I apologize for offering a downer post (and a long one) during the holiday season. Feel free to skip it if you want to concentrate on merrier thoughts. I promise, I understand.
My father, Tom Allston, died on Christmas Eve, at 4:41 am Central Time, in Amarillo, TX. (I know the exact time because the hospice where he spent his last few days relayed that information to everyone concerned.) He had spent years struggling with ever-worsening effects of COPD, and eventually reached end-stage heart failure. My brother Stacy and I went up from Austin and saw him on December 19 and 20, in essence to say goodbye.
So I’m dealing with the situation the way I know how — by writing about it. I don’t expect this post to be particularly well organized.
My father was born with the name Tommy Dale Allston a few months before the start of World War II. (He hated the name “Tommy” because of its diminutive aspect and legally changed his name to Tom Allston later. He was sufficiently concerned with me not experiencing a similar fate that he insisted I be given a name for which there was no diminutive form in Anglo culture, hence “Aaron.”)
A little of his childhood was spent in Amarillo, the majority in nearby Pampa. He was the son of Oliver and Ruth Allston; Oliver worked at a Pampa car dealership for many years. Tom was the younger of two children; his older sister, Charlotte, is still with us.
Over the years, Tom had a lot of different professions:
- He was a musician, all-state in high school band. He played any number of instruments; I remember him with woodwinds, brass, keyboards, saxophone, and guitar. He did pick-up gigs with bands playing for Anita Bryant, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and other well-known performers. Toward the end of his life, until his physical condition made it impossible, he still fronted a jazz band in Amarillo.
- He was a teacher. He taught high school band, chiefly, I believe, in the first few years after graduating college. More on that later.
- He was an oil roughneck. I remember him doing oil field work in the mid-1970s, and am under the impression that he had worked the fields in earlier years as well.
- He was a journalist, on staff at the San Angelo (TX) Standard Times in the early 1970s and perhaps earlier, then with the Amarillo Globe-News starting in the mid-1980s. Between those two stints, in the early 1980s, when doing other work in the Dallas area, he also served as a stringer for Dallas newspapers. He retired from the Globe-News a few years back.
- He worked in advertising, in Dallas in the early 1980s. He found that to be unrewarding, even soul-killing work.
- He was a photographer. Every house of his I visited had a darkroom.
- On a non-professional basis, he was a motorcyclist and shady-tree mechanic.
- He wrote. He had a strong interest in science fiction and fantasy beginning long before my birth. I have volumes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells he gave me when I was a child. As far back as I can remember, he wrote SF&F as well as more mainstream work. During the 1970s, he sold short stories, articles, and columns to motorcycle-enthusiast magazines such as Bob Braverman’s Cycle Rider.
Putting that into perspective, well, he was a really talented guy. As a child, I envied his skill set… though I eventually had reason to lose some of that envy, for reasons I’ll get to below.
Tom was married twice.
He met Rose Binford of Corsicana (TX) while attending North Texas State University, the college that eventually became the University of North Texas. They married, and I was born in 1960, when Tom and Rose were 21 and 19 respectively. My brother Stacy came along four years later. That marriage lasted until the mid-to-late 1960s and was formally ended around 1970. After their separation, my brother and I lived with our mother, in my case until I graduated high school and moved to Austin.
His second marriage lasted from the early-to-mid 1980s. I was in Austin for those years, trying to get my career off the ground, and only met the lady in question on one visit. She had a daughter from a previous marriage; Tom adopted the daughter. That marriage, too, ended after a few years.
At other times, Tom tended to live in a sort of college-roommate situation. During the summers Stacy and I visited him, he shared a succession of houses with a succession of musicians, journalists, and miscellaneous iconoclasts. I seem to have inherited that trait; it’s the same sort of living arrangement I’ve enjoyed (though with a consistent set of housemates) since the mid-1980s.
In the mid-1980s, Tom moved from Dallas back to the Texas Panhandle to help his parents, who were getting on in years. He was there for his father’s death in the early 1990s and his mother’s death just a few years ago. He stayed in Amarillo afterward, up until the end of his life. After his retirement from the newspaper, he remained active with his jazz band and with a writing group, honing his writing skills.
