The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 14, 2013
By Thom Nickels
I’m sitting with Betsy, a gregarious talker with long blond hair, at the 16th Annual Gun Raffle in Eastern Lancaster County. We’re inside the clubhouse, which has the feel of a large log cabin. In many ways the place is a trip back in time because it reminds me of the Chester County Boy Scout cabin I used to attend as a Scout. Betsy is sitting in front of a pitcher of beer. She’s also smoking. A number of other people in the clubhouse are smoking as well. While not a smoker myself, I don’t mind the secondhand smoke. "We’re in redneck country," I tell myself.
The redneck reference is what my brother used when he invited me here. My brother, an avid believer in the 2nd amendment, joined the club this year and wanted me to accompany him to the raffle. "You’ll enjoy it," he said. "You may find something to write about." He prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer: "You know, a lot of the people who go to the raffle are rednecks." Since I pride myself on being able to get along with different types of people, I told him that I would be fine. Rednecks are people too.
"By the way," he added, "there’s a large buffet, plus all the beer you can drink."
While not a beer drinker, I did consider bringing a bottle of wine. "Wine," as Benjamin Franklin once said, "is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy."
As with any raffle, people sell chances and then there’s a drawing. At this raffle, however, there would be many drawings with many different prizes, including cash, a large bank-vault-style safe, and state-of-the-art guns. Even though I had a lot of questions about the gun raffle—would the event open with a hundred gun salute?—I decided that I wouldn’t ask my brother too many questions. Sometimes it’s best to not say anything but just go and see.
In the cabin, while sharing a beer with Betsy, we listened as she told us scathing tales about her past. Some of the facts were hard to digest. Despite her past experiences, Betsy said she was proud to have a new husband and that overall she still took pleasure in being able to outwork a lot of men when it comes to farm labor and chopping wood. "Feel these," she said, making a muscle.
Seated at the open bar beside the cigarette and lottery machines, a bearded man in a railroad cap, a bottle of bourbon sticking out of his back pocket, stared off into space. At another table I noticed an Amish farmer in suspenders with a traditional "bowl" haircut drinking a draft. Seated behind him was a younger Amish man, a dead ringer for actor Matt Damon. There were no Amish women present.
"Wow," I said to Betsy, "I didn’t know the Amish drank beer."
"I got a hundred Amish stories for you," she said, winking.
When the sumptuous buffet opened, long lines formed through the cabin and out the clubhouse door. There were couples in western gear, grandmother types in 2nd amendment T-shirts, "ordinary" looking fathers and sons, mothers in half-mullets, teenagers, and sunburned young men who looked like they were ready to party. No doubt about it, this was the place to people-watch, but the real deal was outside in the large field surrounded by tall trees. The slightly overcast gray weather made it seem like early fall, and with the smoky smells coming from the barbecue pit, the atmosphere became high hickory country, perfect for someone like me who needed this escape from city life. The arrangement of tents in the field, including a music tent where a live band cranked away Eagles tunes, gave this gun raffle a festival concert feel.
As gun raffles go, trying to spot the guns, or even one gun, was difficult. I don’t know what I expected to see, people going around shooting birds out of the sky or taking turns playing William Tell, but whatever it was, I was way off. Throughout the day I saw only one gun. This was an (unloaded) raffle gun that was being carried about as a display item. If you had come to the raffle not knowing what kind of raffle it was, you’d never guess it had anything to do with guns. A beer festival or a reunion of Lancaster County locals seems far more likely.
The beer trailer located in the middle of the field was twice the size of a camper with a number of self-serve spouts, making refills as easy as getting napkins from a dispenser. It was mesmerizing watching festival old-timers, men in beards and women in long country hair, going around meeting friends and acquaintances. Here, truly, was a portrait of rural America.
Betsy, on her fifteenth or sixteenth beer, seemed to be holding up well as she canvassed the field. Coming up behind my brother and I, she asked, "Hey, how you guys holdin’ up?" We told her we were getting a kick out of the band’s rendition of Hotel California. Earlier, when she had spilled some food on her chest in the cabin, she excused the mishap by pointing to her breasts and saying, "I guess they were hungry." She followed this comment with howls of laughter.
Midway through the event the band began to stir up the party juices of a few older ladies who, at least on the surface, had a "church lady" look. But don’t let looks deceive you. I watched as one grandmother bolted from her chair and proceeded to shimmy against a picnic table bench, while another granny type swayed her hips the way she probably did when partying at age twenty-five. A little later, I watched a guy with a shaved head explode in ecstasy when he spotted a buddy. With an exuberance fueled by numerous beers, he raised his arms, slapped the air, and made several Wolfman Jack howls before collapsing on the ground. So much for drunk macho!
Meeting Hans the Amish guy was the high point of the day. With his bowl-shaped haircut, short beard and suspenders, Hans was selling raffle tickets while balancing a beer and keeping track of his three small children who would occasionally gather around him and tug at his sleeve. I’d never actually spoken to an Amish person before, except at the Reading Terminal market when ordering food, but that doesn’t count. Watching Hans, it was obvious he knew a lot of the non-Amish, or English, as quite a few people seemed to be seeking him out. What was interesting to me was the fact that Hans was drinking his beer in such an open fashion. He also had no qualms about going to the trailer for additional brews.
Coincidence brought me face-to-face with Hans. How could I resist asking him about the beer? I asked him if the Amish had changed their rules about alcohol. "Aren’t there taboos against it?" My brother blanched. "Oh no," he said. "You didn’t ask him that." But I did, and Hans didn’t seem to mind. He smiled and said that if an Elder were around he’d certainly disapprove, but that ultimately drinking a couple of beers wasn’t that much of a big deal. "You’d be reprimanded, but only lightly," he said.
When Hans’ brother appeared on the scene, I thought I was seeing double: same blond hair but no bowl cut and no suspenders. Hans’ brother, it seems, had probably never joined the Amish church after Rumspringa, so he stood little chance of being shunned. So here he was having a good time with his brother’s family.
I asked Hans about the business of shunning, and whether his brother experienced any trouble from the family when he joined another church. "Not at all," Hans said. "Everything is good. My brother is treated like everyone else in the family. We don’t always shun. It depends on the family and the community."
At that point my brother brought up the show Breaking Amish. Hans made a face and said not to believe half of what happens there. The conversation ended when someone came up behind Hans and snapped his suspenders.
My brother went away from it all in a very good mood because he won one of the raffles, a prize worth over 300 dollars. It seemed like the day had been a success, although I was surprised when Betsy told me that she doesn’t even own a gun because of something that happened to her very early on. "I don’t like guns—I hate them, in fact—but I like coming here. This is one fun party."
On the way home in my brother’s car we passed Hans and his kids in their horse and buggy. He didn’t see us, so we couldn’t wave, but I had to wonder if he’d bump into an Elder who’d notice beer on his breath when he arrived at the farm.
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