Mennonite Girls

I was raised a Lutheran boy in Middlebury, Indiana, in the 50s and 60s. In those days there were four denominations in town: Lutheran, Methodist, Church of the Brethren and Mennonite. As far as I knew, those were the sum total of Christian denominations in the world, besides the Amish of course.

I was raised a Lutheran boy in Middlebury, Indiana, in the 50s and 60s. In those days there were four denominations in town: Lutheran, Methodist, Church of the Brethren and Mennonite. As far as I knew, those were the sum total of Christian denominations in the world, besides the Amish of course. We’d never heard of Presbyterians or Unitarians or Seventh Day Adventists. The town’s only Catholic family lived outside the city limits and, as I remember, the boy closest to my age had two middle names: Jonathon Allen Dominic Simpson…or something. To this day I don’t know if his multi-part name was a peculiarity associated with his church or his family, but it was fitting, in that the Catholics were exotic and other and believed in crazy stuff like Limbo and Purgatory and transubstantiation.

Of course, none of us had ever seen a Jew, though they were a much-revered people in our Sunday School classes. I was so removed from any association with real Jewish people that I didn’t hear insults about them until high school, and I didn’t meet a real one until graduate school inIowa.

A quick story about that first Jewish friend. I was visiting him near Iowa City one afternoon when we decided to take a walk in the corn fields bordering his apartment. It was a cold October day, brilliant and hard with a low white sky. As we walked we scared up the occasional pheasant. Suddenly a great chaos of crows gathered over our heads and settled blackly near us among the stalks. He looked at me and said, “They’ve come for the Jew.”

But I digress.

Middlebury in those days was a sleepy town of a thousand souls. This was before the RV explosion, so the edges of town weren’t factories, but farms and fields. And, whereas the Lutherans and Methodists ran town business and governance, the Mennonites peopled the countryside and overran the schools.

Like cockroaches, some of us thought.

That’s needlessly harsh, of course, though the raw, overwhelming number of them pressed in on us and influenced town life in a way we couldn’t help resenting. High school “sock hops” were forbidden in my early school years, because they offended Mennonite sensibilities. Any dances had to occur off-campus, usually in the Scout Cabin at the town park.

When dances were finally allowed at school, the senior prom was divided into two events: the traditional, themed ball in the gym (Midnight in Arabia, Romance in Venice), and a movie viewing in the study hall, where Mennonite couples watched wholesome entertainment like Born Free or The Absent-Minded Professor. I remember a photo in our high school yearbook, The Middiette, that showed side-by-side scenes from the evening. The worldly, non-Menno couples dancing among balloons and streamers cleverly arranged to mimic a bazaar inBangkok, and the incongruous sight of Mennonite boys and girls in tuxes and evening gowns, crammed into study hall desks as an off-camera movie screen lit up their faces.

If I’m not mistaken, even the prom movie was a compromise for the local Mennonite establishment, as Hollywood immorality and “graven images” were also frowned upon, along with other traditional sins of the flesh, like smoking, drinking and playing cards. Sometimes it seemed the only thing our Mennonite classmates did for fun was play raucous games of church league softball under the lights behind the high school.

So we resented them. Their social strictures, their constant church-going (Sunday nights, and even Wednesdays!) and their snooty pacifism all felt like judgment on us, the unredeemed. Who were they to shun the Fourth of July parade and ban their sons from joining the Cub Scouts? Who were they to boycott Halloween costume day at school, or forbid their daughters to go with us to movies, so we had to settle for miniature golf dates instead? Who did they think they were, with their “dutchy” accents and Amish grandparents, their hymn sings and Bible memory camp, their quilting bees and bonnets, to presume any superiority over us?

And yet…there they were, among us. Our friends, our classmates, our girlfriends.

That’s right. Try as we might, resent them as we did, we occasionally fell in love with the Mennonite Girls.

