OCEANSIDE — "I'll be driving along the freeway at 60 m.p.h, and I'll remember a time when I'd be going 17 m.p.h. max in my horse and buggy, with too much time on my hands. Now the faster I go, the less time I seem to have."
For young Freeman (Fritz) Schlabach (pronounced Slay-baugh), breaking with his Amish heritage 10 years ago was both wrenching and liberating. At 17, Schlabach catapulted from a simple, structured life in an Indiana Amish settlement to life "outside" and faced a barrage of new experiences. He hopscotched the country and the Far East with the Marines, and then arrived at MiraCosta College three years ago. Last year he won the college's Medal of Honor (the highest academic award) and he graduated last week with top state and local honors. In fact, he and fellow MiraCosta student Wendy Helfrich of Vista were two of the 15 top community college students in the state. His perfect 4.0 record has earned him a scholarship to Virginia's Washington and Lee University.
"His records suggest a rare dedication to the ideal in human conduct," said MiraCosta College English professor Gloria Floren. "Fritz stands out as a star, possibly the brightest of all. He's a gifted student with an ability to both enlighten and empower others."
If movie moguls should ever cast a film about Schlabach, Ron Howard would play the lead. Affable and unassuming, Schlabach shifts easily from thoughtful reflections to hearty laughter. His easygoing manner belies the hurdles he's cleared since leaving home.
As a child, Schlabach remembers his fascination with "the outside."
'Perhaps, in my wildest imagination, I could think of driving a car but never of leaving. That would surely get me into hell."
With no electricity or cars, Amish existence creates a time warp.
"For the Amish, school is a secondary function. The primary function is working on the farms (non-mechanized). You were not supposed to dawdle on the way home from school. Of course we dawdled.
"I can remember praying it would rain, so I could get out of the cornfield. There was no letup until midwinter, because the early part of winter meant hand-shucking corn."
Amish school ends at the eighth grade. Although literacy is highly prized--to facilitate Bible reading--asking questions is discouraged. "Inquiry is one of the fears of Amish culture. Yet I do understand. In order for the Amish to ensure that tradition stays that way, they have to draw the line."
For young Schlabach, reading offered intrigue and adventure. "I was a bookworm. Dad would catch me reading (by kerosene lantern) because he'd look up through the register and see the light. Then I got smart and put a carpet over the register," said Schlabach, who'd sneak a book along on early morning forays to put the cows out to pasture.
Swashbuckling sagas, like Max Brand and Zane Grey, drew the independent child. "I'd carve wooden guns . . . and once I made a rifle by cutting off my mom's broom handle. You can imagine my parents' reaction to that."
His decision to break away evolved gradually. At 16, he entered the period of rum springa or "running around," when Amish youngsters of courting age (16-21) are given greater freedom before formally joining the Amish church and settling down.
"I'm bullheaded, just like my Dad. When I was 17, I didn't conform. I hung around with the 'wild' (by Amish standards) group. They were rebels like me. On Saturdays and Sundays, we'd sneak to shows in the little town of Lagrange, Ind. Everyone knew that's what we were doing because the hitching rack in front of the theater was all filled with horses and buggies."
Deciding to Leave
Like other young people, Schlabach got a job working in a trailer factory in town. Then, against his father's wishes, he bought a car. At first, he kept it at a friend's house, driving horse and buggy to pick it up. Finally, his father, whom Schlabach describes as "strict, even for the Amish," delivered an ultimatum: "Sell that thing or you're out."
He kept the car.
"When I first left, I felt exhilaration--'Wow! Freedom!' Yet, I was not accepted by my family, nor was I accepted by my new culture. I was looked down upon because I was a simple-minded person from a simple-minded way!"
Leaving a restrictive environment was tantamount to opening Pandora's box, and Schlabach struggled for a time between control and excess. After two years' work in the trailer factory ('I hated it!'), he joined the Marines.
This precipitated a crisis for Schlabach's family. For them, the military equated with war and killing.
"I'd told my parents I'd meet with them at my sister's before I had to go in. My entire extended family showed up (200-300 people)." One after another, concerned relatives pleaded with him to reverse his decision.
He held his ground.
"They still don't realize that I haven't gone to war, and that I've never killed anyone.