As a very young kid, Tom McCord was the very first person I ever knew who was “different.” He was my dad’s very good friend.
Tom didn’t drive a car, so when he came over to our house to spend time with us, we’d go pick him up at his parents in Santa Ynez Oaks. He was the only grown-up I knew who lived with his parents, which made him seem lucky in my eyes. He didn’t walk quite right, one of his legs seemed to drag behind the other. He didn’t talk quite right, either, so I had to listen closely to be able to understand him. But other than that, he was the coolest person ever. He’d get down on his arms and knees, let me jump on his back and give me a pony ride around the couch. He taught me about toe-jam. He called me Lea-bongea-banana-nana-fo-fea. And I could tell from the way my parents treated him and laughed and smiled more when he was around that he was a very good friend.
I’m not sure how old I was when I could understand why Tom wasn’t like everybody else. I’m sure I asked my mom at some point. There had been an accident, she explained, and he had fallen from a high cliff in Northern California. For a long time, he did not wake up. My dad went to visit him in his hospital room, while he lay lifeless in a coma for many months. But Tom didn’t die. I’ve always been convinced that the overwhelming positivity that imbues his soul is the reason he was able to wake up.
My dad, William Etling, has written some amazing things about Tom that summarize the kind of person he is. A few excerpts:
“Tom was my best friend at Santa Ynez High, class of 1971. He was a good student, surfed, was on the wrestling and football teams, was funny, good looking, and well liked by all. Upon graduation he headed off to Humboldt State, where one terrible night in 1973 a fall from a beachside bluff left him in a coma. He was 19 years old.
Through it all, this gregarious, kind, open-hearted guy, who always had a bevy of friends from all walks of life, honed his stellar sense of humor and a fearless, ebullient charm that melts the heart.
When I visited him at his home in Socorro, New Mexico, we went out for breakfast, and he greeted everyone he met. If they weren’t friends before that moment, they were after. Making his way down the street with the swinging gait his injuries left him, he had a trail of smiling people in his wake.”
People generally don’t react well to those who are different than the rest of us. Whether it’s a physical or mental handicap, an accident, disease or injury that has changed someone’s body or mind or spirit, treating that person equally and openly doesn’t come naturally to some. I like to think that knowing Tom so early in my life helped me be kinder to those who are other-abled.
Tom has lived independently in Socorro, New Mexico for many years. He has a job at the library there, and somewhere along the way one of his coworkers, librarian Kathryn Albrecht, realized what some of us already knew. Tom had a gift for language. He knows more words than anyone I’ve ever met. And his ability to put them together, poignantly, as poetry, is divine.
Before there were computers, Tom would write my dad amazing letters. He saved them all. They were wondrous tales of words intertwined with emotion and big, brilliant statements about the universe. Some of his poems are like that. Others are smaller, sweeter, sneakier. Albrecht’s collation of the poems Tom left on her desk at the library is now a book, “Riding on Hurled Bones.” Speaking as someone who doesn’t care much for poetry, it’s a remarkable piece of writing. You should buy it, and read it, but more importantly, perhaps, you should meet Tom McCord.
There will be two book signings in Solvang and Los Olivos next Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10. I’ll be at the Saturday event, and I’d encourage you to come to either one. As Dad writes: “The greatest gift of all we take for granted. It’s lost in the day-to-day round of petty annoyances. Just being here, alive, drawing breath, and looking on in wonder at the mystery and majesty of it all, is the ultimate miracle. A few special people, like Tom, risen from the dead, hold that truth in their hearts. If only we all did.”
Tom, thank you for everything you have opened my eyes to in this life. Toe jam first, followed by a lot of really big life lessons that I’ll forever cherish, because I knew you.
The Riding on Hurled Bones Tour 2013 comes to Los Olivos August 10 from 6-8 pm, with music, wine, and the inimitable Thomas Joseph McCord, signing his new book. 2920 B Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441.