The Vietnam War never ended for Mike Hartwig. He witnessed its horror as a teenager, and upon his return fled fast into the wind on a Harley-Davidson. But then he found God in a pool cue, a self-sustaining life on 75 acres. He found an angel to marry and five children who needed a home. And they became his wind.
The five children were adopted from the United States and the Ukraine. One is part Korean, one is part Hispanic. They don’t look alike until you see the shine in their eyes and hear laughter in their voices.
The story of how they became a family begins with Hartwig’s first marriage, which doesn’t count unless you consider the vasectomy. His wife was against having children, and they agreed that Hartwig should be the one to take care of it. The vasectomy took, but the marriage didn’t.
Then he met Linda, Hartwig’s “angel.” They met in church, and love wasted no time. They married six months later. Both wanted children, so Hartwig underwent two reversal surgeries to no avail, which explains how Rebekah, now 23, came into their lives.
After Rebekah came Melissa, 20; Kathleen, 20; Elliot, 16; and Nicholas, 15.
Rebekah was adopted through a ministry referred to by Linda’s sister. They decided she needed a sister, so they applied through the Calvary Chapel ministry in California but heard nothing for a year, so they contacted an agency in Portland.
“We were all seated in a circle, and everyone was asked why they wanted to adopt and what made them qualified to be parents,” he says. “The other couples were professionals with big homes and great paying jobs.”
The Hartwigs went last.
“When it came my turn, I said, ‘We don’t have a lot of money. We just get by, but we have a home that is full of love. We grow our own food, we’re very nature oriented. The only promise I can make is that we would nurture a child in a way we think it should go. We have a strong belief in the Creator, and that’s about all I had to say.”
The woman conducting the session asked Mike and Linda to stay afterwards. They expected to be told they didn’t qualify, but the woman said she knew of a birth mother who was requesting someone who fit their profile. Within a month, they met the mother. She gave them Melissa.
Two days after they arrived home with the baby, the telephone rang, and it was the California ministry. After waiting a year, he says, they found a woman who also was looking for a family like the Hartwigs. So they flew to California and adopted Kathleen.
Three girls, of course, need brothers, so Mike and Linda set out for an orphanage in the Ukraine, which allowed only children with health problems to be adopted outside the country. Only one, Elliot, was available, but the following day, another boy, Nicholas, was brought to the orphanage. Their health problems were minor, and the family was complete.
Rebekah is engaged and attending college in Alaska, where she is closing in on a degree in drug and alcohol counseling. Melissa has a degree in criminal justice and works at the Jackson Street Youth Center, while Kathleen has an associate’s degree in general studies and will soon finish cosmetology school. The two boys are high school sophomores. All were home schooled by Linda, a graduate of OSU.
The family is self-sustaining except for staple items. Farming requires hard work, and the children grew up with chores ranging from bucking bales to picking weeds to harvesting crops.
“I believe in hard work,” Hartwig, a carpenter in University Housing and Dining Services, says. Then he pauses. “I just do.”
He also believes in America. With tragedy after tragedy, war after war, he decided to show his patriotism by painting his barn in stars and stripes.
He has worked with his hands all his life, beginning with his father, a cabinet maker. Wood initially was merely slivers and boards, but it has become an expression of artistry.
“For me, the beauty in wood is that it was created. That beauty is locked up inside that wood just waiting to get out, to be expressed in some form, whether it’s a salvaged building or a solid black walnut and cherry pool table.”
In ways, his life has been like wood’s hidden swirls and veins, its unleashed beauty. Like wood cast aside, it is given new life by hammer and nail. Sometimes, that’s what life is about—salvation.
After being drafted into the military, Hartwig enlisted on the buddy system with two friends who received their notices at the same time. Both were claimed by flames and rage of war.
“I was in the Army from 1968 to 1971,” he says. “That’s two years, nine months, 15 days, three hours and 12 minutes.”
It took less time to build a chopper, riding upon the gurgle and heartbeat of a Harley.
“I just rode around raising hell, drinking, fighting,” he says. “There is something about a Harley when you’re riding it on the open road. You feel a sense of freedom. I don’t know if it’s from your troubles or the world or what. It’s like you’re stepping out of your situation. That’s what it was for me, total freedom from the ghosts that followed me from the war.”
His life changed on Sept. 3, 1980, while he was alone shooting pool. Where the two parts of the cue are joined, there is a brass fitting, which, he says, suddenly glowed in a narrow, golden band of light. He fell to his knees and wept, overcome by seeds of faith.
“When I stood up,” he says. “ I was a different man.”
Everything had fallen into place until five years ago, when Hartwig was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Like everything else in life, he was determined to get through it. So far he has, and he looks forward to a future when the house he built is filled with clatter of grandchildren anxious to roam freely, stick their toes into the creek and discover what life can be.
It’s another open road, a tonetic transformation from soldier to farmer and father. Life, he says, is a blessing, a plentiful fountain for a parched soul.
“I don’t deserve everything I have,” he says, “but I’ll take it.”
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki