I was heartbroken to learn that one of my favorite human beings passed away last week: Thomas “Poppy Tom” Saunders.
Tom was my great-uncle by marriage, and he was the Platonic ideal of the lovable dirty uncle. He always had a good joke, and when you shared one he hadn’t heard, he responded with a chuckle that sounded almost like a growl. He sported a well-maintained white beard with a few nicotine highlights, and his wardrobe could best be described as “1980s mature bachelor semi-casual,” which I can’t exactly describe but it’s probably close to what you’re imagining.
I always enjoyed talking to Tom, and whenever we visited my aunt and uncle in Norfolk and he came over to hang out, I would usually talk to him at great length.
Now, while I don’t know a single person who thought poorly of Tom, not everyone enjoyed having a lengthy conversation with him. The topics covered were usually niche, to say the least.
However, if there’s one thing I have a boundless appetite for, it’s an old man telling a long story about something obscure, particularly if the topic hasn’t been relevant in decades. Did I want to talk to Tom about cars he had known in the past? Of course. Did I want to talk to Tom about arc lamps and their use in movie theater projectors decades ago? Absolutely I did. Did I want to talk to him about “The Bilge Rat,” a back-page column he wrote in the ‘80s for a now-defunct fan magazine about Navy shipbuilding? Oh, you’d better BELIEVE I wanted to talk to him about that.
I didn’t spend as much time with Tom as I would have liked over the years, but I spent enough to pick up some good stories. There was the time that he decided to get into the Halloween spirit by fabricating a little steam whistle, hooking it to his air compressor, hiding it under his car, and then connecting the line whenever a trick-or-treater was coming up his sidewalk for candy. Unfortunately, his steam whistle was apparently just a couple of decibels quieter than a real one and it scared the children so badly that they dropped their candy bags and sprinted for cover.
Tom also got into the Christmas spirit each year. At some point, he bought a beat-up church van with faded lettering on the side; it looked like something a serial killer on True Detective would drive. As Christmas approached, he would throw on a Santa hat to match his white beard and tool around Norfolk, waving to any children he happened to see on the street. It is deeply fortunate that he did not get arrested.
My favorite experience with Tom, however, was the time we went to the dive bar along with his son, my uncle Drew.
I won’t name this particular dive bar, but it’s right on Willoughby Bay in Norfolk. It was Tom’s favorite watering hole and I’d been hearing about it for years.
On our drive to the bar, we saw multiple pedestrians walking along the streets, all of them appearing to either be on drugs or offering goods and services in exchange for drugs. We pulled up to the bar, a weather-beaten little joint that barely advertised its name; this was clearly a place for the locals.
When we stepped inside with Tom, it was like stepping into Cheers with Norm; everyone knew him. Unlike Cheers, however, the clientele did not consist of hilarious Bostonians but old fishermen and guys who looked like they’d been drinking since 10 a.m. the previous day.
I ordered a beer, while Tom ordered a gin and tonic. Over the course of the next few hours I watched him drink seven gin and tonics with no ill effect whatsoever, which is either a testament to Tom’s abilities or a terrible indictment of the place’s gin and tonics.
Tom, Drew, and I sat and told stories for hours; I had a blast, even if I can’t remember many specifics. At one point, one of the cooks came up to Tom and said that he caught some fish in the bay right before his shift started, and he wanted to know if we would like some fresh fried fish that had been swimming around thirty minutes earlier. It was phenomenal.
My most vivid memory of the night was when a fellow walked in who looked like the stereotypical rough biker from a sitcom. He was wearing leather and chains, and he had an eyepatch covering one eye.
“You see that guy?” Tom whispered to me.
“You’ve gotta keep an eye out for him.”
I remember this joke well; I’ve used it at least 100 times in the intervening decade, and I think of Tom every time.
Here’s to you, Poppy Tom. I don’t know what the afterlife holds, but if there’s a great dive bar in the sky, I hope you’re up there with an endless carton of cigarettes and a bottomless gin and tonic that’s never watered down.