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Of Angels and Vampires

Sometimes the stranger who looks like an angel can turn out to be a vampire.
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MY SISTER MARJORIE fled my home community at about the age of 19. She met an ex-Marine while working as a cleaning lady for his wife and somehow, they ran off together.

She's living now with a male nurse named Greg in a town not far from Seattle, Washington. Our lives are very different, but we manage to keep in touch. I try to call her once a week, usually while I'm on the road. I think she gets lonely for home, sometimes.

The other day when I called, Marjorie told me she'd been playing an old cassette tape from our childhood, when the Mendel family sang for us in our large living room.

"Remember?" she said. "Those kids were screaming."

I thought about the way our visitors sang: their mouths wide open, air blasting through their vocal cords. I remembered. My ears rang from their joy.

And then I recalled something else. How much my parents loved having guests. I suppose it came from the fact that they met while working at an outreach mission in the Bronx in New York City in the 1950s.

ALL THROUGH MY growing-up years, when people visited our church for the first time on a Sunday morning, my parents were sure to meet them and invite them for dinner. They wanted people to feel welcome in our community.

I still don't know how my parents did all their entertaining on the income my father made, but they did. Never did a visitor leave our church without a place to go to eat lunch. If my mother had to put more water in the soup, she did. So I suppose it's not surprising that my parents invited to their house a visiting family of Hutterites, led by its white-bearded patriarch, Jacob Mendel.

Our family had gotten used to being the largest group at church -- but there were 15 children in the Mendel family. This did not worry my father, but my mother had to figure out how to feed them all, and it was Sunday, and this was before the time of microwaves, and my parents didn't believe in disgracing the Sabbath by buying things from the store on Sunday. So mother went home and added more water to the soup.

Then we were ready to inhale our lunch, and later we were ready to eat dinner, and even later we ate breakfast in the morning after the family stayed the night, sprawling across the living room floor with blankets and pillows. Each time, the Mendels sang for us.

They might have been inspired by the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, except they didn't believe in watching movies. Maybe they had read the book.

VULNERABILITY LIKE this would make my parents an anomaly in a world like Los Angeles. Who does that? Who invites people you don't know into your home where they can pry around and see your stuff? Not me.

In today's world, we know better. We have learned to be suspicious. We've watched enough television to know the perils of inviting home someone you don't know.

Perfect example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Several years ago I watched the series on DVD, realizing that the show is all about the problems you face when attending a high school that is situated on one of the mouths of hell. Strange premise, or maybe not. The problems feel genuine.

If you're a young woman, for example, you know what it's like to go out with that nice boy your parents really like only to find on the way home in the car that he has suddenly changed -- OH MY GOD -- and you're just trying to find a polite way to finish the date without getting any more embarrassed, and before you know it, he's breathing harder and his face is changing and dang -- is that a werewolf in the car with you, or is he just happy to see you, and what the heck do you do now? Huh? Maybe just one kiss?

Or it makes sense if you've had to deal with a mother who simply doesn't understand that it's impractical to do homework when the world is coming to an end tomorrow. Or, you're in the midst of facing down the enemy, and you have to deal with friends who question your loyalty rather than helping you fight the monster!

If you're a fan of Buffy, you know what I mean. Writer Joss Whedon got high school. He used literal monsters to show the dangers you face when you become friendly with someone too fast. Like that nice guitar player: he might actually be a guy who turns into a werewolf once a month. Yep. You need to be careful.

WERE MY PARENTS careless with their friendships? I've wondered about that, and I think it might have something to do with their faith.

Mennonites see the Sermon on the Mount as the Constitution for Christ's Kingdom on Earth, which operates in the now. If your enemy strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other, also. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If someone asks you for your coat, give him your cloak also. And my parents took the book of Hebrews seriously when it says, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

But of course, sometimes the stranger who looks like an angel can turn out to be a vampire.

ONE OF THE visitors my father chose to bring home back in the late '70s was a salesman named Bill. To this day I do not know why my father ever became friends with him. But he did, and Bill was an immediate hit with us -- about 40 years old then, about 6'1", with dark hair and a handsome face.

My parents and siblings were quite taken with Bill, as was I. He drove expensive cars and wore flashy suits. He had a beautiful wife named Maureen and had three children, Bill, Scott, and Kristy. And they were Christians, attending a nice Pentecostal church in Canton.

Not only was Bill charming, but that first Christmas, he also turned into Santa Claus. He gave us all gifts -- toys, clothes, games. My seven siblings loved him. I did too. Bill was grateful for my father's friendship, and he was helping my sister Marjorie to find work. He was respectful to me as well.

