Thursday, November 11, 2010

Uncle Tommy

[Updated with some corrections from Mom.]

My Great-Uncle Tommy passed away today.

It's hard to ever pay tribute to someone completely, but I feel like I should at least attempt to do so here, however the scattered thoughts present themselves. The details might be slightly incorrect, but that happens sometime when there's some myth attached to the man.

Firstly, to mark the symbolic occasion -- Uncle Tommy was a WWII veteran who launched aircraft off the U.S.S. Enterprise. I believe he was at the battle of Midway. He never really talked about it, likely with good reason. It's pretty symbolically fitting that today would be his day to go.

There were no noise-canceling headsets for those on the flight deck in those days, so his service accounted for the loss of much of his hearing for his life after the war. Most conversations I had with Uncle Tommy consisted 40% of the word "What?" I remember learning as a little kid that if you wanted Uncle Tommy to hear you, you had to speak loudly. Poor guy probably had to deal with kids incomprehensibly screaming stuff at him all the time.

He was a big man, in the way that statues are big to a kid. He was a veteran, but someone who was kind. Often quiet, but with a big laugh. He just always seemed sort of larger-than-life to me.

Some stories -- unfortunately the details are lacking, because I didn't experience them first-hand, but nevertheless, here they are anyway:

My mom always loved to tell me about the time, for his daughter (my Aunt) Barb's wedding, he went down to the Navy Yard and somehow "acquired" an entire van-full of liquor. I mean we're talking Econo-van sized, full of liquor. And just brought it back and parked it in the yard.

Also, after my mom's first marriage, when it didn't work out, he told her "why didn't you just tell us at the wedding? We'd have had a party anyway!" -- he was always very supportive like that.

He loved whiskey -- Jim Beam was his favorite. He was actually a life-time member of the Jim Beam club, I believe. I don't know what this means, but I know it means you probably had to drink a hell of a lot of whiskey to get there. There will be some in his honor this weekend, my brother and I decided.

Another favorite: My brother was a pretty fearless kid (guess he's still pretty fearless, actually) -- and Uncle Tommy loved to challenge him. My Uncle Tommy and Aunt Peg owned one of the original Levittown houses (yes, that's right folks -- he helped START suburbia), and had an in-ground pool as well. My brother was really really young, and Uncle Tommy dared him to jump in the pool. Without a second thought, my brother -- unable to swim and seemingly without having considered any risks -- said "Okay!" and jumped in. Uncle Tommy promptly had to rescue him, and then deal with my (I imagine very angry) mother.

Later in life, I remember another incident. A family member of mine has some mental health issues, and had gone off the deep-end with him in a parking lot, talking and acting crazily. Uncle Tommy -- probably a little under twice the age of this family member -- took his bear-paw hands and jacked him up against a van to tell him to knock it off. It worked. You're talking about a guy who I think had already beaten cancer at least once at that point, putting an end to a situation like that. Those huge hands were an enforcer; though he was always loving, you just knew never to trifle with him.

When I last saw him, he was much smaller in his chair than I'd remembered him -- cancer had claimed a lot of his weight, his motion, and his awareness. He was without his stomach, part of his colon, and part of his lung, which was also collapsed at that point. But he was still, somehow, "big" -- even after beating cancer several times, beaten only by cancer's unlimited re-matches. I realized that it's impossible for him to lose that monumental impression. He is one of the unfortunately ever-dwindling numbers of that "great generation" -- he helped build and shape the world as we know it, and embodied much of what it means to be a man in my eyes.

Uncle Tommy lived life on his terms. A few days before he became less responsive, he said to one of my relatives, "I'm done." And just like that, he began to go. He lived on his terms, and he passed on his terms, too. Death took orders from him; not vice versa.

He rarely complained -- I actually don't think I ever once heard him complain about his own situation. The biggest complaint I heard from him the entire time I saw him during that last visit was that he couldn't get rid of his cough. "It sucks," he said. "If I can just get rid of this cough, I'll be fine."

Well, you're rid of that now, Uncle Tommy, and anything else that ailed you. Rest in peace, and thanks for the time you spent on this Earth.

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