22 Feb Life, Love, and the Pursuit of God (part 2)
The Teen Years
by: Phil Barkman
Mid-summer, 1941. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, the heat of its rays barely relieved by the fitful breeze that whispered through the growing corn. Atlee, 11 years old, was contemplating the large garden plot beside the barn. He was now staying with his Aunt Barb and her family. Aunt Barb had a medical condition that required surgery, and she and Uncle Jake were taking the whole family with them to Columbus, leaving Atlee at home alone with instructions to weed the garden.
As the car carrying the family pulled out of the driveway, Atlee walked slowly to the garden. It looked huge; it would take all day to get the job done. He would’ve liked to go along to Columbus, but that wasn’t an option. His job was to pull the weeds. He looked around. Home was miles away, and loneliness tugged at his heart. A tear trickled down his cheek as he knelt and began weeding. As he moved down the row, a wave of homesickness rolled over him, and the tears came faster. He looked around again; there wasn’t anybody close by to see him cry, but he still felt so exposed. Running to the barn, he sat on a bale of straw, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed. Life just didn’t seem fair. Why did he have to be here, when he missed his family so much?
A few minutes passed and his tears slowed. Well, there was no help for it; the garden had to be weeded, and that was that. He walked back out to where he had left off and began again, but the breeze only seemed to bring back more memories of home. So that’s how it went; pull weeds for a while, then run into the barn and cry. That afternoon stayed fresh in Atlee’s memory for years to come.
Over the course of the next few years, Atlee lived at various places and learned how to farm. At that time, most of the farming was done with horses, which was fine with him. There were few things that he enjoyed more than working with a good team or driving a fast horse. Once, when he was 14 years old, he was working for a man named Apple Butter John. Atlee was driving a team of horses pulling the hay loader, while John was driving the wagon onto which they were loading the hay. Suddenly Colonel, one of Atlee’s horses, balked. Atlee patiently talked to old Colonel and, with a little bit of additional prodding, finally got him to move along. John, who had been watching the entire incident from atop the hay wagon, laughed. “Atlee, someday you’re going to make a mighty fine preacher!” Neither one of them could have imagined at the time how prophetic those words would be.
Atlee’s love of horses could, however, get him into a bit of trouble at times. One Sunday evening, at about age 15, he was at a singing when a neighbor lady asked him for a ride home. He willingly obliged, and they started swiftly down the road. Atlee’s horse was blind, but fast. Soon they heard the drumbeat of hooves and the rattle of buggy wheels behind them, and two of Atlee’s friends pulled up alongside. “Hey Atlee, how fast can that old nag run?” shouted one of them, and the race was on. Side-by-side down the road they went, buggy tops swaying, gravel flying from pounding hooves. Atlee was so caught up in the excitement of the action that he never noticed the frightened look on his passenger’s face, or the white-knuckled grip that she had on the buggy frame beside her. Atlee was on the right side of the road, his wheels running just along the edge, when suddenly he saw a small concrete culvert jutting out from underneath the road into the ditch. He pulled frantically on the left rein, but too late- a sharp jolt, a splintering crash, and the right front corner of the buggy sagged as the wheel shattered. Bringing his horse to a halt, with the broken spokes of the wheel scraping the dirt, he got off and surveyed the damage; yes, this evening’s drive was over. After helping his shaken but unharmed passenger off the buggy and asking his friends to take her home, Atlee unhitched his horse, pulled the buggy to the side of the road, and began the 5 mile walk home.
In the fall of ’42, Atlee began working at the Henry Mast farm north of Mount Hope. It was during this time that a series of events began that would change his life forever. He made the acquaintance of two brothers, Ammon and Joe Swartzentruber, and they became close friends. Atlee began to spend a lot of time with them and their family; Ammon and Joe’s parents, Andy and Mandy, made him feel right at home. There were three more Swartzentruber children, Eli, the oldest son, and the two girls, Nettie and Mary. The boys spent quite a bit of time together, along with Atlee’s younger brother Raymond.
A few years passed, and one Sunday at church, Atlee noticed Mary sitting with the girls, facing the boys. She was smiling. Was she smiling at him? He glanced at Ammon who was sitting next to him and saw that no, Mary hadn’t been looking at him; her smile was directed at Ammon. Atlee felt a bit of disappointment. Why wasn’t she smiling at him? He had never paid too much attention to her before; he hadn’t had that much interest in girls, and besides, she was just his friends’ little sister. But that Sunday he suddenly became aware that Mary really was quite cute; that quiet girl that he frequently saw standing by the stove, behind the reservoir, was worth paying some more attention to. A few weeks later, at a Sunday evening singing, Atlee asked Mary if he could take her home. Much to his disappointment, she replied that she already had a way. Having faced quite a few challenges in life already, Atlee wasn’t about to give up so easily. Although Mary had been dating another boy off and on, Atlee persisted, and soon they began dating. Having no idea of what the future would hold, they began a relationship, and a love was born that has lasted for a lifetime.
At age 16, Atlee went to work north of Fredericksburg for a farmer named Dunham. Here, they used not only horses but also a tractor, a Farmall H. They also had an old Model A Ford, a dilapidated vehicle that had been reduced to mostly a frame, motor, and seats. They called it a hoopie. Dunham had, at one point, poured concrete into the back for more weight, and they used it to pull wagons and various farm implements around the fields. Dunham and Atlee would also do custom farm work, like picking corn, for other farms in the area. The neighboring men would get together and help each other fill silos, and sometimes when the work was done they would have a little fun. Atlee and the neighbor’s hired hand would take their tractors, hook them together, and have a pulling contest to see who could drag the other one. Atlee usually won; he drove the Farmall H, while the neighbor’s hired man had a small Ford. The Ford would start to lift up in the front as the pulling started, so one of the onlookers-usually a really big guy- would sit on the front of the Ford to hold it down.
As Atlee grew into his late teens and was dating Mary, his life stabilized somewhat, but there was still something missing. He had grown up attending the Amish church, but it was mostly a formality; he didn’t know that there could be a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Life was hard, and frequently, so were the people. Nobody had ever told him about a loving Father in heaven.
Although there was not much knowledge or even a recognition of God during these years, as Atlee looks back now, he can plainly see the hand of God at work in his life. The people, the events, the path of his life at that time were all used by God to shape him into the man that he has become, a man that even today tears up as he talks about the love and mercy of his heavenly Father.
To be continued…
Phil Barkman is a freelance writer and can be reached at