But who were these chaste and docile creatures, who took us with them to MYF parties, where we played vaguely suggestive games of “Winkum” and “Walk-a-Mile” before hot cider and vespers? Who were these Marys and Sarahs and Ruths, with their fresh-scrubbed faces and un-adorned throats, their snug, white blouses and bobby-socked ankles? Were they as curious as the rest of us? As lean and hungry? Were they as ready as we were to steam up the windows of our parents’ Chevys on some gravel road halfway to Shipshewana?

Were they just not letting on?

Of course we’d all heard stories of the Amish, who were rumored to be a lusty bunch. We’d heard of rumspringa and “bundling” and midnight buggy rides, where reins are superfluous, where the horse knows the way. I worked a summer at a mobile home factory in nearby Bristol when I was 17, and an Amish co-worker named Omer described to me his girlfriend and her beautiful “long, blonde hair.”

Long, blonde hair? Wasn’t it always tied up in a stern, forbidding bun, hidden beneath a prayer covering? When did Omer get a glimpse of that bun untethered, those golden locks tumbling down, unless…? Another Amish man on the line – this one married, with a full, dark beard – asked me if my girlfriend ever gave me “strawberries.” When I expressed confusion, he laughed and said, “You probably call them hickeys.”

What? What did the Amish know about hickeys? What did this man, so devout that he took a buggy to church on frozen January mornings, so 19th century that he read by lantern light, so severe in his ways that his womenfolk dressed like ravens at a funeral home…what did he know about necking so passionately that a hickey might be the scarlet consequence?

Maybe those Pennsylvania Dutch figurines of kissing children had a double meaning. Sure, “Kissin’ wears out and cookin’ don’t,” but while it lasts, kissing makes the earth move. The shoo-fly pie can wait.

Yes, we’d heard about the Amish. Were their Anabaptist granddaughters apples from the same tree?

Of course my story is as old as history. Men have always lingered at the edge of exotic tribes and gawked at the chief’s daughter. Were these sturdy Mennonite girls not Pocahontas to our John Smith, Maimiti to our Fletcher Christian, Kelly McGillis to our Harrison Ford?

I graduated from high school and entered nearby Goshen College. It’s legitimate to wonder why I attended GC. Indeed, prominent Middlebury fathers asked me if I was planning to be an “Amish preacher” by going there. Suffice it to say that several family members were graduates, and my ADD personality told me that a freshman year in Bloomington or Lafayette might be disastrously unrestrained.

In any case, my anthropological studies continued. The Mennonite girls at Goshen College now came from exotic places called Freeman and Lancaster and Mountain Lake. And they brought with them something new: a heaping side of social consciousness. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the budding of feminism all created in these Menno girls a drive to live simply, peaceably, intentionally.

No decision was spontaneous. Every decision was loaded with meaning. Instead of killing that fly buzzing around your dorm room, might you just open the window and shoo it away? Instead of using paper towels to sop up your spilled herbal tea, shouldn’t you use a dish rag, thereby avoiding a needless waste of God’s resources? Instead of abandoning that old toilet in the dump behind Kratz Hall, why not rescue it and fill it with ivy and ferns? Instead of hoops in your recently pierced ears, wouldn’t paper clips or, better yet, safety pins signal your newfound disdain for such baubles?

My Menno friends joined things called “small group housing,” where communal books like The Simple Life and Beyond the Rat Race preached intentional, “kingdom-based” living. As in any self-respecting kibbutz, possessions were pooled, cooking duties shared, wandering members “care-fronted” with loving compassion.

Dating couples took great pains not to inflict their couple-ness on other members. Indeed, if Joe was dating Betsy and Catherine was dating John, then Joe and Catherine would share dishwashing chores, so they could establish “community” outside of any romantic entanglements. After all, shouldn’t we all live on a higher plane? Shouldn’t Joe and Catherine have a relationship based upon mutual trust and intellect alone? And if these two 20-year-olds felt attraction for one another, or if John and Betsy felt pangs of jealousy…well, didn’t succumbing to such earthly impulses lead to objectifying one another and, ultimately, to abuse, famine and war?

