Category Archives: Weird Stuff About Phil.

Lots of detritus down below:
How I completed my Army service without once picking up a weapon, Escaped from prison more than 100 times,
and married a Moroccan princess.

How I Married a Moroccan Princess.

Well, okay, she grew up next to the Royal Palace of Fez, not in the palace,

but it was all the same to me. For a guy who grew up in a thick cloud of blue-eyed blondes, she was the very personification of the exotic.  She was a raven-haired, dark-eyed beauty whose olive-skin seemed to give off the very aroma of……mystery.  She opened her mouth and out drifted foreign words —-French! The universally officially authorized language of ….love!

She was an international exchange student and I was one of at least 100  guys matriculating (“studying” is perhaps a bit too strong) at our college because it wasn’t in Vietnam and it was close to home.

On the second day of classes, she was sitting in the coffee shop, the the hangout for all of us low-grade townies that the college let in, just to improve town-and-gown relations.  She pulled out a pack of Gaulloise, the unfiltered preference of dedicated Parisian cafe  provocateurs, and the room turned an ethereal blue.   I suppressed an urge to sign up for Advanced French.  Just listening to all the Z‘s substituting for th’s and the ee sounds plugged in to the i positions,  I was smitten.

She told me she was Jewish, which I had trouble believing because everybody knows that Morocco is an Arab country.  My doubts increased when I brought a toasted bagel out of the cafeteria and she said “what is zzat?”  That was before I knew the difference between Ashkenazim or Sephardim, let alone Mizrahim, the latter of which don’t know from bagels.

She had been a philosophy major in high school.  Imagine that, a philosophy major in high school! Heck, we were just learning how to spell “philosophy” when I was in high school. I was sure she must be a genuine intellectual.  She spoke meanderingly of Camus and Sartre, which is when I found out Jean-Paul’s name is not pronounced “Sar-tray.” Obviously, she was a genuine philosophe.

Our relationship progressed through 7 years of fits and starts and separations.  She shocked her friends and family by tumbling into discipleship behind Jesus of Nazareth and was accused by the chairman of the philosophy department of being a Calvinist. That’s how I found out she had guts, because Jewish girls are definitely not supposed to become Calvinists, or even Mennonites.  She moved off to Paris to tell the Arabs living there that Jesus was the Mahdi, while I at last received my draft notice and shipped out to spend two years in the Army Medical Corps.

You do not rush into marrying a princess, so after 7 years I finally made my move, proposing in the shadow of Big Red, the West Michigan lighthouse where I spent the days of my youth illegally jumping off the breakwaters and fighting the rip currents (good thing she was a lifeguard-class swimmer).  She said “yes,” we got married, and immediately produced four babies in four years.  That was before the doctor showed me where the  “off” button was.  After thirty-three years, it’s been a romp, and I’d do it all over again.

You want the woman you marry to be crazy, gutsy, passionate, dedicated, honest and capable of deep commitment.  And that’s her.  She’s all mine. Get your own.

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Jesus and Me.

Without Jesus, I’d definitely be on the fast track to Blazes.

I’m an incurable skeptic, and only managed to hang on to my childhood faith because God has put so very many of his astonishing and inexplicable saints right in front of me.  There’s so much I don’t understand and can’t explain, but if I take Jesus out of the proposed equations of life, they all collapse.

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First, the not so weird stuff.

First, the not such weird stuff:

Having lived in Michigan, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, I’m now living the semi-retirees’ dream in full panoramic view of the Colorado Rockies.  My original wife hasn’t left me yet, and my 4 kids have so far produced 6 grandkids.  They all have dogs, which is why I have none.

There is a lot of detritus is included about my obscure but strange life, The oddities are all filed under “Weird Stuff About Phil.”.  How I completed my Army service without once picking up a weapon, escaped from prison over 100 times, and married a Moroccan princess.

Politics (right-of-center), International Affairs (an internationalist, but not a globalist,) and Faith (without Jesus, I’m for sure going to hell) are where most of the serious stuff lies.  I also love travel, baseball, and college  football.  And my wife.

The oddities are all filed under “Wierd Stuff About Phil.”

The basic mostly boring data:

Born in Holland Michigan, attended Holland High School, graduated from Hope College, lived a year in the Newark African-American “ghetto,” survived the 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, worked as a medic for Walpole State (a prison, definitely not a university!), a few other companies, got married to the most honest person I ever met, did a year at Moody Bible Institute, home-schooled 2 of my kids, retired from FedEx (25 years) , spent 4 years driving big rigs in Chicago (you know those torn-up low-clearance  bridges…?..), retired to Colorado, taught advanced math and reading to 5th-graders (yes, as a matter of fact I am smarter than….), and love hiking in the high country as long as I can get in a real bed at night.  My favorite quote on that subject is from Bob Wentz:

“I have never slept in a sleeping bag. ….. Spent many a night in one, but never slept in one.”

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Me and Barack.

