I met with Tom at his home in Rancho Navarro and following a warm welcome from his collies, Nell and Emma, we sat down with a cup of tea and some toast and began our chat.
Tom was born in Oakland in 1947, the third child of John English and Ruth Denson. His siblings are Bud, three years older, and Peggy, seven years Tom’s senior. His father’s side of the family is of Irish descent and his grandparents left Ohio around 1890 and settled in Oregon via the Oregon Trail. “My Grandfather was an inventor so he basically had little money, but my Grandmother worked in real estate and was well-known amongst the social circles in the Portland area. Grandfather was an alcoholic and so life at home was very unsettled and as a result my father and his sister were often put with foster parents. He joined the Army Air Corps in World War II and went through training in Texas where he met my mother and they got married.”
Tom’s mother, Ruth, was from at least two generations of Texans and had grown up on a small peanut farm. “She had married a fellow called Buck who was very lazy and a bit of a good-for-nothing. They had two children, Bud and Peggy, my half-siblings, but then she dumped him. She met my father at the Air Corps base and the wed at the end of the war.” Tom’s father and his bride moved to the East Bay where his father finished his college studies at U.C. Berkeley where he had completed two years prior to the War.
The family lived in San Lorenzo Village, a suburb south of Oakland. “It was a nice neighborhood subdivision, with each house built with what you might call an in-law apartment for returning soldiers to stay for a time after returning from the War. I went to grade school nearby and had a very pleasant childhood in many ways. The surrounding area was still quite rural with fields of tomatoes and orange groves and up to the late fifties San Lorenzo supplied San Francisco with most of its vegetables. My friends and I would play in the San Lorenzo Creek that went all the way into the Bay. We built rafts and had tons of fun there. I loved the outdoors and had all kinds of adventures — there were lots of kids in the neighborhood, so many that the school had to have split shifts. My parents would be out of the house by 7.30am and I didn’t not have to be in school until 10am so I was in the Creek every day, building forts and tunnels with friends in the fields that would soon make way for the Nimitz Freeway. When that happened we put up obstacles to try and stop the bulldozers in ‘our field’ but then had to sit and watch as they crushed our simple ‘defenses’ with ease. I then spent the rest of my childhood growing up with that freeway noise.”
When Tom was in his mid-teens, his parents had another son, Steve. “My sister had become a heroine addict and was to have three kids with three different guys and my older brother and his girlfriend had a child at sixteen and we were not close. My younger brother was gay and the family accepted this completely but when my parents had both passed away, by 1994, he cut himself off completely from the family. I have tried to contact him many times but haven’t seen him since. He does not want to be in touch. It is very strange, he was very close to his nephews and nieces when they were growing up but nobody has seen him since.”
Tom enjoyed elementary school and had performed well in math, reading and spelling and had played lots of sports, but when he arrived at San Lorenzo High School he started “goofing off” and becoming more inward. “I was suddenly a little fish in a big pond and didn’t handle it well. I stopped playing on the sports’ teams and started to gamble, playing poker every day at high school and becoming quite an addict. From my junior year on, during school vacations I worked at the factory where my Dad was the personnel manager and accountant so I had money. I would give the winnings to him to put in the credit union for me and had about $600 there. He then said he had to use it to pay for the damages my sister had caused in one of her drug-induced accidents. Anyway, I still had money from gambling so when I passed my driving test I bought a car and six months’ worth of insurance. I hung out with various groups of friends in those days. I was in the skateboard crowd, the surfer dude group, the ‘gangster’ wannabe’s dressing like Chicano kids, and also with the kids in my nearby neighborhood. I was in-between them all and didn’t quite fit anywhere. I was definitely mischievous and wanted to quit school but when it looked like I might not graduate, my father sat me down and explained some things to me and suddenly the need to study clicked. I blossomed in my final semester and pulled it out, graduating in the summer of 1964.”
Initially, Tom decided to go to nearby Chabot Junior College in Hayward and he moved out of the family home. “After owning a couple of cars, I was into paneled trucks — a pick-up with enclosed bed, certainly a good thing to have if you had a girlfriend, not that I often did. I lived in my truck and parked it in my parents back yard under the weeping willow tree, sleeping and cooking there and using my parents’ house just for the shower.”
