Friday, August 27, 2021

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s 1978 Corvette out to Palo Duro Canyon for a day of sunshine and freedom. In homeroom, Scott said, “Thomas McKenzie is gonna come with us.” I shrugged and said okay like I knew who Thomas McKenzie was. I was really wondering how someone was going to cram themselves into the cubby behind the Corvette’s two seats. But Thomas did, and we had a grand time. Later, Scott and Thomas’s parents found out and ratted out their sons to the principal, to teach them a lesson. They had to serve three days of detention, but neither said a word about me. I had a new friend. With such a beginning, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Thomas and I blew up a gas station together a couple years later. 

Thomas and Robert, partners in crime c. 1991 

My friendship with Thomas was forged in our peculiarities. Teenage boys in small-town Texas who loved literature and film and the arts, were politically progressive, came from educated high-culture families, had a passion for the Christian faith and talking theology, and didn’t play football was a rare mix. I had actually torn up my knee playing football, but Thomas had no athletic ability whatsoever, and didn’t really care. When he was the editor of the school newspaper, he wrote a scathing editorial attacking the student body’s forced attendance at pep rallies, that we all were called out of class each Friday and made to march to the gym to offer our tribute to the football team. Needless to say, this did not go over well, and Thomas was threatened with more than a few ass-kickings. Ironically, Thomas would become an avid and knowledgeable football fan. But such contradictions were part of the mixture that made our friendship inevitable—some cosmic alignment that gave each of us exactly the gravity we needed for growing up.
In the following years we were inseparable. We were in classes together, played in the band together, sang in the choir together, acted in theater productions together. Every great film released during the late 80s and early 90s, we saw together. Most Friday or Saturday nights—and weeknights during the summers—my band held late-night jam sessions in a church. They were social affairs, with friends hanging out while we chugged through our Christian rock songs. Thomas was always there, laughing and running around with the others and often acting as “director” of goofy videos. Afterwards, several of us would pile into someone’s car or truck and go out to one of our favorite spots to look up at the starry Texas sky and have deep talks about God and life and rock n’ roll. Sometime close to sunrise we would end up crashing at one of our houses, usually mine—four or five teenaged boys asleep on the living room floor. 
If the next morning was Sunday, Thomas was always up and gone in time to get to church, even if he’d only had a couple hours’ sleep. Though I was a Christian songwriter with a deep Methodist pedigree, I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. But Thomas was on a clear path. During homecoming week’s dress-up days, one theme was “Career Day,” in which we were to dress for the career we hoped to have. I would typically be a rock star, with a flashier earring and jeans more ripped than usual—maybe even some spandex unfortunately thrown in (it was the 80s, after all). Thomas was always a priest. Perhaps that’s one of the truest things I can say about my friend: Thomas was always a priest. His faith really caught fire later, but his calling always seemed clear.
I could tell many stories, recall many conversations, and recount many adventures. Inside jokes and movie quotes and our often irreverent but always sincere faith. The fierce love of our band of brothers—Roger, Kiley, Mike, and Thomas and me. Late nights playing the blues at the crossroads out in the country. Thomas had learned harmonica (sort of), but he also had a knack for improvising hilarious (and very un-bluesy) lyrics. One July 4thwe were out there setting off fireworks and the battery in Roger’s van died. We had to hike miles and hours on rocky dirt roads back into town. Thomas was wearing huarache sandals. We laughed the whole way. 
We always laughed the whole way, wherever we were going. Road trips to my dad’s in Virginia and to the mountains in New Mexico, or just driving through the vast expanse and red brick streets of home. I got my first speeding ticket when Thomas and I were on the road back from Austin after I’d gone to fetch him home from college for the summer. And, yes, the legend is true: Thomas and I blew up the gas station on the corner of 4thand 23rdin Canyon, Texas. Well, Thomas did—I was innocent, I swear. He’d forgotten to take the gas hose out of his car when we drove off and ended up pulling the entire pump out of the ground, sending flames shooting all around. I ended up in the store, berating the clerk for not knowing where his fire extinguisher was. The Fire and Police Departments arrived. It was a scene, man. Point is, we were together. We were partners in crime (there were, of course, more school days skipped and other events of which I will never speak… *wink*).
Years passed, as years are wont to do, and our lives meandered, apart and occasionally back together, though long phone calls were a fixture. Thomas called to announce his engagement to Laura, who got on the phone and told me Thomas had cut off his long hair. I confessed that I had too. We were growing up. Soon I was best man in their wedding. Thomas and Laura's relationship was stunning in its depth and beauty. They worked at it diligently, drilled down and built their shared life on bedrock. Akin to Thomas's priestly calling was his calling as a husband, and later a father--committed, passionate, and fiercely loving. They were traits he also carried into his friendships.

Later I married my own dream girl. As newlyweds, Jamie and I went to visit Thomas and Laura in Tennessee. Ella (Charlie) was a baby, and Sophie would arrive months later. They had only recently moved to Nashville, and I was seeking God’s leading for the next chapter of my vocational life—relocating to Nashville as a songwriter, or perhaps becoming a pastor. Thomas and Laura were so gracious, insisting on taking us to Williams-Sonoma for wedding gifts. Ella was adorable. I joked that she would grow up to be a blues singer because of the raspy timbre of her voice. It was precious and holy time together. Talking with Thomas and seeing the way he inhabited his calling sealed the deal for me, as it did for so many. Soon I would be in seminary, even beginning with Thomas’s beloved Anglicanism before returning to my own Methodist roots. But my own pastoral vocation—indeed, the very essence of my Christian faith—was always informed by Thomas’s. I suppose it always will be.
More years and miles and lots of living later, Thomas and I were becoming middle-aged men. I last saw him a few years ago. He was going to be driving through the Panhandle and, since I lived only a few hours away at the time, we decided to connect. We fell right into our old pattern, like we always did. We were once again those 16-year-old boys skipping school. We drove to all our old spots and laughed about old times. Some old hometown wounds also opened up, and we allowed our older selves to be a little more vulnerable with each other than we used to, even shedding a few tears together. After a good steak dinner and a beer or two, we crashed at my mother’s house like we'd done so many times before. Our shared orbit had come full circle.
Thomas and I had begun a new go-round. Recently, when I had a mid-life implosion, he was one of a very few people I reached out to. He immediately rang me up and we talked for a couple of hours. Thomas was his usual funny, sarcastic, brutally honest, fiercely loving self, confessing his own recent times of teetering on the edge of the mid-life chasm and asking what he could do for me going forward. We both knew the answer lay in just continuing our crazy, beautiful friendship. 

But it will have to wait. Thomas and his dear Charlie are now in the unyielding embrace of Love itself, that Holy One whom Thomas and I as kids wondered about and longed for and spoke of like explorers on the edge of our greatest adventure. For now, I only have these random musings, patched-together scraps of a long friendship. There are many more Thomas stories and a jillion little Thomas details that pop up or drift through my mind these days. If they were to be written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books…or at least they’d fill one pretty entertaining volume. It’s all just a way of beginning to say that I will miss my friend Thomas.

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