Monday, May 28, 2012

Decoration Day

Sycamore Cove, Ventura County picnic spot
 Memorial Day in the United States began after the Civil War. It was originally called Decoration Day - a day to tend the graves of all the Union soldiers who'd died in that horrible war. But it became a day to remember all American war dead.

Sometimes, it takes a long time for a war to kill someone who has served.

I met Tom in 1979. I had just moved to Seattle, and had just started working as an "extra" on the dispatch list of Local #15 IATSE, the stagehands' union. I'd been sent to work on the lighting crew at the local regional theatre company. The head electrician there, Bob, eventually became one of my mentors, but I felt less confident around some of the other guys on the crew - in particular a short wiry guy named Tom.

I was actually kind of afraid of Tom. I was sure he didn't like me. I was sure he looked down on me. Tom was a risk-taker - you could tell. He always volunteered for the hardest, most dangerous jobs - like climbing ladders, rigging, and working at heights. Maybe that was part of the problem - I liked to do those kinds of jobs myself, and I always thought Tom doubted me, or - worse - thought I was encroaching on his territory.

When I first met him, I remember he rode a motorcycle. He had a dark, thick beard, and his levis looked as though they were molded to his tight ass. He wore boots, and a denim jacket that made his shoulders look broad and his waist look trim. One day at the Playhouse, my friend Karen and I were working up in the ceiling and looked down on the guys working onstage and rated them according to who had the cutest ass - Tom won.

Tom was married and lived with his wife in a little bungalow, but you could often see him out drinking at Dez's tavern till last call. Frankly, Tom was a little crazy when he got drunk - but in our world that was an admirable thing. He snorted coke - but in those years, we all snorted coke. Some nights Tom's conversation grew very dark - he spoke of time spent as a medic in Vietnam - or, rather, he spoke of how he didn't want to talk about it.

For a while, Tom and his wife sold lavender they grew on their farm on Lopez Island
At one point, Tom and his wife moved to an island in Puget Sound and started a home business. He came into town only to take high paying gigs - sometimes he'd show up to work with Sophie, his big Newfoundland dog that he loved.

Soon, though, Tom was living back in the small bungalow cottage in Seattle, with Sophie. His marriage had broken up. I never heard why. But he started working again, and instead of taking just the big money calls, he'd work pretty much any job he could get.

Although I'd always been a little afraid of Tom, at some point maybe ten years after I met him, I realized he thought I was OK. I'm not sure why - maybe it was just because I'd been around long enough. But I stopped being afraid of him - we worked well together on the job.

I became a member of the union's executive board, and we often had to hold disciplinary hearings for members who violated work rules. The offender came to plead his case, sitting before the board at its long table in a wooden armchair upholstered in green leatherette - when someone had been called before the board, we said he'd be "green-chaired."

As the years went on, Tom was green-chaired often. Sometimes he'd bail on a call at the last minute. Sometimes he'd show up to work drunk. Or he'd come back from meal break drunk. It got worse after he'd had to put down Sophie. After one incident, the Ballet Company - one of our biggest employers - wrote a letter requesting the union stop dispatching Tom to their workplace. Pretty soon, there were several workplaces where Tom was no longer welcome.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1997, and shortly after that I heard the story through the grapevine. Tom had gotten drunk one night, and tried to kill himself. He'd managed to shoot himself in the lower abdomen. It didn't do the job - he'd lain wounded in his house for hours before a neighbor found him. He was now hospitalized at the Veterans Administration Hospital, paralyzed from the waist down.

In September of 1999, I visited Seattle while touring with a Broadway show. It was my first trip back. On a day off, I rented a car and drove out to the Veterans Administration Hospital, a tan brick art deco building on First Hill, and visited Tom.

I remember he met me at the waiting room, and then escorted me back to his quarters - zooming powerfully through the halls in his wheelchair. He talked about what had brought him to harm himself. He recounted to me how he'd lain waiting for death. At one point, he reached into a bedside drawer and drew out a plastic vial - like one you'd keep pills in. He shook it and a heavy sound rattled. It was the bullet, he told me, the one they'd prised from his spinal cord. He uncapped the vial and turned the squashed lump of lead out into his palm. It creeped me out.

We talked for a long time, maybe a couple of hours before I had to go back to the theatre. It was a peculiar mixture of raw honesty and rehearsed recitation. His story was framed in the cliched phrases of substance-abuse therapy, yet still I felt he was sincere. This incident had brought him to the bottom. It had turned him around. Although he'd lost his mobility and lost his livelihood, this tragedy had given him back the path toward health - he seemed to truly believe that. I hope with all my heart that it was true.

He was grateful for my visit. He was touched that I had sought him out, after being away for so many years. He told me how he was clean and sober and was progressing with physical therapy so he could eventually become more independent. We wept. We hugged. I wished him luck.

And it really happened. Tom cleaned up his act. He was sober, and he finally progressed to the point where he could move out of the VA into a special housing complex for independent living, close to downtown. When I heard this, I thought maybe the demons that had pursued him had finally been banished.

Then I heard that, shortly after Tom moved into his new home, a blood clot had burst in his brain - a hazard of his type of injury. He died on March 1, 2000.

Sycamore Cove, Ventura County
When we remember the fallen, I remember Tom. He had a tight, cute ass. He was a fearless worker. He loved his dog. He'd give you his last beer. He was my age. He was your age. He was just a guy. He was all the guys. He left Vietnam years before I met him, yet it never really left him, until - maybe - just before the end.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Moving story, Aunt Snow, and well-told.

War is a racket. And we get into too many for that very reason.

Max Sartin said...

Beautiful tribute.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Oh, Aunt Snow, what a moving tribute! A medic from those years would indeed be scarred from all that he had seen. And now we have a new batch of scarred veterans among us. I only hope that we can do a better job of helping them cope with their wounds.