“The Vietnam War was really getting going and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was doing OK at the factory job, on the packaging line full-time, but this meant I had too few hours at college for a deferment. At school my counselor had told me that if I went to war then the government would owe me and that I should take advantage of the GI Bill. I wasn’t politically astute at all and wasn’t questioning the situation like she was. On top of that, I was starting to know people whose relatives were being wounded and killed even. My Dad asked me whether I wanted to join up, go to jail, or move to Canada. I said I’d wait for them to draft me, thinking ‘why shouldn’t I serve?’ I was drafted by the Army in 1966 and went through basic training at Ft. Lewis.”
During training Tom says he had lots of fun. “I messed around as much as I could without getting caught, playing pranks, acting like I’d gone crazy, all kinds of goofy stuff, but I did well and was one of only two who came out as Private 1st Class. Normally there would be two weeks leave at the end of it but we were immediately sent for Advanced Infantry Training in Louisiana where the goofing around stopped. It was set up like a Vietnamese village and you knew where you were going to be sent. They told us that some of us would be going to Germany but nobody did.”
In February 1967, Tom arrived in Vietnam as a grunt in the army infantry, an ammunition bearer for a machine gunner, carrying six hundred rounds and his own M16 rifle. He decided he wanted to talk at length about his experience so I sat and listened. It may be a little too graphic for some readers so I have put in italics and you can continue reading Tom's life after Vietnam at the end if you wish...
* * *
“I was in great shape physically and made the decision to do as well as I could to make my parents proud. In terms of status, I was the lowest of the low. Besides being a ‘FNG’ (F***ing New Guy), I was also a non-paratroop in a paratroop battalion and those around me were serious soldiers who took their image as good soldiers very seriously. These guys were squared away and I liked that; I felt I was in good hands. I was in the 1st Cavalry Division, Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Cav. Airborne and we were sent to the Central Highlands, an area of heavy fighting at the time. It was my first time around marijuana and some of the guys smoked dope but I always declined and told them I had a sister who had started that way and ended up a heroine addict. They were always trying to persuade me to join them saying it would make me laugh and feel happy. I still refused.”
“The head of our platoon was Lieutenant Anderson, a black guy who had graduated from West Point. Earlier he had agreed to let a former soldier, who had fought at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when the Vietnamese overran the French and who was now a filmmaker, to film the platoon. One evening we watched this movie in a bunker. One guy, by the name of Hvalchec, who was a weathered soldier who I though was several years older than me, was always riding me, trying to pick on me for things. I was a carrot top and he always called me ‘Red on the head like a dick on the dog’ which I hated after hearing it a few hundred times. I did not like him at all. Anyway he was watching the movie with the rest of us and he was just mocking the guys in it who were showing fear as a battle waged. One guy, Smith, was near to tears with fear after being wounded and Hvalchec just made fun of the poor kid, calling him ‘chicken shit’ and a ‘baby’. I just though Hvalchec was a heartless bully, an idiot too.”
“We would go on patrols during the day and stay in the compound behind the wire at night. One night I was placed on L.P. (Listening Post) which meant going about a hundred yards into the bush at dark along with two other guys, Tanner and Curtis, and a radio. We were out there to try and listen to the enemy’s movements and report back through the night. Soldiers hated this duty. There was no talking and we were to contact the base by clicking on a radio receiver every hour, with extra clicks if we detected movement. Well, when I was out there on that night of April 10th/11th, 1967 all hell broke loose on Landing Zone Charlie where the rest of the men were positioned. Mortars, small arms fire, tons of grenades, ours and theirs, it was an incredible noise. They were being attacked by about four hundred Vietcong, (I nearly called them ‘gooks’ then), and we were told to stay where we were. The enemy had known where we three were and had avoided our listening post before the attack so no warning would be given. Soon our artillery retaliated and shrapnel came in very close to where we were lying. Then came the helicopter gun-ships strafing the ground. It was just wild and we were positive we’d be hit at any moment. More helicopters arrived, these with the Quick Reaction Force, who did not know exactly what to expect on landing so they immediately started firing and throwing grenades in all directions. There were bodies everywhere and some of our guys couldn’t avoid treading on the bodies of our dead.”
