Lofty Days: Ode to a Childhood Friend

When I met him in 1946, Tommy Alden was a chubby third-grader with merry eyes, curly black hair, and a jovial intensity.  He lived in a white house with green shutters on a poplar-shaded street in old Palo Alto.  We grew up together a few blocks apart, waiting at the same bus stops for the same buses to the same schools.  I came to see his house as a second home and the Aldens as the model American family, descended from Mormon pioneers who had driven their wagons through frozen winters across the last west.  There was an aura about the Alden house of immutable tradition and unspoken verities, like some fabled rift in the fabric of time, apt to melt at any moment back into the panorama of the great American past.

As Tom got older, they let him have the large room over the garage.  We called it “the loft.”  Steep wooden steps led to a windowed door; and across the room, a small dormer looked down the driveway to the poplar-lined street.  The roofline sloped from the low ceiling to within four feet of the floor, giving the loft a cozy feeling.  Books, magazines, and model trains crowded the shelves.  Clippings, drawings, and photos were tacked to the knotty pine walls.  There was an old record changer plugged into a clock radio, an unmade bed, a musty chair, a lumpy sofa, and a desk cluttered with paints, model parts, and a sea of sundry items. 

In our early teens we often spent evenings in the loft doing homework, drawing cartoons, leafing through magazines, and dreaming of rockets to the moon.  It was the golden age of science-fiction films—Destination Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide—and we sometimes biked to a late movie or went out into the cricket-pulsing night to turn a small telescope on the moon and planets. 

In those lofty days we hovered in limbo between childhood and maturity, innocence and responsibility¾like America itself, poised at midcentury between modern and postmodern.  For two outsiders still innocent of life’s limitations, the loft was a secluded haven in a world of somber parents, traffic-cop teachers, and simian peers.  To climb the wooden steps and sprawl on the overstuffed chair, listening in the dark to Beethoven and laughing at the world’s conceits, was to step into some timeless dimension.  Looking back from the autumn of life, the loft looms like a brisk spring dawn, a bubble in spacetime where the dreams of adolescence could bloom in the dead of winter.     

On a shelf over the window stood the centerpiece of our retreat¾a six-foot-long locomotive, the Union Pacific “Big Boy” that Tom had crafted in great detail from a few blocks of wood.  The old steam locomotives were his true love.  Unfortunately, he spent much of his class time in school on meticulous drawings of Southern Pacific cab-forwards and Union Pacific mallet engines, many of which were strewn about the loft.  Sometimes we biked to the depot to watch the earth-shaking monsters rumble out of the night,pounding and squealing to a halt.  Tom would stand fixated, the glow of the firebox agleam in his eye.

The locomotive was Tom’s mechanical counterpart, the one an explosive monster at boiler pressure, the other a fleshy hulk imploding with frustrations that would wear him down in the end.  It seemed fitting that Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, pulsing with the pent-up power of a locomotive, was Tom’s favorite.  In the Museum of Natural History in San Mateo, he once happened upon a fox whose cage was positioned under that of a great horned owl.  Globs and runs of the owl’s droppings were all over the fox’s cage and all over the fox.  The image possessed him.  “How would you like it,” he laughed through a mouthful of cookies, “if anytime anyone wanted to find you all they’d have to do is drive up to a cage full of birdshit in San Mateo?  They wouldn’t even have to call first to see if you were there.” 

“He can’t get out,” was my ritual response. 

“That’s just it!” he cried through tears of laughter, sliding off the sofa until he was propped against it like a sack of sand.  “That’s what’s so goddam funny about it!”  He threw his head back as though yelling at the ceiling:  He can’t get out!

 Tom’s cages were many—among them, the Mormon Church, made inviolable by the intimidating image of his exalted grandfather, the number three man in the Church.  Tom’s parents were the Church incarnate.  His mother, Alice, was a refined and intelligent woman whose devotion to home and family was as solid as her certainties on everything from social class to keeping house.  And though his father, a doctor of economics, was a multi-talented, many-faceted man, his quiet authority and leaden countenance cast a Jehovan aura over the Alden house.  Tom’s mother had painted the loft floor red with white dots; “each dot on this floor,” she had written in white paint, “is a prayer and a wish for your happiness.”  His father laid carpet over it. 