None of the above information really offers a sense of who and what Tom was, though. It’s merely a framework. He fits in there somewhere, but you have to look more closely to spot him.
And as with every other human being, spotting him means observing him from only one specific angle at a time, from one limited perspective. It’s like parallax view — walking beside a high privacy fence, a gap of a fraction of an inch between each vertical slat, your brain trying to assemble a consistent image of what lies beyond. Inevitably that image will be incomplete.
The first perspective I had of my father was that he was a multi-talented and busy guy. He was always doing interesting things — researching writing assignments for newspapers or magazines, playing gigs, witting up late at night in coffee shops bantering with waitresses and writing in his little notebook, cycling, developing pictures… After our parents separated, my brother and I only lived with him for a few weeks per year during summer vacation, but his lifestyle never seemed to change.
As I got older, though, I saw him hop from profession to profession and I wondered whether that volatility might be doing harm to his personal life and to his long-term career interests. It seemed a very insecure way of life &mash; a succession of jobs, a succession of rental houses. Even as a young teenager, I wondered if that contributed to the fact that his relationships with women seemed to have short trajectories, to the fact that his careers never seemed to gain traction. I inherited some writing ability and inclinations from both sides of the family — my maternal grandparents were also journalists — and it seemed to me that it was kind of a relief for me to be able to focus on only one profession.
Anyway, as with just about everyone, you learn more about Tom from the anecdotes that surrounded him than from a dry synopsis of dates and facts. Here are a few stories.
|Tom didn’t like guns. But it would be a mistake to think of him as a pacifist. He came from a rough-and-ready little Texas town and he didn’t like violent attackers, either. When I was very young, he kept a sawed-off pool cue loaded with lead shot in the headboard of his bed, a deterrent to robbers and home intruders. In later years, when I was visiting him during summer vacations, the pool cue had become a machete. Still later, he did acquire handguns to become proficient in their use and comfortable with them, but I’ll always remember the humorous dichotomy of my asking him why he had a machete in his headboard and him replying, “Because I don’t like guns.”|
Tom had an intense dislike of racism, based more on the lack of any logical or empirical-evidence basis for it than on any other factor, I believe.
In college, he and other musician friends would connect with a black friend and go out to local restaurants, obliging those establishments to conform to the newly-enacted racial integration laws. My father and his friends, according to the stories, were harrassed, threatened, sometimes assaulted for these activities — but kept doing them.
Which points to another Tom trait: When it came to issues of his personal lifestyle and beliefs, for better or worse, he simply wouldn’t compromise. He sometimes suffered for his choices, but he didn’t back away from them.
When I was very young, Tom taught high school band.
Understand, back in those days, the early 1960s, high school band courses in Texas were often taught as if they were team sports. A band was expected to win competitions with other bands. That, and supporting the school football program, were their only reasons for existence.
For that reason, band students were often taught a limited number of pieces each year, taught to play them note-perfect and competition-worthy… similar in effect to teaching an actor to speak foreign-language dialogue phonetically. At the end of the project, those actors can’t speak the language; at the end of the school year, those band students could only play those few songs. They weren’t really musicians.
Which isn’t the way my father was willing to teach. He went in to teach those kids to be musicians, and by all accounts, he did.
But they didn’t win competitions as frequently, and at the end of a school year, my father’s contract would not be renewed by the school district. He’d move on to another school, and eventually to another profession.
Again, no compromise.
Then there were father-and-son games. Fathers and sons go out in the yard and flip a football around, or work on a car engine together, or explore the mysteries of a charcoal grill. Right?
“Hinky-pinky,” he’d say. “Durable plastic column.”
Which sounds like gibberish, but it’s just shorthand for the start of a word game. “Hinky-pinky” means “What follows is a clue for two two-syllable rhyming words matching the clue.” Hink-pink would signify one-syllable words, hinkity-pinkity three-syllable words, and so on.
