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Son of The Wind Copyright Š 2011 by Leanne Eshleman Benner No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or by any information storage without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Cover design, book design and layout by Jim L. Friesen Library of Congress Control Number: 2011919179 International Standard Book Number: 978-0-615-53769-6 Printed in the United States of America by Mennonite Press, Inc., Newton, KS, www.mennonitepress.com ii


The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. John 3:8 (NIV)

Dedicated to Marissa, Briana, Lauren, Shawn, Jenna, Ryan, Chaska, Kegan & Tyler Heirs of The Wind!

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table of contents Preface............................................................................................... v Chapter 1: A Vintage Birth...............................................................1 Chapter 2: Early Days On The Farm.................................................5 Chapter 3: Blessed Child.................................................................11 Chapter 4: Farm Life At Its Best......................................................19 Chapter 5: Growing Pains...............................................................27 Chapter 6: School Days...................................................................43 Chapter 7: A Legacy Of Sharing......................................................49 Chapter 8: For The Love Of God....................................................53 Chapter 9: Leaving the Nest............................................................57 Chapter 10: High School Drop-Out...............................................63 Chapter 11: Back To School............................................................69 Chapter 12: Off To College.............................................................81 Chapter 13: Medical School..........................................................105 Chapter 14: The Intern.................................................................129 Chapter 15: Setting Sail................................................................137 Chapter 16: A New Home............................................................145 Chapter 17: The Shock..................................................................165 Chapter 18: The Gift.....................................................................173 Chapter 19: Setting The Standard.................................................203 Chapter 20: The Golden Years.......................................................217 Chapter 21: A Divine Unsettling...................................................249 Chapter 22: Carving A New Identity............................................269 Chapter 23: Doctor E...................................................................277 Chapter 24: For The Love Of Family.............................................289 Chapter 25: Life to the Fullest.......................................................297 Chapter 26: Octogenarian.............................................................321 Bibliography..................................................................................328

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preface never dreamed of compiling my own father’s biography—or anyone’s biography, for that matter. The anti-historian in me causes my eyes to glaze over when I see dates and long strings of names, places, and acronyms. So when the inspiration hit to write my father’s story, it was more in the spirit of preserving a wonderful story for Rohrer Eshleman’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren than to preserve history. Every effort was made to keep dates, quotes, and information as accurate as possible (according to the information I processed), but some liberty was taken with chronology at places. I apologize up front for any inaccuracies. So much was left out of this biography. I could have interviewed literally hundreds of people with tales of their fascinating encounters with Rohrer, but there simply wasn’t time or space to do it. I’m eager to hear more stories which may gradually come out of the woodwork and will gladly add them to our personal collection for the grandchildren. What I did not expect as I embarked on this project was the spiritual journey it would become for me. I gained new inspiration during a stressful period in my life. I gained a new love of Christ for his marvelous work among ordinary people. I loved my parents before, but I loved them even more afterward, and the hours we spent talking, e-mailing, and sorting through pictures were precious beyond words. They spent hours—even days—reading and rereading the manuscript to get it just right. This story would have been seriously lacking without the years of journaling and extensive letter writing my father did (and saved!) What a gift it was that my parents graciously let me see into their intimate lives by lavishing me with boxes of old love letters, family corvii


respondence, and years’ worth of diary entries. (And, yes, I read every single one, despite the fact that Rohrer’s deplorable doctor’s handwriting kicked in about the time med school started.) I relied on magazine articles written by my father at various stages throughout his life and some written by others to gain understanding about who he was and is. Nathan Hege’s book, “Beyond Our Prayers,” was tremendously helpful, and I kept referring back to it to make sure my cultural and mission references were accurate. Then, of course, I relied on my own memories of being Rohrer’s daughter and tapped my siblings’ memories on occasion. Thanks to my Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Lois for their good interview in helping me get a glimpse of life on the farm with their family. Thanks to Rhoda Hertzler for giving some clarity to the Puerto Rico mission experience and lending me letters pertaining to Rohrer. Thanks to my sister Louise Eshleman Yoder and my sister-in-law Susan Weaver Eshleman for their meticulous proofreading. A special thanks to my daughter, Marissa, for her fresh critiquing of the manuscript and the amusing margin notes: • How about a spicier verb? • Just repeat this [sentence] to yourself and talk to me if you have any questions! • Mommy, mommy, bad mommy…fix this sentence! Often we never know how very simple stories, seemingly insignificant ones, can have an impact far into the next generations. For example, the fish story on page 14 is hardly worth mentioning until you understand the footnote. People have so much to offer each other, not just in the telling of stories, but in taking absolutely ordinary steps in honoring even the “least of these.” Rohrer Eshleman’s life is a living example of those series of small steps that led to a greatness not found in stardom or fame. You will be inspired, either because you feel a renewed joy in what life has to offer or because you have already experienced the same powerful working of God through the ups and downs of your own life. viii