Weren’t we better than that?

A folk singer named Bill Crofut made regular visits to the campus in those days, and listening to him wax on about GC females reminds me of Alexander Portnoy going gaga over the blue-eyed Gentiles. Read this quote from Portnoy’s Complaint, substituting Mennonite girls for “shikses,” and you’ll get the idea: “But the shikses, ah, the shikses are something else again. Between the smell of damp sawdust and wet wool in the overheated boat house, and the sight of their fresh cold blonde hair spilling out of their kerchiefs and caps, I am ecstatic. How do they get so gorgeous, so healthy, so blonde?

And yet this same Bill Crofut, at the end of one visit, sat with a group of us GC males in the Snack Shop and said, “How can you stand it?” Maybe he’d tried what many a professional musician has tried when visiting a campus awash with coeds. After all, he had a beard, he wore a dashiki, he carried a guitar. I mean, it’s been known to happen.

Maybe he tried…and struck out.

In any case, he had now moved from rhapsodizing about the earthy appeal of Mennonite girls to expressing bewilderment over their stultifying sincerity, their suffocating goodness.

I’m paraphrasing here, but his message went something like this: “What is it with you people? Where’s the flair? Where’s the fire? Where’s the fun?”

There was silence in our group, and then someone spoke up. “We don’t exactly celebrate the flesh.”

Crofut did a double take, stared at us for a moment, and then tilted his head back and howled with laughter. When he’d finally composed himself, he wiped his eyes and said, “I’ve never heard anybody say anything like that.”

My story ends with an encounter on the softball diamond, back in Middlebury. A young man named Marvin was playing short stop for his church team and, while fielding a line drive, collided with a base runner and severely broke his nose. Teammates carried him to the bench and laid him down, and there he writhed and moaned for a time, as blood soaked his jersey front and seeped into the sand beneath him.

Then he had an insight. He asked a friend to go into the stands and fetch Rachel, his girlfriend of three weeks. She came and stood over him, and he told her – all the while holding his nose and bleeding profusely – that in the midst of his pain and confusion he had suddenly been spoken to by God, who told him Rachel was the woman he would marry.

Rachel was a devout and serious-minded Mennonite girl. She was certain that God speaks directly to humankind, in all kinds of settings and in all kinds of ways.

She was equally certain that Marvin was not the man for her. She’d known before the collision that their summer romance was coming to an end, and she figured that now was as good a time as any. She told him that when she received a similar message from the Lord, they might have something to talk about, but until then he’d better set his sights on somebody else. With that she found a friend with a car to take her home.

Marvin drove himself to the doctor, got his nose re-arranged in a semblance of its former self (some say the new look was an improvement), and went on to marry somebody else. Whether he had further messages from God in the years that followed is a question lost to history.

The flesh will be celebrated or, at the very least acknowledged, with or without our permission. Though Marvin was studious and kind and generous-hearted, Rachel wasn’t hot for him, and in a moment as blunt and bloody as creation itself, her truth trumped Marvin’s vision like a wrecking ball from outer space.

In the end, of course, the Mennonite Girls were no different from the rest of us. Decades passed. Children were born and went on to have children themselves. Illness and divorce and death rained down upon all of us, the just and the unjust alike. Simple pleasures like food and gardening and grandchildren replaced the sturm und drang of carnal longing, forbidden fruit, the allure of the intoxicating other.

But in her day, the Mennonite Girl occasionally held our adolescent hearts in her soft white hands. In her minty breath was the promise of robust farm and fallow field, of abundance and generosity and sweet, hearty home.

We didn’t really know her. But it was something while it lasted.

About the Author

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson worked for 28 years at WSBT-TV in South Bend, as Creative Director and Operations Manager. Now “semi-retired,” he writes and produces corporate videos and has taught courses in writing at Ivy Tech Community College. He graduated from Goshen College with a major in Spanish and earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa. The Indiana University Writer’s Conference gave him the “Best Short Story” award. His story “The East Window” appeared in the first issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing.