Tommy’s 25th Birthday
It was Tommy’s 25th birthday. Tommy was a tall 6-foot 5 inch fun loving guy. He was very bright and kind with a wry sense of humor. Tommy had graduated from Colgate College in New York and moved back to Baltimore his hometown. He currently was working a night job at Roadway as a truck dispatcher. A rather unusual job for an Ivy League college graduate but Tommy had not yet found his rhythm, calling, or mojo for work. Like many 25 year olds in the post Nixon era of 1975 world Tommy had not yet bought into working for the man. I was living with Tommy who was the older brother of my best friend Danny. Tommy was 4 years older than Danny and I. He enjoyed hanging out with “the mafia” a nickname his mother had given to Danny, myself, and about ten other members of our inner circle. We were his closest friends at the time. Tommy had not been an overt rebel like “the mafia” but he was not a mainstream kind of guy. I felt very lucky to have Tommy as a trusted friend and housemate.
We were sitting in his big bedroom circled around the large bay window that overlooked the 2800 block of Calvert Street. During the late afternoon this was a magical place to be as the late afternoon sun poured in through the large bay window with the big built in bench seat. I would go to this magical window after working outside to get my feet warmed up. I was working construction during a very cold Baltimore winter. I was too cheap or poor to buy myself a good pair of insulated working boots. In fact I did not buy a good pair till I was almost done my construction days. I ended up using those steel-toed construction boots mostly for mountain climbing in years to follow.
I never could get my shoes right. My freshman year of college I basically had two pairs of shoes, tennis shoes and my dad’s old bowling shoes. Fortunately in sunny Arizona you did not have to wear shoes to class and I mostly went bare foot unless I was playing sports or going out somewhere. I remember putting cigarettes out with my bare feet and not wearing shoes to class event when the temperature was 40 degrees.
“Alright Tommy I know you have to work the night shift tonight but what are we going to do to celebrate your 25th birthday? What time do you have to report in for work?”
“5 am is the start time for the first batch of trucks going out but I’m not really up for any big celebration.” Tommy could be a party pooper. At heart he was still a loner but he was coming out of his shell. He had a sparkling personality and sense of humor once he got started.
“Well how about we go over to Blair Barton’s house in Roland Park and play some basketball on their paddle ball court?”
It was January 25th and we were in the middle of an arctic blast and the court would be covered with patches of ice. Tommy and I had history with playing b ball together and I thought this adventure would appeal to him.
Tommy had come to visit me in Tucson several years earlier when I was a freshman at the University of Arizona and we had played lot of basketball together. It had been great fun. Not only was Tommy height at 6 foot 5 inches an asset, but also we really clicked as teammates in two on two scrimmages. Playing basketball outdoors in the desert with great year round weather was one of my cosmic 70’s experinces. Tommy kept me laughing and he would feed me quick passes when no one was ready and I could get off a clear shot, or I would float him a high lob as he was headed for the basket that he would tip it in (no flying slam dunks for these white boys). Many times we a beat some of the guys who were far more experienced and in some cases stars of their high school team. We made each other a better player- two plus two equaled 5 when we played. I had been the star of my 9th grade high school team but had gotten thrown off the team for smoking cigarettes. My basket ball since 9th grade had been street or gym pickup games some of which had been very physical. Sometimes on the courts in Baltimore I was the only white boy and I earned their respect not just for shooing but also for hanging tough under the boards and playing a little D.
Tucson was a basketball crazy town in 1970 as the University of Arizona’s basketball team was the only game in town. There was no professional team and the U of A football team was not good; however, the basketball team was electrifying. The teams were well coached by Freddie Snowden who let the talented kids show off a little. I loved the warm up as they drove for lay ups to the theme from Shaft pounding through the new speaker system. Often the players who were good friends would pass the ball behind their back as they were headed for a sure two points on a fast break as a show of athleticism and team spirit.
When Tommy came to visit I was putting my way through college. My best source of income was scalping tickets for the U of A basketball games. My regular job was listening to audiotapes for Lockheed Martin. I got paid $2 per hour to listen to these tapes to determine how well you could hear a word with certain type of static. Over and over the voice would say “Top Dog -Top Dog the word you must now press is “bean” or whichever of the 40 words they had displayed on the electronic board. There would be the sound of rocket bombing or static in the background Handy little products built by Lockheed to either send astronauts to space or kill folks in Vietnam. The job was supposedly plumb job that only certain psychology majors could get. Somehow we were not taxed on the job and we netted $30 per week for our 15 hours of work from 2-5 every afternoon. If I was careful I could feed my starving teenage body on $20 per week. I remember going to the Circle K and getting 3 apple pies and quart of milk every Sunday to last me till dinner for $1.25.
