Tommy

I went through the wake, the funeral and a reception, spoke to many and wrote only ”Andy, 13” in my notebook. He’s Tommy Valiton’s grandson, lives in Austin, Texas, left an indelible impression.

I spotted the boy with the kind, smiling eyes opposite me in the J-shaped greeting line and knew immediately who he was. They were Tommy’s eyes, and the kid had Tommy written all over him across the bridge of his nose and brow. When I reached him and shook his hand, I looked directly into those warm, light-blue eyes and could have sworn I was looking at Tommy 60 years ago. And although I may never see the kid again, it was comforting to know that as I bid a dear friend adieu, his young sprout stood in the same room, the spitting image of his grandfather.

Isn’t it strange how laying a friend to rest opens a window into his life. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the ceremonies: to stir memories, bring back the smile, the guttural laugh, the heart-to-hearts. You think of the qualities you loved and will miss most. With Tommy it was his enthusiasm, his warm heart, fierce competitive spirit, fiery anger. Tommy had great passion, an extraordinary teammate, I am certain. But I was not his teammate and cannot articulate what it meant to be one. That’s the problem with sitting here writing a farewell to Tommy. You could literally write a book if you covered all the bases, spoke to everyone whose life he touched in the two rival communities he represented — the Mohawk school district he called home and the Frontier district where he taught. Maybe he’s the reason that rivalry has lost its intensity.

I’ve heard the stories about Tommy’s unbeaten/untied Arms Academy football team and his stolen-base record at the University of Maine, but those are tales for others to tell. I didn’t know that Tommy, and never heard him blow his own horn about those athletic feats. Far too humble for that. Myself, I first knew him as Coach, then Tommy, even ”Tomcat” once in while when he performed well in the field, which was often.

I suppose my lasting image will always be the slick, tightly packed hole driven into the dirt between his feet along the Frontier baseball bench. He had over the years literally dented the earth with his Louisville Slugger fungo bat, taped halfway up the handle, always in his hands during a ballgame or practice, a tool of his trade. Come to think of it, he had to carry that bat, because when he laid it across his thighs he wanted a bunt. Although I can’t recall him ever giving me that signal, I knew it and looked for it despite wanting no part of it.

Tommy the coach was all about fundamentals and execution: baserunning, walk-off steals, first-and-thirds; cutoffs, cutoffs, cutoffs; relays, relays, relays; rundown rotation; knowing where to be and being there. That’s all Tommy ever demanded — that you knew the game — and he’d drill it into you every day in practice. Rain or shine, hot or cold, indoors or out, he taught the fundamentals, knowing they’d be the difference between winning and losing the tight ones.

No one stole more runs than Tommy. He was the master. Learned from brothers Jim and Jack Butterfield, his coachs at Arms, then Maine. The Butterfields had demanded sound fundamental play from him, and he demanded the same from us, all of us. And we were better for it. Strike out on a curveball in the dirt or fastball up-and-away, let a bad hop skip past your backhand, or overthrow a rushed play from deep in the hole and you were spared. Part of the game. But miss a sign or cutoff man, forget to back up a throw, or get suckered on a defensive first-and-third situation and that’s when the fungo would crash into the turf with vicious fury, him pounding it loudly into that hole like he was trying to drive a spike to China.

That was Tommy: forgiving of physical mistakes, merciless about mental ones. If insightful you knew that even during his angriest moments Tommy was faking it. Behind that red face, wild eyes and bulging jugular was a gentle, kind-hearted, caring soul who wanted more than anything else to see you succeed, experience the satisfaction of getting it right under pressure by applying practice skills to game-time situations.

Give Tommy mediocre ballplayers and he’d routinely outexecute his foes to beat them. Give him real talent and he’d win it all as he did with his 1978 state-championship team.

Again, I never saw Tommy play ball, was never his teammate, but I watched him hunting pheasants with me in the fall and can judge his attributes as a teammate from that experience. He’d be there at 8:30 a.m. sharp, or earlier, never late, wearing a broad, enthusiastic, maybe even devilish grin that would shake me joyously from the fatigue of short sleep. His joy of life was contagious, consumed you like a loving mother embracing a toddler saved from the well. In deep cover with alder obstructions it was all about teamwork to Tommy, constant encouragement, being in the right place, covering the flank, exuberant upon success. ”Atta boy, Bags!” he’d holler triumphantly from the other side of the alders, then later he’d hear it from me, ”Atta Boy, Tommy!” after tumbling a cackling rooster from the cool fall sky. We worked well together, like brothers, always communicating back and forth to achieve our goal of being in position for the flush. Teamwork is great fun when you know the game, and we knew it.

No stranger to playful needling, Tommy loved to heckle me about this column. ”Read your column last night,” he’d say. ”Not bad for a guy who couldn’t pass high school English.” I used to get a kick out of that line. Tommy would never let me forget my senior year, when I dropped Spanish, flunked old witch Alice Spindler’s English class on a bogus plagiarism charge and was ruled ineligible to play baseball. It gets worse. We had to forfeit a game or two I had played in, a mortal sin in Tommy’s eyes. ”That was my fault,” he told me at the time, and he never held it against me, just teased me about it over the years.

For me, Tommy’s passing leaves an abyss. The longer you live the more you understand how valuable and few true friends are. Although his enthusiasm for the hunt had waned the last couple of years, he still wanted to know what you were doing, what you were seeing. ”I don’t know what it is, Bags,” he’d say almost apologetically, ”but I’m losing my drive. I used to live for it but I just don’t care about hunting like I used to.”

But he cared enough to call and talk and go over scenarios, always the teacher, the coach. And no one knew more about deer and deer hunting than Tommy and Tunnel and Hezekiah and his other Buckland boys. A great motivator, Tommy remained positive, always encouraging that tomorrow was another day.

I knew Tommy wasn’t going to live forever, and so did he. He told me many times he was living on borrowed time, had been brought back to life after a heart attack two decades ago. Then the bypass bought him quality time, nearly 20 years of blissful existence before passing last week in Maine at 69.

No sir, Tommy never got cheated. But all things must pass, including Tommy. And so it was that on the morning of Aug. 29 while helping a friend cut down a tree and remove the brush near his summer camp, Tommy reached the end; told his friend he felt dizzy and was gone before he hit the ground. Massive heart attack. We should all be so fortunate. Then he even got to ride home with boyhood pal Jack Turner, who passed away hours after Tommy, also in Maine. Could that really have been a coincidence?

Tommy’s dear wife and high school sweetie, Patty, seemed remarkably composed later that dreadful day when I called soon after the news had reached me. I told her I was heartsick. She told me that she and Tommy had talked about the end recently, that he’d told her he wanted to go quickly, in the woods or in Maine, that he didn’t want nurses looking after him. Denny Rancourt, his grieving high school buddy, said the next day he was glad both wishes had been granted.

So now Tommy lies peacefully at Arms Cemetery, resting in the morning shadow of the Mohawk Trail ridges he knew so well. And Little Texas Tommy, that chip off the old block, is waiting in the wings to carry on his grandfather’s legacy — soft, devilish grin and all.

It’s a steep challenge, the kind his grandfather lived for.

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