T for Tom

Negotiations in the Desert

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on February 21, 2018

The sound came in as if from outer space, bumbling easily along on waves of activity like gentle beams from outside the known, a message of peace from the unknown. It sounds like night descending without relent, no more tomorrows. Just a long bleeding line of darkness.

That was the feeling out there in the desert. The pattern is familiar and the refrain is soothing, but it looms with regret, or even somber acceptance. It is an acquiescence – “no more false promises.” Somehow, in spite of the better part of this automatic life promising greater if not just simply other things than anything like this, we wake up in the desert. And then we wake up in the desert again the next day and the day after that and on again that way until someone of importance tells you to board a plane and go home. This could be metaphorical, but for me it was literal. And the notion of having a place to be is now senseless.

Home becomes the unknown and then rightfully dissolves. Familiarity, comfort, being in a place of belonging, these sensations are after all this time now relegated to the sound of kicking larger stones across smaller stones that line the sand floor during the walk to the dining hall, sitting on one concrete pillar for a cigarette while staring at the concrete pillars directly across that provide a blast shelter to every building and road and become ubiquitous, or rising early in the dark to see the one spectacular and humane thing available that is the cold, cold rising desert sun striped in purple and red across the long, flat orange and yellow horizon only to curse the same sun mere hours later as it melts a pair of boots to the cement and pasting the wind-blown sand onto skin and into hair.


The sunset from the back of the USS Ponce, November 2012.

These are things we’ve never done and certainly were never meant to do. We run timed miles on uphill roads along chain link fences hundreds of miles from the nearest Quonset hut. We drag boxes of water bottles over a hundred yards into our tents and stack them five feet high so the single stream of chilled air from the vent can cool the bottles to a drinkable temperature. We each take up a hobby or two that will fill our time and do it over and over again every day. We have all the time in the world and somehow we didn’t do all the things we wanted. I wrote a book, mostly. Two people have read it in its entirety.

I’m writing it again, differently this time, though the thing remains the same. Because the memories can’t be swatted away enough. “Heartache one more chance for you, All those things in the days before.” I sat there alone, at a desk, in the tents, in the tents that were our offices, in concrete corners of concrete towers alone with the wind-whipped trash to just get a minute to myself, or on Sundays in a half-crooked lawn chair tucked away in a dried-up wash berm behind the mobile shower unit that didn’t work any longer, the berm high enough to block the light from the flood lamp over my shoulder and the sky just dark enough to see the stars through the sand in the nighttime sky. Those moments were simulacrums, facsimiles, representations of things I knew in forms I’d never known before and never experience again. It was a series of negotiations.

All the while using these fake plastic moments, we’re left with the memories of things we can’t any longer see. Foods, persons, clothes, weather patterns, foliage, sleep. These things are replaced with choruses of indignation, collective shouts, grunts to the familiar. We churn. And somehow amidst the time lost, an actual year of life and choice that cannot be taken back, we replace our acknowledged home with this open air prison. Coming back from the unknown, we long for more. There is never more comfort than in a life on the edge. And soon, memories replace memories. “Memory leaving what you knew, former times how they follow you.” We now think only of the desert, we think only of outer space. In outer space, the worries of man whither to dust, wash to energy. It is a place of wonder.

How to get back? The strange machinations that made it possible are treacherous, impossible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. It could be that a desire to their effect is evidence of my crippling. I too have become unhinged. But I think of these modes, these methods, these negotiations, and I think of a time when I was at my highest frequency. I was alert, I was kinetic. I was interstellar. And whenever “Streetlights fall on hollow night, I see up ahead what could be.” I see the dark and I am not afraid. I see the dark and I do not wait for the light.

I try to picture myself in the desert and think of the work. The good, terrible, painful work of getting it all down, putting it to paper as much as putting it to rest. A true literary history must be told, of all that exists out in the open. There are no more stories, only the things that have been done. There are no more fantasies, only the horrors of man.

I’ll let you know when I get mine down again. It’s not about the desert, though, but a time on the way there. And aren’t we all on our way on to the desert.


I was there once, in the desert.


Drunk in a Cabin Room

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

31 DEC 17


I see these things that are becoming possible and I remind myself it isn’t that bad

And yet

I know that driving across the country is a whole waste of resources

And yet

I know there are few other ways to get there

And yet

I know I don’t have to

And yet

I don’t want to stand still

And yet

What am I proving by trying to keep moving? 