1 a vintage birth he tiny town of Vintage, Pennsylvania cared little that life in urban cities was gearing up for the rampant change that would characterize the Roaring Twenties or that people were moving in droves away from provincial towns like theirs to the excitement and prosperity of big cities. The town’s name spoke volumes about its values—rural traditions, classic beauty, quiet simplicity, steady optimism, hard work. The winds of change blew hard against Vintage as trains barreled into town for the mail drop that was a mere hiccup on its mission to bigger cities. Their whale-like locomotives, as if to mock the up-and-coming cars poking along Route 30, spewed haughty plumes of soot and steam before thundering on their way. Just on the other side of the high railroad bank from Vintage, the Eshleman farm stood proud and embodied the best that Vintage had to offer. Stately and clean, the house surveyed the unpaved, country road that streamed out from under the stone railroad bridge. Straight fences lined the road and partitioned off the grazing meadows where a few patches of clumpy, green grass stood strong like a chosen remnant amidst the fading browns of autumn. Cows and sheep in the near meadows took time to watch the sparse Black willow trees bordering the Eshleman lane. 1


son of the wind traffic that trundled by, unmindful of the two carefree, black willows at the lane’s entrance. The trees looked serious in the cold months with their leafy trinkets gone; nonetheless, their dark arms, though rigid, seemed to welcome both heaven and earth. Even without leaves they were so striking one could forgive the greedy way they slurped in their unfair share of water from the tiny creek that trickled by. The Eshleman lane advanced purposefully toward the house and abruptly veered left around a bronze-wire fence protecting the house, the lawn and its gardens. Without the fence, a vast army of farm life, which loved the farm and its produce as much as the family, would have devastated the handsome landscaping. A stone-gabled barn loomed large to the left of the house. Hard and masculine with pale-yellow siding and dark, chocolate trim, it seemed the patriarch of a family of smaller buildings scattered at its feet. That proud, practical grouping cared nothing for the bright cosmetics of the red-painted brick house across the lane—all decked out with white trimmings, decorative shutters, spindled porch railings, clean sidewalks, and exquisite maple trees which opened shady parasols in spring. The odors from the barn’s belly were sweeter and less potent in cold weather, now that it didn’t need to compete with the heady fragrances of the summer gardens. On October 20, 1922, when the farm chores were over, Anna Eshleman prepared to give birth to her third child. It would happen in the same second-story room where her two daughters, Dorothy and Lois, were born. Dorothy, only five years-old, was escorted into Vintage where her Eshleman grandparents lived. Lois, a toddler, was tucked into her own bed, unaware of what the night would bring. Anna and Clarence hardly dared to hope for a boy. Their lot, so far, seemed cast for girls. Even though the role of women was subtly changing in the United States, farmers still wished for big, strapping boys who could handle the heavy, physical demands of a farm—plowing, planting, harvesting, milking. It was too much to hope that an Eshleman boy would be big and strapping since their genes favored trim, lean bodies midway between 5½ and 6 feet; but their strong arms and backs would be tethered to a deep work ethic like all their fathers before them. Most of all, a farm needed a son to fall in love with it and eventually make it his own. 2


A Vintage Birth Time ticked toward midnight and a blustery wind jittered the loose windows, unable to contain the excitement that, indeed, a boy was coming and that he would be more a son of the wind than of Vintage. The fact that the farm was situated perfectly between two railroad beds—the old one to the south (long since shucked of its railroad ties) and the new one where trains whooped and hollered on their way from one city to another—was symbolic of the period of peace and prosperity in which this boy would be raised. He would grow safely tucked between the disillusionment of one world war and the delirious race for change toward another. As if he knew the mind of America, the baby’s first sounds were not so much a cry as a laugh. The wind pressed against the windows to see its new son, but the joyful knocking went unnoticed inside the room that was bright and warm as a resurrection morning. It would be a lifetime before this baby would realize how much the farm became a part of him and how much it influenced his outward journey, despite the pull to remain. In the flurried moments of the midnight birth, no one thought to note the exact minute the baby was born; but, on the birth certificate, it would mean the difference of a whole day—October 20 or October 21. So when the parents chose the later date—October 21— it was in the interest of optimism and progress and future blessing. There was a bigger, more burning question, though: “What shall we name him?” Had it been a girl, the parents were ready; but they’d delayed the naming of a boy. It seemed critical to get it just right—this first boy. “How about Daniel?” Clarence suggested. After all, it was the boy’s grandfather, Daniel H. Eshleman who bought the century-old farm and brought it to prosperity with tobacco money and dairy cows. It was he who enlarged the operation and more than doubled the house size by adding more rooms, a kitchen, a wrap-around porch, and an attached washhouse with a built-in privy. Clarence could see his father already—the proud, broad smile at the news of a grandson and the continuation of “his” farm. “What about Rohrer?” Anna countered. Such a fitting way to pass on the surname she gave up at marriage. The practice wasn’t unusual. 3


