Monday, February 17, 2014

A Lesson (or Two) About Life

When I was in high school I became very close with one of the advisors of church youth group. His name was Tom, like mine, but he always called me T.S., like my mother did. He was a great guy in that he did not ever talk down to me. He had young sons but he brought me under his wing and spent a lot of time with me.

Tom was a brilliant biologist, physiologist and an entrepreneur.  My older sister, Melissa, has a reoccurring injury in her ankle that can get aggravated or hurt at any time, even when she just steps off a curb. I remember one time Tom came over to look at it. He applied some black tape and asked for a hair dryer.  As he sprayed Melissa’s ankle with hot air you could see, like a mood ring, exactly where she had injured it. He called the doctor, told him what he had found and that he would bring him some things. Tom seemed to know all the doctors and athletic trainers in town.  As he was leaving I said, “Tom, where do you get this stuff?” He just closed up his doctor’s bag, rubbed his moustache like he always did, and said, “I invented it.”

Tom went to Kent State in the late sixties. He told me once that he got his doctorate to stay out of the army because he did not want to go to Canada like his brother did in the trunk of a Volkswagen.  He figured either his deferments would run out or the war would end before he had to go, but he would if he was called. As it turned out, when he finally had to go to the draft office, they wouldn’t take him, because he was older, in grad school, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. They told him, “Appreciate it, but better here, than there.”  He also told me about one time later on when he was working on his thesis; right after the poor kids were shot by National Guardsmen on the quad, students bombed the building where he was working. He gathered all of his papers and some of his experiments and fled the building. I can’t imagine what it was like to live in those times but I am glad Tom was honest in telling me about them. He didn’t sugar coat it at all. He also didn’t politicize it and I appreciate that. He just asked “What do you think about that? What would you have done and why?” He was a great mentor that way.

One winter night when I was at home reading I got a call from my friend’s mom, worried about her son, David. She told me he had gone to a party but she couldn’t find him. She asked me if I wouldn’t mind going out to look for him, as her car was dead.  In those days I drove a 77’ Camaro that my dad let me use until I went away to college and he could sell it. That night I went to several parties and places looking for David.  At one point I turned around in the parking lot of an apartment complex. I lit up a cigarette and promptly slammed into three lined cars that were parked there but covered with snow.   I must have been moving fast because I went up on the trunk of the first one I hit.  I backed down off it and my first instinct was to look around and see if I could run.  My second instinct was to find my cigarette, because it had come loose from my hand, and I was afraid I might blow up.  Fortunately, it was out and resting in the curve of the speedometer.  I threw it out the window and went to find a phone.

The first person I called from the convenient store was my friend, Kevin, and I asked him to find David. Then I called my parents.  They called the police, came and helped me take of everything for the night, although they made sure I knew it was my responsibility to take care of the rest.  I made sure David was found, which he was, and went back with my parents to their friends’ house where they were attending a party.  Tom was there.  When I came in, I said hello to all of my fictive aunts and uncles and sat down at the kitchen table, sighing.  Tom came to me and started nodding his head that we should go out to the three-season room. 

When we got there we sat down and he pulled a beer out of his pocket and handed it to me. He said, “You have had a rough night, haven’t you?”   I nodded and said, “Yes, Tom, I have.”   I told him about what happened. He put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “I know your parents are angry right now, but they are happy you are alive and Carole is happy that you didn’t let her down looking for David.”  I said, “Tom, I am a fricking moron.”  He smiled and said, “T.S., no you are not. You are reckless but not a moron. People who care about things are not morons.”

We sat for awhile, talked about Star Trek, which he loved, and then Tom told me a story. It seems too precious to be true but I like it just the same.  He told me that when he first started his graduate program in biology he went to a big hall filled with students.   On the stage was a table with a plant and a hamster in a cage.  The professor came in a lab coat filled with knives in his pockets. The first thing he did was pull one out start hacking the plant apart. Everyone laughed.  He backed off for a second pulled out a second bigger, sharper knife. “Let’s do the hamster now.”  The room went silent. People protested and started crying as he pulled the hamster from its cage. They screamed as he went to slice it.  He stopped just short, put the animal in his pocket and said, “Class dismissed. This is your first lesson in the study of life in all of its forms. Appreciate. Respect is respect; be it plant or hamster or person.”  The professor then left the stage. As I say, that story is too perfect to be true but it always stuck with me.  

That night when Tom told it to me, he took my empty beer can and told me to walk home.  He said to me, “I have always liked you, T.S., but you need to think about yourself and all that’s around you. You need to figure out some things about yourself and what you’re going to do. What are you taking care of and why?”It was a long, lonely and cold walk home on Jones and Hassell Roads but I did it. I did think and I got his message.

I mentor a group of six seventh grade boys on Sunday afternoons. They are great. We have a lot of fun, playing wall ball, and talking about the highs and lows of our week.  I love them because they are friends from different worlds who take care of each other. We talk a lot about God, the choices we make, and how we live our lives. They are not afraid to ask hard questions and I am not afraid to answer them. They are all intelligent, clever and give me great joy.   

Tom did it for me. It’s the least I can do for someone else.