Tom would have turned 70 today.Flip (left) and Tom with Tom's beloved 1937 LaSalle Series 50 Sedan at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah en route to San Francisco (1968)
He was my oldest friend, and given the longevity of that friendship, probably my closest, although we were not close in a sharing intimate secrets and deepest fears kind of way as I have been with some women. One of those guy things, I suppose.
I met Tom when I was a freshman in college in 1965 and shared a house with he and a tribe of kindred souls on a farm beyond Philadelphia’s far western suburbs that at first glance would seem to have been a commune, but most definitely was not, for many of the next 30 years. He had a concatenation of skills: Working on cars. Carpentry. Electrical work. Tree trimming. Sign painting. Stargazing. Sexing marijuana plants. Leather work.
He was a fabulous ice skater, and watching him scribe gentle arcs while gliding backwards down the frozen Brandywine at Breck's Mill on a moonlit night was awesome. He was a passable fiddle player, had a complete set of the Rockford Files on videocassette and shared Eric von Däniken's belief that extraterrestrials had influenced early human culture. He was an atheist (I think), apolitical insofar that the sturm und drang of elections and such seemed like so much petty bullshit to him, and an egalitarian to the core with a limitless supply of down-to-earth advice that he dispensed freely to all comers whether or not they wanted to hear his pearls of wisdom.
Tom and I often read each other's minds, sometimes finished each other's sentences, and had many adventures together, including feats of daring-do that would leave others gasping in amazement but for us were merely a part of having the time of our lives. Sadly, he had become a shadow of his once sage self when he left this mortal coil in 1997.
|Bringing in the sheaves at the farm (1977)|
Tom was tall and thin, wore his hair down to his waist before it was fashionable and long afterwards, favored flannel shirts buttoned to the neck and at the wrists even in the hottest weather, and always wore jeans. He often looked like he had just crawled out from under a car after changing the oil, which he probably had. I may have seen him in shorts once or twice.
Off the farm, Tom was Doctor Duck, a favorite nom de plumage, and many people had no idea what his real name was. His leather working shop was across the railroad tracks from the bar where he sometimes worked as a bouncer and the tribe hung out, and next to a funeral home where, as he put it, they threw "going-away parties."
The shop was familiarly know as the Duck Shop, although the sign Tom painted and hung from the front porch said New World Trading Company, and later The Leather Tree. Inside, the shop looked like the set of Sanford and Son, only with even more stuff. But the stuff really wasn't junk. Everything had a purpose, from the industrial-grade sewing machine to boxes of brass buckles, rivets and other fitments, to the slabs of milled black walnut aging in a corner before he ran them through his portable saw mill. I'm not so sure about the meteorites and examples of his brother Richard's drag art, mangled toasters and other kitchen appliances that had been dragged behind their cars. The shop was redolent with the smell of leather and oils, and in cold weather, the occasional homeless person whom Tom allowed to sleep under a workbench.
|Cleaning up at Wendy and Mic's house (1986)|
Tom turned out beautiful embroidered belts and wallets, as well as gear -- holsters, bandoliers and such -- for the local police department.
He was a master at getting the most useable material from a cowhide with the least amount of waste, and expert at running the cut pieces through a foot treadle-powered sewing machine to stitch them together. He sewed a pair of lamé jumpsuits for he and a friend, one sparkly red with MARS embroidered on the back and the other sparkly blue with VENUS. They wore these fashion statements to Halloween parties and other special occasions. He made a satin-lined suede leather vest for one of my girlfriends without taking a single measurement. It fit her like a glove.
Tom's sole business failure was running a submarine sandwich shop in a storefront around the corner from the Duck Shop. It was called Munchies and featured whole wheat sub rolls, which he assumed would be a big hit with the hippy-dippy college crowd, as well as free delivery. But as anyone who appreciates a good sub knows, the key is the roll, typically semolina with a hard crust and soft innards, but Munchies' whole wheat rolls were dense and tasted like old wallets.
