Sunday, July 12, 2009

The love that made Jay Phillips the man he is

Kirsten Fischmann marries Reg Phillips in Prince Rupert in 1969.

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

July 13, 2009


The boy arrived early. Weeks early.

After the doctor ensured he was breathing and after the nurses cleaned him, the boy was placed on a scale.

He weighed just 3 pounds, 7 ounces. About 1.58 kilograms. Less than the weight of a pineapple.

“I couldn’t bring him home,” recalls his mother. “He had pneumonia in both lungs. It was touch and go there for a while.”

She counted 47 horrible days in which her first child remained behind glass in an incubator. At long last, a mother was allowed to bring her boy home. Baby Jason thrived.

“There was no looking back once he pulled through,” Kirsten Phillips said. “He turned out so big and strong. I guess he was really strong even as a little baby in an incubator.”

The baby is a man now and adept with his fists, as has been seen by more than 100,000 viewers on YouTube. Jay Phillips, 38, was set upon by three men hurling racial epithets, the cowardly attack filmed by a spectator overlooking the scene.

The widely-reported attack led to the overnight organization of anti-racism rally in Courtenay. Hundreds attended.

Before the rally, before the YouTube video, before three thugs in a pickup truck picked on the wrong man, before a baby boy was born to spend the first 47 days os his life in an incubator, a teenaged girl caught the eye of a handsome and fun-loving young man.

Kirsten Fischmann was born in Copenhagen, moving to Canada as a girl. Her family settled along the northern British Columbia coast at Prince Rupert, where her father, a trained chef, worked as a fisherman.

She remembers watching local CHTK television station one day in the mid-1960s. The show was TK Dance Party and maybe the song being played was “Green Onions.” Teenagers were moving in unison to one of the popular fad dances of the day. She spotted Reg Phillips, a boy she knew from school.

“I saw him on television and right away I told my mother, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry.’ ”

She was 14, four years younger than her future beau.

Her dad knew his dad, who had been a railway porter.

Four years later, on Sept. 27, 1969, the couple got married at the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in an Anglican ceremony attended by about 200 guests. The bride wore a white floor-length bridal gown with lace sleeves and shoulders and a train, her face covered by a tulle veil. The groom looked dapper in a shiny brown suit with a gold tie, a white carnation worn as a boutonniere.

Just two years earlier, the U.S Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional, ending all race restrictions on marriage. The couple in the landmark civil rights case were Mildred and Richard Loving. The case was known as Loving v. Virginia. All romantics can rejoice in knowing Loving triumphed over all.

What does the bride remember of a ceremony now nearly 40 years distant?

“Big. Happy. All my relatives came from Denmark.”

The local newspaper had a small story, even published a photograph.

Mr. Phillips became a truck driver and, later, a driving instructor who also taught the operation of heavy machinery.

They had one boy and then another two years later. He was named Justin.

They lived in Kamloops, later moved to Maple Ridge. Ms. Phillips, a striking blonde, got a lesson in the daily humiliations faced by people of colour.

At a store, another customer spotted her with her dark-skinned sons and made a loud comment involving a racial epithet and a woodpile.

At a chain department store, her sons were always followed by security, while she could never find a clerk for assistance.

In kindergarten, Jason’s teacher referred to him by a racial slur and insisted he have his afro trimmed.

In high school, Jason responded to a racial taunt by punching another boy. The retaliator, not the instigator, was suspended.

“Little by little, things like that on a daily basis wears away at you,” she said. “It wears away.”

That her sons faced a lifetime of such belittlement made her angry, as it would any mother.

There was little respite. At a bar, another patron assumed she was a prostitute, her husband a pimp. They stopped going out.

As the boys grew up, their father taught them to box. He played basketball with them, took them on some of his long hauls to see the rest of Canada.

Jay Phillips knows how to handle himself.

He faced a dilemma after being attacked. He did not want to burden his mother with worry about his safety. Both were still grieving the death of Reg Phillips. So, how to explain the bruises and stitches to his mother? He was going to tell her he’d taken an elbow while playing basketball.

The posting of the video on the Internet ended that plan.

Her son telephoned her with the news. He told her about the video.

She was understandably horrified by what she saw.

“I just burst into tears. I just thought, ‘Not again. When will it ever stop?’ ”

She also thought about her husband, who had been with her for all the other incidents. Reginald Dennis Phillips died six days before Christmas. The celebration of his life was held three days after Christmas.

A month earlier, they celebrated what not so long ago was unthinkable — the election of a mixed-race man, like their sons, to the U.S. presidency.

She knows her husband would have been upset by the assault, but proud of his son’s fortitude.

She dreams her grandson Malik, whom she held during last week’s anti-racism rally, will be raised in a more just world. Meanwhile, his father expects he will teach him self-defence.

In the past, even some friends made a fuss about Ms. Phillips marrying a black man.

“People used to tell me I was brave. I’d say, ‘What are you talking about? I’m in love.’ ”

Such an ordinary thing, to fall in love. And so magnificent, too.

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