And yet

How am I to live?

Reconciling this world with its past and its future.




From the Table of Peculiar Rocks

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

31 DEC 17


There are no problems to be here

Such as we know

Only shade and finding room in the shadows

Crawling darkness to darkness until nighttime we grow

Hand in hand backward in time

Where all men are created equal

And equally able to die


Alone here in the desert

Only the ocotillo to watch

And the Sotol Valley to rot

Just another ripple in time


In sands, in the shadows that roll on lines of the ridge

Out with the day and in with the night

Or rotting away in the dead dead quiet.




From the Chimneys

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on January 10, 2018

30 DEC 17


To places no one goes

To see friends no one knows

It’s Puff, the Magic Mountain.


Up where no clouds fly

Reaching highest heights

Our Puff, the Magic Mountain.


There in the center valley

A line of common allies

With Puff, the Magic Mountain


Some things just aren’t meant to make sense

There on the top

Of Puff, the Magic Mountain.


On the Chimneys Trail, looking back toward Mule Ears.


Sea of Dreams

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

The valedictorian was the son of a truck driver

Had two brothers

Both older

Valedictorians the same.

I was eight seats behind the youngest when my name was called at graduation,

In order by our grade point average.

Some two hundred were behind us

Ordered by name to save them the shame.

But the kids at the top were spotlighted

And for us it felt like the inauguration to life.

It was affirmation that the kids would be all right.


With the applause came the dreams made for us

As much as by us

And the weight of expectations.

Those in the back came off easy

Because the valedictorian, well,

He was supposed to be a doctor.

The second fellow a lawyer

And the girl in third a politician.

Didn’t matter that we were sons of truck drivers

And so the dreams of our fathers weren’t out of sight.

The kids in the back could just smoke grass

And they’d be all right.


Those stuck with dreams weren’t the only ones to go on learning

And we weren’t the only ones to drop out either

We weren’t the only ones drinking underage

Smoking all day

And changing our minds

And for everyone it’s safe to say

We all missed the mark by a little.

None of us are astronauts, were never meant to be,

But a few of the kids are still all right.


A few of them made a few more moves and played it safe

Went out and became teachers before taking wives.

Not too far out, really,

When you’re still that close to shore.


A few others waded too deep and took the first thing

Married, then kids,

Then the fucking mortgages

While the lucky ones died just before.


We’re not really dreaming when we’re all doing the same thing.


Best to burn out bright

Or not go gently into night

Or whatever it is that keeps you from floating

Shifting around with human ghosts

Nothing to see

All of us lost on the sea of dreams.


An Open Letter

Posted in Prose, Trying To Get Published, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on July 26, 2017

An open letter to my parents, their friends, and strangers like them:

Did all your dreams come true? Do you have everything you’ve ever imagined and more? I imagine you must be sitting there in a broad, window-lined living room, a small dog at the foot of your lounging sofa, the room dimly lit with ornate lamps, the spaces filling with the sound of Sinatra and a crackling fire while you or your spouse finish cooking in the kitchen where all the countertops are marble and the stove is electric. Somewhere in the garage are two SUVs and a stable of camping equipment for the many vacations you’ve taken and the many more you plan, miles of American highway that never stand in your way from the time away with your family. You return, you always do, because of the obligations of work and family, and spend the days in between your weeks alternately going to work and walking into church. The pension is growing, and there’s no need to worry when the boy and girl both need football equipment for their summer teams (soccer for the little girl, of course) because you’re on track for your third promotion and should have yourself set up quite nicely by the age of 55. No, nothing else could be needed.

Is that why you won’t let us have anything? Are you sitting there in that living room right now thinking, no, there’s nothing else the world could have or do, and so I will do everything I can to keep it just this way? Because I can’t think of any other reason to support the ideas, policies, and moral politics of a corrupt body that willfully, purposefully, and cruelly works to malign, injure, and put to death millions of people swiftly and at once.

