2016-06-30
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."

To have a focus for the party, the participants gather straw and brush for a bonfire. Its bright light and stark shadows crosshatch partygoers at the edges of the center, where various transactions are occurring. Most of the Amish youth are from northern Indiana, but some have come from across the state line in Michigan or from many hours away in Missouri and Ohio. There are about four hundreds youth at this almost-deserted site, out of about two thousand adolescent Amish in northern Indiana. Some of the kids are what other refer to as "simmies," literally, foolish in the head, young, naïve, new to rumspringa—and, most of them, willing to work hard to lose the label quickly.

Beer is the liquid of choice, but there are also bottles of rum and vodka, used to spike soft drinks. Some of the younger kids do not know the potency of what they are drinking, or what it might do to them. Many will be sick before long. Most guzzle to mimic the others, while gossiping about who is not there or is not drinking. This night, one young woman will wonder why she always seems to drink too much.

In one corner of the party, joints of marijuana are passed around, as are pipes of crank (crystal methamphetamine). Lines of cocaine are exchanged for money. A handful of the partygoers are seriously addicted, others are trying drugs for the first time. Crank is incredibly and instantly addictive, and it is relatively simple and cheap to make; the only ingredient used that is not available from a local hardware store, anhydrous ammonia, is a gaseous fertilizer easily stolen from tanks on farms. Those few partygoers interested in doing hard drugs gather in a different location than the majority, who prefer drinking beer or smoking tokes of pot.


As the party gets into full swing, and beer and pot are making the participants feel no pain, a few Amish girls huddle and make plans to jointly rent an apartment in a nearby town when they turn eighteen, as some older girls have already done. Others shout in Pennsylvania Dutch and in English about how much it will cost to travel to and attend an Indianapolis rock concert, and the possibilities of having a navel pierced or hair cut buzz short. One bunch of teens dances to music videos shown on a portable computer; a small group of guys, near a barn, distributes condoms.

As such partiers wear on, the Amish youth become even less distinguishable from their English peers, shedding their demureness, mimicking the in-your-face postures of the mainstream teen culture, with its arrogance, defiance, raucousness, inner-city gangs' hand motions and exaggerated walking stances.

"The English girls prefer us Amish guys because we're stronger and better built and we party harder," insisted one young Amish man at a similar party. Another countered that it is because the Amish guys have more money in the pockets—the result of not having to spend much on food and shelter, since most of them are living at home. The English guys are also partial to the Amish young ladies, this young man added, because Amish girls are "more willing than English girls to get drunk." Of temptation-filled parties like this, one Amish young woman will later comment, "God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be Amish like my parents but the other part want the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want to do."

Couples form and head off into the darkness. Some petting goes further than exploration, and this night one of the girls who earlier walked that country lane loses her virginity. Another partygoer becomes pregnant; several weeks from now, when she realizes it, she will simply advance her wedding date so that her child, as with about 12 percent of first births among the Amish, will be born before her marriage is nine months old. This evening, as well, a few female partygoers will bring boys home, and, with their parents' cognizance, spend the night in "bed courtship," on the girls' bed but "bundled" separately.

During parties like this, as the house wear on, the boys frequently damage property. There are fistfights; one partygoer recalled a particularly bad incident in which a lad in a fit of bloody rage ripped the earring stud from another young man's ear.

At first light, the farm's owners and their children move about the area, to herd in and milk the cows. One farmer's daughter, spotting a partygoer about the throw up, smilingly hands her an empty pail.

An hour later, the sun is fully up, but most of the exhausted partygoers in various sheltered locations around the back acres are still asleep. Undisturbed, they will wake again near noon. Some have made plans to go to a mall, twenty miles away, to shop and see a movie before continuing the party tomorrow evening in another semi-deserted location.

Near Shipshe, Berlin, and Intercourse, those Amish youngsters walking on the wild side of rumspringa during this weekend will party on until, late on Sunday, they return home to sober up and ready themselves for Monday and the workweek. Most have no plans to tell their parents, upon returning to the family hearth, precisely where they have been for the previous forty-eight hours, or with whom they spend their "going away" time. While the parents may well ask such questions, the children feel little obligation to answer them.

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