My wife's father was born Amish but left the Amish community in northeast Ohio at the tender age of 14. He slipped away without telling anyone (including his mother) one morning after his chores. He had no contact with his family until weeks later when he was gainfully employed at a farm several hundred miles away.

He never went back to the Amish way of life or his childhood home. He made his own way until his death a few years ago. Since he had not officially joined the Amish church, he was not shunned, thus allowing him to keep in contact with his family.

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The Amish tend to have large families, and my wife's father had 11 brothers and sisters, the oldest of whom is Steve. I had heard stories about Uncle Steve from my wife, most of which involved some sort of engineering feat or mechanical victory. I never visited him until this winter, when we went to the home he shares with his wife.

Before driving there, my wife called Uncle Steve to see if we could visit as she can't always get in touch with him. Most Amish do not have phones, or the church requires that such modern conveniences be located in an "inconvenient place." Steve's phone is housed in a phone booth that he made in a separate building about 20 yards from his house. I assure you it meets the aforementioned criteria.

When we saw him, he was standing on his snow-covered driveway. One hand was clutching a walker, the other one was over his head, waving. He was smiling brightly and clearly happy for the company. After greeting him, he picked up the walker and walked freely to the house, telling us that he carried his walker outside with him "just in case." He had suffered a heart attack some years ago and has had both of his knees replaced (he built his own rehabilitation machines, which are still in his basement).

His driveway had not been plowed; therefore we had to park a ways away and walk to the house. Steve could not see our car. He asked what kind of car we had. I told him it was a Prius. He then told me my choice of cars was very good and proceeded to tell me all of the virtues of hybrid cars.

Steve showed us to his living room where he recently modified a coal-burning stove to burn more efficiently with an alternate fuel source made from sawdust. The home was not ornate, but lovely and well-kept. When he built the house many years ago as a young man he designed a home in which he and wife could live a lifetime. Without knowing it, he built his house to be ADA compliant, thinking that he or his wife might be in a wheelchair someday.

At 82, Uncle Steve continues to work making his living by repairing small engines, a skill he taught himself in the mid-'60s from a correspondence course. He has owned a small engine repair shop for over 50 years and has a devout following of satisfied customers.

Folks in his area know that if they have tried everything else and they just can't get their chain saw, mower or other small engine going or running correctly, they can go to Steve and the job will be done.

To gain better precision while working on small engines, he bought equipment from a dentist who was selling powered dental equipment. Uncle Steve was particularly interested in high-speed small drills, and he adapted a Dremel to his work. How does Steve have electric power when he is living off the grid? In the '80s he read about solar power and thought it would be a good option for him. After discussing it with his church, the elders allowed him to install solar panels, his argument being that the sun, a gift from God Almighty, would power his workshop. He set up the solar panels to power batteries which in turn power parts of his home.

He has lights and tools that run from solar-powered batteries. The sun even powers his ice cream-making machine, which was his mother's. Steve did all the wiring himself, and it's been working fine for him for over 30 years.

I left his house that day marveling over how much he'd learned and accomplished without a formal education. But still, I also wondered what might have been if he had followed in his younger brother's footsteps.

James T. Sarazin is president of Maryland Deck and Shed; his email address is jsarazin@me.com.

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