Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part 1 of 4

My personal introduction to sex and sex education, from my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., came in the form of a sermon preached one Sunday morning. The content of this sermon, thundered from the pulpit was: ‘Don’t let me catch any of you hot blooded young bucks sniffing after any whores!’ So, parents, how would you feel about your children getting that as their first introduction to sex education?

I don’t think it ever occurred to my father to have a one-on-one conversation with me, regarding sex, sex education or expected behavior related to sexuality. I just showed up to the church service one Sunday and ‘wham!’ I heard the above statement. I overheard him say one time: “What’s to learn, you do what comes natural.” When I think of the importance of the marriage relationship and what a gift it might have been to me to have a caring father giving me wisdom about how to be a man of integrity in marriage or in relating to women this all seems even sadder to me.

This theme of my father’s ‘No Sniffing After Whores’ was hammered over and over again as my older brother, me and a couple of other young men in ‘The Place’ began to come of age. Lessons were drawn from the Old Testament as well as the consequences that could come from ‘going a ‘whoring’’. It is probably safe to say that every verse on the subject of the evils of sex, adultery, fornication and every form of sexual sin were included in my father’s effort to control the anticipated behavior of the few young men in ‘The Place’, during my adolescent years. Sadly what was never mentioned by my father was the profound importance of treating any women of our acquaintance with the utmost respect, honor and kindness. That sort of advice would have helped us all be much better future husbands and better people!

I am sorry to even write what I am about to write because I wish it were not true; I wish it had never happened. This part I am attempting to describe now is one of the most heartbreaking times of our growing up years with our father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. It is a profound and tragic example of the fruits of hatred when it is directed by a hateful tyrant against the innocent and defenseless.

My older brother Fred Jr. was deeply in love with Debbie Valgos, a girl from St. Vincent's Orphanage in Topeka, Kansas located several blocks from our house. The two of them were just crazy in love... Debbie was a free spirit; and a great looker. Noisy, loud, hearty laugh! She was very warm, and friendly, and loving. She was cute, thin, and blonde.

"That name...," sighs one of the nuns from the orphanage, "is like a punch in the stomach..." Debbie was not an orphan. She lived with her mother and step father on Lincoln Street in Topeka. When she was 11 years old, for reasons undisclosed, Debbie was placed in St. Vincent's Orphanage.

She went to Capper Junior High and later attended Topeka West High School. When she was 14, Debbie sent this poem to her mom: “I settled down west from town, though no one knew I was a clown. My face was clean, and all around were children, though I heard no sound.” She signed it, 'Mom, I love you very much!' with seven asterisks for emphasis.

Debbie’s older sister recalls: "She sang. She had a beautiful voice. And she played the guitar. She was a pretty little thing." Debbie's mom had an album of photos taken by the nuns of her daughter while she lived at the orphanage. Pictures of her as a cheerleader at Capper; smiling on a dock at the Lake of the Ozarks with some other girls from St. Vincent's; clutching her pom-poms, watching the players; pictures of her 15th birthday party at the orphanage.

Fred Jr. and Debbie met at the skating rink. Sometimes my older brother Fred Jr. and I would trick my father. When he thought we'd gone out on our obligatory 10 mile run, instead we'd go skating. Or if we'd had a good night on candy sales, my brothers Jonathan, Nathan, Fred Jr. and I would knock off early and hit the rink before going home.

Debbie was a good skater. She came to the rink with other kids from the orphanage. She skated fast and reckless. At first my brother Fred Jr. saw her secretly, during stolen moments. Then he'd go by the orphanage when the four of us boys were out selling candy.

You should know when I was 9 and Fred Jr. 10, we began to hear degrading, insulting sermons from my father about how no good it is for boys to have girlfriends. My father would say: "You'll meet a girl someday and she'll start saying things like, ‘aren't you cute; aren't you handsome; ooooooh, you're really something’, and like some kind of ignorant, stupid lamb being led to slaughter, you'll fall for it, and the next thing you know, she'll want to kiss you or some bullshit like that. I'm telling you now; I'm not going to put up with it. If you think you're going to have some whore coming around sniffing after you, you better know right now that I'm not going to put up with it. You better start gettin' it through your thick head right now. You just have to trust the Lord to provide you a good woman who will subject herself to the authority of the church...”

