Friday, April 07, 2006

Thomas Yoshiro Blosser (November 3, 1951 - March 23, 2006)

Tom, my brother, had died of a heart attack last night, my father said. The finality was jolting when my father called with the news on Friday, March 24th. The next morning, my wife and daughter and I packed up and headed down to Birmingham, where Tom had been living the last twenty years. We were not quite sure what to expect, since Tom had virtually dropped off the face of the earth after the death of his wife in 1987. He had called once or twice, but he left no forwarding address, and no telephone number where he could be reached. We didn't even know he was living in Birmingham. Apparently, he never quite regained his footing after Wendy died.

The obituary in The Birmingham News gave only the following spare details for Thomas Yoshiro Blosser the following Monday morning:
BLOSSER, THOMAS YOSHIRO, Accomplished local musician, Thomas Yoshiro Blosser, died suddenly of natural causes on Thursday, March 23, 2006. Born November 3, 1951, in Muroran, Japan, he became a naturalized US Citizen, was married to the late Wendy Holcombe, and is survived by his adoptive father, Eugene, and siblings, Philip, Rachel and Meiko. Memorial Services will be held on Monday at 2:00 p.m. at Charter Funeral Home, 621-0800. Published in The Birmingham News on 3/27/2006.
These few sentences, of course, do not begin to fathom the story of Tom's life; nor can I, for that matter, in the brief compass of this post. But the story begins long ago in Japan.

Tom's original family name was Sudo, and his given name was Yoshiro. He was born in the city of Muroran, in the coal mining region of Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan. Not much is known to us about his father, except that he does not seem to have been in the picture for long. Tom had a sister and an older brother, who were all given to be raised by their grandmother. At age six, Tom was given up for adoption to our family. My father recalls going to the train station in Muroran where he and my mother met Tom, then still known as Yoshiro, and his grandmother:
Then the next morning we went to the station and they were there to meet us with Yoshiro all clean and dressed nicely.

Yoshiro's grandmother came also and said that if we didn't mind she would like to ride with us for about and hour on the train to the next big town which was about an hour from Muroran. So she accompanied us that far. We were able to visit with her and learn more about Yoshiro. When we arrived at the next large town and the train stopped the grandmother got up and bowed to Yoshiro and us said goodbye with a few words to Yoshiro and then turned and walked out of the train and didn't look back.
I had a younger sister, Rachel, but no brother, and had told my parents that I wanted a brother "the size of me" to play with. So when the possibility of adopting Tom presented itself, I was delighted. He was six and I was seven. I thought it a good match. The picture (right) shows us about ten minutes after Tom arrived at our home wearing his elementary school uniform (which served as "formal attire"), and we sat down to a table game. There was not a moment's hesitation: he jumped right in with both feet, and we were jabbering away in Japanese like old friends in no time. In another year or so, another sister was born into our family, who eventually acquired the Japanese name, Meiko.

That was in Taiki, a remote part of the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, south of Obihiro. We attended Japanese public school, and my mother home schooled us in English in the afternoons, using the Calvert School correspondence course materials from Baltimore.

On our first trip to the United States together -- I think Tom was eight and I was nine -- I remember all of us kids had trouble eating the rich American desserts. In fact, I remember about the only thing that Tom could eat, likely because it reminded him of Japanese Ramen noodles (which didn't exist at that time in the U.S.), was Campbell chicken noodle soup. On several occasions, my father would be invited to give an account of his mission work in Japan at one of his supporting churches in the U.S., and I can remember covered dish dinners following his presentation, with tables covered with food nearly as far as the eye could see -- fried chicken, spiral hams, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, chicken & dumplings, tuna casserole, green bean casserole, three bean salad, corn on the cob, cole slaw, buttered corn, deviled eggs, lasagna, spaghetti, chili, corn bread, apple pie, pecan pie, cherry pie, blue berry pie, German chocolate cake, Devil's food cake, spice cake, pineapple upside-down cake, angel food cake, ice cream ... And I can remember Tom looking over this vast expanse and tugging at my mother's sleeve and plaintively asking, "But, mommy, what is there to eat?" (I.e., no chicken noodle soup!)