Like the Church itself, Kyle and Alice Alden embodied the paradox of those who are fundamentally right for the wrong reasons, whose solid communal values become inseparable from some outmoded doctrine, forming a tether of fear and guilt that stunts the free spirit.  Tom’s attempts to reclaim his freedom were limited to his fertile imagination and harmless eccentricities—his vision of leaping from a pew in the middle of the sermon to throw his body on the plunger of an ear-splitting air horn, or his Tourette-like compulsion to intone humorous nonsense phrases in a deep baritone, often in the middle of an unrelated sentence.  Sometimes these twinkle-eyed bursts were in ominous monotone: “And the   Mor-Man Church,” or a lilting “B-O-L-O-A-D-Y,” the incessant chant of an old lady he’d overheard while visiting a rest home.  The mystery of its meaning possessed him all his life.

An animated boy with a taciturn father, an expansive mind with an overprotective mother, an overweight kid with an athletic big brother, Tommy Alden lived out in the loft, where rockets, trains, and Eroica promised power and motion, and the massive six-foot model called “Big Boy” would forever embody his being.

But in that time of innocence, when faith in the future displaced any thought of the past, we pored over the Colliers series on the coming of spaceflight and built a four-foot, three-stage rocket in the workshop.  We packed the powder from skyrockets in aluminum tubes, encasing them in a sleek balsa ship that stood on three streamlined fins like the rocket in Destination Moon.  Our plan was to ignite the red and white monster electrically, for which we engaged the services of fellow student Robert Baer, a Radio Club nerd whom bullies loved to drag out of the boys’ room into the hallway, pants down, still defecating, kicking, and trying to bite his assailants. 

On a hot summer day, the three misfits set out for the Baylands, hauling their telemetry in a Radio Flyer wagon.  We were enraptured on arriving to find that the ground was parched and fissured like the imagined moonscape in Destination Moon.  We set up our equipment, readied the camera, and signaled Baer to push his button.  At first nothing happened, then we noticed a tame little fire creeping silently over the ship, leaving a charred, smoking shell.

It was a symbolic moment.  The future, for Tom, would fizzle like the rocket, leaving him in limbo, his spirit immured in the charred shell of the past.  He went on to Brigham Young, dropped out, spent two years on a Mormon mission, and returned to the white house with green shutters to work in the post office, care for his parents, and remain in the loft for most of his life.

Though I married, had children, and our lives took separate turns, the loft remained my occasional retreat for more than four decades.  Sometimes, in the middle of a dark day or suffocating week, I would compulsively alter course for the poplar-lined street in old Palo Alto.  I might find Tom sitting on the floor at the center of his train layout in his great baggy pants, dreaming aloud as he watched the S‑gauge locomotives go round and round, in and out of the tunnels.  If only he had a million dollars he’d buy a boat and a Chrysler Crown Imperial like those owned by his venerable grandfather.  For a short time Tom did own a used Crown Imperial limousine complete with jump seats.  Other than cheap cigars, which at age forty-five he still concealed from his parents, it was his only notable indulgence.

Between those who have shared adolescence there is a bond nurtured by a deep nostalgia for the innocence and irresponsibility of a timeless world where all things seemed possible.  Childhood friends are the repositories of our roots, the shared memory traces of people and places long gone.  Like many old friends, we evolved an extensive inspeak, capsulizing characters and events otherwise long forgotten.  We shared a radical sense of humor to the degree that one would often perfect the thought of the other.  If heads in the windows of a bus, all blankly facing the same direction, struck me as bizarre, he would add the definitive phrase: “Being moved”―with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing little nod.  His pithy humor could seem slapstick on the surface, but like Laurel and Hardy, whose films we loved, the real message was multi-layered, lying less in what he said than in the way he said it. 

