Tom Heck

January 5th, 2021

Tom died five years ago. Actually, he passed away on December 31st, 2015, so that makes it a bit more than five years ago. I am trying to remember things about Tom, but after five years, the details of his life have become fuzzy, and I have to focus on broader themes.

Tom was my sister-in-law’s stepfather, so he wasn’t a close family member. Tom lived down in Texas, which meant that he wasn’t very close geographically either. However, I got to see Tom at least once a year, when we would drive to Texas to visit my sister-in-law, Shawn. One way or another, we would meet up with Tom and his wife, Delphia.

I remember having some long conversations with Tom. Actually, any conversation with Tom was a long conversation. He had been born in Montana, but to me he was a classic Southerner. He spent a lot of time in Louisiana before he moved to Texas. He said nothing in a hurry, and he saw no point in staying on topic. While he chain smoked, we would have wide-ranging discussions about damn near everything.

Tom was older than me. We connected when we spoke about our experiences in the military. Tom had been in the Air Force back in the 1960’s. I think he told me that he was stationed in England during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That had to be interesting. Since I had been an Army helicopter pilot, we would trade stories about flying. He never hogged the conversation. He had great stories.

Tom lived with Delphia in an old farmhouse near Calvert, Texas. Delphia had a green thumb, so there were rose bushes in front of the house, along with other flowers. The house needed some work. Whenever we visited, it looked like there were a number of renovation projects in progress. The funny thing was that there never seemed to be any changes. There were half-completed jobs that stayed that way. After a while, I got used to that.

Tom was a generous man. Mostly he was generous with his time, which I think is difficult for people in our culture to do. Tom was a good listener, and he knew that listening required time. He would sit and listen to folks, even when he had other things to do. This meant that some of those things did not get done. That was okay. Tom’s priority was people, not things.

Hans, our oldest son, really liked Tom. They were kindred spirits. They loved to talk about projects. I am not aware that they actually completed any of them, but they could talk a job to death. They would look at a broken down tractor and come up with all sorts of great ideas about how to get that thing running again. They never seemed to get much further than the planning stage. In the end, the tractor remained a static display in a farm field.

In 2009 Hans joined the Army, and eventually he was deployed to Iraq. Delphia died from dementia in 2012. Tom remained living in the old farmhouse. When Hans got discharged from the military in 2014, he went to live with Tom.

Tom and Hans made a good team. They knew how to care for each other. Hans knew that Tom was grieving for his wife. Tom knew that Hans was struggling with PTSD from his combat time in Iraq. Hans got himself a Harley and a dog that he named Fritz. Hans got a job with a fracking outfit in eastern Texas. He worked long hours, but when he did get back to the old farmhouse, he spent his time with Tom. Tom was Hans’ home.

During the summer of 2015, I drove to Texas and visited Hans and Tom in Calvert. We just sat around and drank coffee for a while. Hans and Tom smoked cigarettes. Fritz came to visit with me. He must have some kind of Great Dane mix. Fritz was just a little smaller than a pony. He rested his enormous head on my lap, and slobbered. Hans convinced Fritz to wait in another room.

I looked around the house while I conversed with Tom. It hadn’t changed hardly at all since Delphia died three years before. The only difference I saw was that things had started piling up: old newspapers, dishes, mail. I got the sense that Tom had lost interest in housekeeping, and Hans had never acquired the knack for it. So, the place looked like the dwelling of two bachelors, which only made sense.

I remember Hans calling on New Year’s Day in 2016. Hans is generally very calm and lowkey. When he called us, he was extremely agitated. He was driving in his pick up truck from the oil fields to Calvert. He told us that there had been a fire at Tom’s place. He was in a hurry to get there.

When Hans got to Calvert, there wasn’t much to see. The farmhouse had burned down to the dirt. There was nothing left. Hans had all his worldly possessions in that house, except for what he had in his truck. Hans had lost his Harley, his clothes, his memorabilia from the Army, and everything else. Fritz was gone too. So was Tom.

Tom died in the fire.

The aftermath of the fire and Tom’s death is kind of sketchy to me. I am not sure how everything turned out. I do know how it affected Hans. Hans was suddenly homeless. Shortly after the fire, the bottom dropped out of the oil market, and Hans was also jobless.

It is impossible for me to overestimate how important Tom was to Hans. Hans was already very familiar with death. He had killed people in Iraq. However, Tom’s death hurt Hans in a way that no other death has ever hurt him. Hans was adrift, and he stayed that way for a couple years. I was worried that he wasn’t going to survive.

Hans is married now. He has a son, and soon he will have a daughter.

If Hans ever has another son, he plans on naming him “Tom”.

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