This is a companion piece to Ken Floro’s The Southside Cavaliers vs. Vanishing Tom. I’m trying my best to write in someone else’s style and not get my keyboard (among other things) handed to me. In Ken’s story, I’m Hacker Dave.
I accidentally spent my 16th birthday with Vanishing Tom. We both attended a school-sponsored seminar on a Saturday, which happened to be my birthday. The subject was something about achieving your potential. Everyone else present was a football player or basketball player or cheerleader. Tom and I were the only people there without an athletic connection.
“I need an attitude adjustment,” Tom announced when he saw me, making no effort at enthusiasm.
Ah, we were both there for the same thing. I can’t speak for Tom, but I was surprised that everyone there accepted both of us for a few hours that Saturday. But come Monday we were just Tom and Dave again, same as we ever were. I never heard anyone mention that Saturday again.
So what about that attitude adjustment? Tom got his attitude adjusted all right, but the change wasn’t sudden or instant at all. More like a gradual change with him that would build up over time, though with occasionally shocking results. He was complicated that way, and not many people ever bothered to get to know him well enough to realize that.
Tom and I were never close. Tom didn’t let very many people get close. We were both quiet, kept to ourselves, and respected one another, and never had any hostility towards one another. Were we friends? Sure, by modern Facebook standards.
It’s more fair to say Tom and I ran in the same social circle. St. Louis is incredibly cliquey, and the schools we attended were no exception. There was a group of us, including Ken, Tom, Neil, Dan, Matt, and yours truly—I’m Hacker Dave in Ken’s story—who eventually gelled into our own clique. We had several things in common, but they generally all stemmed from two things. We were all highly intelligent and none of us were good at football. So we had to find other things to do.
We didn’t all share the same interests, but our interests generally complemented one anothers’ interests well. Of course, the closer our interests meshed, the closer our friendships meshed. That, and which lunch period the administration happened to assign us. Like Ken said, we all gravitated toward things like reading a lot, video games, and waxing philosophical. Some of us were into computers and some into role-playing, and we all had quirky senses of humor.
I first saw that sense of humor in Tom way back in the 8th grade. The one and only time I ever saw him get into trouble was one day when a bunch of students serenaded one of the 8th grade teachers with a stampede of clapping on the table accompanied by chants of “Wild Bill Hawley.” Tom was the very last to join in. Wild Bill Hawley was not amused, and sent all of the offenders, including Tom, to detention.
Tom and Wild Bill reconciled during the 8th grade trip. They ended up sitting next to each other on the bus on the way to Chicago, and Wild Bill marveled for the rest of the trip about what a good time the two of them had, talking over the 5-hour ride.
This was news to some people. Everyone knew Tom, but very few knew him well. He definitely could come off as aloof, but I think this was due to shyness more than anything. I probably wouldn’t have understood him either, if we hadn’t been so much alike.
Besides the wicked sense of humor, I knew his family had some money because he had an IBM computer at home. In the late 1980s, owning any computer was a status symbol. Most of us had Commodores. One classmate had a Tandy IBM PC-compatible, and a couple had Apples, but Tom had a true-blue IBM, which was the most expensive of them all at the time.
That upper-middle-class stuff would come into play later.
As high school graduation approached, a number of us bonded as it grew more and more clear that we would be going our separate ways very soon. Unlike Ken, I don’t have any additional Tom stories to share from those final few weeks. Tom and Neil, my best friend, would be going to Purdue and rooming together. Dan went to Truman State. Matt and Ken were staying closer to home, at St. Louis University. I was heading west, to Mizzou.
Had Tom done the traditional thing and gone to school for four years, that could have easily been the last I saw or heard of him. He would have been like any number of former classmates who scattered to the winds, graduated, started careers and families and fell out of touch somewhere along the way. But Tom didn’t take the traditional route—he blazed his own path.
Like all legends, the story has passed through so many hands and changed so many times that nobody knows exactly what happened anymore. The story I heard was that he came home after freshman year, told his parents he was tired of school, then ran off to Florida to work on a fishing boat.
I heard the story second- and third-hand, but I heard it more than once, and that was the consistent thread.
Unfortunately, after all these years I remember only two of the storytellers. The most thorough of them was Dennis. I’d met him over at Ken’s house a few times during those final few weeks as a senior. He was a year behind us in school, and much more vain than the rest of us. The August before my sophomore year, he visited my fraternity during summer rush week.
Dennis waved me over to where he was sitting when he saw me. I sat down across from him. “Did you hear about Tom?” he asked. I said I had.
“He’s my hero,” Dennis said, sarcastically. He looked around to see how many people were listening, and once he was sure he had an audience, he continued.
“He was going to be an aerospace engineer,” Dennis said breathlessly. “And he came home after one year at Purdue and told his parents, ‘I’m sick of studying. I’m sick of class. I’m going to get a job on a boat off the coast of Florida and be a fisherman.’ And he sold everything he had and did it.”
