WHEN I bought my home in Kalona, Iowa, the last functioning one-room public schoolhouse in the state, I went through one of the most complicated real estate transactions in the history of the United States.
Off and on throughout the years, I'd lived in Iowa City, 18 miles north of Kalona. I had always enjoyed driving down to the area to buy organic vegetables or goat's milk from Amish farmers. I would also stop at Sunnyview Greenhouse in the spring for a few asparagus shoots and some cabbage seedlings.
Then one day on the way back from the greenhouse, I took a wrong turn and ended up on an unfamiliar road.
Meandering and en-joying the day, I kept driving. In this region where the ``Jeffersonian grid'' has been superimposed upon the land, country roads have an innate orderly sense to them.
Just when I was beginning to get my bearings, before me was the Fairview School with a `For Sale' sign in front.
HERE, when one-room schoolhouses are closed, the building reverts to the farmer whose property originally included the land. Real estate rarely comes up for public sale in Kalona, and when it does, one neighbor or family member buys it from another.
Even though I was a native Iowan who had lived in the area most of my adult life, my offer to the Mennonite farmer who now owned Fairview School was viewed with both suspicion and opportunism.
Once I'd made an offer, the owner's nephew, Ron, a real estate agent, went around the corner to visit Moses, the Old Order Amish patriarch of the neighborhood.
``You better bid against that lady who made an offer on the school,'' Ron said.
``Why?'' Moses asked.
``That's a nice little chunk of land,'' Ron said.
``Too hilly to farm.''
``Make good pasture, though.''
``Got enough of that. Besides, trying to cut back on livestock.''
``Well, the schoolhouse would be just the place for your granddaughter and her husband to live.''
``You think so?''
``Sure. And you want to keep control of the neighborhood. Don't want a bunch of hippies moving in.''
``Yup. That's what's on its way.''
Moses leaned back against the wall of his barn and grinned, his long beard bobbing and catching the rays of the early-morning sun. ``I know how to get along with hippies.''
Moses was one of the first to greet me when I finally moved into the Fairview School, carrying a jar of home-canned pickles in his hand. As those days of renovation began, he kept daily watch over and gave final approval of the carpenter's installation of a kitchen sink and cabinets and of the plumber's conversion of the little ``boys'' and ``girls'' bathroom stalls into one larger room. But he was stumped by my addition of a sleeping loft.
``What're you going to keep up there on that shelf?'' he kidded. ``Your boyfriends?''
He wasn't kidding one day later that spring when he phoned me from the Kalona Sale Barn.
``You better get down here right away,'' a voice said on the other end of the line. With no exchange of niceties, I was taken aback and didn't recognize his voice.
``You better get down here right away and take a look at this buggy. I think it's just what Donna and Stu want.''
DONNA and Stu's acreage is adjacent to the schoolhouse, and, as the crow flies, their property lies between Moses's and mine. Some of the few other ``English,'' or non-Amish in the neighborhood, Donna and Stu moved to Kalona because they, too, liked the feel of the place and they enjoyed horses.
Every day, they harnessed Emily, their gray mare, and drove her in their two-seater cart to town where hitching posts are provided just off Main Street. Yet with friends, children, and grandchildren all wanting to join them on the trip, they soon found themselves longing for a larger wagon.
``The Stus are gone for the week, ain't they?'' Moses' voice came back on the phone. ``I tried to call them, but nobody's home. You know what they want. You come take a look at this.''
I hopped in my truck and drove to the sale barn. The horse auction, on the first Monday of every month, was already in progress. Saddles, blankets, tacks, and old buggies were all up for sale first outside in the periphery of the barn. The air filled with the jingle of spurs, the snorts of quarter horses, Morgans, and appaloosas.
My nose tingled with the smell of manure and new leather, hot dogs and popcorn. Clusters of men dressed in black and blue - the Amish in straw hats, the others in seed caps - gathered around the canteen, milled around booths selling whips and harnesses, and pressed in around the auctioneer.
I spotted Moses next to a homemade black cart covered with dust; its shafts were worn smooth, the wheels were sturdy, and two long bench seats were nailed in place.
``Think it's big enough?'' Moses asked.
``This'll hold four people,'' I said.
``At least. All it needs is a good coat of paint,'' Moses said. We agreed to get a number and bid up to $150.
``Twenty-five dollars. Who'll give $25!'' the auctioneer chanted, his nasal twang broadcast in his megaphone. His 10-gallon cowboy hat nodded back and forth between the two bidders - Moses and another man, a beardless Amish bachelor.
Moses stood still, his face expressionless and his arms at his sides. Only his left eyebrow raised ever so slightly to register a bid. The price climbed quickly and steadily by increments of $10.
``One-ten, one-ten, I got one-ten now - who'll make it twenty?''
The auctioneer was creeping dangerously near our limit.
``One-twenty?'' The auctioneer glared at Moses, whose eyebrow lifted.
I bit my lip and thought we were doomed.
``One-thirty?'' The auctioneer turned to the bachelor. ``One-thirty?''
The bachelor hesitated.
With ever so slight a motion, the bachelor shook his head no.
``Sold to Moses for $120!''
A rope was found and Moses hitched the cart to the bumper of my pickup. As we started out on the five- mile trip home together, Moses's horse, Willy, soon faded in my rear view mirror.
When the highway turned to gravel, the Amish children ran to the edge of their yards to watch a strange sight - a truck towing a buggy.
Once we joined up again, Moses and I threw open Donna and Stu's garage door. Each of us leaned our weight into a shaft and rolled in the cart, its body just fitting next to their spare car.
Then I followed Moses around the corner to his place, where he wanted to give me some of the first strawberries his wife, Miriam, had harvested from her garden.
I then met his two daughters and their families who were visiting from Indiana.
``You bought a buggy for Donna and Stu?'' Miriam asked.
``And they're not even home?''
``Well ... let's have a look.''
Doors open, tailgate down, eight of us - Moses, Miriam, their daughters and children - piled into the truck and off we drove to Donna and Stu's.
We stood in front of the garage, the children wiggling in excitement, then raised the heavy garage door.
``Mmm, this'll be all right,'' Miriam said, pressing her cane into one of the tires, the rubber flattening. ``Just needs some air.''
``But is it big enough?'' Moses asked.
``Let's try it out and see,'' Miriam said, hoisting her foot up into the cart. The others followed, the buggy tilting and swaying, the children sitting on their mother's laps. Moses took up an imaginary set of reins.
``Gittyup, Emily!'' Miriam called and pantomimed a flick of the whip.
``Whoa, not so fast now,'' Moses said, jostling his torso back and forth to imitate the rhythm of the ride.
``Hee-he-he-he,'' one of the children whinnied.
Sitting there in the garage, we trotted down the road for a test drive, laughing and cheering on the horse. We were a family out for an evening together, our collective imaginations playing off of and feeding one another.
The sun was just beginning to go down on the farmhouses, not one of which sported a TV antenna or satellite dish. Our capability for fantasy still very much our own, we abandoned ourselves to the game and to each other.
When I dropped everyone back at their own farm, the children scurried inside and Moses gave me instructions for the return of the rope he'd borrowed. Then, as I backed out of the drive, he waved his arm, signaling me to stop.
``Say,'' he called. ``I'm going to call up Ron and tell him we're getting along with that hippie just real good.''