"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fast Cars And Racy Women–How A Parson’s Son Got Them Both

Sedge Phillips was the son of a Lutheran minister and a perennial Blue Ribbon winner at the Iowa State Fair. His father was known for his moral rectitude, stern Germanic sermons, and unwavering faith.  His mother was a model of Christian charity and compassion.  How Sedge ended up with a trophy wife and a Lamborghini touring car was as logical as Fermat’s Theorem, although with more twists and turns than the French mathematician ever had to take.

Sedge Phillips was said to be the most handsome boy in Prairie City if not all of Ames County, and not only was every high school girl in love with him, but most of the wives.  The combination of his Hollywood looks, ingenuous sweetness, and innocent vulnerability was a magic potion concocted by fairies and sylphs.

Irma Henderson was the first of the Prairie City ladies to invite the young parson’s son to tea – an offer he graciously accepted not only because Mrs. Henderson was a congregant at his father’s church but because she volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary at the hospital along with his mother. She was not quite a family friend, but a trusted acquaintance.

Irma was charmed by this complaisant, beautiful boy; and Sedge was taken with her kindness and solicitude.  More than anything, he looked forward to the warmth and soft comfort of the Henderson home, a welcome change from the spare living room and bedrooms of his own.  His father, true to his stern Lutheranism, wanted his home to be no different from the church where he preached on Sundays and received troubled visitors during the week. A simple wooden cross hung over the dining room table just as it did over the altar.  The mudroom was as neat and orderly as the vestibule; and his father’s study was the mirror image of the church rectory – uncompromising simplicity, low light, and unadorned floors and walls.

The afternoon teas soon evolved into something more intimate.  Irma Henderson simply could not keep her hands off the boy, and he liked the attention, the caresses, and his arousal. Despite the stern, Puritanical discipline of his home, he was without sexual complex, and love with the neighbor was as natural to him as anything in life could be.

He looked back on those trysts and passionate afternoons somewhat quizzically, for he knew how most people brought up in such a repressively Christian environment turned out either more religious than their parents or as emotionally twisted as a cruller.  Clyde Griffiths, hero of An American Tragedy had an affair with the first girl who responded to his advances, got her pregnant, and then killed her to make way for his ascent into high society. He was so embarrassed by his itinerant preacher parents, his poverty, and the spectacle of sidewalk evangelism, that he didn’t just shunt his wagons to another track.  He went off the rails completely.

Tennessee Williams in Eccentricities of a Nightingale wrote about Alma Winemiller, the spinster daughter of a parson who has led such a sheltered life that she has no clue about love, sex, or intimacy.  She only knows she wants all three, fails in her attempts to attract the boy next door, and becomes a prostitute.  Tennessee himself said he never had any kind of sex until he was twenty-five, so incarcerated was he by obsessively Puritanical mother. His whole life was spent in expiating the guilt he felt for having betrayed his mother and God, and he died alone of a drug overdose in a New York hotel room.

Sedge on the other hand, shed his abstinent past like a snakeskin. He took to Mrs. Henderson’s caresses and passionate embraces like a Casanova.  He instinctively knew what she wanted, where she wanted to be kissed, how hard or how tenderly.

As careful as the women of Prairie City were, word got out about their amorous encounters with Sedge Phillips and back to the parson and his wife. They of course did not believe a word of it, for it was simply beyond belief that a boy brought up in a home closer to God than any in the community could have become such a moral deviant. None of the women blamed Sedge for his infidelity. They each had been so pleased and satisfied by him, that they wanted to share them with their sisters.  Although Sedge was a wise young pasha and serviced his harem fairly,there was considerable jealousy among the women of the town.

Somehow, Sedge made it out of Prairie City intact.  No irate husbands came after him nor jealous wives.  Not even his father who throughout Sedge’s high school years never suspected anything.  The man was simply so involved in the church, his congregation, and God himself, that he wouldn’t have noticed a bulldozer in his front yard.