Pushing 300 pounds in middle age, his unkempt figure even bore a resemblance to Oliver Hardy’s.  The image was unaided by his habit of spitting, his loud voice due to hearing loss, and an innocent if sometimes peevish lack of tact.  Years of eroding self-esteem had left him often inapt, obsessively reminiscing, and profoundly alone.  Yet he never lost his kind, unassuming, and deeply compassionate nature, nor that heightened awareness, that penetrating perception for which, however ingenuous, the outsider always pays the price.  Like many free spirits trapped in the labyrinths of ordinary life, Tom was unappreciated and misunderstood by everyone, from dreary teachers to his well-meaning but complacent family.  Yet within this failed, overweight, uneventful being, who had never ventured farther than the family’s summer home in Utah, dwelt a unique soul, an insightful, imaginative, deep-feeling person whose promise had succumbed to the weight of the Mormon Church and middle-class propriety.

One great talent survived: the building of painstakingly accurate models from scratch.  Using any materials at hand—ice cream sticks, toothpicks, empty spools, curtain rods, jar caps, tin cans—he duplicated in exquisite detail everything from cars, trains, and planes to entire landscapes.  One thinks of John Merrick, Victorian England’s grotesquely deformed “elephant man.”  A gentle soul retrieved from a freak show and imprisoned in a hospital where he was often treated as an animal, Merrick died at twenty-seven of a ruptured spinal cord due to the weight of his own horrifying head.  In his room Merrick left a magnificently intricate model, built from scraps of cardboard trash, of the soaring spires of St. Philip’s, the cathedral visible from his window.  Tom’s cathedral was his majestic “Big Boy” locomotive, embodying the energy, power, and intensive mission that might have been.  But it was not his body that was deformed or imprisoned.  One felt, in fact, that his corpulent size, like the boiler on “Big Boy,” was the natural and necessary container for the repressed energy of his singular soul. 

In his sixties, with frayed nerves and fading eyesight, he gradually gave up model making, devoting more and more time to tending his ailing parents.  With passing years he became less apt to laugh and more prone to lament his life.  We would get in the car and drive back through time—to the old schools, to a tree by the bus stop where we had carved the name, now barely visible, of an especially odious teacher—then to the old Creamery for lunch and back to the loft, drifting all the while in our world outside of time, detached from all ambition and obligation.  While those around us scurried into the future, we moved among them like specters from another dimension, spewing our inspeak nonsense, our laments, our faded memories from the fresh morning of our lives.

Tom’s father died in front of the hospital while Tom was fetching the car to take him home, but his mother lasted another decade.  When her death at 95 forced the sale of the house, the price of Bay Area housing forced him to move near a niece and nephew in Issaquah, Washington.  But the uprooting was too radical.  He began to have breakdowns and was diagnosed as bipolar.  Perhaps parents and churches are no more than eddies in a neurochemical torrent. 

Uprooting change and mobility destroy the sense of place, the lost landmarks of one’s life—the old school, the theater where Roy Rogers rode on Saturday mornings, the magic ground where the circus set up, now a shopping center.  In Issaquah, where place became mere space, Tom contracted terminal cancer.

His headstone reads:

THOMAS K. ALDEN

1937-2011

B-O-L-O-A-D-Y

The eccentric outsider, Tom was misunderstood by the narrowly conventional, but charming and loveable to those who could see the humor and sense the core truth of this extraordinary soul.  Such people are the lamps that line our journey―patches of light along the path, winding through the long night of life on this Earth.  To the end he retained his jovial intensity and bighearted nature.  Even as he lay dying, he was far more concerned with the fact that his brother was deathly ill than with his own fate―more concerned even about a friend down in Oregon who was broke and being evicted. 

There is a need in every life for some constant that endures across the decades, some person or place to which we can return on days when the world seems alien—a shrine to halcyon times, or an old friend who is curator of our youth.  I once had such a person, such a place—a loft over an old garage—where I could go on a gray day to relax, laugh a little, and forget my troubles.  Like the fox, Tom was always there, an old friend who, no matter what his burdens, was always glad to see me.  For many years I took it for granted, but such unconditional people are the greatest gifts we get.

The day Tom left for Washington we watched the moving van pull away, towing his old station wagon on a trailer.  As I too pulled away, heading home, I glimpsed Tom in the rear-view mirror, waving in the distance.  And on a poplar-lined street in old Palo Alto, behind a white house with green shutters, a loft over an old garage descended into time.

Big Boy

Comments

  1. Reid Isaksen says:

    That was beautiful, a grand tribute.

Speak Your Mind

*