son of the wind Dozens of families used the mother’s maiden names as first names— Martin, Fareman, Hershey—a subtle vote for the newly rising status of women. The next morning, Lois was introduced to her brother and immediately fell in love with him. The boxy, wooden telephone on the living room wall hummed and clicked, and the crank ran hot as Clarence spread news of the birth. He talked calmly into the bell-shaped mouthpiece protruding from the contraption. Every family gave their opinions of what to name the baby boy (with eavesdroppers on the party line politely keeping mum), but the final word was Daniel Rohrer. Little did they know that the initials D.R. were prophetic of a career other than farming—that society’s exuberance for change would finally creep its way into little Vintage and steal away one of its sons. Everyone called the boy by his second name—Rohrer. But the name Daniel carried its own weighty significance. “God is my judge.” Daniel Rohrer would gradually develop an integrity that went far beyond what others thought about him. He firmly believed that accountability ultimately went to God as judge, and Rohrer would gauge his standards by how closely they represented Christ’s example. As confusing as the order of his names would prove to be throughout his life (a dilemma he would never impose on his own children), the ‘D” for Daniel became an integral part of his official signature. So there it was—a big “D”— stuck out in front like a quiet statement of faith.

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2 EARLY DAYS ON THE FARM he Eshleman dairy farm was one of the largest in the area and the work was demanding. The twice-daily routine of milking forty cows was more than Clarence and Anna could handle alone, especially with a bundle of youngsters on hand. To help ease the load, they took in a nine-year old foster boy, Walter Kinsey, from the Millersville Children’s Home twenty miles away. In return for room and board and schooling, he helped with the farm chores. His dark, walnut hair matched the rest of the family’s, but his big bones and round face set him apart from their own fine, narrow features. With the passing months, Dorothy and Lois learned how to incorporate Rohrer into play time. Rohrer and Lois became especially close during those hours, being closer in age. Rohrer toddled around in his infant’s dress, learning to interact with playful kittens and lambs who knew as little about life as he did and were bound by the same code of wonder and delight. In the winter of 1923, slaughtering time came around. Butchering was an all-day job Rohrer delighting in the farm cats. requiring a concentrated effort by the whole family, if not several families. Lois, all of four years old, was given permission to skip out of the long, bloody job with one con5


son of the wind dition—that she watch Rohrer and keep him out of trouble. It was a good deal for the adults who could work more efficiently without the young ones at their heels, and it was a good deal for Lois who loved watching her brother. His curiosity and overflowing laughter kept life interesting. Besides...she loved the countless opportunities to teach him her favorite, simple joys. The hours ticked by and the two children wandered farther and farther down the lane until they found themselves at the stream near the road. They stood on the low wooden bridge, looking down into the cold, sluggish water. Lois realized that they were too far from the house, but Rohrer was cooperative and happy. Lois picked up a pebble and tossed it into the pool of turbid water. The pebble made a fascinating ring that spread out from the center. She did it again and showed Rohrer her discovery. Throwing stones and watching the ripples quickly became a game for them. Their mounting excitement escalated into grabbing great handfuls of stones and throwing them, with squeals of delight, into the water. Little Rohrer grabbed whatever he could find, including sticks, and rushed them over to the culvert’s edge. Only then did Lois realized the situation was getting out of hand. “Don’t throw sticks in, Rohrer,” she ordered, but Rohrer was too wound up to stop. He grabbed a stick nearly half as big as he was and toddled to the edge of the culvert. With a great heave and limited coordination skills, he and the stick both dropped over the edge. Lois panicked when she saw Rohrer face-down in the shallow pool. The horrible thought that he was surely dead and that she had killed him froze her to the spot! Suddenly, Rohrer lifted his face from the water. Lois rushed to the stream’s edge, pushing aside her relief at his being alive. She quickly waded into the frigid water and pulled him to safety. What a sight! Rohrer was soaking wet and covered from head to toe with mud. The icy water stung like needles, and Rohrer was crying as much from cold as fear. Lois felt like crying, too, but she had a much bigger problem to tackle first—getting Rohrer up to the house. “Come on, Rohrer,” Lois coaxed. “We’ve got to get up to the house.” She pulled on his little hands, but he screamed louder, refusing to budge. “Rohrer, you can’t just stand here. We have to go up to Mamma. Come!” 6


