In a classroom somewhere in Lancaster County, a guest speaker kept 10 high schoolers spellbound. They had no choice.
Towering amidst their circle of couches, Mr. Ephraim L’Ingles imposed a serious presence. Plus, participating in an institution that carefully trained their students in manners, the kids had to appear respectful, if not a bit interested.
The upper level course was set to read through “Don Quixote,” the seminal Spanish novel about a knight errant who endures slapstick delusions of grandeur. The teacher had mentioned at the start of the unit that he would be inviting one of his city friends, an earnest yet eccentric man, to join them one day.
“Mr. L’Ingles is what you might call ‘quixotic.’ He has a big vision for Lancaster, and it will be educational for you to meet and interact with him.”
L’Ingles was due to arrive at the beginning of April, about three-fourths of the way into the book. As sometimes happens with variables outside of the classroom, the teacher found himself in a pickle. He was called to the hallway by a knock on the door by the school administrator. He returned tell the class his dilemma:
“Guys, I know this unexpected and kind of weird, but remember that guest I told you about? Well, he was supposed to come tomorrow, but I think he got mixed up, and, well, he’s here right now at the front desk. Should I ask him to come back Friday as planned, or just invite him in?”
Of course, these guys and gals were bound to say, “Today is fine!” Students in the spring are never miffed by an interruption to class time.
Mr. L’Ingles, a 6-foot-tall gent sporting a bleach-blonde crew cut and designer glasses, strode in with a slight limp, smiling approvingly at the circle. The students were stunned into incredulous silence.
“Class, this is the friend I told you about, Mr. L’Ingles. Let’s say Hello. How about each of you tell him your name, and then we’ll hear from him.”
The teacher then handed the program over to the Don Quixote stand-in.
First, a little background to Mr. L’Ingles grand errand: The Veterans Memorial Bridge spans the great Susquehanna River from Columbia to Wrightsville, on the historic Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30). This elegant structure, built in 1928 in the art deco style, stands as a stunning source of pride to locals. It connects Lancaster and York counties whose seats are known as the Red Rose and White Rose cities, referring to the British monarchial houses that fought each other in the War of the Roses. A playful rivalry between the regions sometimes comes up, but there’s nothing much to it outside of a few baseball games.
Mr L’Ingles, armed with self-made photoshopped slides, began his presentation:
“For too many years, the counties of York and Lancaster have suffered under continual violence and needless rivalry. Certainly you have heard, dear students, of The War of The Roses. My vision is to bring The Peace (holding out the “ss’s” for an entire second) of The Roses.” He repeated, “The Peacccce of the Roses.”
Apparently, a beautiful arched bridge is not enough to cure our region’s ills. Ephraim declared that God had given him a vision for his quest: To build a monument in the middle of the Susquehanna of a statue: An Amish man rising sixty feet out of the water and facing toward each county. His Photoshop mock-up demonstrated how the beckoning man of reconciliation would have one body and two faces.
The unprepared students dipped their chins, some widening their eyes, others diverting them. One girl winced with cynicism. Meanwhile a teacher circled the group with a Flip video camera documenting the special class. He squeaked back intense laughter, and another instructor leaned on his homeroom desk, arms locked, gasping for air.
Speaking with a noticeable accent that was a bizarre alchemy of Korean and Russian, Ephraim went on to reveal that he had been raised by Korean Mennonite missionaries stationed in the east African nation of Djibouti. He pointed to a slide showing an auditorium full of such folk. His presentation was so pathetic it seemed plausible (and vice versa).
The cynical girl on the couch rustled and whispered to her seat mate, “This is so stupid.” Her agitation prompted her friend to rebuke her with a silent stare. Another young woman with no guile volunteered, “Mr L’Ingles, are you trying to raise support for this project? If so, how much?”
“Thank you, miss. My wife Bonnie and I are feel we must raise $6 million dollars to cover plans and construction costs.”
The teacher gingerly ventured, “How much have you raised so far?”
“Six thousand, three hundred and eighty-two dollars.” The quixotic part of the lesson was now fulfilled, and the emotional tension in room nearly reached its zenith.
The patient teacher pointed out to earnest Ephraim that the Amish man in the river did in fact look in two directions, but that he also seems to have an anatomical anomaly. To this, Ephraim consented, “Yes, we know he has only one butt. Two faces, one butt.”
Twenty minutes of awkward torture had elapsed. The teacher as well as the class, on the verge of breaking out into sobs or hysterics, held their composure … barely.
Suddenly, the teacher jumped up from the couch and announced: “Class, this is my friend Dave! Happy April Fool’s Day!” Dave Seyfried, now freed from his character, beamed with joy, and the instructor went around the circle slapping high fives as the class erupted with laughter.
All of their pent-up tension, confusion, and compassion melted onto the floor like a sudden snow melt in April. The “unexpected guest” ploy worked to divert them from the fact that it was April 1.
The year was 2008. I was the teacher that day, and thanks to to my friend Dave, a true Lancaster town character, that prank remains legendary in the memories of the few who witnessed it.
I found out later from a teacher that when Dave arrived to the school as Ephraim L’Ingles, he introduced himself at the front desk in chatted with the staff fully in character. I don’t doubt it.
Tom Becker captures slice-of-life stories from around Lancaster County, and occasionally beyond; he also writes regularly at tombecker.substack.com. He founded the Row House Inc. in 2010 as a forum for “engaging current culture with ancient faith.” He tells that story in his book, “Good Posture” (Square Halo Books: Baltimore, 2017). Becky and Tom have five grown children and live in Lancaster’s West End where he can be seen daily walking Rue the dog or riding Frodo, the gravel bike.