Have you ever found yourself in wonder of what life would be like if you were to drop the one you know off of the face of the Earth to in turn replace it with another, completely unknown and unexpected by you? What would it be like to bid farewell to the standards that molded you and the people who raised you; to not only say goodbye to these people, but to do so knowing you would never again be met with their warm welcome and endearing eyes? In September of 2011, a young John Miller became one with his fearless, adventurous soul and did exactly what the above dreams, or perhaps horrors to some, describe. At the age of merely fourteen, John said goodbye to his Amish community of a home in Greenwood, Wisconsin in hopes to break free from the monotony and discover the untold wonders of modern American life. Four years later he has not only begun this discovery, but he has made countless new friends, been “adopted” by a new, loving family, and formulated aspirations for the wild future ahead.
I met this “Wild Amish John”— a rightfully achieved nickname— two years ago, we have since developed a close friendship and many memories. The life of this earnest and kind human being relates to others the importance that lies in breaking the mold of tradition to in turn establish oneself in this crazy, whirlwind of a world. When asked by me, John eagerly jumped at the opportunity to share his story and message with the world. So here we go with an attempt to confine the stories, journey, and life of one brave soul to written word; I share with you, Amish John.
Reflections of an Amish Runaway
The tale of John Miller, as told and captured by Madison Mead
One of the first memories the eighteen year old John Miller has of Amish life is that of his sister’s birth. John was eight years old, dutifully tending to in-home chores, while his mother lay in bedrest—ready to pop from pregnancy at any moment—and the rest of the soon-to-be-fifteen-person family was outside at work in the fields of the farm. As the sudden screams of labor erupted from the bedroom resting his child-bearing mother, the young John found himself in alarm and unsure of what he was to do. Thankfully, John quickly learned, in the Amish community this did not present an issue. For Amish births are, let’s say, “Au natural”—there was no need for the calling of doctors or retrieving of medicines. Once the laborious task of bringing a child to meet her first breath had ceased, John was instructed to run outdoors and fetch the remainder of the family.
[“Mom. . . uh. . . has something and you’re supposed to. . . uh come see it.”]
The boy left the house in a hurry, curious of his mother’s sweat-soaked, baby-toting state. Two limbs, broadened and sculpted already in his young state by the demands of Amish lifestyle, quickly brought this youth nearer to his siblings and father. In his hurried endeavor, John’s mind ruminated over what exactly he was doing the fetching for. At last he had reached the group, stopped to catch a short breath, and blurted in his native tongue, Pennsylvania Dutch, an utterance of perplexed importance. This statement translates as, “Mom… uh… has something and you’re supposed to… uh… come see it.” John told this story with delighted eyes in remembrance of the family, and in between periods of laughter at his ignorance. I found myself, for the first time of many throughout this story, in awe with the simplicity of Amish ways.
In discussion, John explained to me further realities of life as a member of an Amish community, which were, once again, received in shock by myself. “There was no electricity, no motors, no generators, no outlets, no charging, no electronics,” John states. In recollection of his former life, John described to me the experience of hygienic routine in his previous home. Once a week, as was typical among his people, the family would pump water out of a nearby well, this water was then heated in a kettle by the heat of a wood stove and poured into a basin for bathing purposes. In dark hours light was achieved by an assortment of Colman lanterns and wax candles; even field work was done without tractors and combines.
John’s father contributed to the community in a usual way as both a repurposer of aged items and, understandably, a farmer. Likewise, the mother of the Miller family fit the mold of an Amish woman quite well, for she spent her days as a dutiful seamstress by use of a pedal-operated machine, and cook to the wood stove. Children were raised to adopt the trade of their parents in order to similarly serve their communities in generations to come. Amish life, as John recalls, was very communal. Examples John shared included stories of neighbors congregated to build barns in a day or to raise funds for a deserving member’s cause. Engrained in his mind has been the essential value of serving and belonging to a community, however, John recounts to me the basis of this group in which he belonged; this communal lifestyle rotated upon one important axis, church.
At this point in our discussion another vivid memory of John’s was aroused— the recollection of a life dictated by way of the Holy Bible. The Ten Commandments provided the set standards by which the members of this described community abided; liars met their match, neighbors were respected, clothes moderate, relations unsexual until marriage, and alcohol not consumed. Though John has, and continues to, remain faithful in his religious celebration of God, separate aspects of Amish life began to be understood by him as monotonous, even in his youth.
In school children were taught modern-American English and learned briefly of life beyond the confines of their indigenous barriers. Around the ages of ten and eleven John can recollect his first interests, and occasional indulgences, in this contrasting, contemporary, American way of life, “The first time I had any experience with an electronic was once when I was doing chores in the barn and uncovered, in one of his any hiding spots, my older brother’s camera.” Here John discontinues the remembrance on account of laughter before he speaks once again, “I wondered about it, and played around with the thing a little. I didn’t know what I was doing and in the end I managed to fuck up all the film.”