If you are sitting there comfortably on your way to a rich retirement (and I don’t think you are), how did you get there? I believe you had opportunities, plural, rich opportunities in a world with less competition – when an entire race (or many entire races), gender, and age group are not allowed to gain employment in the only few sectors that pay salaries commensurate with a single family’s needs, do you feel that you fairly competed for the things you enjoy? Do you think that you got to that home, the two vehicles, and the recreational time by being treated equitably? If you think it’s been fair, you should look around. It hasn’t been, has never been fair, but the world is not ready to quit changing.

I have a strange fear, a real deep fear, that I’m wrong – you aren’t sitting there with a book in hand, staring out the windows at the light snowfall, dreaming of your upcoming beach vacation. You’re standing over the work desk, driving a truck cross-country, tossing boxes into the delivery truck, loading fish from the dock, or chopping trees. When you’re done you head home to a two-bedroom house with a five-member family, a kitchen without a stove, and only one car to drive the family. Worse, no car. Your marriage is tense because the bills are paid paycheck-to-paycheck while the children beg for more. Worse, no bills are paid and the children are still begging. And to top it all off, you remember sitting there in your parents living room – that same one I imagined for you – where the Christmas tree is lit, the presents stocked underneath, and you wonder why you don’t have the same. And worse, in your wondering, you believe the best way to get it is by getting back to that world where it seemed so possible – the world where everyone else (those weirdos with their dark skin and gay lovers and young punk hair) are stifled, put back in their place.

I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish you had the open-ceiling sunroom, afternoon sky gently illuminating your cocktail hour. I wish you had the trim garden outside with the veranda where you entertain your guests, telling jokes about the 18th hole. I wish you had the dreams of your fathers fulfilled just as they imagined for you. Because it would mean that these things were possible, in spite of the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials.

Because the immigrants and the homosexuals and the millennials aren’t going anywhere. This is their world to inherit. You and your friends have held on longer than usual, the benefit of growing medical science. There is reason for grievance – at the age now where you’ve either secured the healthcare you need through riches, or by simply living long enough to own state-funded Medicare, your choices and decisions and feelings about others (everyone else) is that they don’t deserve it. It might be even worse. Maybe you know they deserve it, too, but because you can’t think of a way for both of you to have it, you’ll selfishly deny them to keep your own. I can think of a few ways, but me and my generation, haven’t been allowed the clout of decision. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

I wish I didn’t grow up knowing I’d never have full garage or a mantel trimmed with Christmas stockings. I wish I didn’t grow up making plans to own very little, not even home to call my home, for fear of debt and the subsequent inability to move about. I wish I didn’t have to show up at work worried that my hair might make me seem out of place, or that I’ll never get promoted in time to cover my expenses because the supervisory jobs are held by boomers who never got their retirement. I wish I didn’t have to consciously, deliberately deny myself children because this world can’t sustain any more, or worse, the consequences of war and climate change would keep them from even living a full life. I wish I could sit there, like you wanted for yourself, without a worry in the world.

I am thankful, however, that you raised us in this world. Without the heartache, the unending the debt, the racism, the age discrimination, the wars on your behalf, the political manipulation of women’s bodies, the general diaspora of hate and filth, I wouldn’t be here today wishing you well. I might be just like you, in that living room telling the world to stop growing, stop changing, I like it just the way it was. I am thankful that I am eyes-open to the starving, the slaving, the shaming, the stealing, the warring, and the killing. Because I don’t want that for anyone. And that’s more important than what I do want for even just myself.

There isn’t enough for everyone to have large homes and multiple gas-fueled cars. There isn’t enough for everyone to have retirement funds or closets full of clothes or food for baby or books on the shelf or luxuries upon luxuries. There’s barely enough water on the planet as it is. We’re all just trying to survive. Those of us who suffer are catching on that the good life is an oasis, if not a myth outright. Don’t be so ignorant as to suffer and not yet be aware.

Because whether you have it now or never got it and still dream of having it before you die, I’m tired of you taking it from me before I ever even get it.




How Are You Doing?

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on January 12, 2017

Where are you? What are you doing? Is everything okay, now, there with you where you are? It’s been a long time but I haven’t forgotten you at all. I have a hard time living with the idea that I will never see you again because I haven’t forgotten a single one of you.

Over thirty years I’ve met a lot of people. I’d venture to say in the 20,000s or so. It seems absurd as a number, but really, think of the groups of people you’ve spent your life with each year: a different class of students yearly until the age of 18, sports teams, team mates and their parents and siblings, teachers, bus drivers, grocery workers, friends, class mates, and reaching college to know more students, athletes, professors, graduate assistants, then finally coworkers and their families and children and friends and everyone possible along the way that every shook your hand or smiled from the street. How are all of you?

