Rage Against the Machines | Travel | Chicago Reader

Rage Against the Machines 

Amish Farmers Stare Down the National Guard

By Leah Eskin

The Hardwood Air-to-Surface Gunnery Range near Finley, Wisconsin, is more or less the military version of putt-putt golf. The two-by-six-mile stretch of bombed-out cranberry bog offers a variety of mock targets: a convoy of old jeeps and trucks, a fake oil refinery built from rusted fuel storage tanks, a river-and-bridge setup, an airstrip fitted with decommissioned planes, even a moving target--a jeep attached to a tether.

This is where Air National Guard units from all over the midwest come to sharpen their bombing skills. Swooping in from Des Moines, Sioux City, Springfield, and Madison, pilots in B-52s, A-10s, and F-16s slice through the sky, fight off "enemy" units, shoot at targets, drop ordnance, then crack back into the blue, all with breathtaking speed--and heartstopping noise. "They're beautiful, just incredible," swoons Susan Musgrove, 38, a regular at the fenced-off visitors area where spectators come armed with picnics, binoculars, and a passion for military prowess.

But to the Air National Guard, the daily drama at Hardwood is a bore. Pilots use up most of their typical hour-and-a-half mission getting to and from practice. Once in range, they run through the same routine time and again, like a first-generation video game. "They could probably do it blindfolded," says Major Gunther Neumann, the officer in charge of the Hardwood range.

Which is why the Guard is eager to expand the range, and why it intended to add two low-level flight corridors leading up to it. Starting roughly over Cedar Rapids and Madison, pilots could drop down, putting in a couple hundred miles of rigorous low-altitude flying and radar evasion en route to bombing practice. On site, they'd get a shot at new angles on old targets. "We're trying to train smartly, efficiently, wisely," says Neumann.

The peaks and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa make handy foils for radar evasion. But the folks underneath the proposed highways in the sky weren't keen on the plan. The prospect of fighters shrieking a mere hundred feet overhead alarmed the local mix of dairy farmers, urban escapees, militia members, and--most severely--the Amish. And therein lay the trouble.

"This would be spoiling the want-ing to live here," said Gideon Miller, an Amish bishop and farmer. "For us, and for your people too."

Faced with a philosophical and physical threat, the Amish--who prefer prayer to protest--took on the feds. They didn't expect to have much impact. In fact, they were ready to lose, pack, and leave. The strange part is, they won.

Miller has been working the hills near Cashton, Wisconsin, for nearly 30 years--since urban development around Cleveland forced him and his neighbors to seek greener pastures. "If you ever go looking for land, look at the timber line," he advises. "If there are good trees--not scrubby--you've got good land." On 165 acres of good land Miller took to growing hay, alfalfa, corn, and children--16 all told.

Today, the Amish number about 5,000 in Vernon County. Dotted between modern farming operations are Amish settlements where men in straw hats and ample beards lead teams of draft horses through the fields, women in dark dresses and white caps tend razor-straight rows of radishes and marigolds, and clumps of children--seeming miniatures of their parents--walk the winding roads or drift by guiding wooden-wheeled buggies.

"The Amish have always been considered a technology-free zone," says Dale Ahlquist, director of the National Airspace Coalition. "And that should include the space over their heads too."

Since February of last year, when locals first got wind of the plan--officially known as the "Description of the Proposed Action and Alternatives for the Hardwood Range Expansion and Related Airspace Actions"--Ahlquist and other national activists have helped a coalition of strange bedfellows fight back. They've studied similar low-level flight corridors, hired expert witnesses, and pelted the Guard with petitions as it conducted the required environmental impact study.

Low-flying jets, say the opponents, can disturb children's sleep, pollute the air, and crash--turnoffs not only to locals but to tourists and investors. In fact, says Ahlquist, the military recommends flying at higher altitudes during war to lower the risk of being shot down. "The bottom line is, the only people exposed to low-altitude flying are not our enemies but our own citizens."

Though the Amish of Vernon County don't fly in planes, they are familiar with commercial jets and with C-130s rumbling over the ridges. Last year members of the coalition explained to Miller that the government was proposing to fly more jets (2,151 flights a year, or about 8 a day five days a week, including 100 night flights), faster jets (the F-16s were slated to go up to 600 miles an hour), lower jets (500 feet above the ground, and possibly as low as 100), and louder jets (no one knew, but maybe as loud as 120 decibels).

"We didn't want any part of it," says Miller. He agreed to join the opposition.

Last April, 498 members of the Old Order Amish churches of Wilton, Hillsboro, La Valle, Loganville, Readstown, Viroqua, Chaseburg, and Cashton signed a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Kent Adams, the National Guard official charged with evaluating the proposal. "We plead with you to stop this plan," it read, "because it would be alien and disastrous to our entire, simple, way of life including our religious beliefs, physical safety, and livelihood."

