I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and a lot of them have had a tremendous influence on me. I’d have to say the one person I’ve known for whom I have the greatest respect for in my life was the campus minister of my college — I’ll call him Phil.
Phil was an odd fellow. He had some medical issues (I think he was epileptic), spoke slowly and deliberatively, and was quite possibly the most profoundly ugly man I’ve ever known. But he had a wisdom and strength of character that simply overshadowed everything else.
I got to know him through my involvement in the newspaper and student government, and he soon came to be my informal counselor and go-to guy for advice and opinions. (More than once I publicly stated that whenever I found myself disagreeing with Phil, I immediately found myself assailed with doubts about my own position.) But two instances stick with me, nearly twenty years later.
The first was when I’d written a very unpopular story for the newspaper. I was getting all kinds of harassing calls, threats, and general hatred. It was starting to get to me, so I went to Phil and talked it out with him.
Phil leaned back in his chair and told me a story from his childhood. (I’ll try to re-create it from shoddy memory.)
“Y’know, Jay, when I was a kid, we all loved to play marbles. We always played keepsies, and I was the neighborhood champ. I’d always win.
“And I told everyone that I always won because of my lucky shooter. I had this one catseye that I couldn’t miss with.
“Well, one day, after I picked up my marbles and went home — that’s what we said — I noticed that my lucky catseye was missing. Some son-of-a-bitch had stolen it. My best marble, and they’d taken it from me.
“Now, do you know the point of that story?”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “How Phil lost his marbles?”
He fought down a smile, shook his fist at me, then leaned forward and grabbed my knee. He looked me hard in the eye. “The only reason they stole that marble from me was because they knew it was special. And they knew it was special because I kept telling them it was.
“You write a lot of stories for the paper. You wrote a couple last week, you’ll write more next week. Don’t let them make this the most important story you’ll ever write. Every time someone brings it up, ask them ‘which story?’ and make them remind you. Eventually, you’ll write something bigger, and this one will be swept under the rug.”
I took his advice, and it worked. In less than a week, it was old news, and I only got grief about it maybe once or twice more — and more importantly, I never let it bother me again.
My second Phil story is a bit more personal. During the summer months, Phil would go out and guest-minister at various churches while their regular pastors were on vacation. It happened once that he was scheduled to speak at my mother’s church, and I made a point of attending.
Phil, naturally, was 15 minutes late. He’d had a previous service in the next town, and got lost.
He came hustling down the aisle in full regalia, looking a little flustered and with eyes strictly on the altar. I turned around in my carefully-chosen aisle seat and said cheerfully, “Hi, Phil!”
He stopped cold, looked down, and gave me a huge grin of recognition and a hearty handshake. Then he stepped up to the altar.
After a few minutes, though, he stepped down from the altar. He came down the first row of pews (the first three or so were vacant — nobody wanted to sit up front), sat on the back of it facing the congregation, and started his sermon for real. Again, I’ll try to recreate it from memory.
“When I was growing up, my family ran a general store. I loved that place. They had all kinds of great stuff for sale.
“I especially loved the big barrel of toys they had. Everything in that barrel was a dime, and it had all kinds of toys. But my favorites were the ray-guns.
“You remember those ray-guns? You’d pull the trigger, and they’d spin around and you’d get cool sound and a shower of sparks inside them. I’d take one out and shoot it off, then when it wore down and the sparks were gone I’d dig down in the barrel, bury it down there, and take out another one.
“It’s the summertime, folks. SLOW DOWN. Relax. Take it easy. Right now you’re like those ray-guns, always spinning around and shooting off sparks every day. Ease up a bit before you burn out like all those ray-guns I shoved to the bottom of the barrel.”
After the services, Phil was by the door, exchanging words with the congregation as they left. My mother and I hung back, and as we left I got another hearty handshake and thanks for attending. Then, as I introduced my mother to Phil, he practically lunged forward and gave her a fierce hug. She was impressed as hell with him, too, and I’m glad she got to meet the guy I thought so highly of before she died a couple years later.
I’ve lost track of Phil since then, and I’m sure my current politics would horrify him. No, on second thought, he’d give me a little ribbing about them, but he wouldn’t let that stand in the way.
I just know that somewhere there are some people who are very lucky to have Phil in their lives right now. I only hope they know how fortunate they are.