[“The first time I had any experience with an electronic was. . .”]
As John and l delved further into his recollection of the past, shared with me was a story of “Candy-Bar Radios.” These devices, small transmitter radios carried about by youth in solitary chore-doing, received their nickname as result of their small size and candy-like appeal to curious young minds. However, John’s brave stories of rebellion do not cease with electronics. John tells of his first experiences with alcohol, “There was this older man who lived down the road from our community. We often talked to him fondly. Sometimes, after the elders had left the conversation, the older teens would give this man some money.” The story ends, as I am sure one can assume, in the rightful exchange of cash for alcohol—the sweet components to a perfect, highly secretive, Amish adolescent rendezvous.
These experiences exposed to the young man a new world. A world which he was raised to believe was the product of the Devil’s handiwork. Comparatively, John bared no witness to evil in electronics, temptation in modern dress, or demon in alcohol—or for that matter in the man who supplied it. In fact these experiences alone shed light unto a new philosophy in the mind of this growing boy. Perhaps, John privately thought, adventure in the unknown was not as evil as seemingly all those who surrounded believed. As these significant changes in thought consumed his mind, something monumental in John’s life, and that of his family’s, occurred as older brother, Joase, owner of the now destructed camera, bid farewell to his Amish home forever.
In the time that followed, John was encircled in the sadness and resentment of his family towards the runaway brother. However, these surroundings left John perplexed, as he soon discovered these emotions had not entered his own heart. After days of contradicted contemplation, this young man, at the age of thirteen, came face-to-face with the brave soul that had been within him all along. John had decided to, in one year’s time, follow Joase’s footsteps.
Let us fast forward exactly one year, September of 2011, the decided date of departure had arrived. The fourteen year old man mustered every ounce of courage he possessed, packed what items he could, and said goodbye to his beloved family. As the image of his birth-place grew smaller and smaller behind the vehicle that enacted his egression, John Miller gave a final wave to this familiar place, knowing quite well the picture may be the last time he ever set eyes on this Amish home.
This was it. This was the moment John became a member of the modern American masses and his excitement could hardly be contained. John immediately joined Joase at his home in northern Minnesota. It was here in this newfound, strange place that John began to discover himself in relation to this new life. Hours were spent in front of the odd television set, a cell phone was acquired, and his own sense of fashion developed. Despite the distance from his previous home, John quickly discovered that the values of neighbors and hard work had been deeply woven into the fabric of his being. This boy in his near-ending youth quickly sought out friendly companions and potential for helpful work around the neighborhood.
John is now eighteen years old and has one year left in standard public high school. He has also left the comfort of Joase’s home for that of his informally adoptive family. The Lemon family welcomed John into their hearts and home with none but love and generosity. The family was unable to formally adopt John because the paperwork would have required the signatures of his refusing, unreachable parents. Regardless of this fact, the Lemon family considers him with terms such as “brother” and “son”. Older brother, Bruce Lemon, and John are nearly inseparable, engaging in activities that include longboarding, hanging out with friends, trips to the gym, and racing about the family’s land in the proudly owned Rzr. When asked about his brother’s addition to the family, Bruce exclaimed, “John came into my life and changed everything. He is the least selfish person I know, he would give you the shirt right off his back if you asked. . . I don’t know what I would do without him now and am forever grateful. He has shown me how to enjoy the simpler things in life and to take the time to “smell the roses”. He has made such a positive influence in my life and I can only hope to repay him someday.”
The John Miller I have gratefully met is full of heart, soul and optimism up to the brim. He is fearless in every endeavor (even in our photo session he asked if he could start climbing trees and riding horses bareback). Faced with adult life ahead, fear has not succumb this daring human. The once Amish farmhand has hopes to someday produce his own music as “DJ Amish John”—so keep your eyes, and ears, peeled!
In closing I asked John if he has ever had hopes to return to his community, to which he answered in the negative. Although he does plan to someday visit in ways more personal than letters, he could never return to the monotony of achieving the same as everyone else, of doing no more than any former or future generation has or will. John tells me, “If I am doing my own thing, I am happy. My decision to leave is rewarded by the pursuit of new goals.”
In telling his story John hopes to reach readers in a way such as to inspire individuality and value of personal freedom, no matter the circumstance. This man has courage, kindness, and positivity at the very core of his heart, with every beat they radiate within and around him, leaving behind only smiles, warmth and a reminder that the world holds insurmountable wonders, that it takes but only an ounce of bravery to behold them.
[“Don’t be afraid to do your own thing. Be odd. Be yourself.
Do NOT be afraid of what is out there.”]
John would like to say to you, “Don’t be afraid to do your own thing. Be odd. Be yourself. Do NOT be afraid of what is out there.” So there you have it, in the words of Amish John, be unique, break tradition, and don’t let fear ruin your chances of discovery in what the world has to offer.