Hey, We’ve Got a Lot in Common: We Were Both Community Organizers!

Or so I thought when I heard him use that term.  Further study enlightened me to the fact that he was trying to ignite a revolution, Alinsky style, whereas I was just trying to help some kids.

I grew up in the white-bread town of Holland Michigan, and I do mean white. There were 1,000 kids in my high school and exactly one black.  And even he didn’t actually live in the district. For some reason he  trekked all the way across the county to our school every day.  Maybe it was because his name was Van Marshall, and  when they saw his name on paper they assumed he was just another Dutch boy that belonged with all the other “Vans.”  In our school, the sports teams  were nicknamed the “Big Dutch” and we had surnames  from Vander Aa to Vander Zee.  I am not making this up.

In college I hung out with a fullback by the name of Nate Bowles, who hailed from Newark, New Jersey.  I was a January graduate with a low draft number and knew Uncle Sam would snag me before the end of the year. That put a serious crimp in the job-hunting scenario.  So Nate suggested I join up with an organization called Crosscounter that needed someone to organize kids clubs with some churches in his hometown of  Newark.  It paid $125 a month plus free ghetto housing.

Now that was an education.

I worked with Ronnie Steltzer, a Division One hoops star with Davidson, getting Rutgers University/Newark to agree to let us use their gym 5 mornings a week for a sort of christian basketball camp.  We were pretty disorganized in that we didn’t even have a real name.  It was just “Basketball Camp.  At the Gym.” Ronnie did the instructing, mainly because the kids already knew more basketball than I did.  My sense of timing was never that good.  I handled the reffing, the daily Bible story, transportation, paperwork, and breaking up fights in the locker room.

I struggled to get the Beacon Street Bucks going, meeting at the A.M.E. Church on Beacon Street ( for you extra-white people, AME stands for “African Methodist Episcopal” ).  I did better with the junior high kids than the high-schoolers, but we managed quite a few camping trips and visits to New York and a really big block party.  My biggest disappointment was when James G______, one of my younger club members, and a pretty versatile member of our Beacon Street Tumbling Team, managed to get shot in the stomach at the age of 13.

Sundays I hung out at the Essex County Youth House, the local “jail-for-kids,”  teaching Sunday School and playing cards.  Others in our organization taught in the Youth House School for little or no money.

We managed our transportation with a donated 1959 blue-over-white VW bus, crippled by a starter that didn’t work.  Fortunately, Newark is pretty hilly, so I could jump-start  it by rolling  downhill, or recruit a bunch of kids off the street to give me a push.  We kept the thing operating for the whole summer before getting together time and money for a new starter.  I loved that bus. I wish I could buy it back.

The biggest struggle was working for Roseville Presbyterian, which was right on the line between the “black” and “white” parts of town.  We started clubs with the idea that they would be integrated, but the resistance to that was incredibly strong, and for me , extremely disappointing.  If the black kids came. the white kids would disappear.  And vice versa.

Greetings from President Nixon blew in at the end of October, informing me of my neighbors’ desire that I be inducted into the Armed Forces, and of my “new opportunity” to see the world.  So I hitch-hiked back to Michigan for a little time with Mom and Dad before getting on the Army’s bus on December 1st.  Seven days later, with my head shaved, my stiff new boots biting my toes, and a little map of Vietnam in my pocket, the President announced the end of the draft.

Like I said, my sense of timing was never that good.

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Ridiculously Great Expectations.

The  most  compassionate person I ever met was my own Father.

No doubt Mother Theresa had him beat, but then, I never met her.  And some would think Dad an unlikely candidate for the award.  After all, Dad was a Goldwater-and-Reagan Republican, and religiously he cheerily described himself as a Fundamentalist Christian.

And he was everybody’s friend.

It didn’t matter who people were or where they came from, Dad was always first in line to help out.  He’d pick-up a hitch-hiker and find the guy was a despondent unemployed father with five kids wondering where the next meal was coming from, and that same evening I’d be at Van’s Supermarket with Mom and Dad stacking two grocery carts of food into the station wagon and running it out across twenty miles of ice-covered roads to a shack of a house in Fennville. One of my earliest memories is of that man’s family running out to the car, barefoot through the snow, to lug the groceries in.

And everybody was welcome at our house.

My poor Mom. She was a very private person who enjoyed her space and her quiet, but Dad kept inviting the whole world to our house.  Despite the fact that we lived in a county that was 99% white, we had visitors from Africa and Asia and countries that weren’t even in the World Almanac come and break bread at our table.  He was incurably curious, especially about people unlike himself.   If there had been native peoples of Antarctica who walked upside-down on their hands, we would have had upended Antarcticans at our table.

He’d go out of his way to spend time with Hank Overway and Al Vander Bush just because, in Western Michigan, they were the rarest thing among the area’s human population, —actual Democrats.  There weren’t many Catholics in our town but Dad knew most of them.  There were even fewer Jews, but Dad knew them all.  There was one Arab, Al the Syrian electrician. We knew him, too.