Early Days On The Farm No luck. The wails intensified and Rohrer stood stiffer than ever. With no other choice, Lois propped herself behind Rohrer, wrapped her skinny arms around his goopy, sopping body and carried him a few steps until she was forced to set him down. Step-by-step, she carried Rohrer and every so often begged for relief. “Come on, Rohrer! You have to walk! Walk!” All her pleading did no good. No one at the barn even heard her loud cries for help, and Rohrer’s howls continued. Inch by clumsy inch, they finally reached the house. The long walk seemed like miles, and Lois felt heroic for her efforts. Her mother, however, instinctively chastised her for letting it happen. Most dreadful of all was Anna’s muttered worry, “Oh dear, he might catch pneumonia!” Pneumonia? Walter had nearly died with pneumonia the year before, and Lois remembered that frightful ordeal. When she went to bed that night, her dread was so great she could barely sleep. What sleep finally overtook her was fitful. All night long she wondered if Rohrer was getting pneumonia. It was her first thought in the morning, too. When her feet hit the hardwood floor she barely noticed how cold it was as she flew to Rohrer’s bedside in the adjoining room. There he was, sleeping peacefully, breathing normally, and looking perfectly fine. Rohrer never contracted pneumonia. Anna took every precaution to keep her family healthy in an era without antibiotics. In winter, when people were coughing and sneezing in church, she had her own preventative routine for the family. Every Sunday morning, the family lined up for their preventative—dipping a damp finger into a jar of a powdered chemical and touching it to their tongues, tasting ever-somuch like chlorine. As soon as they returned home from church, they repeated the ritual. Nasty as it tasted, the Eshlemans seemed to avoid most of the infections circulating at church. Clarence had his own treatment for colds and whatever else ailed him, a procedure which always fascinated Rohrer. His father put one hand on a warm burner of the iron woodstove and the other hand on the pull chain of the bare, electric light bulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling. The resulting short produced a mild, electrical shock that tingled through Clarence’s body. It seemed like a volatile treatment which 7


son of the wind had to do something, but its curative effects were dubious. The back-up plan—Ben-Gay, with its heady scent and cooling vapors—was always within reach and filled the house with medicinal fumes. Vintage was too small for its own doctor, so the Eshlemans, on rare occasions, called on the one in Paradise three miles away. Visits were cheap enough—about 50¢ a call—but there wasn’t much more the doctor could provide that the Watkins salesman with his patent medicines couldn’t. The salesman dropped in from time-to-time on his rounds through the community. His coming was always a special occasion, especially for the children. Looking suspiciously like Santa Claus and acting like him, too, he came regularly with two big suitcases filled with ointments, creams, and powders. The kids gathered around, fascinated by the suitcases’ many neat compartments. It took all their will-power to politely keep silent as he carefully explained his latest, most tempting products to the adults. The products, though, weren’t what teased the children. It was the candies the salesman inevitably pulled out of his pocket before he left—a stick of gum, a piece of chocolate, or some peppermint Lifesavers. Transportation was difficult in those days, so vendors of many kinds were warmly welcomed on the farm. It was a simple way of finding and buying useful products. These men added great interest to the Eshlemans’ mundane farm life since the family’s contact with the outside world was limited. Fuller Brush salesmen brought cleaning equipment and supplies. The Rag Man started his loud cries at the far end of their lane. “Rags! Rags! Old rags!” he sang the whole way up the lane, prompting the children to race for the bag where they’d been saving rags for recycling. Men came collecting iron and paper for recycling. The Bee Man made a bi-annual visit to the orchard to maintain the health of their hives and collect his proper portion of the honey. The Bread Man came, too—a god-send for Anna who had enough to do without making bread every week and was able to afford “boughten” bread.

In 1925 one more child was born into the Eshleman family— another boy, Marvin. Marvin’s birth, however, as second son, didn’t cause the animated stir Rohrer’s did. Being three years old at the time, 8


Early Days On The Farm

The Clarence Eshleman family ( l to r): Lois, Dorothy, Anna, Marvin, Clarence, Rohrer.

