I’m not sure when the thought of college first entered my mind. Mom only had an eighth grade education, and Pop dropped out of high school, finishing years later in night classes. My brother quit City College after three days. As far as I know, my cousin, Marilyn, a few years older than John, was the first Baisley to graduate from an institution of higher learning.
I must have had at least an inkling of an academic future when I first thought about becoming a war correspondent. I suspected that required a journalism degree. That’s why, whenever Kurt and Judy and I played the Game of Life I hoped I’d land on the “journalist” career space, even though it offered the lowest salary of any of the college degrees.
By the time I was in high school and needed to give serious thought to my academic future, journalism was out of the picture. Me, a writer? Fat chance.
I had already written off pharmacy school after I decided I didn’t want more chemistry to train for a job I had been doing for the past three years. One option remained. It was required of every New York City high school student that they apply to one of the colleges in the City University system. The only one that even remotely appealed to me was the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. That’s the place New York cops go to study Law or finish their bachelor’s degree. I figured, I like solving mysteries, Criminal Justice sounds like a way to do that for a career.
I never really wanted such a career. To tell you the truth, I never thought much about the future. I had no long term goal, or any short ones either, until a guy named Cal Beveridge brought a group of singers from Lancaster Pennsylvania to Grace Church.
I think there were seven of them: a girls trio and a boys quartet; probably a pianist too. They sang and then Cal talked about Lancaster School of the Bible (LSB). I honestly don’t know why, but after that Sunday evening service I decided I was going to be an LSB Charger. Thinking back, maybe it was the fact that you didn’t have to take the SAT exam to apply. Yeah, that was probably it.
Regardless of motivation, I applied to LSB. “Everyone majors in Bible at LSB,” said their catalog, so selecting a major was easy; but I still had to pick my minor. These were my choices and the rationale for my ultimate decision:
--Pastoral Ministry—yeah, right. A pastor was the one thing I never wanted to be. Pastors stand in front of people and talk. I’d rather be a cab driver where the people are behind you, out of sight.
--Missions—I was not the missionary type. More preaching, and in another language no less. Nuh uh.
--Music—after eight years playing the clarinet and six on tenor sax, terrified of every solo, I was through with music.
That left the final choice: Christian education. What the heck is Christian education? It seemed like such a general term it could mean anything. The perfect course of study for someone with no plan for his life.
I learned a lot of things in Bible college. Some of them were things the professors taught, like the cosmological, ontological, and teleological “proofs” for the existence of God and the reasons why a literal worldwide flood explains how the earth seems to be older than it actually is. Some were things I eventually had to unlearn in order to live in the real world, like the cosmological, ontological… well, you get the picture.
A lot of what I learned was not taught, at least not outright; it was in the attitudes passed on to me by the fundamentalist worldview of the institution and its faculty.
The hardest part of this education was the understanding that I just didn’t fit in no matter how hard I tried. It began the last day of orientation, at the freshman class picnic.
After playing some volleyball and eating hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad, the evening wound down with some campfire songs and a brief message from an upperclassman. Then we were asked if anyone would like to share a testimony. I was already known on campus as the guy with the autographed yellow door on his blue Ford, the Galaxie with writing on the fenders. To myself I was still the shy skinny kid from East 93rd Street. But for once I decided to speak up, to let my love for God break through my timidity. I stood and gave a brief testimony of how excited I was to be part of LSB and how ready I was to learn more about God’s Word.
I bombed. To the guys I’d already begun to hang out with I was now some kind of goody two-shoes, holier even than they. To the ones who’d already formed the opinion that city kids had no place in a rural Pennsylvania Bible college, I showed myself to be a hypocrite, ready to say anything to mask my true worldly, backslidden self.
I didn’t exactly fit in.
At LSB we had very strict rules concerning social behavior. We had to be in our rooms by 10:30 pm Sunday-Thursday night, 12:00 on Friday, and 11:30 on Saturday. A resident assistant (RA) would go room to room and check. I wasn’t used to curfews. My parents’ policy was, “Let us know where you are and who you’re with, and don’t do anything stupid.” That’s all. The rest was up to me, and they believed I’d make good choices.
Well, a good choice when the best place for breakfast is a 24/7 diner just minutes from campus is to go there late on Friday night. Come on, in my room by midnight? Why? If I didn’t get in trouble after midnight on a Friday in New York, why would trouble be likely in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish capital of the world?
So, on Friday nights, I’d dutifully be in my room, tucked in bed when the RA came around. Minutes later I, and any friends I could talk into joining me, would be ordering grilled sticky buns or biscuits and gravy, plus coffee, at the diner. We’d roll back to the dorm around 2:00 a.m., the scent and feel of grease in our pores.
Getting caught was inevitable. It was only a matter of when. I think it may have been in second semester. Which brings me to LSB’s system of punishment for minor crimes.