I SUPPOSE EVERY boy falls in love with cars at one point or another, especially sports cars, and I was no exception. I had read a lot about cars during my middle school years. This was before I was allowed to drive, and I loved the stories of race car drivers shifting up through the gears so skillfully you couldn't even tell they were driving a stick.

As I grew older, I worked for my father in his auto body shop, spray-painting cars, fixing their engines, detailing them. After I graduated from high school, I actually rebuilt my own car from the ground up.

Bill must have picked up on this. I remember the day he told me he was going to buy a new Corvette, and would I like to come along? No suspense there. Of course I went. And so during the test drive when he pulled over on Rt. 43 and asked me if I wanted to drive, what do you think I did? You know it. I drove that red Corvette Stingray, and I drove it fast and true, and it was fun.

You doubt me? Then let me clarify: I am no stranger to hot cars or the women who go with them. Previous to driving Bill's Corvette, I had driven the most powerful stock cars in the world. I was fast. Spelled F-A-S-T. And I was a good driver.

I had driven the Indy 500, and had worked the pits, and knew what it was like to change the tires and oil on a heated race car that came screeching into the pit with its brakes locked. I knew what it was like to surge across the finish line, strapped into the driver's seat, sweating behind a blazing hot engine.

In my mind, that is. You see, my reality was more like that of the main character's in James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Remember? I love to read.

And so my journeys by book had allowed me to crawl into the cockpits of the fastest cars in the world. I liked speed and muscle and beautiful women and power. They all go together, right? So when Bill offered me the chance to drive one of my fantasy cars, I took him up on it.

BUT MY REALITY was this: I was a senior in a small Amish-Mennonite high school in the spring of 1981, and I was going on my first date soon with a beautiful, older girl from the church youth group, and the car I drove was a giant boat of a 1971 Chrysler New Yorker with a 454 cubic-inch engine.

I would describe that New Yorker as a fine car in its day, the same way you describe a beautiful, much older woman who back in the day used to look like Farrah Fawcett, but now looks like Farah Fawcett's great-grandmother. Both beautiful, just at different stages in their lives.

My father had purchased my New Yorker in 1979 from a car salesman named Mr. Biggins, a friend of Bill's, as a fix-up investment. Quick money, Bill said. The car had very wide seats that were sleepy soft. And when that creature hurtled down the interstate, she swayed back and forth. But she had a double-pump Holly carburetor, and you could really get it up there, if you know what I mean.

When the car came to us, belching and smoking, saddened in its outer skin of cancerous metal and rusty holes, my father only saw the car's true potential. He soon put me to work, covering the holes with fiberglass and giving the skin of that car a pedicure.

When it was time to paint the car, my father applied all of his artistic skills. He knew he could outdo those slaves at Napa Auto Body who weighed and mixed the paints according to directions. And he did have a lot of green paint just sitting around. Thus it was that in the Year of our Lord 1981, my father took about a dozen cans of green paint, no particular brand or shade in common, and carefully mixed them together.

I'm sure my father envisioned for me a fine-looking, luxury automobile, returned to its first state of glory. Unfortunately, his experiment turned into something that my brother Dave remembers as "the ugliest pea soup color you could imagine."

But not to worry. Dad wasn't going to let a little thing like paint color get in the way. He used that paint, all of it, and that car went from being a rust bucket that looked like a strainer for salty slush to being an gigantic armadillo, shiny and smooth. I suppose it could have looked beautiful if all the lights in the world were turned off. And you shut your eyes.

You have to admit, the paint came in at the right price.

My father was a half-glass-full-sort-of guy. So he accentuated the positive when he handed me the keys. His 1939 Edsel, he told me, wasn't half this modern when he bought it in Connecticut, and no, he wasn't going to let me buy a different car, because I should be grateful that I had a car at all.

So that's what I drove to youth group. Sure, it didn't quite match the pizzazz of my friend who drove the 1981 gleaming white Celica Supra, or my friend who drove the blue 1981 Honda Civic, or my friend who drove the 1981 silver Audi -- but then again, at least my car drove FAST.

Once it got going, that is. Like any other ancient tank, it took time to get those 15 coats of pea-green-metal-and-body-filling up to speed.

BACK TO BILL and his bright red Corvette. That sprint down Rt. 43 was memorable. I shifted through the gears of that new Stingray like a professional driver. I had been born to drive free and wild. Just outside Hartville, I pulled over and looked at Bill. He didn't look so amazing. But to give Bill credit -- my driving didn't make him change his mind. He told me that the offer to use his Corvette remained.

For the uninitiated, the concept of a banquet instead of a prom might be confusing. But at Hartville Christian High, it was the penultimate social, the night when girls wore their nicest dresses and flowers, and the guys wore a suit decorated with a boutonnière.