Rohrer had graduated from toddler’s dresses to simple jumpsuits. He was much too enamored with his active life to make room for a helpless baby. The farm was his playground with a thousand things to do before dropping off to sleep each night: watching his father hitch up the stocky, draft horses for plowing and keeping clear of their massive, hairy hooves; giggling as lambs sucked on his fingers and sent chills up and down his spine; spying eggs in the chicken houses; shuddering with the sour jolt of celery-crisp rhubarb stalks; snapping mellow green beans and turning up his nose at tomatoes; playing in the pile of crushed stones out at the barn; listening to the loud, pulsating thumpTHUMP, thump-THUMP of the milking machine as milk surged through the lines; running beside the milk cart when Walter pulled full milk cans to the cold spring house; racing barefoot through the cool, lush grass in the fenced lawn; peering reluctantly down the cellar steps 9


son of the wind into the dark, spooky corner where an open well had fresh, pure water for drinking. There was no time for a baby brother. No time at all. Life was easy for Rohrer and every moment seemed made for joy—all except his circumcision. At four years old, many boys faced that first right-of-passage. For Rohrer, it was one of his earliest memories. The day came unannounced and was treated matter-of-factly. His mother gave a simple explanation of how the doctor would put a mask over his face to make him fall asleep; and he was warned that when he awoke his genitals would be sore. When the doctor finally arrived, Rohrer was terrified. Anna held him in her lap while he tried to fend off the doctor with the terrifying ether mask. He kicked and screamed until the ether fumes finally overcame him. The circumcision was performed on the dining room table and when Rohrer woke up, he was sore, exactly as his mother had explained. So for a week, he endured his four year-old misery and assumed that was the worst life had to offer.

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A New Home Dodgie into town and came upon a celebration which included lion costumes, spears, and horse racing. Aware of his keen interest, the crowd urged Rohrer to join them, so he agreed to participate in the horse race. They draped Rohrer’s head and back with a huge lion skin, gave him a spear, and watched him race with the others. The Ethiopians laughed uproariously watching this adventurous forinji who was becoming a common sight around town.

With the mission hospital still in its infancy, employees and people throughout the community were slowly gaining an interest in the gospel and “living for Christ.” Every Sunday the interested few would come to services on the compound and listen, through an interpreter, to the gospel messages. Bible study groups were organized for interested men and in June of 1951, a group of ten asked to be baptized—the first since the start of the mission. Unfortunately a Nazareth city ordinance prohibited baptisms outside the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the area zoned as a “closed” city, which meant that missionaries were not free to spread evangelical ideas beyond the hospital compound. The Orthodox church, while considered Christian, was more reflective of the medieval church with its indulgences, penances, superstitions, and saints (who seemed to be revered more than Christ himself.) To get around the baptism dilemma, the new believers were taken to Addis Ababa to be baptized. The baptism was a significant one for the mission personnel and all went to Addis for the occasion, except for Rohrer (who was needed at the hospital). While they were gone, the governor of Nazareth got word of the baptism and called Rohrer (the only mission representative still in town) for an interrogation. “I hear you’re baptizing Ethiopians,” the governor said. “The rule is no baptism, you know.” “We know,” Rohrer replied through his interpreter. “No baptism in ‘closed’ areas. But these men asked to be baptized. That’s why we took them to Addis because it is an ‘open’ city.” The governor replied, “That’s not right!” and launched into a long, haranguing speech. He reminded Rohrer that it is not the business of 153


son of the wind missionaries to baptize Ethiopians, especially anyone of the Orthodox faith. Taking the men to Addis was not a valid reason for baptism. Rohrer listened politely, sincerely wishing Chester Wenger had been in town to handle this controversy. Chester had been in the country far longer than Rohrer, understood the language, could speak it fluently. He was much better gifted to handle the complicated politics this involved. When the governor finished his tirade Rohrer replied, “Okay, how shall we do this if people want to be baptized?” “You can baptize Muslims and people that aren’t Christian, but you may not baptize Orthodox Christians.” “That’s fine. Good. I’ll take this message back to the church,” Rohrer replied So the lecture ended cordially, and Rohrer returned to his work. Around town, rumors spread that the baptized boys would be imprisoned for being illegally baptized, but in the end the situation subsided. The mission group, however, had learned a valuable lesson about the power and influence of the Orthodox Church. The purpose of their mission was not to be a baptizing machine. It was to provide needed services and demonstrate Christ’s way of peace. In the interest of keeping harmony, missionaries ceased further baptizing. They wouldn’t need to. Now that nationals themselves were baptized, they could do new baptisms on their own. As people made commitments to the Lord, the Ethiopians secretly baptized others in their homes so that nonbelievers wouldn’t find out and inform the governing authorities. About that time, the mission discovered that letters were being opened and censored by the postal service before being sent on to the United States. The Mission Board issued a statement warning personnel not to say anything that might stir up trouble and jeopardize the work in Nazareth, so they developed secret codes for speaking about new converts in communications back to America, calling them tree plantings. “Several more trees were planted in the church,” they wrote. “The watering will take place later!” The Orthodox church and the mission continued to live in uneasy harmony. The Orthodox church recognized its dependence 154