They met, I think, in the fall of 1970. On the candy sales, Fred Jr. would drive and I'd ride shotgun, with brothers Jon and Nate in back. We'd pick Debbie up on the way out and she'd sit between us. When we got to our selling destination, the rest of us would sell candy, and Fred and Debbie would stay behind in the car. Boy, did they kiss. Every time was for the last time. Like Bogart and Bergman at the Paris train station.

She was cute, but it wasn't only a physical attraction. Those two were very, very much in love. I was there. I saw it. I watched them together - kissing, walking, and being together. Fred and I shared the same bedroom and I knew my brother. It was obvious they were meant for each other. That romance had so much voltage it could have lit the city.

Fred and Debbie's special song was "Close to You", by the Carpenters, but that didn't keep them from fighting. Debbie had a hot temper. She was very intense and dramatic. So they kissed and fought, kissed and fought. But they loved each other terribly hard--none of us doubted that. Debbie also got a kick out of hanging around with all of Fred Jr's brothers. She used to say it was her instant family. And that made us all feel good. Lord knows we had very little family closeness so the fact she saw us that way was pretty amazing.

Many of Debbie's teachers remembered her vividly. And they remembered her long-lasting romance with Fred Phelps Jr. “She was craving a family environment, with all the emotional outlet and loving she imagined went with it," recalls one. "When she was dating Fred Jr., she thought she'd become an adjunct member of his family and she wanted to be a part. When she thought she was, she was very happy." "She was such a warm, sweet girl," remembers another, "it's just a shame what happened to her."

In the car on candy sales and at the skating rink was the only time they could see each other.

Apparently Debbie suffered from epilepsy. Periodically she'd pass out. I saw it happen 10 to 12 times. Suddenly she'd stop talking and when you looked, she'd be limp, her head back and eyes closed, though still breathing. Debbie told Fred Jr. what it was, but he never revealed it to anyone.

After they'd been stealing time together for several months, Fred Jr. somehow found the resources to buy Debbie a gold band with a tiny diamond. I remember her showing it off proudly in the car that day. Fred was 17, she was still 16. They began to talk of getting married. Before you jump to conclusions about another teenage marriage remember my family didn't believe in dating around. We believed God would send us our mates. That it would just happen one day, and we would know it in our hearts. When it happened, that was it--whether you were 16 or 56.

Of course, my father thought he was the god in charge of that. But I wouldn't assume Fred Jr. and Debbie's union would have been another miscast teenage marriage-and therefore my father was right to do what he did. Such an assumption would be a mistake! Why?

Because my wife of 38 years, and my best friend for 43, is the same young girl I met at the rink that May of '71. We've been together since I was 16 and she, 13, and we're still totally nuts about each other. You see, I think God has a hand in these things. And maybe it's naive of me, but I think all that we Phelps children went through as kids made us wiser and more street savvy about people than a lot of grownups. We had spent time on the streets from the time we were very young, selling the candy for our father’s church in a variety of places, and we had to learn to be good judges of character to try to stay safe.

I estimate the passionate romance between Fred Jr. and Debbie was kept from my father through the New Year of 1971. Sometime shortly after, however, my father caught wind of his son's happiness. After that, my father, of course, forbade Fred Jr. to see Debbie. He tried everything to get Fred Jr. to stop.

Though Fred Jr. was only a few months shy of 18, my father regularly took the oak mattock handle to him to stop his 'slinkin' with that whore'. In February of that year, Debbie left the orphanage and moved back in with her mother and stepfather in the house on Lincoln Street.

Fred Jr., Nate, Jon and I would swing by and pick her up there. Shortly after she moved, Fred Jr. and Debbie moved again: they made their bid for a life together free of their burdened pasts. They eloped.

They took one of the family cars, a '66 Impala wagon. And I had a pair of top-notch skates hidden in the back of the car. They cost me a hundred bucks. I was a serious skater back then, and I carried them around in a slick black case and felt very professional. But my brother Fred Jr. took them along for gas money. He sold them at a rink in Kansas City for ten bucks. I missed my skates, but I wasn't mad at him. Back then, we had no sense of personal belongings or boundaries. And we did not have parents who had the time or inclination to help us learn how to navigate anything like living in a family and respecting each others things. If you needed something, you just took it. Besides, I wanted those two to get away. I just wish he'd gotten more for those skates! Ten bucks was insulting!

