Thurman P. Woodfork

THE WAY WE WERE

Tom Bina, his wife, and grand-children: Christmas 2005
Tom Bina, his wife, and grand-children: Christmas 2005
I just heard from an old Air Force buddy named Tom Bina. He found me because of a story I wrote about him and posted on my web site (Canoeing on Lake Superior). What a great feeling it is to hear from an old friend. The intervening years since we were last together just faded away under the influx of resurrected memories.

You wonder how much the guy you’re about to reunite with after so many years has changed from the picture you’ve been carrying around in your mind. It’s for sure he’s not going to be much like the kid sitting smiling at you from your photo album, or maybe doing something silly (and life-threatening) like hanging off the side of a mountain from a tree limb. Or speeding down a Spanish highway tossing empty champagne bottles from the car and singing bawdy songs in English and broken Spanish. Thank God, the Guardia Civil never spotted us. (But I digress – this is about Tom Bina and Finland, Minnesota, not my buddies in Spain.)

There was the time in Minnesota when a squadron mate jumped over my GTO on a snowmobile. Believe me, it wasn’t my idea; I didn’t know he was anywhere around. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even see him coming. He spotted me driving up the access road to the site and laid for me. I heard a roar go over the car and then saw him land on the other side of the road and speed off through the snow – scared the hell out of me, along with a few choice words.

And there were pranksters like Tommy Bina, who dumped me, fully clothed, into Lake Superior. He told me today on the phone that he wasn’t trying to drown me. I knew that – the fact that he’s still alive is proof that I knew it. Sometime later during our tour at Finland Air Force Station, he got into an auto accident at a speed that actually knocked his shoes off. I remember he was wearing Chukka Boots, and they were still buckled after they came off his feet from the force of the impact. Fortunately, I wasn’t with him at the time.

(I Googled ‘Chukka Boots’ on a whim, but the ones I found on the Web don’t look all that much like the ones Tom was wearing back then. For one thing, they all have laces instead of straps and buckles.)

But what the hell, he was young and healthy; he healed rapidly – including the shaved spot on his scalp which was easily covered by his hair – and he was soon tooling back and forth again between Minneapolis-St Paul and Finland Minnesota in his little green rag top sports car. I think it was an MG. I wonder if his wife knows about some of the adventures her businessman husband used to have in his younger years. Tom has his own construction business now and has raised a couple of kids, so I don’t guess he drives a sporty green MG convertible anymore.

One thing I remember about Tom is that I stopped to hug him on my way to my car to head out for my next duty station in Sunny California. He came out of his room when I was leaving the barracks and held out his hand as I approached him. For some reason, instead of shaking his hand as he expected, I hugged him. I’ve had guys hug me as I was leaving other duty stations, but I had never before initiated it. Shows you how much I really liked Tom. Good Old Bina Bits; I knew I’d miss him. He was an all-around good guy, my idea of the American Boy Next Door… minus the occasional shots of booze, of course.

Sometimes, he would come into my room after he’d worked Swings, remove the headphones I’d fallen asleep wearing, and turn off my stereo without waking me. It was a while before I discovered he was my mysterious guardian. I’d wake up in the morning and find the headphones hanging on the head of the bed. One day, he asked me how the hell could I sleep so soundly with those big-assed headphones on, and I said, “So you’re the one!” We were both radar maintenance types, but I worked straight days. Of course, the after dinner Old Granddads and Scotches probably explained why I slept so soundly at times.

You sit and reminisce a bit about your time together, and your mind slips on to other places and other friends, and the good times and escapades you experienced with them. I don’t know about other folks, but I rarely think of the unpleasant people I knew. It’s the friends, the good guys like Tom, who most often people my reveries. I guess since I didn’t want to be around the dorks when I knew them, I don’t want them mucking up my memories, either.

Talking with Tom reminded me: All the years from a wide-eyed basic trainee to a cynical old sergeant preparing for retirement – all the joy and fun and good people in between. No wonder it wasn’t all that easy to take off the blue suit for the last time and walk away from what had pretty much become a way of life.

Meeting up with an old friend from those now distant days brings it all back, fresh and new. Like the song says, “… so it’s the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember the way we were.”