A New Home on the hospital but always felt threatened that the mission would somehow undermine their own teachings, so it was reluctant to lend its full support. The baptism issue was a critical one for the mission as a whole. Within two months, however, a new crisis arose which had more personal implications for Rohrer as it began to unravel his dream of becoming a pioneer doctor in the town of Deder. The governor’s wife in Nazareth became ill and came to the hospital for treatment. Suspecting she had syphilis, which was nearly epidemic in Nazareth, Dr. Walter Schlabach tested her and verified this diagnosis. The governor did not take kindly to the news nor the way it was presented. His was a powerful position and he had freedom to wield it in any way he chose. Aware that a new doctor was now on the premises, the governor demanded that Dr. Schlabach be fired for dispensing this bad news. Daniel Sensenig, the mission director, tried his best to appease the governor, but couldn’t dissuade him. So Dan’s next difficult task turned to persuading Rohrer to stay on at Nazareth Hospital as the medical director. Rohrer could hardly believe his ears!. He wanted nothing more than to develop the small, rural hospital in Deder. To be thrown into the politics and complications of running a bigger, more established “urban” hospital was mind-boggling and far beyond his capabilities. Dan, blessed with the gift of persuasion, sat with him for hours, explaining the dire need and assuring him that he was qualified and completely capable of running the hospital. Only Dan, with diplomatic skills so refined he could even persuade Nathan Hege his roof didn’t leak (when in fact it did), could finally convince Rohrer to remain at Nazareth. In the end, there was really no choice and Rohrer relinquished his sweet dreams of running the new hospital at Deder. Along with this change was one major hurrah. Language study would cease immediately! Dr. Schlabach was quickly transferred to Deder, so Rohrer and Ellen moved out of their mansion in town and onto the hospital compound. The option to move into the “Big House” was tempting with its four large bedrooms, shiny-tiled floors, tall ceilings and wide-open dining and living area; but that would have confined the three or four single nurses to a very small house. Rohrer and Ellen needed less space 155


son of the wind than the nurses, so they chose the smaller vacant apartment in the duplex. They made it their practice not to make decisions based on the privileges and prestige of being a doctor, but on practicality alone. On occasion, work at the hospital was sluggish. The largely uneducated Nazareth population, who were used to local remedies and governed by the superstitions of the Orthodox Church, was afraid to trust themselves into the care of this modern Christian establishment. Aside from the social implications, they were extremely poor and had no funds to pay for care. Nazareth had no industry to speak of—only a feed mill—and served as a center of commerce by trading grains, hides, cotton, and spices. Trading merchants were wealthy, but they were few. The common people eked out a living by selling their produce and spices in the crowded weekly market and earning what pittance they could among their neighboring competitors. Beggars were abundant, holding out their soiled, cracked hands for alms. Young children led blind parents through the streets in hopes of getting hand-outs. Crippled men dragged their curled, knobby bodies along the streets by walking on hands, and hunched women jabbered their woes with outstretched palms. As Rohrer mapped out his plans for running the hospital he quickly learned to stream-line his work by holding clinics in the morning and surgeries in the afternoon. In clinic, Rohrer made the diagnosis and then transferred the patient to his assistants for routine treatment. His goal was to work himself out of routine jobs by training employees to take over as many tasks as appropriate, including normal baby deliveries. As he worked with the assistants, he trained them in each task and taught them how to recognize complications, so they could call him for emergency situations. The hospital building itself needed serious attention, and Rohrer pushed hard for the government to fix the roof—determinedly outwaiting the officials whose efficiency depended chiefly on bribes. Even without succumbing to bribes, the roof was finally repaired, and surgeries moved back into a sterile environment. Lights were installed in the operating room. Tables were repaired. Walls were fixed and painted. Offices were set up. Equipment was jerry-rigged to work better or work at all. 156


A New Home Hospital statistics, ordering drugs, hiring and firing, and money management were the least desirable aspects of the job, but absolutely necessary for running an effective, reputable program. The operation of the hospital was accountable to more than just the mission board. It worked closely with the local Public Health Department under the auspices of the World Health Organization. It, too, took an interest in improving health and welfare in this developing country and made periodic checks at the hospital to inspect the facility. “Hakim [Doctor], what are pigeon droppings doing on the floor?” one inspector asked, so Rohrer took on the job of clearing out the pigeons who made their nests on top of the brick wall under the eaves. Decades later, bemused hospital workers still recounted the way he popped off pigeons with his shotgun and pointed to the telltale signs: a smattering of holes in the tin eaves. Rohrer, however, did not need Public Health to dictate standards of cleanliness. On his way out to the hospital each day, he picked up litter left by the previous day’s visitors and was a stickler for sanitary

Making rounds in the hospital ward.

