Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans' Day

I've had the privilege of meeting some hard-working veterans over the years, of course including my own grandfather, but none outside of my own family impacted me more than Tom, an old timer that volunteered for the after school program where I work. He passed away back in September 2006, and to celebrate Veterans' Day I've dug up this old LiveJournal entry about it to share again here. One of the most sincere honors I've ever experienced is hearing how much his wife enjoyed this remembrance.

"Tom Goes . . ."
written September 28, 2006

My experience with global communication technologies is extremely limited by the modern standards of the science, but I am grateful for what little I understand, because without e-mail or text messaging I would be minutes or hours behind some of the most life-changing news I've ever received. Less than a year ago, when I woke up around 2 a.m. on the morning of my birthday for an unexpected and annoying call from Mother Nature, my cell phone was blinking with an important text message from a friend/co-worker, announcing the early and equally unexpected birth of his baby boy. I'll never forget it: "HE IS HERE." Like a caption in a comic book, the words were simple but powerful, and further, I was honored to be on the list of folks he contacted in those undoubtedly hectic hospital moments. Text messaging made that possible.

This morning, I received a similarly important message but from the other end of the spectrum. My boss sent us the news that Tom, a volunteer that had been working for our organization for three years, passed away last night. The message wasn't surprising; Tom was old. I bet he wasn't even as old as he looked. Tom was like a walking smokestack. He must have had a cigarette for every half hour I knew him, indicative by a hoarse cough that usually announced his presence before you heard the scuffing of his patented old man walk. More essentially to my analogy, however, Tom had a fire in his belly for technology. He was a freelance computer technician, an ironic profession for a man that must have been born before the advent of the iconoscope, and his know-how has been an asset to us since his inaugural smoke in our parking lot. Before long he felt at home with our organization, and although he never really grasped the importance of watching his mouth around children, his intent was to assure the kids' complete and comprehensive access to computers and technology. And he did it for free. Tom was the first to tell you that, in his line of work, he was the most inexpensive option available; corporate competitors charge upwards to eighty dollars just for walking through your door. He charged twenty. And if your problem was a quick fix, a hearty "thank you" was the only other payment he expected. In his old age, Tom was confident that helping people was its own reward.

I know this because he told me so. The day before yesterday, Tom sat in my office, winded by the walk from his car. Tom loved a strong cup of coffee, and over a cup of freshly brewed Folgers we talked about his days as a weather man for the Air Force, the troubles of his small business, and the joys of working with children. In a rare moment of warmth, Tom mentioned the happiness on a child's face when they experience something new, like how to operate a computer on a higher level. Oh, and I should mention that Tom had an eye for the ladies. He hit on every woman in our office, in as shameless and crude a manner as possible. A few weeks ago, he asked one of my employees if she was married, and I interrupted, "She isn't, Tom, but you are!" He instantly retorted, "I'm not, but my wife is." Tom had an old wit and charm about him that evoked my instant respect. I've met plenty of old folks that boast a bitterness about how "the way things are now aren't the way things used to be," but as a tech guy, Tom embraced change. No, change is the wrong word. Tom liked to see things develop for the better, from the computers he fixed to the people that used them afterward.

Of course, my appreciation for the man has solidified only now that he's gone. I often thanked him for his help in our computer lab, more so than I think I've thanked anyone, but I wouldn't have minded a few more conversations like the one we had on Tuesday, exploring his undoubtedly colorful past. Interestingly, although Tom and I talked often, I remember sensing an importance about that particular talk, making a conscious effort to remember things like the clink of the coffee pot in my hand to the Superman mug in his when I poured "the soup," as he called it. I don't feel that lingering uneasiness folks feel at a loved one's passing, because that last conversation was a very pleasant experience and an excellent way to remember him. I was blessed with a solid sense of closure. If I had just known that would've been his second to last day alive, maybe I would've encouraged him to spend less time laying wires in our Learning Center and more time with other people needing a final few minutes with him, too.

I had finally programmed Tom's number in my cell a few days ago, and I'm looking at his name in my address book now, grieving a bit for his family. I'm amazed that this list, which I normally perceive as little digital channels to all of the important people in my life, now includes a route that is completely closed off. A technological bridge that, if I dialed it now, leads to nowhere. Of course, fond memories of Tom will abound in the office for weeks to come, and through the help he offered us these past three years, his legacy will linger for a long time, as cheesy as that sounds. But Tom understands it. Global communication technology isn't just wires and hardware and invisible broadcast waves in the atmosphere. It's our priceless connection with people. Thanks for reminding us, Old Man.

And if there's a heaven, Tom is standing outside of its gates, having that last cigarette, and when he turtle-walks to St. Peter for check-in, he'll wryly extend his hand and say, "Hello, I don't know who you are, but you can call me Sue."

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