You need to know a couple of things about Dennis. I’m almost certain that at this point in time, Dennis was still a few days away from attending his first class. His first round of tests and first finals week were even further off over the horizon. Tom knew pain that Dennis had not yet experienced himself.
Secondly, Dennis could tell you the brand names and sum total cost of all the clothes he happened to be wearing at any given moment. Even when he was in high school, he knew the size of the house he wanted and had plans for how many BMWs he wanted and what series they should be. Status mattered to him, and he’d just seen Tom sell all the status he had so that he could go work on a boat at a time when Tom, the way Dennis seemed to see things, needed more status rather than less.
Under Dennis, the story never attained the mystique that it did under Matt’s watch. Dennis didn’t describe a 20th-century Buddha forsaking all worldly wealth in the search for enlightenment and manly adventure. His version of the Legend of Vanishing Tom was more like the storyline of The Graduate, only without the seductive Mrs. Robinson or the diploma. Dennis stripped away all of the admirable, exciting bits and reduced it down to a promising young man who turned slacker and ignored his potential and the wise advice of those around him.
I don’t know how long Dennis told the story, because he didn’t tell it in front of me for very long. He ended up pledging at the oldest fraternity at Mizzou, which was on the other side of campus. And since he majored in business and I majored in journalism, we never had any classes together. We weren’t likely to see each other again unless we planned it, and we never planned it. For all I know, he eventually forgot about Tom entirely.
Neil, still one of my best friends, seldom mentioned Tom. I heard the story first from Neil of course, but he told it much more matter-of-factly. I think Neil was a lot more fair, but by virtue of being more fair, his account was less memorable. And the only story Neil ever told me of his year rooming with Tom at Purdue was that Tom said he’d provide the computer. Neil agreed, and Tom showed up with the antique IBM PC/XT that his family had owned since we were all in grade school. Neil was majoring in computer science, and studying computer science on such an outmoded computer was going to be difficult at best–like showing up for a drag race with an all-0riginal Ford Model T. I’m sure Tom meant well, but I’m equally sure Neil was annoyed.
With the passage of time, Tom’s story became less and less remarkable as other classmates, one by one, departed for various reasons and we all learned the hard way how rare and difficult the traditional progression from high school to college at 18 and from college to either graduate school or the workforce at 22 really was. Experience taught us why someone would want to chuck college—whether temporarily or for good—and go sit on a boat. Without someone to attribute wild fantasies to his unexpected departure, Tom just became the first of many.
But Tom still found a way to be different. And as it turned out, I would be the last of our group to converse with Tom or, for that matter, even see him.
And little did I know that anyone would ever ask.
Nearly two decades after we’d last seen one another, Ken and I realized we live just a few miles apart–closer than when we were in high school. So we met at a little pub in south St. Louis and spent some time catching up. We talked about our careers, our families, and everything else you talk about after not seeing someone for a very long time.
Toward the end of the evening, he whipped out his phone and pulled up a very old picture. On the far right was a classmate I hadn’t seen since the day we graduated. On the far left was Tom.
Ken told me how Tom had swooped in that first summer we were back, sold all his stuff, then disappeared without a trace, and that he never saw or heard from him again.
“Have you seen this man?” he asked emphatically, pointing at Tom’s image on the phone screen as he said each word.
I smiled. Pausing for a minute to collect my thoughts and transport myself back about a decade and a half, I said, “Do I have a story for you.”
After I graduated from college, I hung around another year and a half, working on campus as a network administrator. One Saturday, I was visiting a friend who was living in a guy’s basement just off the Mizzou campus, around the corner from my old fraternity and the Campus Lutheran Church. As I walked to my car to unlock it, I heard a voice calling my name.
I spun around and didn’t see anyone.
“Dave!” it was louder.
I saw someone waving across the street. The voice was familiar but the face sure wasn’t. He grinned.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
I shook my head, and he introduced himself. The fisherman had returned, and was hiding in plain sight.
His trademark glasses were gone, and although I don’t remember many details about his hair, it was styled and trendy. He wouldn’t have looked out of place playing an instrument in an alternative rock band. He invited me in, where he introduced me to his girlfriend, who was someone I already knew–I’d lived next door to her former boyfriend for a couple of years when I was still in college.
We talked. He didn’t mention the fishing story and I didn’t bring it up. He’d loosened up a lot over the years and seemed happy. I think he smiled more in that few minutes than I’d seen from grades 8-12 combined. Then he told me one of his favorite things to do was to dance naked in the rain.
And then, when the look on my face indicated that I didn’t share this pursuit, he looked at me like I was the one who was weird.
After spending far too long thinking about it, I now believe he said that just to see how I would react, or to illustrate that he didn’t care what anyone thought of him. Or both. Was this guy trying to be the anti-Dennis, or did it just come naturally?
The conversation and the visit ended without me thinking of that particular question.