It was during this furlough in the United States that Tom became a naturalized United States citizen. I remember it was at a court house in Hammond, Indiana. I think Tom's name may have been officially been changed earlier through the U.S. Embassy in Japan when he was adopted -- from "Yoshiro Sudo" to "Thomas Yoshiro Blosser." But now he was an American. Ironically, in some ways he would become much more American than I would, almost entirely forgetting his Japanese language -- so that I once had to serve as interpreter for him when we were back in Japan together. He also eventually embraced an identity as an American southerner, with the whole Nashville music scene he became involved in, which was almost entirely foreign to me. But this did not happen overnight.

Eventually, my parents moved us to Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, where they joined together with the international community in forming the Hokkaido International School (first founded as the "American School" in 1958), of which my father, in addition to his missionary work, became the treasurer. Since the school did not then have boarding facilities for its many missionary children, my parents established a hostel where many missionary children boarded during a period of years from 1964-1969. Hence, Tom spent his teen years surrounded by a gaggle of other teenage boys and girls from all over Hokkaido. Those that we knew best included Steve, Gloria, Barbara, and Ken Shenk, Dawn and Rosemary Buckwalter, Dan and Ruth Kanagy, Don, Wayne, and Ken Lammers (some of whom are pictured with Tom, left). But there were others.

After finishing middle school in Hokkaido, Tom and I attended an English-language high school in Tokyo, the Christian Academy in Japan, where we once scandalized the parents and administrators in an audience at a talent show by singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" for an encore. While in Tokyo, we also had the opportunity to briefly meet Darvin Yoder, our American cousin (pictured right, sharing a bowl of Ramen noodles with Tom), on his way to Laos, where he served his church in the religious equivalent of the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War. Tom briefly attended Hesston College, a two-year college in Hesston, Kansas. Soon thereafter, however, Tom, who was an accomplished guitarist and whose heart was always in music, began going on the road with various musical performance groups. And I mean various. He may have started out with bands cobbled together by college students. But he was eventually playing with the most disparate sorts of groups imaginable. He played in southern blue grass bands. He played in western honky tonk bands. He played in a rough band briefly in Hobbes, New Mexico. He once told me about a period of time he spent playing with an all-black band on the South side of Chicago, in which he was the token white boy. He said they took better care of him than anyone ever before or since, having him chauffeured around in their limousines and treating him like a royal soul brother. He said they all wore matching white suits, that there were a lot of saxophones in the band, which bumped and swayed in choreographed perfection with the rhythm and blues music. Although Tom's first love was acoustic guitar, he played base electric in a lot of these bands.

But where Tom hit the big time was when he began playing back up for Wendy Lou Holcomb (1963-1987), the teen age musician and fledgling bluegrass music star. Wendy had been promoted by her parents and entered into TV variety shows like "Nashville on the Road" since she was twelve years old in 1975. I think it may have been during her appearances in "Hee Haw" in 1980, that Tom first met her, when she was still just seventeen. Tom was already playing back up for entertainers like Louise Mandrell, one of the well-known Mandrell sisters. But just as opportunities for Wendy in television and the entertainment industry began to multiply, Tom and Wendy married, and he joined her as a permanent partner playing back up electric bass in her musical ventures. They made a tour of Israel in 1983 with Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman. Around that time, perhaps a bit earlier, they also made a world tour -- mostly of Asia, Australia and New Zealand, etc. -- with Perry Como as a blue-grass opening performance preceding Como's show. They were on a first name basis with stars like Doc Watson, and many others I cannot remember from the Nashville scene. Tom told me that he was once invited to fly across the country with Chet Atkins in his private jet with a small group of friends. Chet Atkins had long been an idol of Tom's because of his skill with the guitar.

