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Remembering Tommy Johnson – A Friend for Life

Written by Jeff Drake
2 · 04 · 24

Although I didn’t get a chance to visit my good friend, Tom Johnson, from Duluth, Minnesota, before he died in August, I’m happy we got a chance to talk on the phone before he passed. He told me he didn’t want anyone to see him the way he was because the chemo had worn him down to 92 pounds, so I can appreciate the way he must have felt. He told me he wanted me to remember him the way he was. I think we both knew it was probably going to be the last time we spoke to each other. We were not wrong.

As so often happens when someone I know dies, after the first wave of grief I find myself awash in reverie, remembering our shared past. It’s both a painful experience, but also cathartic. My time knowing Tom is all the more poignant for me because we first met each other in our tender pre-teen years. Well, I was pre-teen, Tom would have just been maybe 13, which would have made me 11. Formative years, to be sure.

Tom lived in an upstairs apartment on East 5th street, between 6th and 7th avenue east. This was next door to my  cousin, Mary, which is how I happened to be a frequent visitor in the neighborhood, as I actually lived on the alley at 4th avenue west, between 4th and 3rd streets, but would travel to Mary’s house to play with the neighborhood kids. Tom lived there with his parents, his sister Linda, and a brother named Walter, whom we all called Wally.

I remember noticing that not long after Tom and I started playing and hanging around together, he made a point of not inviting me up to his apartment. I didn’t understand why and I called him out on it. He told me that if I saw him in his apartment, I might not want to be his friend anymore. I was like, “What? Why is that?” I thought maybe it had something to do with his parents, or family situation, but no, it wasn’t about these things. It was about his medical issues.

You see, Tom had what I am sure would be described as severe eczema. I knew he had eczema, because he told me and I could see the scaliness of his arms, which were always red and inflamed, but I didn’t know the extent of it. So one day I rang his buzzer and he actually gave in to my request to see him and invited me upstairs. I remember him saying something equivalent to, “Be careful what you ask for!” So, I entered and went up the stairs.

Tom was in his bedroom, in his underwear, sitting on the wood floor. It was an amazing site, to be honest and it kind of stunned me. He was on his butt, with his legs raised off the floor and he was rubbing them together at a rather high speed, essentially scratching one leg against the other, in a scissors motion. On either side of his legs there were piles of what I figured out to be skin cells. This is the situation that embarrassed Tommy so much. While he was rubbing his legs together, his hands were busy scratching both his arms, because they were covered with scabs and scales, too.

I could tell by the look on Tommy’s face that he expected me to make some excuse and leave, but I didn’t. Quite the opposite. I felt bad for my friend. Leaving never even entered my mind and I told him that I wasn’t going to be bothered by his eczema. We were friends and that was the only thing of importance to me. Later, I remember feeling like I’d passed a test of sorts, with Tom. Afterwards he was no longer embarrassed to talk about his eczema with me and the rest is history. We became the best of friends for many years afterwards and remained so up to the day he died.

As an adult, Tom finally got treated for a condition affecting his lymph glands which cleared up his eczema. I felt bad that he hadn’t had that treatment as a kid. It would have made his life so much easier. Tom had a very tough life.

Beyond his medical problems, Tom had a troubled home life, too. His parents were both alcoholics. We shared this kind of pain, as my uncle was also an alcoholic. I vaguely remember his dad, as he died early in our friendship. I remember his mom better and she was always nice to me. She worried about Tom and I suspect, even in her frequent drunken stupor, she knew our friendship was good for her son. It was. It was good for me, too.

Being the age we were, we would, of course, occasionally get into trouble. I remember maybe two years after Tom and I became somewhat inseparable, I got caught smoking, I think. My grandmother thought that because Tom was a couple years older than me, that he was being a bad influence on me. As a result, she and my uncle told me that I could no longer hang out with Tom. I was heartbroken. Tom was, too.

Here, my memory gets muddled and I cannot remember how this came about, but somehow word of the situation with me and Tommy got to one of our parish priests, Father Coyle. Since Tommy wasn’t Catholic, it must have come from either me telling Father Coyle, or perhaps via my aunt, as Father (later monsignor) Hogan used to drop by to visit with my aunt and enjoy a wee dram, if you know what I mean. He was a good guy and may have put a bug into Father Coyle’s ear about this.

In any event, one day Father Coyle knocked on our door and after inviting him in, he told my grandmother that he believed that Tommy was really a good kid and that he felt the bond that Tom and I shared was a good thing, for both of us, and that she should relent and let us play together again. She acquiesced and I was very grateful for his intercession, for sure. Father Coyle was one of the good priests. Sacred Heart parish was lucky to have him.

Tom and I remained close throughout our high school years, although he went to Central and I went to Cathedral. We chased girls together, sometimes even the same girl. We used to help a local stock car racer named Johnnie Ozzie work on his cars in his garage in the 4th street alley between 4th and 5th avenue east, which was a a lot of fun for us as teens. We occasionally got to go to the races in Proctor and work around the pit, fetching stuff for the Johnny and his crew. Great memories!

Although we grew apart over the years and went in different directions as adults, we always remained friends, the kind who can restart the friendship immediately, no matter how much time or distance there was between us.

I loved you like a brother, Tom. I will always have many warm memories of our time together. I miss you and I will cherish my memories of you forever.

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  1. Thomas Johnson

    Thanks for some insight of Tom’s youth!

  2. Kathleen Treb

    Thanks for sharing this tribute with us. Dear Father Coyle!!!!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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