Fact: Within the Amish culture, children in their mid-teens are permitted to leave the community and get a taste of non-Amish life — as much of a taste as they want, for as long as they want — before returning and committing themselves to a lifetime of good, clean Amish living. This visit to the outside world is called “rumspringa” (literally, “running around”), and Amish parents anxiously await their children’s return from it, perhaps comforted somewhat in knowing they have raised them to have strong consciences and high morals.
May the heavens have mercy! I have just experienced my first day of rumspringa, and it is a far sight more exhausting and bewildering than I had anticipated. How the English live lives so rushed and “hectic” — I believe that is the word; it is uncommon in Amish culture — is beyond me! I am now relaxing in a room at a boarding-house called “Motel 6” in a town known as Ft. Lauderdale, trying to recover from the day’s merry-making and other disturbing developments.
It began early on this warm March morning, when I was awakened by the sound of a commotion in the outer courtyard of the inn. I sprang from my bed and peered through the “curtains” — a worldly luxury with which I was unfamiliar — to see what was going on. It sounded like a barn-raising to me, only with more profanity and fewer sounds of barn-raising. Through the “window” (a marvelous aperture made of glass that enables one to see through a wall!) I saw a squadron of young men and women in various states of undress, so immodestly attired that I could see their umbilical cord scars. They were all moving, with great festivity and jocularity, toward the ocean shore, not half a hectare down the boulevard. Following them were men carrying what I have since determined were photographic cameras, the particularly devilish ones that take not just graven images of the subject, but graven images which move and reproduce sound. They are used for preparing programmes to be broadcast on the televisual box.
Intrigued by this activity, so different from my custom and thus a fine thing to observe, I thought, during my rumspringa, I quickly dressed and hurried after the group. As I reached them, I did my best to incorporate myself into their good graces, displaying a broad smile and tipping my hat to the womenfolk. “It is a most agreeable morning for a pie-baking, is it not, good sister?” I said to one young lady whose chest was barely contained by the odd corset she wore about her upper torso. To another, a gentlemen who apparently had suffered a machinery accident that caused bits of metal to be lodged in his earlobes and bottom lip, I remarked, “Say, friend, which way to the nearest quiltery? My sleeping quarters were fearsome chilled yesternight.” But from both young people — no older than myself, I reckoned, and I am 18 — I received no response other than laughter.
Upon the ocean shore I found many young, nearly naked people already assembled before a stage over which hung a banner reading: “MTV SPRING BREAK 2005.” The only word with which I was unfamiliar was “MTV”; generally a word with its vowels removed is ancient Hebrew, but I saw no other indications of an Hebraic influence on the proceedings.
The young people surrounding me were in a constant state of motion, convulsing in a manner that I believe is what the English call “dancing,” though my only experience with the “devil’s walk,” as we call it, is rudimentary drawings found in the back of a non-approved textbook that cousin Enoch and I once glanced at behind the woodshed. (We were soundly whipped for it, of course.) This “dancing” was to the strains of music unlike anything I had ever heard. For one thing, it involved instruments. For another thing, it was harsh and vulgar, the lyrics making reference to a “candy shop” and some manner of “lollipop” which the singer had evidently purchased there.
As the music blared at a most unacceptable volume, a man approached me and asked my name. “Elijah Guttcott,” I replied, shaking his hand. “And whose acquaintance do I have the honor of making?” He said his name was Kyle and that he was a “production assistant” for “MTV SPRING BREAK 2005” and he wondered if I would consider being a contestant in a game of some kind.
Now, despite common belief, we Amish do play games of all sorts. In the evening hours, after the chores are done and we have finished Bible study, evening prayers, supper devotional and wood-piling, there is often as much as 15 minutes of relaxation time during which we can indulge in games such as “Quote the Bible” and “Pile That Wood.” I state with all due humility that I am frequently the champion of these contests, defeating even the most virile Bible-quoters and wood-pilers in my village.
So I told Kyle I would happily take part in whatever his game was. I have heard that the English play games of a far more scandalous sort than ours — some even involving the throwing of six-sided numbered cubes, I am told! — but I did not see the harm in “living it up,” as they say, as long as it was rumspringa. Certainly Kyle and his “MTV SPRING BREAK 2005” would have nothing in store for me that would violate my honor.
Thirty minutes later, I was standing on the stage clad only in my undergarments, my torso covered in whipped cream as two blindfolded young ladies attempted to find the frankfurter that Kyle had glued to my inner thigh. (The presence of the frankfurter confirmed to me that “MTV” was not a Hebrew word.) The rest of my clothing — my suspenders, trousers, girdle, hat, under-shirt, shirt, over-shirt, over-trousers, socks, shoes and under-shoes — were in a pile behind the stage, where other men in similar disrobe were awaiting their turn to be whipped-creamed and frankfurtered.
