Dec 4, 2006

Remembering Thomas VandeWierd least I believe that was his name. During the late 40s through the mid-late 50s, dad and his brother Granville were farming together. We had leased 2 adjoining farms for a total acreage of a little less that 500. Granville worked full time on the farm, but since dad was employed in town, we always hired a guy to take his place. Granville’s two sons and I always split milking duties and I spent most of every summer working on the farm. I always felt (because I was told) I had to out-work anyone we hired. If I slacked off, then any hands would slack off also. This applied to both regular and seasonal help. So, I had to set the example. We had a bunch of great hands over the years, but we had our share of nuts too. Which brings us to Thomas VandeWierd.

Tom was a short, skinny, nervous little fellow which now reminds me of Don Knotts. It’s hard to watch an old Andy Griffith show without imagining Tom shaking his gun as Barney Fife. He was just as jumpy. But Tom had a very good reason for his jumpy behavior. One day he confided in me that when he was in WW2, he was captured by the Japanese. Then over the next many months, he told me horror stories of how the Japanese would run slivers of bamboo under his fingernails to get him to talk. Don’t know why they needed to do that, he never shut up on the farm. Hmmm, maybe they didn’t know he could speak a little Japanese. He also told me never to get my finger in his mouth because he could bite it off without knowing it. See, his captors pulled out all his teeth without using any pain killer. He still didn’t talk. Later, they put in false teeth plates and attached them with screws bolted into the jaw bones. That way, he didn’t have any feeling in his teeth so he could bite a nail in half without knowing it. I sure kept my fingers out of his mouth from then on.

Another thing he cautioned me about - never, ever slip up behind him without him knowing it. He was trained in jungle warfare for his overseas duty. He was so highly trained, if someone startled him, his reflexes would take over and he could kill or maim before he had time to think. Boy, I always whistled or sang where ever I went. I didn’t want to scare him and take a chance on getting killed. A regular Rambo he was. For years after he was discharged, he didn’t sleep at night. He was so highly trained, he could go for days without sleep. He must have forgotten his training by the time he worked for us, because I caught him in the fields napping many times instead of working. At night, he told me, he would walk the borders or fences, always on lookout for anything that might bring harm to him. He really didn’t have any worries about that on our farm. The most harmful varmint we had were skunks. I found out if you whistled and didn’t sneak up on them, they wouldn’t attack and kill you either.

One day Tom came to our house and asked to use the phone. Mom and I were the only ones in the house so we went into another room to give Tom some privacy. Later, Mom passed by the phone and saw Tom had left a piece of paper with a phone number on it. Under the paper was a thin paper neatly folded. Mom never let privacy get in the way of curiosity, so she unfolded the paper. It was his Army discharge papers. He had only been in the military a few months when he was discharged. He had never been captured, or overseas. He never had jungle training or any of those things he told me about. We were not familiar with the discharge code on the papers. The next day, Dad asked some of his buddies who served in the military what the code meant. They told him that was a psychological discharge - he was a nut case! Strangely, Tom never told me any more war stories. Looking back now, I doubt if he even knew how to speak Japanese.

I remember one day Tom was in the field with the tractor and Granville and I was working on some machinery at the barn. It was standard practice to fill up the tractor and a spare 5 gallon can with gas each morning. This would more than last until noon. After lunch, you will fill up the tractor and spare can which would last until time to milk the cows that night. About mid-afternoon, Granville and I looked up as Tom walked into the barnyard. Granville asked him what was wrong. He said he had ran out of gas. We asked why, Tom said he forgot to fill up at noon. He was empty handed so Granville asked, “Where’s the gas can?” Tom stopped mid-stride. He looked at the ground for a few seconds, then, as if fighting back tears, yelled out “I forgot it. It’s still in the field!” As he turned around and headed back toward the field, Granville, who was never one to be overly sensitive to another’s feelings, yelled back, “How do you expect to carry the gas - in your hip pocket?” Tom spun around, fists clenched and tears running down his cheek screamed back, “Alright, by God, I quit!”

We thought that would be the last we would see of Tom, but that was not the case. A few days later, we received a phone call from him. Seems as though he tried to hop a freight train to get out of town. Just as he jumped, he slipped. One leg went under a wheel and was cut off just below the knee. Dad talked to the Frisco Railroad a few days later. They said it was a good thing he missed the train. Just a few feet away, were tall grain storage elevators. The Frisco guy said there was not enough room for a person between the rail car and the elevators. He would have been crushed to death had he not slipped and fallen.

Ironically, that location was in front of what used to be Roberson’s Feed, Coal, Grocery Store and Gas Station. Both Dad and Granville worked there when they first came to Springfield and before they were married. Rail cars would stop there and Dad, Granville, and several others who remained life long friends would unload the coal and feed.

That particular location holds a lasting memory for me. One Sunday after church, we stopped there for gas. Dad was outside the car filling it up and chatting with the Robersons while mom and I sat in the car listening to the radio. All of a sudden, mom begin to yell at everyone to come and listen. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

When both of our daughters were youngsters, Donna and I bought an old 3 story house just a few blocks away from that intersection. I always loved that neighborhood and it seemed more like “home” than any place I ever lived. I miss the good times we had there and occasionally drive around the old neighborhood just to see how it looks. It hasn’t changed much - our old house is still in great shape, but the Roberson’s store has long disappeared. I share a lot with the old neighborhood - I’m in great shape - for the shape I’m in.

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