With a borrowed car and a tank full of gas, the intrepid couple hit the great American highways-though not with that era's open agenda of 'wherever you go-there you are!' To Fred Jr., the available universe consisted of two addresses and the highway that connected them. One was on 12th Street in Topeka; the other was the home and church of Forrest Judd in Indianapolis.

My father and Judd met at a Bible conference in Ashland, Kentucky. Forrest was a Baptist preacher and he and my father hit it off. They used to come to Topeka and visit a lot. He and my father were doctrinally alike, but Forrest was a very different personality. He was a jolly fat Santa type of guy-a factory worker and a really neat fella. He had three sons of his own, but he'd become sort of a 'good' father figure to a lot of us kids.

His church was the only one my father approved of. You see, no matter what differences we had with my father as the head of our house, none of us questioned his authority as head of our church. It was a certified gathering of those who had been chosen, remember. And the only way to get to heaven was to do that, to assemble with the chosen. My father interpreted that, and we accepted it, as membership in a physical congregation certified by him as part of the chosen... ‘The Place’... And there was only one Place besides his-Forrest Judd's. So my brother had nowhere to run, you see. Not if he wanted to get to heaven. To a believer, even the most wonderful love in this world isn't worth an eternity in the fires of hell. As long as we accepted that my father had the power to send us all to hell. He had the trump card in any showdown over our choices.

After Judd and my father conferred by phone, the father figure, Judd, convinced Fred Jr. there would be no room on the Indy bus to heaven. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to go back to Kansas. A member of the staff at Topeka West High School remembers my father called the school to rage at them, holding them responsible and threatening to sue. As I recall, my father stopped the marriage; and he was demanding the school go and get them. He wanted each returned separately so they wouldn't 'fornicate' on the way home. School officials tried to point out to my father that Fred Jr. and Debbie were teenagers, and they'd been alone together for over a week-the damage was done. Not that my father ever wanted to hear the truth about his children or the people they were becoming!

From the moment the disappointed lovers started down the road from whence they had come, the clock began to tick toward tragedy.

Back in Topeka, Debbie moved in with her mom again, and Fred Jr. counted the weeks till his 18th birthday. Though my father did everything in his power to separate them, those afternoon candy sessions went on just as they had before. In early May of 1971 my brother, Fred Jr. turned 18, and my father changed his strategy. It would be OK for Fred Jr. to see Debbie, but only when she came to church services on Sunday.

By this time, I had met my future wife, also at the skating rink. She was convinced to come to church as well. The only way my girlfriend and I could see each other, officially, was if she came to ‘The Place’ for Sunday service. None of the children of ‘The Place’ had a social life; we simply weren't allowed to date. So my girlfriend’s willingness to come to church service in order to have a friendship with me was a real blessing in my life, as you will soon see.

My girlfriend remembers that first Sunday: "When I arrived, Debbie was already there, sitting in one of the pews, waiting for it to begin. She looked back at me and smiled. I was nervous and her warmth touched me. She was quite radiant and seemed very happy that day."

My girlfriend fared better than Debbie under the pale-hearted Pastor’s basilisk eye. She had long hair and was shy - a quality my father mistook for subjection to her man.

My father took an instant dislike to Debbie. She had all her signals wrong: she had short hair; she was vivacious, passionate, and fiery; she was direct; and she had an open, honest laugh. Openness?! Honesty?! Hardly traits the head of a cult would be welcoming! Starting that Sunday, and forever after, my father called Debbie ‘the whore' from the pulpit, in person, to Fred Jr., and to the family.

Let me make this clear. My father would say things from the pulpit like “'I see the whore is here today' then start in on Fred about running after whorish women.” In the middle of the church service! She didn't argue! She just looked shell-shocked. I am sure it never even occurred to her that a pastor would say such horrible things to someone in public, much less from the pulpit! She started to cry, but did it quietly. After the service, she disappeared. After that, my father preached to Fred Jr. that this beautiful woman who he loved dearly and wanted to marry was a whore; from the pulpit every Sunday.

My father had so little understanding of human nature I honestly wonder if he even understood what incredible harm he was doing to my brother Fred. I have no idea all that went on in my brother’s young heart and mind as he was subjected to public denigration and shaming week after week from this supposed man of God. But I can tell you it took a desperate toll on him as a person.

Mark Phelps

Part 2 of four parts will be published next Thursday, October 30, 2014.

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