Partying With the Amish

Many Amish teens' first experiences with the outside world involve drugs, alcohol, and sex.

BY: Tom Shachtman

 

When Amish youth turn sixteen, they enter their

rumspringa

, or "running around" period. Because Amish teens are not baptized until later in life, they are given the opportunity to experience the world outside of their community and decide whether they want to leave it, or become baptized in the Amish church. Because they are not baptized, they are not required to follow the church's dress requirements or rules against drugs, drinking, and unsupervised relationships with members of the opposite sex. Some rent apartments with friends, while others continue to live at home with their parents. Although many Amish teens do not engage in "wild" behavior, some of them do, and wind up with alcohol and drug addictions or dealing with unplanned pregnancies.



The following excerpt is from the new book "

Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish,"

by Tom Shachtman, a documentarian who began studying the phenomenon of Amish teens running wild for the film "The Devil's Playground" (2002). The

rumspringa

activities described below take place near the town of Shipshewana, Indiana.





In the upstairs bedroom, the girls play board games and speak of certain "hopelessly uncool" teenagers, girl and boys whom they have known all their lives but who are not going cruising and who seem content to spend their

rumspringa

years attending Sunday sings after church and volleyball games arranged by parents or church officials.

An hour later, when the girls have had their fill of board games, and when the parents of the house are presumed to be asleep, cars and half-trucks are heard pulling into the dirt lane. The battered, secondhand autos and pickups are parked well off the road, to be less visible to passersby in horse-drawn buggies. Out of the vehicles clamber men from sixteen to their early twenties, most of them Amish-born but at this moment trying hard not to appear Amish, wearing T-shirts and jeans, some with long hair or crew cuts instead of Amish bowl cuts. A few English friends accompany them. The young Amish-raised men have day jobs in carpentry shops, in factories that make recreational vehicles and mobile homes, in construction, or at the animal auction and flea market in town; none are farmers, though most still live at home, some on farms and the rest on "farmettes," five-to ten-acre homesteads that have a vegetable garden and areas of pasturage for the horses and the occasional family cow.

The young men shine a flashlight on the upstairs room where the lamp is lit, and at that countersignal one girl comes downstairs and greets the guys, who then creep up the stairs. After introductory banter in the crowded room, the girls are invited to go with the boys, and they all troop back out to the cars, the Amish girls still in their traditional garb. A few words pass between the daughter of the house and her parents—who have not, after all, been asleep—but while these include admonitions to be careful, they do not specify that she is to come home at a particular hour. If the parents are worried about this pack of teenager "going away" on a Friday night—perhaps not to return until Sunday evening—they do not overtly display that emotion.

Once the young ladies hit the cars, and the cars have pulled away from the homestead, appearances and behaviors begin to change. While riding along, each Amish girl performs at least one of many actions that have been forbidden to them throughout their childhoods: lights up a cigarette, grabs a beer, switches on the rock and rap music from the car radio or CD player, converses loudly and in a flirting manner with members of the opposite sex.

Coursing past a small schoolhouse where a few of the riders attended classes in the recent past and into the small, nearly deserted center of Shipshewana—whose restaurants stop serving at 8:00 p.m.—the convoy heads south, past the auction depot, stopping for a while on the outskirts of the business district at a gas station and convenience store. In addition to vehicle parking spaces, the station has a hitching post for horses and buggies. What these Amish teenagers seek on this visit is the convenience store's bathrooms, located next to a side door. In a bunch, the girls head into them, occupying for a while both the Gents and the ladies as their male companions stand guard and graze the aisles, the older ones buying beer for them all, the younger ones springing for jerky, chips, and nuts. There are no sexually explicit magazines here at which the boys might glance, because such magazines are not carried in local stores, in deference to the wishes of the Amish and Mennonites in the area. A few young males shove quarters into a gambling machine, the Pot O Silver, which has the potential of returning them five or ten dollars for every half-dollar they put in. No one wins more than a quarter.

When the girls emerge from the bathrooms, only two of the eight still look Amish; the other six have been transformed. They wear jeans, T-shirts, and other mainstream American teenager costumes, some revealing their navels. Hair covering have been removed, and a few have also let down their hair, uncut since childhood. "Ready to party," one lady avows. "Cruisin' and boozing'," another responds. The counter clerk, an older woman in Mennonite garb, seems unabashed by the changes in attire.

In the cars once again, cell phones—also forbidden equipment—emerge from hiding places, some from under the girls' clothing. Calls to compatriots in other vehicles, buggies as well as cars, yield the information that many dozens of Amish teenagers are now roaming the roads while trying to ascertain the location of this week's "hoedown." Soon it is identified: closer to Emma, a town three miles south of Shipshewana and not far from Westview High, the public school attended by many of the non-Amish revelers. The cars pass a young woman in a buggy heading in the direction of the party; she is smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone; the buggy's window flaps are open, to disperse the tobacco smoke and perhaps to facilitate the cell phone connection.

As they would in similar settings in Holmes or Lancaster County, the young Amish on the road to a party in northern Indiana pass familiar territory composed of quiet Amish homesteads and farms, and intermixed with suburban-appearing English homes, a few factories and assembly buildings, and some workshops. Here is a roadside stand operated by a Yoder family; there is a quilt boutique run by a Miller family; the small-engine repair shop of a member of the Esh family is nestled on a side road but has a sign visible from the main route; over yonder is a Weaver family furniture-making factory.

Around midnight, scores of Amish teenagers and twentysomethings converge on the back acres of a farm south of Shipshewana, several miles from the nearest town, a third of a mile from the farmhouse, and hidden from the nearest road by a forest of cornstalks. A used-car lot inventory of cars, trucks, buggies, bicycles, and motorcycles is already parked here. Iced coolers of beer are put out; Amish teenagers reach for bottles with both hands. Young, mechanically adept men hook up portable CD players and boom box speakers to car batteries. Shortly, rock and rap music blasts. Heads nod and bodies sway to the beat.

Many of the Amish kids know the words of the most current rock songs, even of black rap recordings that speak of mayhem in inner-city ghettos and anger against whites, songs they have learned from listening to battery-powered radios that they bought with the first money they earned, and that they have kept hidden at home. "When I'm angry at my bossy brothers," one young lady says, "I play rock on my radio; when I'm happy, I play country."

Continued on page 2: Passing joints and crack pipes... »

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