Needless to say Sedge was a hit with the girls at college.  Thanks to Mrs. Henderson and the women of Prairie City, he knew all there was to know about lovemaking. Mrs. Lunt was as rapacious as a tiger while Mrs. Arthur was quiet, soothing, and ethereal.  Mrs. Wright was like a Ford – low RPMs, but steady and consistent.  Mrs. Beatrice was like the Lamborghini he would soon have – quick off the starting line, redlining in seconds, and wailing with a high-pitched ecstatic scream.

Sedge was a diffident student whose performance was well below his ability; but he soon realized that his real talent was not in academia.  Just as easily as he had shed the snakeskin of Puritanical sexual reserve, he cut the moral traces that had restrained him for so long. There was no such thing as guilt, he reasoned, or at least no reason to fret over peccadilloes. Risk management, an concept he learned in Economics was good enough. Watch your P’s & Q’s, keep track of who’s who, and keep clear of sexual landmines.

Only his Aunt Maggie knew what he was up to and about. “You are the spitting image of Great Grandfather Isaac”, she said. “As good looking and as successful with the ladies. His charm obviously skipped two generations, but I for one am glad that his genes are alive and well in you.”

So that was it, thought Sedge.  He knew there had to be a reason why he was so remarkably different from his parents. He was not simply a little ‘off’ the Phillips longitude, somewhat morally askew and following a different heading.  It was as though he were Uncle Isaac’s boy.

Before Aunt Maggie’s insight, he had been perplexed about his trajectory.  How could he, the dutiful son of devout, stern, and implacable Christians, become such a libertine and moral nihilist? In one fell swoop, Aunt Maggie had answered the nature-nurture question.  No matter how many Sundays he had spent on the hard wooden pews of his father’s church; no matter how many bake sales and charity drives he had attended; and no matter how many home Bible study sessions he had spent with his mother and father, it was Great Grandfather Isaac’s blood that flowed through his veins.  It was his genetic circuitry that was hardwired into his system. His synapses fired like Isaac’s, not his father’s.

So Sedge Phillips never looked back, never had a guilty moment, and never questioned his motives.  “Everything is permitted”, said Ivan Karamazov and never once did he question that wisdom.

Sedge was also gifted a good sense of timing.  Unlike Chance Wayne, Tennessee Williams’s character in Sweet Bird of Youth, Sedge knew when it was time to marry up, to forgo his unbearable lightness of being, and be a kept man with few responsibilities except sexual attentiveness.  “Marge maintenance” says Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley as he goes below decks to service his girlfriend who is madly in love with him.

“He could have been so much more”, said his childhood friends who had followed his trajectory but not without a trace of envy at his trophy wife and yellow Lamborghini. However Sedge was not bothered by gossip, and felt that he was as true to the ancient Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’ as anyone. He accepted the royal flush he had been dealt. He never stopped to question his Mendelian inheritance or his God-given sensuality. He felt no guilt or remorse about tossing his moral compass overboard. If there was any wisdom whatsoever in self-knowledge, he had found it.

Jealous detractors who secretly hoped that Sedge would come on hard times, would age badly, and grow old alone were wrong. At seventy he was no different than he ever was – attentive to women, although less passionate; considerate of their feelings and needs; and faithful enough to his wives to have an uninterrupted, aggravation-free life .  In other words, he aged gracefully and well. He still looked marvelous in his tweeds and understated silk ties. He never shambled, tripped, or bungled.  Great Grandfather Isaac’s DNA kept his mind functioning until the day he died when he said, “I guess the ride’s over”.

I was lucky to have known Sedge Phillips.  He was my idol and my beacon, a man who had figured out himself and others, was lucky enough to avoid random misfortune, and smart enough to chart a course according to his own compass. He never needed God to help him keep his bearings. He did no harm, maintained his respect for others, and was courteous to a fault.  A real mensch.

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