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By April 20, 2018 5 Comments

Fifty years after it went out of style, he still wore his hair–great hair, by the way–in a duck tail. Had he let it grow a little longer, he might have passed for Sikh and never worn a turban. He was the quintessential Fifties guy, loved cars, and never really stopping lovin’ cruisin’.

He could spend hours in his own garage, stoking a pipe maybe, tinkering, keeping the dust off his buggy, cleaning up. Quiet, meticulous to a fault, he arranged his life the way he did his shop, not a thing left where it shouldn’t have been. Careless is a word he didn’t know.

He had opinions, I suppose, but he didn’t air them all over creation. You had to work to get them out of him, if they ever made it off the rack at all. That he wasn’t particularly opinionated may well help explain how it was he was pretty much satisfied with the way life had worked itself out. He never wanted much more than he had. We should all be so blessed.

I lived in his basement for a couple of months when I was a college kid, did so because he was gone, in the military. It was 1968, and there were others from the small town who were gone, some of them called up with the National Guard, and other women living upstairs in his house back then, GIs’ wives, including his. We got along well, sometimes flirted a little.

He was a townie who, early Sixties, managed to pick up a college girl, got her into his buggy somehow–maybe it was that duck tail, the preacher said–and she never left. In the Iowa village where he’d been born and reared, the two of them had three kids and no huge problems. Sweet and wonderful grandkids too. Life is good, he might have said, if he’d say much at all. Mostly, he just smiled.

His communications specialty in his Army years translated into a job with the phone company when he returned to his wife and the house with the rental basement. He fixed phones every day of his working life–yours, mine, and the neighbor’s. Had his own truck, rigged up thoughtfully with the tools he was going to need to get the job done, all of them kept in perfect order. Of that you can be sure.

He hung around the college where I taught because he was the phone guy for the entire institutional system. Phones were big and mechanical then–rotary dial, the kind you have to go to a museum to see. Then push buttons replaced the old ones, got sleek and had memory. Technology took a jump into the next century. Just about then, he retired.

The truth is, he had more health problems than most of us knew or will ever see ourselves. That hefty tool belt he will always wear in my memory circled a girth so slight that you couldn’t help wonder where he found belts that small. He was our phone guy. Got a problem, get a hold of Phil. Won’t slay you with gabbing either. He’ll just get the job done. Big smile. In the twilight of his phone company job, he was always around.

You don’t think much about people like him until they’re gone, at which time you begin to consider how it was they were always there when you needed them. Some knew him as a father, a brother, a grandpa. Some knew him from work. Some knew him because, like him, they loved cars, preferably old ones, one of those from American Graffiti. And some of us, like me, knew him only because he was a servant, which is, biblically speaking, a noble calling, even if we often forget as much ourselves.

This morning, once again, snow is falling, as it is in the cemetery where his mortal coil has now been laid to rest, same town he was born in. If he’d been Native, he’d be wearing his tool belt right now.

This morning, the morning after his funeral, I’m thankful for him and his quiet life, and for so many others whose service is epic even if their lives never seemed to be, men and women whose servanthood–what a biblical word!–I too easily take for granted.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Marty Wondaal says:

    It is amazing, when you stop to think about it, how everything around us works. Our house’s heat, electricity, cable, and other systems. Our cars, and the roads we drive. Our jobs, where we only really know a part of what our organizations actually do. It is a very physical-level miracle of existence. It doesn’t make sense, this daily battle against chaos and entropy.

    Somebody must be in charge, and He’s gotta guy for everything.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Elegant, like his belt, his truck, and his garage.

  • mstair says:

    “men and women whose servanthood–what a biblical word!”

    .. very nice, Jim. Amen.

  • Jim Kortman says:

    Thanks Jim! The parallels to another phone guy in Michigan you know and we both love, run strong. Thanks for the reminders of lives well lived and the simple things that made them great.

  • Van Rathbun says:

    You’ve nailed it, Jim – about servanthood, about living out the presence of Christ, about small town living, and definitely about Phil. He embodied it all and I’m grateful to have known him.

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