On Friday, I read the news of a lifelong friend's passing. Losing a friend is harder if you haven’t kept in touch then the news hits harder as you are flooded with memories. Tom Arnold was a good man and probably the best example of how lifelong friendship works among military brats.
In the mid to late seventies, Tom, Phil, and I made up the self-named Busboy Triumvirate at the Fort Eustis Officers Club in Virginia. One evening, when we had completed our shift, we adjourned to an unused game room at the back of the club. There were a few pinball machines and a pool table in the center of the room. Off to one side sat the remains of a keg of beer we had absconded with earlier. On this particular evening, as we played Eightball, smoked cigarettes, and drank beer, the topic for discussion was how the world had changed. It’s funny to think that three teenagers found any change in our brief lives significant enough to complain about. Somehow, we did.
We’d talked about this subject before, but this time we compared events from when we were in elementary school. It was the first time any of us had spoken about those years. As military brats, you wash over deep history and instead, just exchange a quick list of bases where you’d once lived. So, it was a surprise to discover that for the first few years of elementary school Tom and I had both been at Fort Ord, California. Beyond the basic information, we didn’t delve into it further because there were more important things to do like drink beer and shoot pool.
The next time we showed up for work, Tom was eager to share a photo he’d dug up. It was his second-grade class picture, and he pointed to himself in the front row, and then to me two rows behind him. Amazing, all these years later and now on the opposite coast of the United States we were about to graduate high school together. It wasn’t until a few nights later when we compared birthplaces we found both of us were born in Germany. I was born five days before him, and just fifty miles down the road from Frankfurt.
For three years, we lived in the same neighborhood and developed a casual friendship that skipped important details until now. That’s not unusual for military brats. We form significant relationships with only a cursory comparison of histories. It was more about the here and now, and who is in front of you than where they came from or were born. Junior year, we sat next to each other in a health class we shared. We spent most class periods talking and joking since our health teacher was often absent because of his side job as a wrestling coach.
At the club, because there was time between setting up parties and taking them down, we had a lot of time to talk. When Phil’s romance with a co-worker made him duck out, so Tom and I conversed about deep stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all serious discussions. We also discussed girls, cars, and our plans after graduation. Looking back, it was during this time I learned the basic critical thinking skills that I’ve used over a lifetime. We were bouncing ideas off of each other which helped us develop that skill. Tom was smart and also had a great sense of humor, so our discussions were very enjoyable.
One night, while we were putting away linens, Tom saw an old piano stored in the room’s corner. He made a remark that he always wanted to walk into a room containing a piano, walk over to it, and play a semi-complicated song without fanfare or introduction. When the song was complete, he’d just stand up and walk away, leaving everyone to wonder if he knew far more than that one song. At that point, he walked over to the piano and sat down. First, he cracked his knuckles and played the intro of Whiter Shade of Pale then sang the first half of the song as he played.
When he was done the room fell silent. I looked over at Phil, who had a puzzled look on his face. Tom closed the cover of the keyboard, stood up, and exited the room without saying a word. It was probably the most Tom-like thing I ever saw him do. Whenever I talk about him, I recant this tale.
In all the time that I knew Tom, he always had a quick wit, and often unique insights about whatever subject was being discussed. Even if we disagreed, I can’t recall a time when either of us got angry but sought a more logical argument to convince the other person to come over to our side. It was Tom who taught me a lot about what it means to have a good friend.
It’s been many years since we graduated high school, and I lost touch with a lot of folks but the one I regret most was Tom. Whenever I hear A White Shade of Pale I am flooded with memories of the times we spent together. I’ll always pause to reflect on them, at the moment with tears in my eyes.
My careers, both in the military and out, have taken me around the world, so saying goodbye to people then not remaining in touch is normal. A few years ago, when prepping to go to my Class Reunion, I asked if anyone knew if Tom was coming. His sister reached out to me and provided his mailing address but warned me he might not write back. She explained it wasn’t an insult, just who he was now. I immediately wrote a letter, and several more over the course of the year. After not hearing anything back, I gave up hope of hearing anything about him again, until this morning when I saw his obituary.
Tonight, I was reading a book to my two-year-old granddaughter before tucking her into bed; I took a moment to tell her about my friend Tom. Then, while holding her tight, I sang her to sleep with an a cappella rendition of A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Tom is one of about a dozen friends who also played guitar, but he is the only one I never jammed with. I was into folk rock and learning banjo during the time I knew him, he was into something more electric. But aside from being a great friend who left a significant impact on my life Tom introduced me to the music of Eric Clapton. Awesome stuff.