Prologue: I’ve written before about how traveling for extended periods puts you at risk for missing important family events and milestones. We have been at our home base and after Thanksgiving I was inspired to write about just such an event. It took me a while to get it posted.
My sister is 11 years older. She married early, and promptly had two children. I became her sidekick, spending nights at her house and generally hanging out to help with her kids. Like our father, her husband was a hunky but volatile character, who wore a leather jacket and had a Harley. To my pre-teen eyes, he was fascinating. He was riding his motorcycle when a car slammed into him. He died from his injuries a few days later. After that I spent even more time with her and her two kids, one a toddler and the other just beginning to walk. I remember hot summer nights when we took the fussy kids for a ride with all the windows down and the radio blaring. We may or may not have been wearing seatbelts. I slept in the bed next to hers while we listened to the radio. She always had the timer set to shut the radio off in about an hour. It put her to sleep, but the noise kept me up. I was glad for her company, because something changed between us as I went from pain-in-the-neck little sister to useful partner. Then one day our mother told me that my sister was “seeing someone named Tom.”
I first met him after he’d had surgery to remove his wisdom teeth. My sister offered her spare room to him so he could recover. Mom thought this a bold move. “Your neighbors will talk,” I heard her say on the phone. Mom and I “stopped by”—a euphemism for “snoop” — to see how he was. Tall, lanky, chipmunk cheeks from the tooth extraction and big glasses. Very polite. He wore a blue plaid shirt. In other words, a total geek. I could also tell that my sister was head over heels about him.
Boy, was I ever right about the geek thing. After his tour in the Navy Tom worked as an engineer for IBM. He was the guy IBM programmers called when one of the big computers went on the fritz. He had three hobbies. One was electronics and all things digital. He built his own TV, radio, clock radio and most impressively a pong game. When home PCs became a thing, he built his own PC of course. He wasn’t into finesse so much so the hard drives and components were usually held together by masking tape. His second hobby was tinkering endlessly on his beloved Corvair, the dangerous model that Ralph Nader hated. His third and lifelong hobby was collecting and sharing lame jokes, pranking anyone at every opportunity. Apparently my sister found these characteristics attractive enough to marry him, six weeks after they met.
By the time they married I was in the throes of teenaged angst complicated by a most uncivil war with my father. I leaned heavily on my sister’s family, spending as much time as I could with them. Tom adopted her kids and I became the de facto baby sitter, minding my niece and nephew and later, their baby daughter. They usually came home in the wee hours, and I looked forward to the night ride home. Tom would bundle me and his long-suffering Siamese cat Henry into the Corvair and we would roar through the twisty valley road between Kirtland and Chardon to get me home. He took that cat everywhere. Tom was always one ticket short of a suspended license, but that never slowed him down. Instead, he would repeat his mantra of ‘I better not get a ticket” as Henry and I hung on for dear life. Clawless, Henry would slide helplessly from one side of the dashboard to the other as we zoomed through the night. Tom’s speeding got so bad that he installed a governor alarm on the family car that would sound whenever the speedometer went over 55 mph. There were times when we just drove along with the alarm beeping away. The Corvair was never subjected to such an indignity.
I didn’t realize it until much later in life how much he stepped up for me. The home my sister made with him was a place of respite for me as a young person. There weren’t many reliable adult men in my life at that point, certainly none of them with a sense of humor. He taught me to drive a stick shift in the Corvair. When I spun out into the neighbor’s front yard, he didn’t get visibly upset. I think he was probably just thanking the Almighty that I hadn’t wrapped the car around the lone tree in the yard. I’d stand in his garage among pieces of Corvair engine laid out on sheets and he’d explain the finer points of cumbustion engines, lessons that came in handy years later. Tom agreed to help me with a class project I foolishly thought would be easy. Electronic music came on big when I was in high school (remember the Moog synthesizer and the song Popcorn?) I thought it would be cool to program a computer to play the opening bars of “O Holy Night.” The project was due just before Christmas break, hence the song choice. He let me into the computer room to mess around with the cards and the big computers. In the callous way of a young person, I never asked if there was a cost or if he was breaking work rules or what kind of an inconvenience it was for him. Then again, knowing him he likely just did what he wanted without asking. Tom and his pals took time to show me how to code the cards and made it possible to record the resulting “music” that sounded like a melodic Pong game. That was back in the day when programs were run on punch cards, and the opening line of O Holy Night, a simple song, took a stack of cards almost a foot high. Coding the cards seemed to go well, but when it was time to put the stack in the bin to run them, the run failed. Every. Time. I spent many evenings and weekends in that building among the huge machines that were clattering away on far more important things. Tom puttered around the shop while I fought back tears of frustration. Finally, hours before the project was due, I had a mostly successful run. Sadly there were some clinkers. You know the melody, imagine what the tones sounded like with the words:
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the WHOONK of the dear savior’s WHOONK.”