As a devoted Goldwaterite, “big government” was an especially disturbing concept for Dad, one that just spurred him on all the more to seize responsibility for his own neighborhood.  When someone in the community donated 11 acres for a park, but the local government had no money to develop it, he went door-to-door recruiting the citizenry to donate materials and money.  Within weeks the stubbled field was graced with a full set of playground equipment, a long string of scrawny  maples and a baseball diamond with what seemed to us the world’s largest backstop, built with salvaged telephone poles from the local utilities.

No education was no problem.

Dad acquired an 8th grade education in a one-room schoolhouse on the Dakota prairie and as a 14-year-old, cried himself  to sleep every night because his parents wouldn’t let him go to high school.   But even as an old-timer, he could produce line upon line, stanza after stanza of English and American poetry.  He particularly enjoyed showing off his Tennyson.

So when controversy erupted in the local school district and major restructuring was called for, Dad jumped in, with his 8th-grade diploma firmly in hand, and got himself nominated and then elected to the local school board.  He managed to push through a merger of the Maplewood District into the Holland District, which meant we kids all got to go to a better high school.

He taught Sunday school, served as GOP precinct captain, and took hispanic kids camping with the Holland City Mission.  With a tiny handful of men, he built Camp Kaskitowa, a youth camp in the Allegan Forest.  He sang in the church choir,  his photography won first prize in the Holland Camera Club,  he took me to college or high school basketball every weekend and went to prayer meeting every Wednesday night. He read the newspaper and Time  and Bill Buckley’s National Review cover-to-cover, and donated to every good cause anybody ever came up with, all while working 60 hours a week in his plumbing business for what must have amounted to about eight bucks an hour.

And now I’m supposed to keep up with that.

Ridiculous. Greatly Ridiculous.

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Back to Prison ….Again.

And Not Just Any Prison….

…..the maximum security prison at Walpole.  I managed to escape Walpole every night after my shift ended.  Fresh out of  the Army, I had gone out to Boston to visit my old friend Ron from my days as a community organizer of sorts in Newark, New Jersey  (you can read about this in my post “Barack and Me”).

In Boston, I found work as a prison medic.  They wanted to hire RNs, but couldn’t find any dumb enough to take the job. So they hired me, an ex-army medic. And there was a lot of work, as beating on each other seemed the most popular activity among the inmates, and they were not quitters.  During my tenure, there were hostage-takings, lock-downs, a mass suicide attempt, and a murder a month, and that didn’t include the murder of the Boston Strangler, stabbed to death in our prison hospital shortly before I signed on.

The job was so interesting that I couldn’t stand the excitement anymore and left after a few months.

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Wars About Wars.

A Weaponless Soldier.

We’ve had Wars about Wars in my  family. Grandpa Leander was a Swedish-speaking private in the Russian army. Grandpa Herman fled militaristic East Prussia for the South Dakota prairie , where  Woodrow Wilson’s Feds chased him down during WWI and seized all his guns “just to be safe.”  It transformed him and most of his dynasty into permanent Republicans.

After walking the sawdust trail at an itinerant evangelist’s revival meeting, Herman abandoned his lukewarm Lutheran affiliation and joined the more “baptistic” Mennonites.  Who are pacifists. So my dad and uncles grew up in a pacifist church while across the sea…. Hitler mixed his deadly brew.

Uncle Herb saw the future, and before conscription was enacted, he joined the Army, saying “Hitler is an insult to our German parents.”  He talked his brother Arnold into enlisting, which got them both excommunicated from the gentle folk at the Mennonite church.

Herb fought with Patton’s 3rd while Arnold won a Silver Star at the Bulge, and when they got home the “war over wars” landscape was changed.  Until Vietnam.

Enamored with the campus anti-war passion of the sixties, I looked back on the Mennonites  with a certain romantic affection.  And yet I loved my country. One by one, boyhood and  high school friends disappeared into the big green machine. Scott and Jim never came home while  Harv and Carey came back wounded.   I went to college, and then graduated, a low “draft number” hovering over me.  I knew I’d soon be called.

How do you square the circle when you’re against the war, but the country calls?

For me, the answer came in the form of a “1-A-O” draft classification, which required that I serve my time, as a medic, but was exempt from weapons training or mandatory use.  So I left my shotgun behind, entered the Army, and did not pick up a firearm again until after my discharge.

Despite incompetence on every side (it’s a huge government bureaucracy, after all) , the Army managed to slowly convert me into a reluctant hawk.  I was surprised how little  harassment the Army itself doled out for me.  These guys were anything but the violence-crazed maniacs of Hollywood stereotypes.  They were just young men  caught up in events bigger than themselves and trying to get through it.  By the time I took that big bird home, I was rethinking everything.

By the time my own son was 18, I had gone through a metamorphosis, and saw him off to the Army with my blessing. After four tours in Iraq with the 5th Special Forces Group, it’s his turn to have doubts.  Isn’t life strange?

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