Tom Thunder was the tallest Indian I ever saw. He must have stood six-foot-eight in his bare feet. When I met him, in 1981, he was all muscle, weighing in at somewhere around 280. He had a forceful personality that really suited his name. When I hung with Tom Thunder, I knew I needed to go with his flow. And I did. It just made things a lot easier….
Tom hailed from Neah Bay, home of the Makah tribe. He owned acres and acres of forest-land up there. But he preferred living away from Neah Bay; he liked city life. I visited Neah Bay in the mid-90’s. Its business district was like – two stores. Beautiful country; but almost no development. (I hear it’s grown some since I last paid a visit.)
I was prone to moving house to different neighborhoods, so I didn’t see Tom all that often. And then, in the late 80’s, I was shocked to hear he was in prison for something – for what, I don’t know. So years went by. And when I finally bumped into him again, after he’d been paroled, I saw that Tom’s health had seriously declined. His chest had become sunken; he moved much more slowly, somewhat bent over. He talked softly. He was no longer loud and boastful, and in charge. From then on, whenever I ran into Tom, I could see his health slipping away more and more. One day, I finally said something to him about this. Or I asked him how he was feeling or something. And he said to me, quietly, “Well, Randy, you know what they say: any day above ground is a good day”. Which threw me. Because that’s not what my Daddy used to say….
After that, whenever I saw Tom; whenever I inquired of him about his health, he’d always revert to his go-to figure of speech: “Well, Randy, any day above ground is a good day”.
And then, one afternoon, I ran into Gail, Tom’s ex-wife. — Yeah, Tom had gotten married to a hippie girl sometime in the mid-80’s; but the marriage didn’t take. They did have a son, who seemed to take after Tom, named Jason. — Anyway, Gail said, “Randy, Tom Thunder died”. I felt really bad. I felt bad for Jason, who was going to grow up without a father (and oh yes: he wound up being a real hell-raiser, folks). — I thought about Tom; I remembered his favorite catch phrase — “Any day above ground….” And then, I thought of my Daddy….
My daddy, rest his old, blessed soul, was a coal miner. For years, he literally worked his fingers to the bone, five days a week for the Carter Coal Company in Roslyn, Washington. Yeah, you’ve heard of the town if you were a Northern Exposure fan. A good deal of the TV series was filmed there.
The actual Roslyn was a town populated by coal miners, and their families. The townsfolk didn’t bother to paint their houses in Roslyn. The coal dust in the air would scour the paint right off the siding. So if you lived in another, more conventional burg, and you happened to drive through Roslyn, you would be shocked to see an entire town comprised of unpainted dwellings. — Very strange to an outsider, I would imagine. But to Roslynians, it was normal. Why spend the time, energy and money painting your house, when it wasn’t going to last? Nope, there was no Sherwin-Williams paint for sale at the local hardware store; that’s for sure….
Where was I? I’m pushing 70 now, and I tend to lose track of my train of thought. That is to say, the train runs off the track more often than not, these days. Oh! I know: my Daddy was a happy man. He seemed to have been born with a smile on his face. Looking through our old, musty family photo albums, I dare say I never found one photo where he didn’t have at least a half-way grin on his coal-dust-streaked face. He was the type who never let the little things get to him.
Daddy was full of sayings. One of his favorites was that old saw, “Never sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff”. But every once in a while, he could coin a phrase himself; one that would turn out to be pretty profound. And unforgettable.
One evening, at dusk, when I was about nine years old (that would make it 1958), Daddy and I were sitting out on the bare, unpainted front porch of our two-bedroom house, him with his hot cup of coffee, me with my cup of cocoa, and I asked him just what was the secret to his happiness. He said, “Well, I have a purpose in life. Of course, I have your Mom, and you and your brother to take care of. But, I also have a job to do. I know where I’m going to be five out of every seven mornings. Same place as your Grandfather. And your Uncle, before he –- well, you know. Before the cave-in. I’m going to be getting in that elevator and going down to ‘the office’. I’ll be with my shift buddies. I’ll be where I belong. I’ll be in a place that’s totally familiar to me.”
“I’ll have my lunch box, with that ham sandwich and thermos of soup your Mom fixes for me. I’ll have the sounds of the mining equipment. And that smell that you can’t find anywhere else on earth.”
“Simply put, Randy, and I want you to remember this: any day below ground is a good day.”
Thanks for the wisdom, Dad. Here is one of your favorite songs, by one of your favorite bands.