What Thomas taught me
Disclaimer – This article has nothing to do with being vegan, but I am writing about one of most significant moments in my life, an event that I have never really been able to talk or write about.
If you are around the same age as me, you might recall the song “Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrmann. This song went viral in 1999, but before that it was an essay in the Chicago Tribune by columnist Mary Schmich. The essay was a hypothetical commencement speech filled with great advice on how to live a happy life, advice that I vividly remember to this day. Some of my favorite words of wisdom are
Don’t worry about the future
Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing Bubble gum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind
The kind that blindsides you at 4 p.m. On some idle Tuesday
I often find myself worried and stressed out about things that don’t matter, and at 7:30 a.m. on an idle Wednesday exactly four years ago I was blindsided by something I would never have anticipated.
At the time, I was stationed in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, but I was attending training in Yorktown, Virginia. Since I wasn’t on any type of duty status, I slept peacefully with my phone on silent. When I woke up on Wednesday 29 February 2012 I checked my phone, like most of us do, and noticed countless missed calls and texts. As I tried to focus my eyes and sort through the barrage of information my heart began to race, I began to panic and then I started crying uncontrollably. I immediately called Natalie, who is now my wife, and desperately tried to get the words out. There was no proper way to say it. “There was a helicopter crash, and I think Thomas is dead”. She began to cry and at this point I was inconsolable, I came face to face with death, and I was devastated and terrified. The night before Coast Guard Helicopter 6535 crashed into the Mobile bay in Alabama and all four crew members passed away including LCDR Dale Taylor, LTJG Thomas Cameron, ASTC Fernando Jorge, and AET3 Andrew Knight.
Thomas Cameron was two classes below me at the Coast Guard Academy, I trained him during his initial indoctrination, cheered for him at soccer games and taught him how to sail. I was also lucky enough to be stationed with him in Puerto Rico during the last months of his life before he attended training in Mobile, Alabama. I wasn’t as close to Thomas as I would have liked to have been, and I know that if we had spent a full tour in Puerto Rico together our friendship would have grown. Thomas was taken from us too soon, but the short time that I spent with him changed my life forever.
One of Thomas’ best friends Jack recently got married to a beautiful Puerto Rican girl. Jack mentioned during his wedding speech that he doesn’t like to talk about Thomas around people who didn’t know him because there are no words to describe accurately how great of a person Thomas was. I know that there is no way in this short blog for me to describe Thomas, but I hope I can share some of the lessons he taught me, lessons that have made me who I am today.
Just keep paddling.
Puerto Rico is known for having world-class waves and people travel from all over to surf them. If you have ever surfed, you know that it is an extremely difficult sport and requires years of practice to gracefully ride a wave. When most people decide they want to learn how to surf, they will get a large stable board, find some small forgiving waves at a beach with a soft sandy bottom to cushion their fall. Thomas took a different route. When he arrived in Puerto Rico, he decided that he was going to be a surfer. Shortly after his arrival, the surf picked up and he was excited to get into the water. We arrived at the beach and the waves were a hollow five feet breaking over a shallow slab of reef, about the worst conditions you can imagine for someone’s first day of surfing. Despite my friends and I warning him, explaining how unsafe it was and telling him that he had no business going out into the water, he went for it. Thomas was an amazing athlete and in incredible shape, so he had no problem on the short paddle out to the break. Moments after getting out there, with minimal instruction and no fear he paddled for the first wave. Everyone tried to call him off and we all cringed as we watched the events unfold. It was a relatively large wave and he was in a terrible spot on it, catching it way too late. The next thing I saw was the board flying in the air, the wave violently crashing on the reef, and there was an explosion of white water with sand and spray shooting into the air as the wave released its energy. Everyone was nervous and hoping that Thomas wasn’t hurt. Moments later, he popped up to the surface with a huge smile on his face. There wasn’t a person in the water that day who didn’t smile with him. We were all fairly certain that thrashing would end Thomas’ surf career, but he paddled right back out smiling all the way. He then preceded to try and catch countless waves that resulted in more ruthless beatings. Every time he came up smiling and paddled right back out grinning ear to ear. Of all the surf sessions I have ever had this will always be my favorite, not because of the conditions, or because I caught some great waves, but because I will always remember seeing Thomas paddle back out, smiling, somehow enjoying being obliterated by wave after wave.
