If I swallow a water-melon seed, my stomach might swell up.
If I touch freckle-faced Ricky with the dirty fingernails, I might grow a baby. Oh no!
Those were my childhood fears. With a limited sex education, I tried never to swallow watermelon seeds or touch grimy Ricky. But my parents also had fears, largely unfounded. What my Daddy dreaded most as the father of three adolescent girls is that one of us might turn up pregnant some day and bring shame and disgrace upon the family. “We don’t ever want to hear of that happening in our family,” he exhorted. In my Bible he wrote this not-so-veiled admonition from Ecclesiastes:
Why he worried about my falling into mortal sin was beyond my comprehension: I always had my nose in a book and rarely dated Mennonite farm boys, or any other boys for that matter.
My experience with the lusts of men were of the non-Mennonite variety in my early teens. Summers I worked behind the meat counter for the Kleinfelters at Middletown Merchandise Mart. No worries with Mr. Kleinfelter, though he was often a bit tipsy, but some of his suppliers were another matter. Oily-haired Mr. Zapcic would creep up to the counter and invite me to “help” him in his produce business in Lancaster. “I need somebody to work behind the counter. You would be perfect!”
“That’s pretty far from Elizabethtown,” I mentioned innocently. Lancaster was almost 20 miles away.
Without my asking, Mr. Z. offered: “Oh, I’d see that you got there. You could ride with me.” It finally dawned on me what he was after and afterwards tried to ignore him. Yet he continued to harass me. Like Pamela in Samuel RIchardson’s novel, I rebuffed the man’s advances. Finally, I had to solicit some Kleinfelter help to get him to let me alone.
* * * * *
During the summer of 1964 my Aunt Ruthie and I attended Temple University, she to complete her Master in Education degree and me to begin it. From the hamlet of Rheems at 4:30 in the morning, we drove to Lancaster, took a train from Lancaster to Philadelphia, then rode the subway into north Philadelphia and walked eleven blocks to the campus of Temple University with classrooms filled with students who chain-smoked. I still wore a prayer veiling with a crown of dark brown braids fastened with hairpins underneath, ever the epitome of moral innocence. Ruthie’s classes lasted longer than mine, so I waited for her on a circular, wooden bench on the grassy campus outside the classroom.
A suave older man approaches me and raves about my hair. It could be a scene right out of Bird Life in Wington, Gertie the Goose meets Willie the Wolf.
I notice at once his pearly white, even teeth and brushed back hair. Is he a college student? He for sure doesn’t look like one. Other students are milling around, I notice, so what could be the harm in talking to this stranger?
Willie: “Sprechen ze deutsche?” Not waiting for an answer, he spouts, “You have gorgeous hair. It’s so thick and glossy.”
Gertie: Oh,uh [Insert Pennsylvania Dutch lilt] . . . why thank you.
Willie: I own a hair salon in the suburbs of Philly. I’d take you there and give you a different hair-do. It would frame your face really nice.
Willie: Of course, I wouldn’t charge you anything.
Gertie: Well, thank you.
The dialogue continues for another minute or two, and then two things happen: I feel an electrical zap down my spine and a visitation from the Holy Spirit, who urgently whispers — “NO!” in my ear: “Run for your life. This guy is up to no good.”
Scales fall from my eyes as I swiftly dismiss his cunning ideas–and find an excuse to leave the bench and search desperately for Aunt Ruthie. Her class must be over. Soon, I hope. God, I hope soon!
It’s your turn. Any narrow escapes from unsavory characters in your early years? Other threats to your moral virtue?
Your story is welcome here, and I will always reply.