For the lowest level of offense, such as forgetting to go to supper on a night you were responsible for busing your table, there would be one to three hours of physical labor. How many hours depended on which offense it was—your first, second, or third. My first offense—eating out when I was supposed to be at my table—occurred only a few weeks into the fall semester. The dean’s punishment of choice for this offense was picking up the trash that blew into the chain link fence separating campus from the highway. It was convict labor, but I made the best of it.
Back when my brother was a U.S. Marine stationed in Turkey, he sent me an antique sword. Just because it was so cool, I packed it in Atsama when I left for college. I’m not sure it really belonged in Bible college, but it came in handy during my afternoon of punishment. Rather than bemoaning my lost estate and grudgingly picking up every piece of trash by hand, I made a game of it. I tied one end of a rope to a cardboard box and the other end around my waist. I picked up each piece of trash with the point of the sword and dropped it into the box behind me. Singing as I went, I looked like I was having so much fun the dean came to check on me. I was breaking no rule and collecting as much trash as could be expected, so he let me be. Still, I never received that punishment again.
Staying out late at the diner incurred the second level of retribution, a “campus.” That’s where the offender was confined to their room for a designated number of days, being allowed out only for classes, meals in the dining hall, going to the library, and practice if the campused person was on a sports team. They also weren’t allowed to talk to other students except as part of the classroom experience or to say, “pass the potatoes” at a meal.
Ever the literalist, I took my first campus, a weekend, to the nth degree. I did not leave my room at all except for church on Sunday. Even there I didn’t speak to anyone or even sing the hymns. Prior to my weekend incarceration, I arranged with friends to procure my main meals. I kept some orange juice and milk in the fridge, so a box of donuts worked for breakfast. Other meals, such as hamburgers and pizza were purchased by friends with prewritten instructions accompanied by cash including tips. I did not speak one word the entire weekend. I was proud of my accomplishment.
During my senior year, Sandy and I and another couple got into a car accident involving a drunk driver—not one of us. We ended up getting back to campus around four in the morning. We had called an RA on duty and explained about the wreck and waiting for a ride back to LBC (Lancaster Bible College - the school changed its name when it became an accredited, degree-granting college). That didn’t help. All four of us were campused for an entire week. Once again, I made the best of it.
The other male offender, Russ, and I lived across the hall from each other in a part of the dorm where no doors separated our rooms, a kind of open suite. We were also best friends who loved the same music. It was the perfect recipe for a fun week of punishment.
Russ and I worked together delivering pianos and organs on evenings and weekends. For those seven campused days we worked together, but we never addressed each other directly. Our customers wondered what was going on, and we reveled in explaining the draconian penal system of the local Bible college. But we never spoke in the delivery truck or in the dorm, even though we were alone in both of those places part of the time. Honorable men we were.
We sang a lot, though. No, we didn’t speak to each other in sing-song rhyme; that would be cheating. We just sang to pass the time, and we knew a lot of the same songs. The week passed quickly for us. For the girls, not so much. They didn’t know each other as well as we did.
I got into a lot of trouble at LBC. My total number of days campused set a record that was never broken, to the best of my knowledge. I also had the distinction of being threatened with suspension at least once a year.
One time, the dean of students called me into his office to discuss my failure to conform to the image the college wanted for its students.
“Phil, you’re sneaky and devious, and I don’t like that.”
I couldn’t argue with him. But my grades were decent, and every semester when other students did a required Christian service project, I always did two. I loved doing ministry, especially with kids and senior citizens. I even traveled on behalf of the college as part of a folk duo with my buddy Debbi. We weren’t really an “official” college group, but sometimes a church would want someone to do less “churchy” stuff for a coffee house or a youth event. So Debbi and I would play our eclectic blend of Larry Norman and Jesus rock, traditional gospel songs, folk music, and stuff by James Taylor, Stephen Stills, and other not-exactly-Christian artists.
In spite of all this, in the eyes of the college administration I was still the same pest who made a game of their most intimidating threats. Of course, even the administration had use for my expertise when it suited their purposes.
I suspected the worst one day when in my mailbox I found a “See me” note from the dean of students. “See me” notes were the one thing that intimidated me at LBC. They were always an invitation to something bad. To this day, when the dean of the seminary where I teach puts a note like that in my faculty box, I shudder. Even though the notes are now about grants I’ve received for funding teaching trips to Rwanda, I’m terrified. Old habits cling to us like leeches.
“See me.” That’s all the note said, but it was written on the dean’s personal note paper, so it had to be serious. I walked to his office with my brain sorting out the various things I’d recently done that might have gotten me in trouble, hoping the actual offense would cross my mind in time to manufacture a suitable defense. Too late. I was already there.
The secretary had me sit down for a while until the dean was free. Still, I had no clue why I was there, or which specific ‘why’ it might have been.
“Come in, Phil,” he said.
That was unusual. When I was in trouble I was always “Mr. Baisley.” What was he trying to pull?
I took the seat he offered as he got right to the point.
“I don’t know how widespread the news is, but you may have heard we’ve been experiencing some incidents of racism we cannot tolerate.”