Free delivery lasted only two or three nights because the driver, who had anger-management issues, lost his shit and put a fist through an apartment lobby wall when a customer asked him to break a hundred dollar bill. The police recognized the driver as a friend of Tom's, that strange but okay fella who made their leather uniform gear, and sent him on his way with a warning.
|With Nancy's mom at the Vietnam Veterans Center, Philadelphia (1988)|
Snow had a cleansing effect on the farm. Anything rutted, muddy or rusted -- and lots and lots of stuff was -- took on a respectable if not exactly virginal white, while the view from the farmhouse roof was exhilarating.
One moonless January night, we hoisted Tom's big telescope onto the roof through a trapdoor in the ceiling of a third-floor bedroom. Our objective was to spot Comet Kahoutek, which was supposed to blaze a fiery path through the southern sky just before dawn. The comet did no such thing from our northerly vantage point, a disappointing pinprick of light with a hair-thin tail.
I was driving southbound from the farm on a country road in my VW bus. About a quarter mile away came the northbound Tom in The Pig. There were no other cars on the road. We sped closer and closer to each other, and then in a feat of mind-reading legerdemain, he veered into my lane and I into his, as we shot past each other at about 50 miles an hour.
Tom had taken a stock late 1960s Buick Special with a slate gray body and tan vinyl roof, jacked up the rear and installed a heavy-duty suspension. Why I don't know, but The Pig looked like it was a big cat about to pounce. He bolted a pair of surplus military aircraft landing lights to the front bumper, and even at the hellacious speeds he sometimes drove, The Pig never outran those lights. But the coup de grace was a vintage eight-track tape deck he installed in the dashboard at a time when cassette players ruled and compact discs were still well over the horizon. He only had four or five tapes, and The Moody Blues' A Question of Balance usually was on. Boy did I get sick of it.
|At a ballgame at Camden Yards, Baltimore (1992)|
Tom drove the Duckmobile on special occasions. It was a white early 1960s Morris Minor so small he could barely squeeze into the driver's seat, and he had to hunch over the steering wheel.
That was the idea, as inspired by the substantial trove of Zap Comix stashed in a second-floor closet at the farmhouse, some of which had Morris Minor-like cars passing pedestrians with weird ambulations -- both trademarks of cartoonist R. Crumb.
Tom was headed back to the farm from a Halloween party in the Duckmobile decked out in his red lamé jumpsuit, his head and arms painted red, and a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon sprayed with red sparkle paint in one hand. He spun off the road and the Duckmobile rolled down an embankment. It landed on its roof.
God does look out for fools and drunks. Tom, qualifying for both, suffered nothing worse than a bump on his head. I came down the next morning to the sight of him asleep, his head on the kitchen table. He awoke with a pained look, one of the few times he dropped his carefully maintained guard. He was in desperate need of a hot bath, so I drew him one. We never were able to completely scrub out the red ring he left behind.
|On the porch of his New London Road fixer upper (1994)|
I have often pondered when Tom went around the bend and set out on a course that ended with his own going-away party at that funeral home next to the Duck Shop at the relatively young age of 51. And why he did.
It may have been a slow-ticking time bomb of a consequence from a fractured skull suffered in a motorcycle accident during a brief Army stint. Or when his usual 7 a.m. repast of two slices of white bread toast, two strips of bacon and a cup of hot tea at the local greasy spoon was replaced with a beer breakfast. Or when he stopped doing leather work and started hosing down the mats behind the town bar for free beer. Or stopped washing and combing his beautiful hair with any regularity. Or would avert my gaze instead of trying to convince me he was okay when I got on his case about letting himself go.
Tom held court in a corner of the bar, dispensing four-leaf clover key chains and wisdom to regulars and irregulars alike as he sipped on Rolling Rock beers. His response no matter the subject was usually, "We're all brothers and sisters on the surface of the planet Earth," which certainly are words to live by.
Come to think of it, Tom probably went around the bend when he stopped following his own advice.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
PHOTOGRAPHS CONTRIBUTED BY NANCY WILLING