The other thing I recall from this time is the drug scene. Tom once told me that it would shock the ordinary television viewing public to realize how many of their blue grass and country music stars were deep over their heads into drugs. Not just pot, but cocaine, and even more exotic stuff. Tom said that he succumbed himself to cocaine for a period of time. It was all around them. Thankfully, he later broke free of that vice.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Tom and Wendy moved from Florida to Hickory, North Carolina, to be near family. Tom came first, and stayed with us for a period of time, until he got a job. Then Wendy came, they rented an apartment, and set up a home for themselves here for a time. This was a relatively happy period in their lives. The oldest of our sons, Christopher and Jonathan, have vivid memories of Tom and Wendy from this period. Christopher writes:
I recall the memories I have of Aunt Wendy -- I remember the first time we met them both in Knoxville in 1985 -- they treated us nephews (well, Jon and I) to pizza at Chucky Cheese and a Walt Disney movie (The Black Cauldron). Later on they came to Hickory, NC, where they stayed for a brief spell -- Jon and I kept Aunt Wendy company while Uncle Tom was at work. (I remember it rather vividly because she treated us to Burger King and rented the video 'Gremlins,' and we had to stop it halfway through and watch GIJoe instead, because we were actually scared).

Funny the little things you remember.

I also remember when Aunt Wendy played banjo for our family and how impressed we were by her banjo picking. I remember she played "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" the theme to 'Bonnie & Clyde', although I was too young to recall the other songs, but we were so proud to have a real live country star as an aunt.
Jonathan writes:
Great memories. I remembered some things about Tom and Wendy ... like when they invited us over to the house for dinner one night. Wendy had that new and expensive little yip dog and you made a house for it out of a box.

Wendy then made us some HUGE ribeye steaks, though we didn't even know what they were or how to eat them as we'd only had liver, bologna or fish sticks in the category of 'meat' at our house. I remember "ruining" the steak by smothering it in ketchup, but I usually do that with most of my food. They also had UNLIMITED cokes in the bottle which Wendy would get cold for us by keeping in the freezer for a little bit. I was in heaven.

I also remember Tom singing the BATMAN theme song on his guitar, but he wouldn't let us play any of the tapes he had recorded of himself....

Pop, sorry about losing a brother.
From her childhood, apparently, Wendy was diagnosed with a heart condition. Already in Hickory, Wendy showed symptoms of advancing cardiomyopathy. At least twice, an ambulance was called to rush her to the local hospital, and upon arrival they had trouble even finding a pulse, her heart beat was so weak. Nevertheless, she seemed to recover quickly, and was soon her cheerful ebullient self. On one occasion, she visited my father in Iowa with Tom, and the one thing that stands out in my mind is her singular lack of any air of pretense. She met my cousins out on their farms in Iowa with the same cheerful interest and courtesy she would have showed any Nashville celebrities upon first meeting them. My children may have remarked at how long she took to put on her face in the morning; and I'm sure her appearance in Iowa that summer in bright red hot pants and nylons not only turned a few heads but kept tongues wagging for days afterwards. But, all things considered, she was a good and decent human being clearly raised to respect others and to value what is of lasting importance in life. She wanted children, though I'm not sure she could have had any. She wanted to get out of entertainment and to settle down to a 'normal' life, and hoped that Tom could get a decent 'ordinary' sort of job someday, perhaps in something like real estate; but that just wasn't in the cards.

After Tom and Wendy left Hickory and went back to Florida, we didn't hear too much from them until I received a tearful call from Tom in 1987 saying that Wendy had died. He was devastated. After that, he came to visit me once, and told me that he felt like his life was going down hill, as if he was slowly committing suicide and didn't know how to stop himself. It wasn't cocaine. As I learned later, he got out of that, and would walk away from cocaine if it were ever brought out. It wasn't alcohol. He didn't like to drink. It seemed to be just a lack of will. He called me maybe once after that, and my father maybe twice during the next eighteen years or so. Once he called my father to tell him that he had rededicated his life to Christ. He had done that several times in his life. He knew and understood the Gospel, no question about that. But he was carrying the weight of a world of hurt in his heart, and I'm not sure anyone can fathom all the reasons why. Abandonment as a child. Displacement. Questions of identity. Regrets. Spiritual struggles. Loss of Wendy in the springtime of her life. But whatever the reasons, the trauma ran deep.

