“I was born in 1925 and grew up in Cedartown, Georgia. I was one of four kids. We didn’t have electricity or running water. We walked to get water from the faucet up the street.
My dad was a mule spinner in a cotton mill making $12 a week. Sometimes he let me ride the mule. They closed down the mill during the Depression. Dad was out of work and took any job for a dollar a day. He was killed in an accident. Mama worked at the mill after Daddy died. I delivered papers to help out. I became a clerk in a grocery store and got a price cut on groceries.
I graduated high school and entered the Navy. My mother signed the papers because I was 17. My older brother said I had a better chance of staying alive if I enlisted in the Navy because the guys drafted into the Army took the main hits. I chose the Navy because of the uniform.
I went to radio school at Auburn and became a radioman. We sent Morse code messages back and forth to ships on a special typewriter called a ‘mill.’ I typed 80 or 90 words a minute. If we thought we saw a sub, we sent up a plane to track it. I also directed the pilots back to the ship. Radar was brand new, and we were one of the first ships to get it. Sonar was like early black- and-white television. Whales looked like submarines, and we killed a lot of them. We came close to getting knocked off a couple of times. A guy I worked with saw the wake of a torpedo that barely missed us. I didn’t want to know they could come that close.
Being a radioman may seem like a little job, but if I didn’t do it well, there were big problems. I didn’t fire a shot in World War ll, but I was proud of what I did. After my discharge, I was in the reserves and later sent to the Korean War.
The Navy set me up for a good job at NASA. I worked for Chrysler on bombers built to carry the atom bomb. If we had to drop a bomb again, we were prepared. I moved to a division of Chrysler at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. The Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space in 1957, prompting the U.S. to get a rocket up there. NASA was born and took over our division. I attended night school while working to shoot the first man into space. I was a program technician and worked on the tracker for 60 or 80 hours a week for years. Werner Von Braun worked with us when we were running the night shifts so we could do special wavelengths with our radar. We were doing something brand new. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The day we landed on the moon, I went with my wife and four couples on my small cabin cruiser boat on the Tennessee River, close to Redstone. The guys and I worked on the system at NASA. We listened on the radio and jumped into the water when the rocket landed. What a thrill. We were walking on water. What we built was amazing. It went by so fast. Working at NASA was the best 20 years of my life, other than my wife.
I was married to my first wife for 44 years. She died from a heart attack. Then I moved into Westminster Village in Spanish Fort. I have been here for 23 years. I fell in love with a woman here and had 15 more of the best years of my life.
I have a bad ticker. I still exercise, but when I turned 95 I started eating potato chips and chocolate again. I don’t worry about the salt or calories. Maybe that’s the reason for my longevity. I still write poetry. I listened to Hank Williams and started writing poetry in high school. One of my teachers closed every class with a poem.I realized writing poetry wasn’t sissy. We have open mics here where residents read poetry. This is my poem called ‘Birthday for Love.’
One more day for us, my dear.
The weeks go sailing by.
Yet we have loved another year
For which time did fly.
Time so swiftly passes, days and years do flee.
You hold my heart each moment,
I save them all for thee.
I look for you in every cloud
That passes day by day.
I think what might have been
Had you not passed my way.
I could not know the loving thrill
That holding you would bring.
I would not know your smile. So sweet.
That makes this old heart sing.
Our time turns rapidly to years
Filled with loving memories.
Each day I fill with your love
and wondrous reveries
As our lives ebb and flow
One thing I’d beg you do.
Accept my love forever,
I bequeath it all to you.
I wrote that after my wife Beatrice died. I was hurting. I haven’t talked this much in Lord knows how long. The memories are rushing back. I didn’t expect to live longer than 90. How in the hell did I get through all of this and still be here at 97 years old. I went from no electricity to working on the first moon landing. Isn’t that something?”
(My friend Sallie Smith connected me with Tom a few weeks before she passed away with cancer. We miss you Sallie.)