Gone Too Soon: Remembering Michael Tom

Today has been a difficult day.  Twenty years ago today, my very good friend Michael lost his life.

This is not the sort of thing I normally write about.  But if it had not been for Michael, and his influence on my life, there’s a good chance this blog would not exist.

I have been passionate about history since I was eleven years old.  I first became fascinated by history when my family visited the eastern United States, particularly the significant sights of Colonial and Revolutionary America.  It was at Colonial Williamsburg where I was first exposed to the concept of living history, and I knew that I wanted to take part.

By the time I reached university, my interest had shifted to the Middle Ages, and I had developed a significant interest in the history of England.  My college hosted a small Renaissance festival, and it was there that I first met Michael.  He and another man were both wearing chainmail, and bashing each other with wooden clubs.  I wanted to get involved.

Over the years, I got to know Michael better, and he became a very good friend.  He was ten years older than me, and I looked up to him like an older brother.  Michael was known throughout the Medieval group for his skill-at-arms and for his chivalrous behavior.  He taught me about simulated Medieval combat; but he was also a firearms enthusiast, and taught me gun safety and handling.

I got married shortly after college; I met my wife through the Medieval organization.  My bride had known Michael for many years; as her father was already gone, she asked Michael to escort her down the aisle.

I started losing interest in the Middle Ages.  Michael and I got together to watch war movies, and we attended gun and militaria shows.  I had some interest in the British Army, but didn’t know much about its history.  I started reading about the Falklands conflict, which I vaguely remembered from my childhood, but wanted to learn more.  My first exposure to the Parachute Regiment was reading about their actions at Goose Green and Mount Longdon.  I started collecting British uniforms and equipment.

At the beginning of my career, I didn’t earn much money, but my wife and I were able to buy a small, comfortable home; Michael helped us move.  There was little extra money, but I kept collecting militaria where I could.

Michael got involved in World War II reenacting, with the British 1st Airborne.  He took me to a training event and some public displays.  I bought my first Enfield rifle, but most of what I wore was borrowed from my friend.

1AB 1990s

Michael Tom (far left) with the British 1st Airborne.  Photo courtesy Jeff Bieler.

In the winter of 1996-7, Michael developed a persistent cough.  He thought it was a cold that wouldn’t go away.  Finally, his fiancée convinced him to see a doctor.  It was throat cancer.  He only lasted a few months after the diagnosis, and died on November 30, 1997, a few days after his 39th birthday.  I was devastated.  He had been my friend, my brother, my mentor.  And he was gone.

When Michael knew the end was near, he wanted me to inherit much of his British military collection.  I joined the WWII British 1st Airborne, determined to carry on his tradition.  His trousers and helmet did not fit me well, and I started getting my own items.  But to this day, I still carry his pack and some of his equipment.  The deactivated Sten gun that I bring to public displays had originally been his.

It has now been twenty years.  I have lost several friends and family members since then, but the loss of Michael still hurts the most.  Because Michael taught me what he knew, and helped me get involved in reenacting, I wanted to pass along that same kindness.  I have made it my mission to teach others, and to help anyone who wanted to join the organization.  If I have done anything good or decent in the last twenty years, it has only been a dim reflection of the kindness he showed me.

11-30-2017 Edited