I immediately stood up to protest.
“Sit down, Phil. I know it’s not you. You may be a lot of things, but racist isn’t one of them. Fact is, it’s those other qualities we need right now.”
“Phil,” he said in a voice too much like Richard Nixon’s, “Someone has been entering Ron Jackson’s room and damaging his stuff. They even tore up his Bible. No one has seen any of this happen, but it’s got Ron scared. We need someone, uh, sneaky, to keep an eye on things without any students knowing. I don’t care how you do it, just help me get to the bottom of this.”
Wow! This could be fun. It could also be weird. I’d be spying on Ron as well as his room. I’d have to know his comings and goings because when he wasn’t around I’d have to be there. Every incident occurred when he was in class or at the library or in town. I determined that when the mysterious Bible-ripper came back, I’d catch him in the act.
Let me tell you, detective work is boring. I spent hours over the next few weeks watching Ron’s movements and then breaking into his room and hiding in his closet with the door slightly ajar. No one else ever came in, unless they did so between the time I’d leave and the time Ron would return.
After three weeks, I had to report to the dean that I had observed nothing unusual in Ron’s room. No papers destroyed, no Bibles torn, no racial slurs scratched into the walls.
Eventually, the problem just went away. And so did Ron. A rumor surfaced the next semester that Ron had been doing those things to himself. That’s why no one ever got caught. I never quite bought that rumor. During Ron’s one semester at LBC, no one knew him better than I, although we rarely spoke. I knew where he went and with whom, what he did, and what he didn’t do. He never struck me as the type to lie about something so serious. But “blame the victim” worked, and the mystery was successfully solved. Guess we might have had a racism problem after all.
For all their talk about sex being so wrong outside of marriage, their rules against physical contact with the opposite sex, and their talk about God having selected only one mate for you, Bible colleges seem do more to lead students into premarital sex and premature marriage than statistics give them credit for.
I met a girl in the freshman registration line and we were talking marriage after a couple of weeks. We broke up before Spring Break. Sophomore year the same thing. Junior year too. One girl per year with the goal not being fun but being married. Along the way, opportunities to really get to know each other were sacrificed to the chance to make out in a steamy car in a cornfield on Butter Road. When I finally got officially engaged—with a diamond—my senior year, all I could think of was starting a good Christian family. And after knowing Sandy for only nine months, we got married. Children came years later, and divorce years after that.
As Sandy and I talked on the phone during divorce negotiations, we both reached the same conclusion: we should have remained friends instead of getting married. But what choice did we have? We weren’t trying to meet interesting people and get to know them. We were trying to find “the one.” And we were trying in an atmosphere that did everything to separate us while, at the same time, encouraging us to get together for life.
My years at Lancaster Bible College produced a lot of laughs, like putting Bob’s beloved Vespa scooter in the bathtub (Hey! We didn’t turn on the water.); going to a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert with girls who had to wear their jeans rolled up under a skirt to leave campus, removing the skirt in the car to look like real college kids; sneaking to a forbidden Christian rock concert only to see the Christian Education professor sneak into a seat behind us (“I won’t tell if you won’t,” he said.); driving back onto campus after a soccer victory over Penn State-Harrisburg with windows wide open and my car stereo blasting the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique. I guess most of my LBC memories are related to music or sports or girls. I’ve told people I majored in soccer and women. Maybe that’s why it took me five years to graduate.
I actually finished my course work at LBC in four years, concluding with a 2.85 GPA; not great, but solidly passing. However, it takes more than B- grades to graduate from Bible college. One must conform to the moral standards of fundamentalist ministry. I never quite got there. A couple of weeks before graduation day, I received a letter—not a “see me” note—from the dean informing me that I would not be graduating due to my “bad attitude.” Instead, I would be required to complete a one-year internship at a local church. Upon successful completion of said internship, my ankle bracelet would be removed and I would be set free. Okay, I lied about the last part. Bad attitude.
By this time Mom and Pop had moved to Leola, PA, just down Route 23 from the college. Their pastor agreed to take me on. I began what would turn out to be a wonderful four-year term of service at his church. During that time, Sandy and I created a vibrant children’s ministry in the two-room trailer behind the main building. We helped raise a generation of kids most of whom are still involved in churches today. Bad attitudes get the job done.
Against the advice of friends who said what LBC did was against the law, and I should sue the college, I walked the stage in May 1975 and received my Bachelor of Science in Bible. That oxymoron made my education complete.
I never wanted to sue anybody. I deserved the internship, not as a punishment but as a chance to get the seasoning, the maturation, I had not picked up in college. The 1975 employed, married, child educator was a far cry from the kid who drove onto campus in 1970, car stereo playing Life Is a Carnival by The Band. But life was a carnival back then; often, it still is.
Paul Anka was only twenty-six years old when he wrote the words, “regrets, I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention.” How many regrets can a guy in his sixties accumulate? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
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