Michiana Chronicles: A Pennsylvania Farm Boy In Elkhart
Paul Gingrich was for many years my neighbor here in Elkhart. He and his wife Anne were world-travelers with vast experience and influence in places all across North America and around the world. But in spite of all that, to me Paul was always still a farm boy from Pennsylvania with simple tastes and a huge heart. Paul loved nothing more than to go out for breakfast at McDonalds – I could not tell you how many Egg McMuffins I saw that man eat. And never was there a happier day than when Paul discovered that Dairy Queen had invented a new drink.
He called me up and said, "I’ve got to take you out to DQ for this new thing called a Moolatte – it’s coffee and ice cream and chocolate all mixed up together, it’s delicious."
So we went, and he was right, and from that point on, that was our go-to drink at Dairy Queen. The Moolatte.
I hadn’t fully put together how much of a farm boy Paul was until the year he contrived to bring a tractor to his house. I’m not talking about a lawn tractor here, I’m talking about an actual farm tractor from his old home farm in Pennsylvania. It was a classic Allis Chalmers – probably a 1940s model. It was in terrible shape when it arrived, but it was significant to him because it was his family’s tractor. He told me an amazing story about seeing a family member, either a cousin or a brother, having a terrible accident with that machine.
He asked me, "Have you ever seen a tractor do a wheelie?"
I started to laugh, thinking this was a joke. But he said, "No – it’s terrifying."
He had watched this very tractor flip over backwards on top of his family member. Paul said he was certain the person was dead, but that in that moment he cried out to God for help. And the young man survived. For Paul, this was a vivid experience of God’s presence, and he carried it all his life. So here he was, fifty years later, with the emaciated husk of that same tractor now in his garage on Stevens Avenue. I have often wondered what on earth Anne thought of all this. Or indeed his children. It seemed crazy, this rescue project.
Over the weeks, Paul took that machine completely apart – the garage floor looked like one of those exploded diagrams you see in a washing machine service manual. Every nut and bolt, every gear, rod and rim – the seat, the wheels, EVERYTHING – got pulled apart, sanded down, lubricated, reassembled, and finally painted that classic Allis Chalmers orange. When he was done, the tractor looked brand new. It ran great. And he had completed a spiritual circle that had started over fifty years before.
Of course, there is not much call for a working farm tractor in south central Elkhart. And there is only so much time that even the most loving of spouses is willing to give up an entire garage to a spiritual quest. So in due time, Paul took the tractor out to Laverne’s Repair south of town. He and Laverne were old friends. I don’t know if Paul sold it to Laverne, or if someone else got it from there. But I always kept an eye out it as I drove up County Road 11.
When Paul and Anne retired for the second or third time, they moved to Goshen. When they left Elkhart, I inherited a lot of Paul’s farm boy engineering projects - the bird feeder on a double drainpipe pole, which cannot be climbed by squirrels and the year-round birdbath with its immersion heating coil. They are still going strong today.
I stayed in touch with Paul in the years that followed. Through Anne’s death, through his declining health. He would tell me stories about his youth, and brag about each of his children in turn. We’d talk about God and about power tools. Whenever possible, we would go out for an Egg McMuffin.
Paul died in April this year. When I got the news, I was on Pike Street in Goshen. Without thinking, I pulled my car into the drive thru at Dairy Queen. I ordered a Moolatte, and then drove home through the country – scanning the horizon for a flash of orange.
Postscript from Andrew: After this Chronicle went out, Paul's oldest son, Larry, contacted me to flesh out the tractor story. It turns out the person on the tractor was, in fact, Paul's own father. The tractor did, indeed, pull a wheelie. But after that moment of crisis where Paul remembered crying out, the tractor came back onto its wheels again and did not flip over. Apparently, this was a story Paul told over and over throughout his life.
Music: "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams