We lost a great friend last month.
Tom Harkleroad passed away on his living room sofa on a January morning. He had his cup of coffee by his side and the TV was on - likely with sports or the news of the day. He was 81 years old.
Tom moved into the neighborhood just after we did, sometime in early 2012. He was great friends with neighbor Karen and her brother Vincent who were the first people we met in our ‘hood when Karen noticed us and brought over some soup in a tupperware. Tom was looking for a house to buy and living at Karen’s in the meantime. He soon found a home on Clear Acre and purchased it in 2013.
We got to know him bit-by-bit through conversations on the street when he was still walking Benny ‘round the blocks or during neighborhood potlucks where he’d regularly bring Henry Weinhard’s beer and some delicious ribs or rich beans with ham.
A young neighbor-friend of Tom’s described him to her friends as “Gandalf”. And Tom looked the part - tall and lean, etched face with gray-white beard and wispy hair, even the mischievous twinkle in his eye. To boot, he walked with a carved wooden cane, full of magic I’m sure. But he was a wizard inside as well: Tom performed energy clearings (doing so at our place with his copper dowsing tubes to our neighbor Brad’s bemusement), was a Reiki healer (he worked on Katy’s injured knee often - he’d feel she needed it and show up on our porch), muscle-tested for allergies (even at a distance), and held an abundant amount of wisdom from a well-lived life that he was able to share in the rare way that it could be heard.
Tom’s place was somewhere you knew you could always just drop by. He would wave you in and offer a beer, a whiskey, some eggs or a turkey sandwich. It got to be that I’d stop by on my way back from Gene’s after tending the worm farm or if I had some eggs, good bread and milk to share. If his car was in the drive, he was there. Mainly I went for his stories. Sometimes for advice, sometimes for the beer. We shared books with each other and an interest in history and science fiction/fantasy.
We went to Tom’s as a family, too. “TV with Tom” was the cheeky way we described our time there but it was truly a wonderful part of our lives. It started with the Super Bowl a few years back and spread to Monday Night Football the next season and has resulted in our kids becoming flag-football maniacs. It wasn’t long before “TV with Tom” included the Golden State Warriors, too, whose play we all marveled at while dinner was cooking. Sometimes we’d take a family walk and be sure the route went past Tom’s just to check in and try to resist a bit of whiskey. Without exception he’d offer the boys apples or grapes which, we eventually learned, he bought just for them so they’d have a treat when they came over. He was great with the kids - set clear expectations (shoes off, clean up your mess…) and clearly loved them like you’d hope an elder would. They loved him too and loved being there. We can all easily say he was one of our best friends.
Tom grew up in California, born in 1937, and had stories of a younger, smaller LA with its beaches and California scene that defined an era and gave the world the dream of a better, golden life. His dad was big and strong and tragically killed in a logging accident in Northern California when Tom was 14. He said his mom was good looking and this was tough for him as he grew up and she found new loves.
He worked as a cook and a bartender, a carpenter, was a young boxer, opened a gym with a buddy for a short time, opened and ran antiques store in Santa Cruz, built himself a house in the wooded hills of Mendocino county, grew pot here and there, loved the years he played softball, traveled Mexico in a beat-up buick in the 70’s (Baja and the mainland, even little La Manzanilla where we are now where his car ran on 5 cylinders and got stuck in the mud and was pulled out by a mule and a group of men). He was a hippie who traveled the US in a bus with other kindred spirits. He lived in Maine, Taos for a spell, Oregon, Hawaii. Loved deeply and loved and lost.
Tom spoke his mind and was not afraid to do so when the time came. He had several funny stories about run-ins with the police - the most recent just a couple years ago in our neighborhood. On one trip with him to Home Depot a burly guy gave us some guff about where we parked. While I was thinking of a retort, Tom responded without missing a beat, “What are you trying to be a cop?” The guy walked away with a mumble.
He joined the Merchant Marines during the early years of the Vietnam War and traveled by boat to Southeast Asia and back. He was in charge of the freshwater systems on the ship which, apparently, was an important job that gave him a bit of protection. On that trip he wrote an anti-war poem and posted it on the message board. It was not well-received. He loathed Trump and politics was always ripe fodder for discussion. We went over November’s election ballot together trying to make sense of the ballot questions during the early voting period.
He didn’t talk much of his family - he had two children but was was not close to them. As he said, his friends and neighbors were his family.
He reminded me of my grandfather in many ways but particularly in how younger men gravitated towards him. I learned about hospitality from him. About slowing down here and there. About friendship.
Tom predicted, years ago, that he’d die when he was 81 - saw it in a dream. We all hoped he’d be wrong. The last time we saw him Katy told him not to die while we were away in Mexico. “Tom, don’t go dying on us while we’re away” she said. You could talk like that to Tom. He said, with all seriousness, “You know I’m dying, don’t you.” We all paused, awkwardly letting that possibility sink in, me hoping that a light rejoinder would come to mind that I could share. But what can you say to that? It was true, he was right.
Tom leaves behind his friends, his dog Benny, tales and wisdom, a walking stick, several plaid shirts. We already miss the Wizard of Clear Acre. May you rest in peace, Tom, and give a piece of your mind when it’s needed.