Some of this we knew. Some of this we supposed. Some of this we only learned from those who knew Tom at the last when we went to Birmingham to see to his funeral and effects. We heard of Tom's death because two of his friends worked tirelessly, despite having very little information to go on, to find and contact his family. We will be forever grateful for the opportunity to know how and when his life ended, to participate in his memorial service near Birmingham, to meet the members of the community who loved him, and to bring closure to his story.

Tom did not leave much behind him in the way of effects. A few pictures, a wallet, some clothes, Wendy's Bible, a satchel of bookings and receipts from Wendy's world tour, a few clothes. In his last years, as we learned, he had taken odd jobs as a handyman, helping a brick mason, helping lay carpet, and so forth. At one time in his life, he was making a six figure income and owned several houses. At the end, he left this life with little more than he had when he entered it.

At the memorial service, many good folk who had shared their tables with Tom came forward to tell us how much Tom meant to them and their children. He was especially beloved of children. One youngster, named Trevor (pictured right, with Tom), from the family with whom Tom spent his last days, slipped me a note which said, "The body is gone, but the soul lives on!" and shook my hand, telling me earnestly how much Tom had meant to him. One sixteen year old girl came back early from a visit to Florida just to be at Tom's memorial service and meet his family.

During the memorial service itself, one friend of Tom's, a big burly guy named Eddie, sang a touching rendition of "Amazing Grace," accompanying himself with a guitar, and, chocked with emotion, couldn't get beyond the first verse. Another friend named Billy, also playing his guitar, played Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light," and also moved with emotion, did not get beyond the first verse. His mother, a dear lady who told us how much she loved Tom, read a religious poem she had written in honor of Tom. Other men and women got up, by turn, and spoke words about what Tom had meant to them. I spoke briefly about Tom's Japanese background, his adoption, and our childhood together in Japan. For all his difficulties, regrets, and human limitations, the one thing that most clearly emerges in my recollection of these testimonials about Tom is his utter lack of guile. This came out in different ways. A brick mason told me that Tom is the only person he has ever known who has never been in a fight. "He wouldn't know how to pick a fight if he tried," he said. Others said that Tom never spoke ill of anyone, or that he was one of the finest people they had ever known.

Tom wanted to be cremated and to have his ashes sprinkled over Wendy's grave. For me, the most emotional moment, next to getting my father's call, was identifying Tom's body and saying my goodbye before it was cremated. I asked the funeral director if I could have a few moments with him, and I anointed him with holy water I had brought with me and blessed him, invoking the name of the Holy Trinity. What could I do? A cremation takes about two hours. The resulting cremains are about the equivalent of a five pound bag of sugar. There were too many ashes to sprinkle over Wendy's grave. We settled on a compromise. Tom's wishes would be honored in part. But part of the ashes would be taken to my father, who could not attend the funeral; and part would be taken back to Japan, where Tom was born -- a fitting dispersal for someone of so multifaceted an identity.

Tom, rest in peace.

Of related interest:
  • Stories of Our Lives (of Eugene and Louella Gingerich Blosser) [written by Eugene Blosser based on Louella's diaries, edited by Amy Kari Blosser, and transcribed for posting by Christopher Blosser]
  • Grandpa Blosser & Family: Biographical Sketches [a photo journal of Eugene Blosser and his life compiled and posted by Christopher Blosser]
  • The Blossers [an index of the Blosser family compiled by Christopher Blosser linking his brothers and father to Eugene Blosser -- the link by which Tom's friends discovered his adoptive family after his death: they noted that Tom's birthname, 'Yoshiro,' is also the middle name of my son, Jonathan.]
Update - Christmas 2006

In early September, 2006, we took the major part of Tom's ashes to Iowa where my father had arranged an interment service. My sister, Rachel, flew out from Philadelphia, and my son, Jamie, drove up from Benedictine College outside of Kansas City where he teaches; so we had a good representation of our family present for the occasion. My father had secured a plot in the West Union Church Cemetery, north of Wellman, Iowa, for the interment. West Union was the childhood church of my mother, who died in 1983 and is also buried there. Over the Christmas holidays in 2006 we visited my father again in Iowa, with all four of my sons present, and took the picture of Tom's memorial stone.

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