“At first light it was all quiet, apart from the occasional gun-ships still flying around, and we returned to the camp, passing lots of enemy dead wearing just shorts or black underwear and belts across their chests with grenades. Two girls back home had sent me Easter baskets and the remains of the ribbons from these baskets were on the wire on our return and I knew my bunker had been hit. I lost a bunch of very close friends that day. The wounded had already been helicoptered out but the dead were still all around. The sergeant told us to get the bodies up to where the helicopters could land. I didn’t want to get emotional and managed to keep it together. I did not recognize the dead; their faces were terrible disfigured, the bodies black and green, although I did manage to read the name of just one nametag on a shirt — Hvalchec. I later found out that he was just six months older than me.”
“We were moved the dead bodies to where they would be removed by helicopters and covered them with ponchos to give them some dignity. Then when then ‘copters arrived they all blew off — it was awful... We were then ordered to clear the Vietnamese dead off the hillside and by this time the high-ranking officers were arriving to assess the situation. They had come from somewhere safe way behind the front line and the fact that they came in after the battle, in their clean uniforms to stand around among all this carnage — that really annoyed me, I must say. I was dying of thirst; so much so that I drank five cartons of the terrible canned milk that nobody liked to drink. We thought we were going to simply burn the Vietnamese bodies with diesel and I wasn’t looking forward to that, but they flew in a Cat, dug a huge hole, and pushed the piles of bodies in. That was a better idea.”
“Later that day I decided to walk into town and bought some marijuana — I wanted to ‘smoke and joke’ as it had been explained to me. I was so emotionally drained I did not feel a thing after smoking two long Thai sticks but I did have what I later learned was called ‘big time munchies’. I was so hungry and ate several tins of the terrible ham and lima beans (‘ham and mothers’) that everyone hated... That night another soldier, Tanner, was supposed to wake me for guard duty but he did not follow the procedure to make sure I was awake. I do not remember him trying, although he said he did. We both got into big trouble even though we were both still in a state of shock... I had seen action both before and many, many times after that episode. I killed enemy soldiers and saved one or two of our own. I was even accused on at least one occasion of acting like ‘John Wayne’ when I had ran forward at the enemy firing at will, even when they were probably already dead. I don’t know. Several times I found myself getting very angry instead of very scared.”
“A week later new recruits arrived and now I was an old-timer with my seven weeks of action behind me! I didn’t know who had been wounded, who was dead from among my buddies, and whose bodies I had covered in the ponchos. I got hold of a roster for the platoon from 1966-67 and did not recognize names. To this day that has driven me nuts and I still cannot put faces on the dead. This is apparently a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). I cannot handle going to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in D.C. and even though I have done a bunch of research and joined the 1st Cav. Association, I still cannot put faces on those names. It’s very weird because I can remember the faces from that movie we watched. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary for 1967 and I have a copy I got from Amazon on-line. I would like to go to one of the reunions of our platoon but haven’t managed it yet.”
“I had miraculous luck during the remainder of my year in Vietnam. I was very close to being killed on several occasions during the many firefights and skirmishes I was involved in. I have a hard time talking about those later incidents because of what they call ‘survivors guilt’. I really wish I had been in that battle in April so that I could have helped my buddies, even if it had meant being killed... I was helped to get through it all by the fact that I often exchanged letters with my Dad. One of my best friends, Tom Brooks, was a great soldier and he made it back too but he had been shot in the spine and was a quadriplegic. He filled in many of the gaps for me regarding the year in-country; I could not remember things too well. He did not settle well back in civilian life and was then diagnosed as bi-polar. Having suspected his wife of having an affair he killed her — shot her ten times and did five years in the penitentiary.”