It was an unusual act of activism. "It was something we didn't want to do," says Miller. "But we thought one time we should let them know, so they would at least sit up and take notice." In a few instances the Amish have taken on the government. For example, they neither pay nor accept social security. But they generally prefer to steer clear of politics. "If we can get by without giving a piece of our mind, we'll shut up," says Miller. "If it infringes on our religious beliefs, we stand up."

The jets, says Miller, would infringe on his community's religious beliefs. "We could be in church talking about Christ and his message and have a plane fly over," he says from the quiet of his shop, where he crafts oak desks, iceboxes, and tables. "It's a peace disturbance." And a philosophical disturbance. "What they're preparing for is war. War is killing people. We believe in justice."

The jets represented a physical threat as well. You can hear a slow plane coming--or even a fast plane moving over a flat area. But when jets edge in and out of valleys, the way the Hardwood plan proposed, the noise and the plane show up together--with no warning. It's terrifying to people. And it's dangerous to animals.

Cattle buyer Charlotte O'Brien explains "startle effect" like this: When a sudden noise spooks a cow, her natural response is to run. And when one runs, so do the rest. "What other defenses do they have?" asks O'Brien. "They can't defend themselves by mooing at you." The resulting stampede can devastate a herd. Sometimes the cattle crush each other. Sometimes they injure themselves on fences--or through fences, in traffic.

Translate the problem to bigger, swifter horses, and you've got a disaster. "Horses are skittish, skittish by nature," says Miller. And a horse spooked by a sonic boom or jet buzz is likely to buck, kick, or bolt.

Isaac Hershberger, an Amish horseshoer, works not far from Miller's farm. On a sunny afternoon it's dark and cool in the big red barn. Hershberger holds a horse's leg between his own, leather chaps offering the only protection. Using a nipper he shaves off a half-moon of hoof. He gropes in his toolbox for a rasp, and scrapes the hoof smooth. He holds up a new shoe, balances a fresh nail, and drives it straight through, flattening it with a clinch block on the other side. Between swings of the hammer the barn is silent, except for the breathing of horse and horseshoer. Hershberger imagines the effect of a sonic boom at that moment. "He'd probably go berserk," he says. "He could get me underneath him. He could jump in a ditch or jump in front of moving traffic."

Atlee Miller lives a few bends away. Squatting under an ash tree, speaking in the heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accent shared by nearly all his Amish neighbors, he discusses the potentially dangerous mix of kids and horses. Two daughters in long green dresses and black bonnets dig plastic toys into the sandbox as he talks. "You like to send kids on with a horse that's fairly safe," he says, sounding like any dad worried about the kids' driving habits. "We tell them to obey traffic signals. We can't tell them, 'Well, if a jet comes, do this and that.'"

The community letter addressed this concern: "Judging by the accidents caused in our community by the startle effect on animals, we can well imagine the horrors high-decibel noise would inflict on us....No one is strong enough to hold back an eight foot high, ten foot long horse, weighing 2,000 pounds!" In one instance, the letter recounted, a car horn caused a horse to kick back, striking a girl as she sat between her parents. She died in her mother's arms.

"Human life isn't much to them," says Gideon Miller. "If a toy has any part that you could hurt yourself with, they have to make it differently. With this--if you get hurt, you get hurt."

Miller didn't hold much hope for influencing the low-level flight debate. "We can't change the military," he said matter-of-factly. "They have heard us. If they are not going to heed it, there's no use in going any further."

His passive attitude sprang from a worldview that sees all actions as guided by the hand of God. "It's God's will," Miller explained, Sunday school style. "If we're worth it, we'll get out of it. If we get chastened, God is trying to tell us, 'You've done something wrong.'"

In other words, if the jets came, the Amish had sinned. And if the jets came, the Amish planned to leave. "I don't think we'd want to stay here," said Miller. Ida Hochstetler, a mother of four who wears her severe gray dress fastened with straight pins, even glimpsed a silver lining to displacing the whole community. She lives in a white frame house bordered by a tree swing, a vegetable garden, and a bend in the road that accommodates about ten cars a day. "We might like somewhere with more privacy," she said earnestly. "Less traffic and not so many people in the area."

But Hochstetler needn't start scanning the real estate ads. Two weeks ago a message arrived from on high. In a brief press release, the Air National Guard announced the low-level flight corridors "will not be carried forward for further study." There were just too many areas, including the space over Amish heads, the Guard suspected it would have to "mitigate"--in other words, avoid. "Essentially we're going back to the drawing board," says Guard spokesman John Reinders. Plans to expand the bombing range are still on the table.

"You have a victory, there's no doubt about that," says national activist Grace Bukowski. "You just have to make sure it's long-standing."

In Vernon County, folks are taking the news with a lump of skepticism, fearing it could be a ploy to placate protesters while they expand the range, then reintroduce low-level flights through some other means. "They'll be back," says Bukowski. "I'll bet a month's salary they'll be back." Still, says Charlotte O'Brien, plans for a celebratory square dance are under way. She's hoping her Amish neighbors, who would normally abstain, might attend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steve Liss.

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