I saw him, or his girlfriend, or both, another time or two on campus. We’d wave, and that was the end of it. Later that year, I moved back to St. Louis to take another job, and if it hadn’t been for Ken bringing him up, I might have never thought of him again.
Ken couldn’t believe it. He tried to call Matt. The funny thing is, he’d actually described a scenario with Tom becoming some kind of hippie-bohemian. Then again, Matt had riffed on everything short of Tom becoming dictator of his own island nation. Or dancing naked in the rain. I know Matt. Matt would have described Tom dancing in a loincloth in the rain, had the idea occurred to him.
Unfortunately, Ken didn’t have a good phone number for him, so I couldn’t hear Matt’s reaction live and firsthand.
So we parted ways, and I said I’d see what I could do to solve the mystery.
On my way home, I got to thinking. It had been nearly 20 years, and mine was the one and only confirmed sighting. Dan thought he saw Tom at his parents’ church, once, and he’d slipped away without saying anything. Is it possible he’d disappeared again for good?
Ken couldn’t find Tom. But I knew things Ken didn’t know. I knew for a fact that Tom didn’t stay on that boat. I saw him at Mizzou in the late 1990s. And chances were he was there to go to class. There wasn’t any other good reason for him to be there.
And then I ran that scenario to ground. What if Tom hadn’t stayed a bohemian? What if the bohemian phase was just another part of what he did to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and refocus?
All of these were assumptions that ran through my head as I drove home that night in 2012, years after I’d last seen or even thought about Vanishing Tom. I assumed a lot. What I knew was that I was going to crack the mystery. I’m a trained journalist. I found people while having less to go on, especially in this age of the Internet. And speaking of the Internet, although I’m not really a professional hacker, if I had to describe what I do for a living in two words that a layperson would understand, those are pretty much the two words I’d have to use. Which is why I’m Hacker Dave. I had tools, and I was going to use them.
Working under the assumption that he did eventually enter the white-collar world in some fashion or another, I found him. Not only did I find a web page with his name and a degree from Mizzou listed, it also had a picture. It was unmistakable. His hair was businesslike and was wearing glasses again, and he had a forced smile on his face. That’s understandable; his rare but familiar mischievous smile would probably look unprofessional. He graduated with a degree in history from Mizzou, then went east, attended law school, passed the bar exam, and is now practicing law somewhere in New Mexico. And he looked the part. If I was in New Mexico and needed a lawyer for some reason, I’d call him in a heartbeat.
I saved the address of the web page I found. I was going to need it, but not just yet.
“Hacker Dave found something,” I messaged Ken. I couldn’t bring myself to just send him the address. I couldn’t resist making him wait a little longer.
“You have my attention, sir!” he responded the next morning.
So I sent him the URL, adding a triumphant, “I found the ghost!”
And Ken couldn’t believe it.
In some ways, I killed the legend. Ken spoke of Matt describing mundane things in grandiose terms, and there was no way the real Tom ever had any hope of living up to a couple of decades of piled-on grandiosity. Then again, Dennis’ version of the legend needed to die. The ultimate slacker who threw away a promising life to drift along the coast of Florida catching fish gave way to a guy who dropped out of college for a semester or three or ten, figured out what he needed to figure out, then came back to school, relaxed and adjusted and with newfound perspective, declared himself a history major, graduated, went on to law school, headed west, and started practicing law. Along the way he got a little weird for a while, but didn’t we all? It’s always just a different flavor of weird.
Life on a boat, however long or brief it would have been, likely did Tom a world of good. It’s hard work, and being the smartest guy on the boat wouldn’t have bought him anything. There’s also no privacy, so you either lose your shyness and inhibitions or you just don’t survive. The front of the boat is called the head, and it’s also the boat’s bathroom—which is where the expression “hit the head” comes from. When a sailor needs to use the bathroom, he does so with an audience. So to a sailor with any experience at all, the dancing-naked-in-the-rain bit is no bigger deal than something we all have to do several times a day.
All of us except Dennis–and especially Matt–ascribed to Tom the fortitude that we never had, and that’s one thing I have to admire him for. I wouldn’t have been able to come home at 19 and announce to my parents that I was dropping out of school, selling everything I owned, and becoming a fisherman. We both lived in nice houses in the suburbs and had nice cars and expensive computers, and we went to school with some people who had none of that. Some of them lived in $40,000 houses in run-down neighborhoods and rode the bus everywhere they went and could vaguely recall having seen a computer or two at school.
Tom and I were comfortable. For that matter, all of us were comfortable. He left it behind voluntarily and I didn’t.
It didn’t happen in a weekend, but the intelligent and determined Tom did get his attitude adjustment, thanks in no small part to that willingness to blaze his own road. And today he probably has enough status built up to impress even Dennis, even if he took a much less conventional road than Dennis took. But I’m sure Tom can tell much better stories. Maybe he even talks about the time he spooked an old high school classmate he ran into at Mizzou. And unlike Matt’s stories about Tom, all of Tom’s are true.