It was a compromise, really, on the part of the church fathers. In conservative Mennonite culture, any kind of dancing is forbidden for many reasons, dress styles are limited to mostly modest, homemade dresses, Christian music did not include rock, never mind the dancing, and the whole idea of a prom didn't fit the community ethos.

So the Junior-Senior Banquet was invented. It gave the young people a chance to have a romantic evening, and it was held at a high-end restaurant like Brown Derby.

IT SHOULD NOT have been a surprise that my father objected to his son tooling off to the Brown Derby in a Corvette, his date sitting silkily by his side. He had given me a perfectly fine luxury auto, and there were just too many contradictions in driving a Corvette: financial, social, and religious.

This shaky reasoning didn't make it any easier for my father to convince Bill, either. I wonder what that conversation between my father and his friend must have been like. Both were pretty stubborn, but my father won.

I wasn't surprised, of course. I'd had too many arguments about the Bible with him -- and there's a lot to work with there. My father never depended too much on logic, anyway, to win his arguments. Sheer determination usually wore anyone down. He rarely budged in his beliefs.

I remember being very angry. But I adjusted to the idea. I took my date to the Junior-Senior Banquet at Brown Derby in a late-model Buick I borrowed for the big night.

WHEN I GRADUATED from high school, I spent a year doing construction work, mixing mud and striking joints for a bricklayer's crew. It was about this time that Bill became convinced that the U.S. economy was about to crash. It was the early '80s, on the cusp of Ronald Reagan's financial revolution, and Bill had read all the requisite books.

But Bill also had the answer. He had bought some land in the middle of farming country in Holmes County with a trailer on it, and he was turning it all into a small farm where he and his family could retreat and live off the fat o' the land when the entire economy failed.

But he needed a fireplace. Now I had skills in this area, since I had been doing helper work since my freshman year in high school, so Bill offered to pay me handsomely for my help. So on Saturdays, we'd drive down to Holmes County in his brand new station wagon, a company car, actually, and I would mix and carry mud while Bill would lay the stone, which he had collected from a nearby field. We spent some long rainy afternoons in November picking up stones.

I wondered when the economy was going to crash.

THE ECONOMY didn't completely crash. Instead, I moved to Phoenix in 1983, lived there for a year, and then returned to Hartville, Ohio, where I taught at my alma mater from 1984 - 1988.

I've heard many tales of parent/teacher conferences, and the nightmares that can occur, but no teacher has yet matched the one I had in my first year of teaching high school English at my alma mater. I was only 21, teaching part-time without a degree, and attending college part-time.

Now I found myself confronting Bill as a parent. His oldest son, Billy, had enrolled at my school, and was taking my English class. Things weren't going so well. He had realized by then that his father's friendship with me wasn't earning him the grade he wanted.

Bill decided it was time to have a little sit-down with me about his son, Billy. So he and his wife, Maureen, came in, sitting down across from me. Her face was drawn, unhappy. Bill first began with charm. Unfortunately for him, I had his son's work in front of me.

Then he tried out something different. He verbally attacked me, standing up at one point to threaten me. He towered above me. I was frightened, but I didn't back down, and he stormed out, his wife apologetically following.

Within moments he was back, the mask of my friend now firmly back in place. He apologized profusely, wanting to make it up to me. He offered me a plane ticket, first class, that would allow me to visit my girlfriend in Phoenix over Christmas on his dime. I took him up on his offer, a bad judgment call, something I later realized when I saw that I was traveling on his company's dime, not his.

But his bad cop/good cop routine had worked. When he left for good, I sat there, stunned. My principal and his wife dropped by to see me. They asked me what had happened. It was the first time in my teaching career -- maybe the only time -- that I broke down completely.

As I write this, I can still feel the ominous aura that emanated from him when he took off his mask, revealing his dark side. I had a hard time believing it. I must have imagined it, I thought.

YEARS LATER, when he was arrested, I had reason to think about Bill's obsessive need for a safe place. I don't know where the police eventually picked him up. Was it there in that house we had built?

The next time I heard about him was in December 1988 while I was in the final year of my undergraduate work in London. My parents mentioned to me on the phone that Bill had been arrested for rape. Multiple counts. His wife pled abuse and divorced him.

THE CASE was significant. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, "A rape charge filed against Griffith by Jackson Township police in July was dropped because the attack occurred in November 1980. And on August 26, 1988, according to the same paper, "A proposed law to extend the statute of limitations for rapes in Ohio is being drafted as a result of problems in prosecuting accused rapist William E. Griffith Jr."

I HAVEN'T KEPT up on Bill. He may be out of prison by now. Maybe he's started a new life. But the last time I heard, back in the '90s, he was writing poems from the federal penitentiary, telling his family how much he loved them.