“I had been on a few half-day passes when I would do a little drinking, and go with prostitutes. It was $4 for a woman. I did that many times — I always thought I might not be alive the next day... Once I was granted a three-day pass because I had shown ‘extra diligence’ when I killed an enemy soldier who was hiding and the rest of the patrol had missed him as we passed through. I spotted him and shot at him three times. The third time was in the head and his skull just opened up and his brains fell out. He may have been already dead after the first shot. That was the way it was. The whole experience in Vietnam did have some pluses. I had lots of fun with the guys; you became very tight with your fellow soldiers, an incredible bond develops. It was the adventure of a lifetime despite being on the very edge of my nerves most of the time.”
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Tom returned to the States in February 1968, two weeks after the start of the Tet Offensive. He had been on active duty for all but one week of his one-year tour in Vietnam and now spent six months testing weapons on home soil before he was discharged. He received $90 a month on the G.I. Bill and returned to Chabot College to study Geology and Geography. “It was strange to be among a bunch of peace freaks. How could they be saying we had to pull out when there were soldiers surrounded at Khe San? Pull out? Those guys needed all the help they could get. I was surrounded by people who apparently knew more about Vietnam than I did.”
Tom’s best friend from his days in San Lorenzo, Martin Miller, had a brother who had moved to Caspar on the Mendocino Coast and the two of them decided to buy a house in Navarro. Tom visited them a few times with a girlfriend and thought he was in “paradise.” In the spring of 1971 Martin found him a job and Tom moved to the Valley to work on putting in a deer fence on a forty-acre parcel on Guntley Road, owned by realtor Don Hahn. He initially lived in a house nine miles up Greenwood Ridge Road and then worked out a deal with Nick Alexander and realtor T.J. Nelson whereby he would live on some Nash Mill Road property, rent-free for five years.
Tom found work in the Vineyards at both Husch and Edmeades for $2 an hour and “did not run a whorehouse as some claimed I did at the time!” He began to really settle into Valley life and socialized at The Floodgate Store and Beer Bar, becoming tight friends with people such as Wayne Ahrens, Benton Kelly, Willy Roust, and Brad Wiley. “The Floodgate was the social hub where all kinds of Valley folks met, from the loggers to the vineyard workers. Sam and Marguerite Avery owned it and I became good friends with their son, Bernard. By 1969 I had really begun to drink heavily, mostly beer but with a double vodka Collins to follow — two of them actually. The bartenders thought I had someone coming to join me but they were both for me. On the bright side I was a very mellow drunk, happy even, and certainly not a slob or obnoxious. However, by 1973 I was a full blown alcoholic.”
“I played baseball in the Valley’s league that was quite a big scene here from the early seventies to around 1981. Our team was The Clams and I remember that the Mexican guys had a team called The Diablo’s. I loved it and it seemed that many others in the community did too. I played with or against the Waggoner boys, Wayne Ahrens, Brad Wiley, Bob Humphries, Bruce Anderson, Harold Perry and his son, Butch Paula, the Rossi’s, the Pronsolino’s, the Pardini’s, the Summit’s, the Bloyd’s, Keith Squires, Ken Montgomery, Fritz Ohm; it seems like everyone played in those days and it was great time... Meanwhile, Martin had told me that there were no girls here and at first sight the scene was quite pathetic I must say but over the years I did have quite a few girlfriends and fell in love a couple of times... I found work planting trees for Masonite for $3.50 an hour or 5¢ a tree so I quit the vineyards and went to work for Gary Womack who was a great boss. My goal was to earn $100 a day and I found out that it could be done.”
For a time Tom lived with a girlfriend in a tent a couple of miles back in the woods off Flynn Creek Road and then he built a home on a flat bed trailer that became known as ‘The English Hotel’ among friends. He had his own crew of tree planters but eventually left Masonite and formed his own business called Red Dog Reforestation, making fire trails, burning them in the fall, and planting in the winter. In 1975 he was swimming and diving in the river with Mickey Bloyd when he broke his neck at the Stump Hole on the Navarro River. “I knew something was wrong but I went to work the next day and it wasn’t until I fell down a few times, collapsing like a rag doll, that I had it checked out and found out the news... I quit the tree planting business in 1980 to work for Brad Wiley on his property doing various odd jobs, fencing, vineyard work, etc. and I lived on the property too, but then in 1981 I slipped and fell when getting into my truck and broke my neck again. This time I was paralyzed.”
