Aragorn is dead. In case you hadn’t heard.
He passed away on the last day of February due to complications resulting from a recent surgery. His family was able to say their goodbyes to him in the hours before his passing. A memorial was held in his honor on March 3rd in a beautiful canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains; an area he had traversed many, many times, often in search of lost or injured hikers.
He was not just the character in a book. Not to me.
In August 1963 my family moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Tucson, Arizona to help with my father’s chronic bronchitis. Quite an adventure for a nine year old about to turn ten. I’m not sure what my older brother thought, but I was looking for Cowboys and Indians behind every rock along the way: El Paso, Las Cruces, Texas Canyon, and finally Tucson (the Old Pueblo).
I started the fifth grade that fall at Peter Howell Elementary School, and after several weeks living at the Terrace Motel (in another part of town) we moved into a duplex on Swan Road. There were thick palm trees in the front yard, and a screen porch on the back of the house. To me, it was exotic.
There were new creatures to learn about: horned toads, lizards, rattlesnakes, Gila monsters. There were new plants to see: many varieties of cactus, ironwood, mesquite, palo verde, and Texas ranger. And there were new things to watch out for in the yard: goat heads, prickly pear spines, and other enemies of the feet and skin.
It was an adventure without parallel in my life. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Along with the extreme environmental differences there were new people who entered my life, too. Some time before I began the 6th grade we moved just a few blocks away from Swan Road to 2nd Street in order to get a better rate on the rent. The small stucco duplex to which we relocated rented for $65 per month (as I recall). And just across the street . . . as we would soon discover . . . lived a young man, with his wife and newborn child. His name was Aragorn.
No, it was not Viggo Mortensen (although Viggo did a fine job playing that role in Peter Jackson’s movie, The Lord of the Rings). This man’s name was Thomas. And he would soon become one of the most influential men in my life.
Thomas was a Texas Tech graduate, an archaeologist who branched out into dendrochronology (tree ring research), employed at the tree ring lab that was housed in the football stadium at the University of Arizona. He enjoyed a 16 ounce bottle of Coke at least three times per day, was an avid reader, and an experienced outdoorsman who volunteered his services to SARA (the Southern Arizona Rescue Association).
In my tween years and beyond, he became an important male figure in my life. He taught me how to drive his old late 40s model Chevy truck with its “granny” low gear. He gave me lessons over and over again in a game that was something like Othello. He gave me the best advice on dating that I ever received (although I didn’t realize it at the time; I thought he was being silly). He introduced me to books, music, and the great outdoors.
One thing that stood out the most about our new neighbors was this: they were adults who still knew how to play. And that was rather appealing. Their house was open to so many different types of people; it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. From children (like my brother and me) to college age, to middle age, and beyond – the people who frequented Thomas’s house were as diverse as they could be. There was one remarkable thing most of them had in common – they all loved Tolkien’s story, and they had “Ring Parties” during the year where they enacted parts of the trilogy.
A majority of these persons were members of the rescue association I mentioned above. And so the “Ring Parties” were characterized by battles in the mountains around Tucson, or in the mountain caves, with Nazgul rappelling from railroad bridges. It was elaborate. Most striking of all, perhaps, was the fact that year round these persons would be referred to not with their given names; rather, the Tolkien character names they acted out.
And so, there was Sauron, Legolas, Treebeard, and others whose real names have since vanished from my memory. And Thomas was . . . Aragorn. Strider. Married to Arwen. I was usually a hobbit. I had not yet grown into a Tolkien name that would identify me.
Aragorn was a man of high character. So was Thomas. Aragorn was a leader; not arrogant and never cruel. This was Thomas as well. Aragorn, they say, had Elven wisdom. So did Thomas. He was a safe man to sojourn with. He was kind. He was strong (Thomas had legs like tree trunks, I thought). He was soft spoken, yet authoritative.
One night Thomas set up a telescope in his front yard and showed me the rings around Saturn. Now, it’s one thing to see beautiful photographs of Saturn’s rings, or even look at them through an enormous telescope at an observatory . . . but to actually look through a telescope in a neighbor’s yard, and see them in person (so to speak) – well, as you can see, I haven’t forgotten the moment to this day. And that was about 45 years ago.
If you were lost in the desert, or stranded somewhere in the mountains of southern Arizona, Thomas is the man you would want looking for you. They said he seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to locating lost or injured hikers in the wilderness. And when he wasn’t wearing the “cape” of rescuer he could be found in the U of A tree ring lab, dressed in his usual shorts, t-shirt and sandals, examining core samples and dating them. And yes, in case you are asking, he knew exactly where to find the oldest tree in the world, the famous bristlecone pine.
I can still hear his various laughters, and can picture him as he exhaled rather noisily through his nose just before sharing an insight, or making a humorous pronouncement that usually included a tongue-in-cheek reference to “those damn kids.”
I am told that his memorial lasted upwards of 5 hours this past Sunday afternoon. I am not surprised. There were many stories to tell, countless memories to rehearse. My brother was on hand to participate, and to tell the tale of how Thomas lost part of his finger while he and my brother were together on an outdoors excursion. Their truck had gotten stuck in a dry streambed, so Thomas created a winch by twisting a long strand of rope (hooked on one end to the truck bumper, and the other end to a tree beside the streambed) with an iron bar. Unfortunately, when the tension grew too great, Thomas lost control of the bar, and a part of his finger was twisted off in the process.
Thomas remained calm and lucid enough to instruct my teenage brother in what to do for him from a first aid standpoint, then he sent him to look for help down the road. Ever after that day, one look at his marred hand would remind us all of the story of his courage and aplomb that fateful day.
That was decades ago.
And now, the memorial is over. Thomas has been laid to rest. And it occurs to me that I have lost my last living father figure.
If Aragorn had been lost in battle in The Lord of the Rings; if Frodo and the other hobbits had lost their valiant leader, Strider, before completing their fateful journey into Mordor – the sadness would have been unbearable. His presence, his strength, his wisdom, his courage – made the accomplishment of their life’s task possible. Yes, even probable.
I owe much to my own friend, Aragorn, too. I am glad I was spared losing him at a much younger age. I am not sure I could have made the journey. But now, with the passing of my own father, then my mother, and now – Thomas – I sense my own mortality more clearly than ever. And I pause to value the influences on my life, the persons who have marked me indelibly.
“I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts,” said G. K. Chesterton.
Because of Thomas and his wife, I was first introduced to Tolkien as an 11 or 12 year old. Now, almost half a century later, I am convinced more than ever that that “way of looking at life” has been “ratified by the mere facts.”
We all play Tolkien characters in this life, whether we recognize it or not. Thomas “Pippin” (his given middle name) – he was Aragorn.
And I was his friend.
I will miss you, my friend.