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son of the wind practices. The hospital doors could not open before the shintbait (restroom) passed his white glove test. Sterile technique was critical for him and his staff. At times, Rohrer felt helpless in a facility less than adequate with autoclaves breaking down or supplies running out, but they would do the best they could and pray that God would do the healing despite what was lacking. In Rohrer’s first months at the hospital, people were deathly frightened of surgery. Mortality statistics in Ethiopian hospitals were notoriously high since only the most desperate and far-gone cases took the risk of going to a hospital at all. The majority of the population had little reason to believe that the mission hospital would be different. Non-emergency surgeries were scheduled for the afternoons, and it wasn’t uncommon for patients to run away in fear just as surgery was about to begin. But with more modern equipment, medicines, and a caring, conscientious staff, more and more people were having successful outcomes from surgeries. Slowly the word spread that people going to the hospital were getting well. Clinics and surgeries rapidly increased during that year. Although some doctors were opposed to being called hakim because it had connotations of a secular medicine man, Rohrer didn’t object because it was one more considerate way to connect with the people and their culture. Time would eventually prove that the traditional lore of the medicine man was greatly lacking next to what the hospital hakim had to offer. The hospital quickly gained a reputation for its quality care, and wealthy patients from the capital city nearly sixty miles away often made the 4-hour, torturous trip over rough roads for surgeries. That was a boon for the hospital since wealthy Addis patients meant income and could help subsidize the poor majority who couldn’t pay, like the sixty or eighty beggars the Public Health Department occasionally rounded up and dumped at the hospital doors. The Dresser Bible School at the Nazareth Hospital was already in place for training medical assistants but needed some revamping. With Rohrer’s vision for turning over more procedures to the staff, he and Chester Wenger worked toward developing a new, more comprehensive curriculum and expanding it to include both primary and 158


A New Home

Dresser Bible School students.

secondary levels of training. Chester Wenger was Rohrer’s right-hand man. His extraordinary teaching and management skills gave the program, along with its exciting Bible component, an impressive standard of excellence. Graduation from the Dresser Bible School was a major accomplishment for the developing younger generation whose history included vivid memories of war and devastation. The graduation ceremony involved officials of the town—the governor handing out diplomas, the Orthodox priest offering a prayer, a doctor and nurse and mission director giving comments—and was an accomplishment in itself to bring such differing groups together in harmony. Of all that was happening on the compound, Rohrer took the greatest pride in the Dresser program. It was one of the most important developments at the hospital and kept the hospital supplied with a steady stream of highly skilled and capable workers. To his utter dismay, though, many abandoned the hospital after graduation to find

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son of the wind higher paying jobs in Addis Ababa where they were hired on-the-spot for their excellent training and skills. Going to all the expense and time and energy of training good workers only to lose them was infuriating to Rohrer. Unfortunately, it took many years (after the same trouble arose with x-ray technicians) until Rohrer gained a new perspective on the problem. He finally asked himself what was so grievous about training technicians? Readjusting his vision to see the school as a training program rather than as a pool of workers for the hospital, he suddenly relaxed and was able to stop bucking the system. Perhaps God’s purposes were greater than the mission’s. Those same dressers, who were also being trained in the Bible, were spreading seeds of faith across hundreds of miles. Some of the more dedicated dressers also became Christians and were enthusiastic about helping the hospital to evangelize patients. Bati Insermo, one of the first converts to be baptized, was especially zealous for the Lord and was appointed as the hospital’s evangelist. As people waited outside the hospital for treatment, the tiny, radiant, glasses-faced evangelist ardently opened the scriptures to his captive audience. While Rohrer was just as eager as Bati to spread the Good News, he felt compelled to caution against the approach of preaching to a captive audience. If the gospel was forced down people’s throats, they, with their staunch Orthodox and Muslim faiths, would very soon refuse medical treatment. Medical treatment should be available to all with no strings attached—not even the requirement of listening to the gospel. So a new, less aggressive approach was put into practice which still exposed many people to the Gospel. One day, a Public Health agent came to Rohrer and requested that he visit Wonji to investigate a reported disease problem in that rural area. When Rohrer surveyed the community, he found it inhabited by the godless, nomadic Oromo tribe. Their chicka houses were built high on large stick platforms in swampy grasslands along the Awash River. During the thick of rainy season they migrated to higher, drier ground with their flocks but came down to the river plain again soon after the flood waters receded. Malaria was epidemic among the people, destroying their ability to survive and keeping them in a cycle of poverty. Rohrer took his report back, not just to the Public Health minister, but 160


