Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Luke Tucker - A Pearl Harbor Day Tribute


Luke Tucker was a wrinkled, loose skinned man with scraggly, white hair when I met him in 1980. His arms were hairy and covered with dark tattoos. He drank way too much, and I could smell the alcohol wafting from his Airstream trailer before sunrise on Sunday mornings. He had a quick wit, and would spout out one-liners whenever I delivered his newspaper. Over time we developed a friendship.

For the first few months, I delivered my papers from a baby stroller, often pushing the stroller with one hand while playing a broken harmonica (which my dad had given to me when I was four) with the other. One day Luke gave me a sturdy, new Western Flyer wagon with high slatted wooden sides. It was waiting at his doorstep when I came by. He said that if I was going to be delivering papers, I needed a good wagon or a bike to do it right. For Christmas the next year, he bought me a chromatic harmonica. It was exactly like the one my dad had given me, except that this one was shiny and new, and all of its reeds were in tune. I was 10 years old, and life was good.

Luke began meeting me outside whenever I'd come around in the afternoon. He'd sit out on the shaded cement patio listening to the tinny sounds of an ancient transistor radio. He would usually offer me a cup of lemonade or a 16oz glass bottle of Coke. I would tell him about my day at school, and he always had some new joke to tell that he had heard at the auto-shop where he spent his days helping out.

Over time, that familiar Sunday morning smell of alcohol disappeared, replaced by the pleasant aromas of bacon, sausage, strong coffee and maple syrup. The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals (already old classics by then) would be playing on his portable black and white television, which was connected by a flat cable to a tall, old-fashioned metal antenna outside. Canned audience laughter slid through the crack of the thin, cold aluminum trailer door as the sun began to peek over the eastern foothills.

Luke had long since met my mom, who correctly surmised that he was a harmless, likeable old man. One day, he asked her if it would be o.k. to have me over for breakfast some mornings after my route. Those old Sunday morning programs had always been his favorites, he thought I might enjoy them, and he would be happy to have the company. Besides, he was already making breakfast anyway... She gave her permission, on the condition that I didn't stop at his place until after I had finished my morning deliveries.

From that day on, I would finish those Sunday papers by 6am. Then I would rush back to Luke's trailer park, wagon in tow, or riding the bike that I'd purchased with my paper route money. We'd sit and watch the hijinks of the Stooges and the goofy humor of the Rascals. We laughed and laughed at those corny episodes. We'd trade jokes too: the latest that I'd heard at school and his better, grittier versions from decades long past. Eventually, always - Luke would go outside and light up a cigar. He would look through the smoke, into the distance, in silence. For a few minutes he was somewhere far away, in some unreachable part of his mind. Sometimes I'd stand out in the cold with him, quietly hoping that he really didn't feel as alone in the world as he appeared.

It wasn't until a year or so later, when he was the subject of a full page write-up on Pearl Harbor Day in our local paper, that I learned that Luke Tucker, my Luke Tucker, was a Pearl Harbor vet. I was shocked. How could I not have known? I was excited to see him again, to ask about his experiences, and to hear his stories of adventure.

It was a weekday evening; Luke was on his patio. He was drinking. He had had too much. I don't remember now exactly how the conversation went, but he went off on me and called me names. I was so upset that my mother went to his place and gave him a piece of her mind. She told him that if he ever spoke that way to me again, that interaction would be our last. He was either going to treat me well, or our friendship would be over.

The next time I saw Luke, his eyes were smiling through slow, silent tears. He was so sorry for how he had acted. I said to him, "I was just surprised that you were a hero all this time and I never knew it. I just wanted to hear your side of the story. I'm proud to know someone like you." The tears began to stream, but his posture remained stoic. His gaze was fixed straight ahead, looking at nothing. Slowly and deliberately he said, "I'm no hero. You don't want to hear the stories that I have to tell, and I don't want to tell them. I lost a lot of friends in that war; they are the real heroes. It's because of them that you'll never have to know the things that I know."

His big, leathery hand clasped mine for the first and only time. He looked me straight in the eye, and told me that I deserved all the best that life had to offer. He said that he was thankful to know that a child of this generation could live with so much joy. "You are a good kid and I'm proud to be your friend." Then he asked me to please, never ask him about that war, ever again.