, they rolled on down to Millersburg to shop among the tourists or wandered off the side roads to check out the countryside dotted with farms. Perhaps, this sisterhood gave them a chance to share their stories with people who knew what it felt like to be so different.
And so goes the story of how a quick encounter with a group of Amish dwarfs , most of them likely sporting six toes, stumped me for weeks and will forever rank high as my favorite trump card in story wars.
“That’s a real fine story you told there, Betsy,” I will say as I lean way back in my chair at the nursing home bar,” but did I ever tell you about one rainy day back in 2012 when I had a run-in with 23 Amish dwarfs?”