Scalping basketball tickets was a much better gig than listening to those Lockheed tapes on audio interference. My friend Peter Gasperini and I would go around to all the dorms and get student passé for the game and go to the ticket office and validate them for regular tickets to the game. Peter was the only other guy who was not getting a full ride from their parents. On game day we would stand out front of the game and sell tickets to the folks coming to the game for face value. At first it was just Peter and I but pretty soon others caught on and we had plenty of competition. However Peter and I already had a following so we still did better than others. I realized at that point in my life that I was good salesman. I out sold everyone by a mile and I actually had the local police help me in finding customers. I was to also go onto use my skill later in life of bringing seemingly disparate groups together like policeman and poor college students. Scalping tickets was perfectly legal in Tucson at the time. My best haul was over $400 during a big post- season game with a major rival. A typical take was about $125, which as you can imagine was incredible seeing as I worked 15 hours to make $30 with Lockheed. Peter figured out the math of what we made hourly but I was not a bean counter I just knew it was good and it meant that I could pay my tuition the next semester if I worked construction all summer and saved my money.
Tommy’s visit to Tucson was at a great time and he joined us for one of the University games. We went out after the games to have a few beers at my favorite bar Big Ben (named after a famous Bear). Tucson had lots of incredible bars unlike Baltimore, which in the 1970’s just had one hip bar. “No Fish Today” . No Fish Today was in the same mold as the Tucson bars with great bands like Muddy Waters and rustic wood and exposed brick setting -a look and feel that made you comfortable.
Now back in Baltimore two years later and living together Tommy and I were planning to rekindle our old glories from our Tucson days when it was closer to 100 degrees outside instead of the current 10 degrees like it was today on his 25th birthday. We called Danny and the rest of the gang and arranged to meet at the Barton’s at 8 pm for bourbon (Black Jack Daniels) and basketball. There were 8 or 9 of us plus the girls who were hanging out watching and intermittently going in to the Barton’s house to get warm. We always traveled in a pack back in those days.
David Barton, our host Blair’s dad, was a smart, friendly, good looking, white haired guy. David came out and shot a few baskets with us including his famous hook shot, which even back then had stopped being much of factor in basketball. Eventually we settled into the game Tommy and I were playing against 3 or four others. Tommy fired the ball to me as I cut to the basket. I started to slide on the ice and when the ball got to me I heard a large popping noise. It was a silent night with the kind of quiet that can only occur when there is snow on the ground. The cold air amplified the popping sound like it was a gunshot. I yelled as my frozen middle finger snapped back. Everyone stopped. Tommy ran over to check out what had happened. He looked at my hand and said, “Let’s keep playing before it starts to swell up- we almost got this game in the bag!” I looked at him kind of surprised and then went and took a swig of bourbon and we went on and won the game.
Back at his house on Calvert Street we continued to party but it was a work night for Tommy and me. For some of the others who were still in college or not working they wanted to party on but Tommy and I went to bed. I remember giving him a high five and thinking of giving him a birthday celebration hug but didn’t.
Early the next morning Randi Wagner, Danny’s girl friend, was shaking me awake. “Blake Blake I have terrible news.”
“What time is it?” I growled impatiently.
“Blake Tommy has died in an automobile accident.”
I could feel anger welling up inside of me and I screamed at Randi.
“What the fuck are you talking about I was with him last night and saw him go to bed! He is at work right now.”
“No no he went out last night after you went to sleep and went somewhere with Brian Bowie and he must have fallen asleep at the wheel coming home.”
I had been reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross at the time trying to deal with the death of two other friends of mine who had died two years earlier. Anger and denial were supposedly part of the beginning of the grieving process. I continued to repeat that this is not possible but my churning gut was telling me that it was true.
Randi grabbed my hand and I yelled and rolled over and looked at my finger, which was obviously broken or severely sprained. I felt for a minute like I must be dreaming. Where the hell were my pants I had to get dressed do something I just could not get this thought straight? I was furious at Randi. It was like she was responsible for this insanely cruel twist of fate. I was exploding with rage.
When I got settled down I called Tommy’s mom “Mickey” and asked what I could do to help. She asked me to go out the place where they had towed Tommy’s Volkswagen beetle and get his remaining belongings. I drove out to the towing place and all these huge dogs were laying around I guess to protect the owners from thieves. They were very nice. It had been a horrible accident and Tommy had died instantaneously. He must have fallen asleep on the Beltway and driven off the road straight into a light pole, which had sheared the car in half. I remember they gave me his bankbook, which had blood on it and borrowing scissors to cut the blood stained part off the book so his mom and Danny would be less traumatized by this nauseating sight.
I was unable to drive on the Beltway around Baltimore for months and would take the back roads to avoid getting on this horrible road that had killed this dear friend in the prime of his life on his 25th birthday.
None of us can look into infinity and grasp the meaning of time. David Barton donated some money to buy an outdoor basketball court for some inner city kids. That was really cool and it gave us some hope that there was some type of legacy for Tommy.
Religious people do better than atheists when a loved one dies since they feel they know he has gone to a better place. Since I could not buy into that ancient fairy tale I had to go through hell to get any sense of this. Elizabeth Kubler Ross says the 5 stages of dealing with death are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That little sequence of thinking helped me to not think I was losing my mind over Tommy’s death. I did not take this very well and I did not share my inner feelings with Danny or his mom, as I wanted to be a shoulder for them to lean on. I think we all did the same thing and just went into the little corners of our brain where no one else can go and we slowly moved on without Tommy. At least I had my broken middle finger to hold onto his memory with. A passing shot on the basketball court of life and suddenly it is all over.