- Surfing is like many other things in life in that it takes dedication, practice, and time to be successful. No matter what our goals are, we are going to fail at times. We are all going to get thrown onto a shallow reef, but it is imperative that we get back up, smile and paddle back out again, as many times as it takes until we succeed.
- We must not be afraid of failure, if we have never failed at anything we are most likely playing it safe and not setting goals that challenge ourselves.
Smiling is contagious, we should remember to do it often.
- We have to enjoy the process, not just the goal. Thomas didn’t come anywhere close to catching a wave that day, but he made it seem like he was having the time of his life while he was out there. He enjoyed the beautiful weather, the crystal clear water and being surrounded by his friends. He was never upset or frustrated by the fact that what he was doing wasn’t remotely close to surfing.
Have people over for dinner.
One of the last nights I spent with Thomas was when he invited all of his friends over for dinner. He was very concerned about making sure I had something to eat and I told him not to worry because I would bring my food. He then made a huge feast for all of our friends and we drank wine and enjoyed each other’s company. The part I will never forget is just how excited he was to have everyone over to spend time with him. He made everyone feel important and welcome, and all he wanted to do was make memories with people he cared about.
- It doesn’t have to be fancy, or planned well in advance, but we should try and have people over for dinner. My wife and I are always talking about having people over, but we don’t do it nearly enough.
- We should strive to make people feel important. Thomas had a way of making you feel like the most interesting person in the world whenever you talked to him.
Think about how you want to be remembered.
When Thomas passed away it was extremely tragic because he meant so much to so many people. It seemed that when he left us, people from all over came out of the woodwork and each had a different story about how amazing Thomas was. Thomas had runs, workouts, sports complexes, and countless memorials celebrating his life. Everyone did their part to honor his memory. He touched the lives of so many people and the world is truly a better place because of him.
When Thomas passed, it had a profound effect on me and made me deeply question my life. His death made me face the hard truth that I am not invincible, especially because Thomas died doing what some of my best friends and I do for a living. His death made it very hard to say, and even harder to believe that nothing bad would ever happen to me.
They say that death smiles at us all, but I certainly wasn’t smiling back, partly because I knew I wasn’t half the man Thomas was. At this time in my life I was in a pretty dark place and didn’t treat people as well as I should have, I was kind of a jerk. Hearing all of the great things about Thomas and how amazing of a person he was inspired me to think about how I want to be remembered, and the legacy I want to leave. I took a long hard look in the mirror and have been striving to be a better man ever since. Life is short and precious and we only get one shot at it. We must live our lives knowing they won’t last forever, but our legacies will.
- None of us are invincible.
- We must always live the lives we want to be remembered for.
There is nothing more important than friends and family.
The morning when I learned about the Helicopter crash I called Natalie who is now my wife, and I am not sure how I would have handled it without her. I was scared, vulnerable, upset and angry all at the same time and she took care of me. I leaned on her and she helped me through everything. It’s hard to try and find the meaning or the good behind something as tragic as a helicopter crash, but it made me realize how much I needed Natalie in my life and eventually led me to marry the greatest woman I could ever imagine.
After Thomas passed away, I also started to question if flying helicopters was worth the risk. It had been my dream my entire life, but I was very scared. Fortunately, I have some of the most amazing friends in the world, who understood because they are also helicopter pilots. We would call each other and make sure we were all still ok, often having very emotional conversations about flying. I am confident that the only reason I still fly is because of my friends. I realized my friends are all heroes who have dedicated their lives to the service of others, and I am continually inspired by them. Despite the risks, I kept flying, and I still fly because my friends were brave enough to do it, and I know it is what Thomas would have wanted. Duby, Ryan, Tony, Jack, Dustin, Kenny I don’t know where I would be without all of you. You are all heroes and have helped me live the life I always dreamed of.
- We must never take our friends and families for granted. When things go wrong in our lives, we will need their support to get through it.
- Our relationships are precious, and none of them last forever. We must cherish them.
Whatever you believe in or whichever god you talk to is perfectly fine with me, but I can tell you I still feel like Thomas is around. He often runs through my mind and I can see him just as if he never left. Sometimes I can imagine him working out with me in the gym, or I will think about him when I am flying, but whatever the case may be I know he is watching out for us and that I am a better person because of the small amount of time I spent with him. I learned from Thomas that life is precious and I want my life to mean something. I will never take it for granted.
Thank you Thomas.