The purpose of this game I still did not know — how does any of this promote Christian brotherhood, I ask you — and so I removed myself from the blindfolded vixens and attempted to leave the stage to find Kyle. My honor dictates that I follow through with my commitments, but I wondered if I could fulfill my obligation to “MTV SPRING BREAK 2005” in some other way, perhaps by churning some butter for them, or by fetching the eggs from the local henhouse. But I was thwarted in my efforts to leave the stage by the master of ceremonies, a de-shirted man who carried a stick which, when he spoke into it, amplified the sound of his voice so he could be heard by all in attendance. (How the Lord could have used such a device when He delivered His Sermon on the Mount! I thought, before realizing the talking-stick was probably empowered by the devil.)
“Hold up, dude,” the man said to me with a laugh. “Where ya goin’?!” Then he pointed the talking-stick at me, presumably so that my response could be heard by the congregation. I spoke hesitantly into it, unsure whether merely using the device would put me in league with the devil, or whether I would actually have to hold it for that to occur.
“I am sorry,” I said to the man who called me “dude.” “Ye and your brethren have been fine hosts to me this day, and I am honored to have been accepted into your good graces to the extent that you would view me a worthy participant for your contests. But I cannot continue. Your games, while perhaps common to your daily lives, are alarming and unwholesome to my taste. I am a simple man from a simple village, and I fear I dishonor my principles if I continue to stand here, nearly unclothed and mauled by strange women. I hope you will forgive me, ‘MTV SPRING BREAK 2005.'” And with that I began to exit the stage.
It was then that the unthinkable happened. The man with the talking-stick declared that, unbeknownst to myself, my parents and the parents of all the other participants in this game were on hand to witness the proceedings. Evidently the game customarily includes this surprise, which the gathered audience found delightful indeed but which I found as shameful as when Noah’s son Ham found him naked and inebriated.
My parents then came forward from their hiding place. My mother embraced me awkwardly, getting whipped cream on her in the process, and my father shook my hand, which surprised me, as he is not often that affectionate in public.
“My son!” my mother cried. “Ye have made us proud, but the sort of ‘proud’ that is good, not the bad kind.”
My father added, “We came here afeared that ye would behave wrongly, but lo, ye have lived up to the Christian principles we have taught you. Praise be!”
“But Mater and Pater,” I said as the audience looked on. “You see the state I am in, unclothed and festooned with foodstuffs. How can ye say I have not failed you?”
“Let it not trouble you, son,” my father said. “It was rumspringa, and ye were misled by the devils who run this den of iniquity, this ‘MTV SPRING BREAK 2005.’ To be tempted is not a sin, and what person with blood in his veins would not be tempted by the promise of such earthly pleasures as having pork affixed to his legs? What is important is how ye dealt with the temptation, and it was a right fine speech ye gave when ye realized this place was not for you.”
“Right fine indeed,” my mother agreed.
And so I re-clothed myself, bid the cheering congregation adieu, and left the ocean shore with my parents. “MTV SPRING BREAK 2005” had not provided a horse-and-buggy when they invited my parents to Ft. Lauderdale, so we walked through the town, arm in arm, by the power of our own feet. ‘Twas a pleasant walk indeed.
I was flipping channels one day when I stumbled upon some of MTV's Spring Break coverage and decided I should write a column about Spring Break in general. I had noticed that many of MTV's game shows around this time involved having the parents of the contestants secretly observing everything their children do, and later confronting them about it, thus humiliating two generations at once and earning MTV twice as many hot-seats in hell. So that aspect of Spring Break rolled around in my head while I tried to conceive the rest of the column.
Eventually I hit on the idea of a naive person stumbling into the proceedings, and who better to represent naivete than an Amish lad? There was a fine documentary a few years earlier called "The Devil's Playground" that followed several Amish young people on their rumspringas. That gave me some ideas for how Elijah Guttcott would behave. For his old-fashioned speech, I tried to imagine how Mr. Burns would describe things. ("Programmes for the televisual box" seems especially Burnsian to me.)
I also recalled an old stand-up comedy routine by Andy Griffith that I heard occasionally on the Dr. Demento Show, in which a hick wanders into the stands of a professional football game and has no idea what's going on. It's a funny routine, with the same basic idea as this column: something familiar to us being described by an outsider. ("What It Was, Was Football" is the name of the routine. Recordings of it are rare.)
It is true that the Amish do not dance and do not use musical instruments. It is not true that they don't have windows or curtains, though. That part was a total lie.
Oh, and the song referenced is "Candy Shop" by 50 Cent. It is a most obscene and vile song, and I'm not even Amish. Although now that I think about it, Elijah probably wouldn't have realized it was obscene, since it mostly uses double-entendre to makes its points. Elijah probably would have thought it was just a song about a candy shop.