On the start of my 31st year and fourth decade, my concerns are for you. Not in any way negative, but just simply that I have a hard time reconciling that I will never see any of you again. These are the lessons of my first thirty years.

The amount of people I learned to know and knew well amplified tenfold in a short window while in the Army. There, in basic training or overseas or in my garrison or just in passing while wearing the same uniform, I met thousands of wonderful people. Some stayed in my life for years while most were there for a day and sometimes a week or a bit longer. It was the nature of things, something that we were vocally taught by our superiors to embrace – life will lead many people to a million different possibilities. What I liked about this lesson was made clear upon my return to America, that something so evident in the vacuum of the army, was in fact true of all our lives. We go on our own ways, leaving behind everyone we’ve ever known. It’s not in neglect or for ill will. We each just got to do our thing.

So if you’re out there, I hope you are well. The world has conspired to change little in the years that have passed, and I hope you adjust admirably to the upcoming years ahead. Things are getting worse, and they’ve been consistently poor for most of our time now, and I worry about what will happen to each of us. I worry, really, for the sake of the world, but for those of you I’ve known, seen, met, loved, hated, fought for and against, you especially.

Without every single one of you, I would not be here today. I would be somewhere else, but I’m right happy to be here and having known all of you.

Let’s tackle the future ahead.



Thoughts, Pt. II

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 13, 2016


I’m tired of being immensely talented but living without action.


More than half of my life has now been spent with America at war. This is something that exists in photos and textbooks, can’t be touched, and yet feels real. There are children who, at 15 years old next month, will have never lived in an America not at war. It’s been five years since we killed Osama Bin Laden, since we got our man, and nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Faced with the possibility of taking a few steps backward to navigate a new way and new path to forge ahead, it’s easier to incrementalize a few inches on the same warring path, pick different battles, distraction, turn on the television, Cheetos.


If in a serious sense we ponder at the how or why Donald Trump has made it to this point in the electoral process, we’ve failed to consider the right facts. Day after day and week after week as the nominee of a major political party continues to eschew racism, bias, xenophobia, and fear, no one has asked yet what actually can or should be done. Instead, the continued refrain is one of incredulity. But the lack of solution is not for a lack of trying. There have surely been calls to change the nomination system, to void the party lines. But that’s not thinking. That’s working within the system, and we must decide the entire system is a failure.

Donald Trump is not a product of a New York life, or a rich man’s trust fund, or a life spent outside of the trenches. He is a product of America, if not the product of America. And the longer it takes until we decide to close shop, call it a day on democracy, and find something else, this will not be the last time we are shaking our heads at a failed election. We are all to blame for this.


When everyone has a voice, the smartest no longer shine through. It’s a numbers game, always going to lose.


As bad as I like to think it gets, man, it can be so much worse. There are women in Venezuela undergoing sterilization so that they don’t get pregnant and bring a child into their world. And I sit here unwilling to march on Washington. I’d like to, but it doesn’t feel like a single man or woman can make a difference in a world with so many engines moving on the same line.


Was at a concert the other night and always have a thought every time, that at some point somewhere in time there were, and maybe still are, musicians who try to use their music to impact the public, protest, what have you. I wonder why it doesn’t still happen, but then I know it clearly has never worked.

It takes a lot of money also, to not only make the music but broadcast it in a way that people will hear, especially if you want people who don’t look for music to hear it. Stages, microphones, amplifiers, cameras, water and food, broadcast television, news release. The musicians don’t have that money, not in this world. Been abused too long at the hands of those in control.

It takes sponsors to put on something that big. And sponsors have corporate interest. Never will be a big enough protest until someone takes a risk, musician or not.


Still growing out my hair.


One of the things I always noticed when I came back here, to this place, and maybe I’ve talked about it before, was how there are a lot of cars on the road in need of repairs, a lot more than ever seemed to be before. People just don’t have the money to fix things anymore, and keep on livin’ with less. I wonder how deep it’ll go before something happens.


Just heard a baseball announcer say “I had asked you a question but the national anthem began, and you can’t upstage America.”

Yes you can.