So I’d furrow my brow, think about it, and say, “Nylon pylon.”
Which made it my turn. I’d say, “Hinky-pinky. Jamaican spaghetti.”
And so on. We played word games, logic games. Sometimes they weren’t games. Whenever I’d make an unsupported statement in conversation, such as parroting any of the innumerable dumbassed urban legends kids accumulate — “The guy who played Superman? He thought he was Superman, he put on a cape, and he jumped out a window. Killed himself.” — Tom wouod call on me to support it. I got good about arguing my points. I got better about not repeating urban legends, the opinions of ill-informed people, or the countless other forms of misinformation that suffuse our culture.
At a certain point in a process like this, ordinary household conversation becomes banter, and stays that way for the rest of your life.
And then there are some details that aren’t exactly stories, but contribute to a better understanding of who he was.
- He hated the government — not the concept of government, but rather government waste, politician hypocricy and misinformation, and intrusiveness into individual rights. Still, on my last visit to see him, he told me that he was happy to have lived long enough to see the United States change to the point that it could elect a black man twice to the Presidency.
- Though not precisely ambidextrous, he could write with his left hand just as well as with his right, but his left-hand writing was backwards. His handwriting was identical in the two directions, mirror images of each other.
- My parents decided that my brother and I would call them Tom and Rose instead of Dad and Mom or any other equivalent. Throughout my childhood, people looked at me strangely because I addressed my parents by their given names.
I didn’t see much of my father in the last twenty years or so of his life. He didn’t come down from the Panhandle. I didn’t go up from Central Texas.
There was no emotional distance involved. We were always in touch, either by phone or, after it was introduced, e-mail. I always knew what he was up to, he always knew what I was up to. I always wanted to know what was next from Tom. But we somehow lacked the emotional need to see each other in person. When I did get up to see him last week, I was, in spite of warnings, startled to see an old man superimposed on the father I remembered. Oh, the Tom I knew was still there, emerging at regular intervals from beneath the mask of age and white hair, but the mask itself was unsettling.
Was I close to him? I guess the answer is no. We weren’t really involved in one another’s daily lives. We didn’t turn to one another for emotional support. We were, I think, too much alike to be close at that level — we were close in temperament, outlooks, and emotional needs (or lack of them).
And I know that this distance has made some people ask whether I really cared for my father.
Did I love him? Hell, yes. Without question.
Will I miss him? Again, yes.
And I’m angry at the world for allowing there to be a world without him. The world needs more Tom Allstons. The world needs more people who color outside the lines, make us think, refuse to put up with bullcrap, and create.
But Tom and I were, I have to admit, a bit reptilian in our family relationship. As soon as the hatchlings left the nest, it was time for everyone to turn attention to other things.
Whenever we saw or spoke to each other after that, it was with great cheer and enjoyment, never any animosity, never any old grudges. But then we’d go our separate ways and time would pass. A few months. Three years. We’d run into each other or call each other, and it was as if the intervening time had been only a day. But time was indeed passing.
Time ran out for Tom Allston, and now there’ll be nothing new from him, no news, no updates, no projects.
The Once and Future Tom
Except… He left behind a large number of manuscripts. He was a good writer, though unwilling to compromise his creative instincts to make his work more commercial. But times have changed, and it may be that the new era of digital publishing will allow me to get his work out in front of people.
Perhaps more people will come to know his name. Maybe there will be a “What’s next?” after all. Perhaps people will ask me, as some did when my career was just starting, “You any relation to Tom Allston?”
I’d like that.
March 27, 1939
December 24, 2012
Tom didn’t like to have his picture taken. But I know I have a good one of him, from the early 1980s, around the house somewhere. With my eyes, it’ll be hell to find it, but when I do I’ll scan it and put it up.
Also, I’m certain that, relying on the uncertain memories of a child and teen, and having received many stories about Tom second- and third-hand, I’ve gotten some facts wrong. So I’ll post one or more follow-up blog entries with more details as those details add up.
Thanks for listening.