A New Home also to the mission group who began to pray that God would open a way to intervene for these people both physically and spiritually. About that time, a Dutch sugar company decided to relocate from its plant in the East Indies to the flat, fertile fields of Wonji. The fifteen million dollar project involved building dykes for controlling the flooding rains of wet season and for irrigating sugar cane fields in the dry season. Early on in the redevelopment project the General Manager of the Wonji Sugar Estate asked Rohrer if he could provide medical services to his workers. Rohrer, seeing an answer to their prayers, was eager to help and arrangements were made. An outpost clinic was established for basic health needs, and Rohrer made weekly visits to treat the inhabitants for malaria. Just getting to Wonji was a feat in itself. Even though it was only eight miles away, the road was rough and involved crossing the crocodile-infested Awash River on a crudely assembled raft, pulled hand-over-hand along a cable. At first only one hundred people ventured to the weekly clinic, but within months, the census had grown to nearly five hundred patients who discovered that the malaria treatments were making a vast difference in their neighbors’ lives. The Dutch sugar plant provided jobs for between one thousand and two thousand people, depending on the season. Within a year, economic conditions and health care had markedly improved throughout the entire valley. As a result, the hospital in Nazareth saw an increase in the number of paying patients, making it possible to improve the overall operation of the hospital itself. When the Wonji clinic was well established and thriving, the hospital sent Bodi, a new Christian and highly skilled dresser, to run a daily clinic in that town. Not only did he provide excellent health services to the area, he spread a “glowing and consistent testimony” to them. His medical expertise and enthusiasm for the Lord addressed both the physical and spiritual needs of the devastated community. Rohrer himself visited the clinic monthly to ensure its quality and to provide treatment for more difficult cases. When Rohrer heard that Wonji was installing a bridge across the river, he couldn’t contain his excitement and made a point of 161


son of the wind frequently driving out to watch the project unfold. For weeks the construction engineers had worried about placing the bridge, fearing the crane would be too small and weak to hoist the metal span from one side to the other. If the crane broke or set the bridge at the wrong place, the project was doomed indefinitely and the huge expense invested in it would have been lost. Inch by worrisome inch, the span was moved and aligned as Rohrer watched the drama unfold. When that massive span plunked down on the other side, precisely where it was intended, the entire building crew raised a giant cheer, and Rohrer couldn’t help feeling the same ecstasy. With greater accessibility by the bridge and the ongoing development of Wonji, the possibilities for ministry suddenly seemed endless. Mission personnel started dreaming of a school where Christian teachers could have a significant influence on the lives of local youth. A daily bus shuttle was established between Wonji and Nazareth, and attendance at Sunday morning worship services nearly doubled on the hospital compound. The same bus shuttle, during the week, also transported sick employees from the sugar plant, and Ellen joked with the folks back home in one of her letters: You might have thought that the driver was receiving a commission from us if you would have seen the bus load of dysentery, malaria, and relapsing fever—patients which exceeded the bed capacity of our hospital. How hard it must be to see twenty some souls instead of extra patients, who must have rubber sheets and blankets lifted from [other] patients who had two and put on the floor. The running efficiency for the present staff accommodates forty patients and suddenly the census rises to sixty-five. However, the aim is to give care to all who come as well as a gospel message. The development of the hospital was exciting work, invigorating and rewarding, but it wasn’t without its trials. Workers got careless with equipment, especially thermometers (which were expensive and hard to acquire), so a rule was established that workers must pay for equip162


A New Home ment that they break. Some employees stole supplies, including the vital paracentesis set used for draining pus and fluids from the belly. Firing employees was always misunderstood by the town residents who usually heard the negative side of the story. The mission staff was continually fighting one problem after another. It was wearying and frustrating until the reality finally hit that problems were par for the course. They agreed to accept the dilemmas as graciously as possible, for they were learning to trust that God had amazing ways of working things out. For Rohrer, personally, the greatest challenges were yet to come.

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To order this book: Leanne Benner 1251 Ivy Lane Harrisonburg, VA 22802 benbiz29@aol.com 540.432.9064 Cost per book is $14.95, including shipping


Son of the Wind by Leanne Eshleman Benner  

Dr. D. Rohrer Eshleman’s life of adventure and faith unfolds in a century that grapples with mind-boggling change—from horse-and-buggies to...

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