Tommy Was Not Like Everyone Else

December 21, 2012

“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Joni Mitchell

My cousin, former neighbor and childhood best friend died this week.  He was 60.

The one thing that stood out about Tommy was that he was not like everyone else.

When we were kids, he would come to my house almost every day and when I answered the door, he’d ask the same question, “Wanna rassle?”  The answer was always, “no,” as Tom was two years older than me and significantly heavier and if we wrestled, he would have beat the crap out of me.  He asked anyway.

Tom’s backyard was my favorite place in the world, even though he had a German shepherd I was afraid of and a tree house that was so high off the ground, I couldn’t look down as I climbed the rickety boards that were nailed into the tree as stairs.  In addition to the tree house, Tom had a swimming pool that was much larger than mine.  It was an above-ground pool, but seemed like the biggest pool I had ever seen and it was filled with inner tubes from tractor tires.  Any afternoon I spent in it would end much too fast.

Sometimes we would go to the beach.  While my parents always parked at the state beach, Uncle Benny and Couci Gladys (if you’re Polish-American, aunts are always called Couci, but uncles remain uncles) parked near the Ferris wheel, where there was an arcade full of pinball machines and other games.  We spent as much time and money there as we could get away with.

My parents installed a basketball hoop over the garage and we spent many hours there, too.  We weren’t very good when we started playing and we weren’t very good when we stopped, but in between we had fun.

Traffic was never heavy on the street we grew up on, so, during high school we were able to spend our winters playing football in the street.  We played two-hand touch, on ice.  Underneath the ice was trap rock, a not-quite paved surface with small rocks jutting out of it.  We tried not to fall and didn’t always succeed.  We were no more talented at football than we were at basketball, but neither were the other neighborhood kids who joined us and it didn’t matter.  We dreaded being called in for supper (where I grew up, “dinner” was called “supper” and “lunch” was called “dinner”), which ended our game.

On weekends, we often went fishing, but rarely caught anything.

In high school, we still spent summers in Tommy’s pool, but the German shepherd was long since gone and we played music.  Tommy seemed to buy a new album every day.  There was lots of hard rock -- Bloodrock, Cactus, Frigid Pink – but our mainstays included Johnny Winter’s “Second Winter,” Blind Faith and, especially, Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma.”  “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Grooving In A Cave With A Pict” was played about three times a day, yet the neighbors never complained.  Somehow, we also developed a mutual love for Bob Dylan’s music.

Tommy built speaker cabinets with speakers he bought from Radio Shack and they sounded pretty darn good.  He later gave them to me.

Given our lack of athletic ability, we formed a rock band in high school.  It turned out that we also lacked musical ability.  That didn’t stop Tommy.  He became our bassist and singer, even though he had never previously played bass or sang.  No one else in the band knew how to play bass; the rest of us couldn’t carry a tune and we were too shy to sing.  Tommy wasn’t.

Soon after, Tommy discovered his father’s banjo and learned to play it.  Then he started writing songs.  Our favorite was a song called, “Roll Out the Paper,” which was about a clogged toilet.  At one point, he went to a bluegrass festival and somehow ended up playing the song on stage with John Hartford, the author of “Gentle On My Mind,” who was famous in bluegrass circles.

When we weren’t trying to play music, we were off camping for the weekend.  Tommy bought a Jeep and, wanting to test its capabilities, he drove it deep into the woods, until it became stuck.  Being in the woods, before cell phones were available, I don’t remember how we were able to get a tow truck, but we did.

It wasn’t the only time he tested the Jeep’s capabilities.  He also liked to see how far he could drive before the Jeep ran out of gas.  He didn’t have AAA, of course, so one night when he ran out of gas, we spent a rainy night on Cape Cod sleeping in his Jeep.

One of our favorite past times was sneaking people into drive-ins in the truck of my car.  I always wondered why they charged by the person, not the car.  We also used to play a game where three of us would take turns driving to obscure locations while two of us had our eyes closed.  When we opened our eyes, we had to guess where we were.  There were no video games back then.

Tommy was double jointed and could fold his fingers around each other.  He would do this in public and get a reaction.  He laughed a lot in those days.

Our band broke up, having never played a real gig, other than a kid’s Christmas party and a “Battle of the Bands,” where any band could play if it sold tickets.  Tommy learned to play the guitar, though, and kept writing songs.  His singing improved and so did his songwriting.

Tommy visited me practically every weekend when I was in college.  Girls were more important than music by then and we’d go to mixers at Mount Holyoke College, where 50 cents bought us admission and all the beer we could drink.  We partied, went to concerts and listened to music.  Tommy kept playing his guitar and singing.

When I graduated from college in 1976, jobs were difficult to come by.  Tommy and I planned a cross-country trip by bus, but I never took the trip, because I was offered a job in New Hampshire and took it.  Tommy went on the bus alone.  Having had a rendezvous with a fellow traveler, when he returned he had a poison ivy rash on every part of his body.

Tommy often came to visit me in New Hampshire on weekends, even though it was a two-and-a-half hour drive.  But then he went back to school, met new people and stopped calling me.  I called him a few times and he was busy, so I stopped calling.

For more than 30 years since then, I saw Tommy only at family weddings and funerals.  A few times, my business took me to Northampton, Mass., where he lived, and we talked about getting together for lunch, but we never did.

The last time I saw Tommy, he was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  He played a song he had written about toy soldiers and childhood innocence, and I tried to hold back the tears when I heard it.

We talked on the phone and e-mailed each other after that.  We were going to get together for dinner, but didn’t.

Tommy’s sister let me know this week that Tommy was admitted to Mass General on December 5 with lung complications from graft host disease, resulting from his stem cell transplant.  By December 7, he was on a ventilator, receiving dialysis and low blood pressure medicine.

Tommy died this week.  He was not like everyone else.

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