It took one-and-a-half years of rehabilitation this time for Tom to recover and he also stopped drinking for good during that period. “I had been dating Clare Walker, a Georgia girl, and we were pretty serious so when she told me in the hospital that she would live with a paraplegic but not an alcoholic, I listened. I knew she was serious; it was not a false threat. It was what I needed to hear. Friends had said I was getting out of control and I did not want to be that drunken crippled guy in the corner of the bar. I was still only thirty-three and I decided to give it my best shot. I have not had a drink since, and that was twenty-nine years ago.”
In more recent times Tom has enjoyed some of the best times of his life when he went halibut fishing in Alaska with friends, homesteading about six hours from anywhere by boat. He would plant trees in the off-season and then return to Alaska, doing this for a couple of years in succession. He bought property in the Valley in 1987 and over the next few years a house was built, he and Clare finally moving in sometime in 1991. Socially in recent years he has continued to play poker with a group of local guys that includes Bill Meyers, Bill and Cathy Cook, Tom Smith, Steve Woods, Mitch Mendosa, Kyle Clark, Sarah Cornsweet, and J.R. and Jeanie Collins. He also remains in regular contact with several of his oldest friends from their days in San Lorenzo, “My guys” as he calls them. He and Clare live a quiet life but have the two dogs that he hopes will perhaps get to work on some sheep in the near future.
“I love the springtime here in the Valley. I think the people of the Valley are also a very special group. I am still in love with this place and even though Hwy 128 is more crowded, I still have many positive emotions about the Valley... I don’t like the whole methamphetamine scene that seems to be getting worse. It is so sad to see the affect of that drug on people. I am also saddened by the loss of our logging industry but we simply do not have enough trees to support it.”
I asked Tom for his responses to some of the issues confronting people in the Valley.
The wineries? “I am fine with them although I do worry about the water use in the long term.”
The AVA? “I think it is much improved in recent years. I have always read it but Bruce is doing a better job than he used to.”
KZYX public radio? “I don’t listen to it very much.”
Marijuana in the Valley? “I am afraid that high school kids will seen it as the way they can make a decent living, just like some college kids mistakenly see playing internet poker as their way to make a fortune.”
I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When Clare gets home; an improvement in my dog’s behavior after training; a ripe tomato from our garden.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When noise made by others affects me, especially loud music.”
Sound or noise you love? “Trickling water in a stream; the sound of thunder, although it sometimes scares the dogs; an M16 assault rifle firing on fully automatic.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Excessive bass music from a car or house.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Venison and mashed potatoes.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “Teddy Roosevelt — the outdoors President. I’d love to hear first-hand tales of his many adventures in Yosemite and the Amazon.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A comfortable mattress; a great set of sun protection clothes and gear — I’m a red-head remember; and a kite to fly.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The film and book would be ‘The Hustler’ — the movie starred Paul Newman and featured the great line, ‘The greatest American pastime is feeling sorry for yourself.’ As for a song, perhaps ‘Voodoo Child’ by Hendrix.”
Favorite hobby? “Flying kites, snorkeling, and I used to love fishing for Steelhead on the Navarro. Can’t do that anymore.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A salmon fishing guide in Alaska.”
Profession you’d not like to do or are glad never to have done? “A janitor.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? “Getting married to Clare. I never thought I’d get married. Halibut fishing in Alaska with my buddy Dave Miller.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? “Losing friends and dogs. Or that poker night when I had a full house but Gail Meyer’s mother had four threes. Everyone else thought it was very funny!”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I can rebound pretty well to life’s adversities, although sometimes that is a bad thing when something needs to be let go.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “He might say, ‘I thought for sure I had you a couple of times earlier. I knew you’d make it eventually. So now enjoy your stay.’ Yes, that would be good.”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Sheila Hibbs of Philo Post Office fame. Also next week, I’ll present the third in a series of interviews with the Candidates for the 5th District Supervisor, Jim Mastin.)