Monday, January 5, 2009

Tommy Hyde, 1936-2008

The older we get, the shorter the time between notices of the passing of people who have touched our lives. And when we or they have traveled far and wide and settled in places far removed from the homes of our youth, such notices always bring a tinge of regret that we didn't get to visit one more time, to sit and chat under a cottonwood, or to make one last circle around the pattern in one of only two tail-draggers I've ever had the pleasure of piloting. Of course, Tommy Hyde's health in recent years wouldn't have allowed for that anyway, but I've no doubt that simply talking about it would have brought a twinkle to his eye.

I would have been a very young lad the first time I ever met Tommy during one of his visits "back home." He was a classmate of my mother, born only five days behind her in 1936, but if you read his obituary or biography, you'll see that while he was born in the same town as my parents and I, he moved away long ago, trading life as a Tar Heel for life as a Texan. And if you ever asked him about that, he had a fairly simple explanation: "I met Ruth. Those Texas women rope fast and tie hard." I've never forgotten that phrase.

I remember (or at least believe that I do, which is the same thing) several things from that initial meeting. He is, I'm pretty sure, the first man I remember clearly in a cowboy hat and pointy-toed cowboy boots ("Great for killing roaches in the corner," he'd said). I remember him explaining the word "gringo." And though he may only have been a decade-long resident of Texas at that point, he had already acquired the peculiar squint that I've since learned to associate with men who live and work under the bright, unrelenting sun of the Texas plain.

The next time I remember seeing Tommy (which seemed a long time later to me, young as I still was) would have been in the summer of 1978. I was a rising sophomore at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, sent for three weeks to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for a program we called "Operation Non-Com." The idea was to find out how the non-commissioned officers lived and what sorts of work they did in the big Air Force. My first weekend down there, Tommy drove over 200 miles from his and Ruth's home near San Angelo and picked me up. From there, we drove over to the border, Del Rio I expect, and I made what may still remain, thirty years later, my only cross-border foray into Mexico. I honestly don't recall whether we made the drive north to his and Ruth's home that time or not (it would have meant an awful lot of driving for Tommy), but I did stop in there one other time, back when I was crossing the country one direction or another in my Triumph Spitfire. I spent the night, we went flying in Tommy's Cessna 140, and I went to dinner with them at the Lowake Steak House (as I remember it, circa 1980, this place in the middle of nowhere where cars congregated from all points like people flocking to Devil's Tower in the movie Close Encounters). Great food, but the company was the main thing.

I last saw Tommy on another visit back to NC. He and Ruth were making the rounds and I seem to recall this time it was not my front yard where I saw him, but the airfield of another local flying enthusiast. How long ago that was I couldn't even say. Time passes far too quickly these days. I've often thought that sometime down the road I'd have another chance to pay Tommy and Ruth a second visit in their Texas home. I'm sad that can't come to pass now. But I'm glad to have known him and to know his family still. I did at least get the happy chance, sometime between 1999 and 2002, during my second assignment as a professor in Colorado Springs, to return a little of that Texas hospitality when their oldest daughter and son-in-law came through town with their own little ones. And that is how life goes on.

One last story. Tommy was fond of aviation jokes, and though I'm sure he told me more than a few over the years, the only one I remember is the most telling. I suspect I remember it partly because it never seemed all that funny. But I suspect it never seemed all that funny because it contained more than a little bit of truth about how Tommy had always felt about the world of airplanes. It had to do with some fellow whose job it was to clean out the toilet reservoir from big commercial airliners. Somehow, a connection comes loose and he ends up soiled from head to foot, which inspires a friend or co-worker to ask in disgust why the heck he didn't look for a better job. I can still remember the squint of Tommy's eyes when he said, "So the guy looks at his friend and says, 'You've got to be kidding! And get out of aviation? No way, Jose!'"

I always suspected that particular story was a whole lot more metaphor than joke.

Godspeed, amigo. You'll be missed.