That single line of music took weeks to produce. For whatever reason, that low note just wouldn’t work. Tom suggested I write up a report about the work involved in getting the project done, which I did. I played my tune for the entire class and endured their snickers after each WHOONK note. Then I showed off the stack of cards and explained the process and their eyes widened with a tiny flicker of respect. For the record, I got an A- on the project and learned that I definitely did not want a career in computer programming. Most importantly I learned what it was to be taught by someone who was fine with letting me make mistake after mistake—and encouraging me to try again without belittling me.
Time passed. The Corvair disappeared to be replaced with generations of ancient SAABs that Tom kept running through endless tinkering. Forever a gadget freak, if it blinked or beeped he owned one of whatever it was. Family and friends endured his expanding repitoire of jokes puns and riddles. He was a language nerd too, so misspeaking in some way would expose you to endless needling. With the advent of cassette tapes in cars, a long ride meant being subjected to reruns of old radio programs by Spike Jones, Jack Benny and the like, unless Paul Harvey was on the radio (a trend that continued through CDs and MP3s). I moved on to make my own life while the busy-ness of raising three kids overtook them and we saw less and less of each other. They moved to Cincinnati, and physical visits became few and far between. That’s the modern way of things I guess. Still, we always made time to share jokes and make snarky observations about life’s ironies. He’d call me and say “How is my faaaaavorite sister in law?” The joke was of course, that I was his only sister-n-law.
I believe you never really know anyone wholly, even those who live right under your nose. Character is faceted like a prism, showing different sides of itself at different times. I haven’t been around to witness all the facets of Tom’s character—but there are many more witnesses who can offer their own character studies. You should ask them what they think. Lately Tom has slowed down considerably, the result of coping with many years of heart disease. He is my Most Loyal Blog Reader, and always has some humorous comment to add. On our most recent trip we stopped to see him on our way in July, and he was our first stop when we came home in October. As winter came on, we visited when we could. I wanted to get him something for Christmas that I thought he might enjoy and would sum up my feelings for him. It took some thinking, but an idea came. He’s getting two vintage George Carlin CDs—Class Clown and FM & AM. Snarky puns, lots of observations about how silly our world is, and plenty of naughty bits thrown in for good measure. I hope they make him laugh. I hope he knows I love him.
Postscript: For the last several years we’ve taken many long trips, staying out for months at a time. I’ve learned that when you tell people “see you later” that there is always a chance that you might not. We visited him the day after Christmas. He was much weakened, but received the Carlin CDs with characteristic glee. We enjoyed some post-Christmas cheer with the family, but the shadow of his illness and the inevitable outcome hung heavy in the room. A man of God, he had a peace that encircled him like a robe. I don’t want to leave you with a picture of a saint languishing on his mortal couch. He still was able to fire off a few groaners, and we had fun reminiscing about some of George Carlin’s classic one-liners. I also read the above essay to him out loud, with the caveat that he couldn’t correct my grammar because it was a first draft. We hugged goodbye.
On January 15 he passed, with my sister by his side as she has been for 50.8 years. At his memorial service, the church was packed to the rafters with friends and family. The choir held an empty space where Tom stood to sing for many years. True to his nature, he demanded that some of his favorite jokes be told. Choir members, his kids and friends took turns telling jokes throughout the service. Talk about laughing through tears. Most touching were the military honors and blowing of TAPS at the end of the service. The day after his funeral service, we turned our RV south for our next trip. I’ll write about our experiences as I always do, but it won’t be the same knowing there won’t be any more comments from my Most Loyal Reader.
Here’s one of the shorter jokes from the funeral:
A man showed up at the doctor’s office with a stick of celery up his nose and a carrot stuck in his ear.
“Doc,” said the man, “I’m not feeling so great.”
The Doctor looked him over.
“Well, no wonder,” said the doctor. “You’re not eating right.”