Saturday, March 26, 2016
They buried my youngest brother, Thomas Eugene Norman, today. He was 59 years old. Everyone was there at Sunset Memory Gardens, east of Tampa: his widow, Diane, his constant companion and partner since they were teenagers; his three sons, Tommy, John and Joseph; his five grandsons, Thomas, Jacob, Justin, Elijah and Jax, our mother, Lucille Norman; our middle brother, Danny, Aunt Alice Walker, and all the nephews and nieces. They told me on the telephone that Tom had a lot of friends, and many attended. My mother mentioned names I hadn’t heard or thought of in decades.
I wasn’t there. I was confined in a North Florida prison three hours north, visiting with my wife, Libby. Thinking of all the family gathered for Tom moved me to reminisce about our family, and Tom’s role in it. Tom passed away in his sleep sometime during the night of March 15, a sad day for the Norman family. In talking with my mother on the phone many times since that night, I was able to learn details of our family life I never knew or had forgotten.
Our middle brother, Danny, was two years, eight months old, and I had just turned seven when our youngest brother was born on September 21, 1956. We stayed with our grandparents, Bebaw and Memaw Walker, who lived down the road outside of Redwater, Texas, 15 miles west of Texarkana for the five days our mother and Tom spent in the Texarkana hospital. Funny, I remember more clearly Dan’s birth, when I was four, than Tom’s three years later.
I do remember clearly the morning after Tom’s birth. All my aunts and cousins attended Redwater High School, which housed all twelve grades. My first grade class consisted of sixteen boys and four girls. Years later, in Florida, I wondered how the senior prom went for my class.
I don’t have fond memories of Redwater High. My teacher, Mrs. Johnson, a bulldog of a woman with a dark mustache, seemed to take an instant dislike to me, and I suffered through numerous paddlings for little or no reasons. Later I speculated that someone of my older relatives had offended her in prior years, and she took it out on me. When you’re a child, it is difficult to understand the actions of adults.
We were lined up for a fingerpainting exercise the morning after Tom was born. Mrs. Johnson had a line drawing of a barn, grass, tree and sky, red, green, brown, and blue paints, and each student was allowed to dip his or her finger into one of these colors and apply it to the paper. I wanted to fingerpaint my own drawing — artistic instincts kicking in early — but that was not to be.
When I’d made my way to the front, and it was my turn to dip my finger (I chose the blue), I said proudly, “Mrs. Johnson, I have a new baby brother. His name is Tom.”
I’ll never forget the mean expression on her face as she stared down at me. “So?” she said.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard one tiny word that hurt my feelings so much as her “So?” At that moment I must have despised her. I had no snappy comeback. I pressed my blue finger on the drawing, wiped the remaining wet paint with a tissue, sat at my desk, and suppressed the urge to cry. I never cried at her paddlings, and I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing her meanness affect me.
Before Tom was born we’d lived in a small white house on a hill, rented from the Clary’s, an older couple who had a large brick home next door. Leila Clary was a nice lady, and from at least the age of three, my earliest recollections of her, she would bake cookies and invite me in for tea. I was usually playing alone or with the dog outside in the yard, my bare feet and legs perpetually dirty, and before she’d turn me loose on her spotless floor, she’d pick me up, put me in her sink, and wash and dry all the dirt away.
We called her husband, Tom Clary, “Mister Tom.” All I can remember of him was a tall, older man, wearing suspenders and a hat. Looking back through time with my child-eyes, I’d describe him now as “Lincolnesque.”
The Clary place, where we lived, was small for a family with two little boys, and with a third child on the way, no way could we stay there. Memaw and Bebaw rented the Bonham place, a much bigger house with property down the road, and our Uncle Albert and Aunt Bonnie Thornhill rented the George place, past the Bonham place. When the Thornhills bought a house and moved to Texarkana, Memaw and Bebaw moved into the George place, and we moved into the Bonham place, twenty dollars a month rent.
Danny and I were playing in the yard after our mother and baby Tom came home from the hospital. Mister Tom walked down to our house to visit. The Clarys had a soft spot for our young family, and he came to see the new baby. Mama brought Tom out for Mr. Clary to see him.
“What’s his name?” he said.
“Thomas Eugene Norman,” my mother said. Our father’s name was Eugene Norman, but my mother told me she hadn’t named “Tom” after anyone, she’d just liked that name.
Mister Tom beamed. “You named him after me.”
My mother was too polite to say otherwise.
“He’s the best-looking one yet,” Mister Tom said, leaning closer to get a look at the infant. He would visit every now and then to check on the progress of Tom, always very proud of his namesake baby.
Tom was barely two years old when we moved to Florida from Texas in 1958. Dan was about four-and-a-half, and I was nine. Layoffs at the Lone Star Ordnance Plant and the steel mill in Daingerfield left my father unemployed with a wife and three children to take care of. We stayed with our father’s older brother, Rufus Norman, and Grandma Berta Lee Norman, in Dade City while Daddy looked for work. Later, we stayed with his younger sister, Eloise, in Lakeland, until Daddy rented a house outside Plant City, in Dover, east of Thonotosassa.
Things didn’t work out, and we returned to Texas for a few months, until Daddy got situated in Tampa, got a job with Booker and Company, and rented another house on a hill near Highway 301 and Fowler Avenue in Thonotosassa. If you can spell it and pronounce it, you must live there, people said.
There we were, father, mother and three brothers, in another little house on a hill, a thousand miles from “home,” on the edge of an orange grove in November, 1958. With few close neighbors in the country, we boys entertained ourselves, exploring the orange grove, the woods, and nearby fields. Once a week, Friday afternoons, we’d go to Temple Terrace, a few miles away, to the “Kwik Chek” Winn Dixie grocery store in a little strip mall with a Walgreen drug store, Ben Franklin dime store, and a hardware store. With our small allowances, we three boys usually headed as fast as we could to the dime store.
Tom learned to hustle for his money from a young age. He was no more than three years old when he went into the flower business. I can’t recall the exact date, but it must have been in the fall of 1959 or spring of 1960.
We lived in the little white house on a hill off East Fowler Avenue, rented from Arthur Wetherington, a wealthy farmer/rancher who owned the orange grove and property that abutted our large yard. We had a number of large, native grapefruit trees growing at either side of our house, plus a wide variety of Valencia, Hamlin, and Temple oranges, four tall avocado trees, a lime tree, two big jacarandas, Australian pines, and hibiscus. Between the rows of the orange grove grew every kind of native wildflower you could imagine.
Little Tom was drawn to the wildflowers, and would toddle along the edge of the grove and pick a few of the flowers. He would carry them around, then when he returned to the house, he would thrust out his hand, offering the wilted bouquet to Mama, who praised him effusively.
P.D. “Pal” Stokes was the choir director at Harney Baptist Church. He was fairly well-off in 1950’s terms, an independent cattle buyer whom I worked for in years to come. In his travels in his pick-up truck, he would occasionally stop at a large chicken farm in Masaryktown, north of Tampa, and buy several flats of eggs, wholesale, from a friendly old Czech woman. He would keep a flat of 2 ½ dozen eggs for himself and his wife, Verna, and give away the rest to various church families. He was a good, generous man, and never visited empty-handed.
One day, Mr. Stokes was sitting on our front porch visiting when Tom returned to the house with a scraggly bouquet of half a dozen or so wildflowers for our mother. Mr. Stokes smiled when Tom came up the steps and asked, “Are those for me?” and reached out for the flowers. Tom thrust the bouquet toward Mr. Stokes, who took them. “Why, thank you, Tom,” he said, sniffing the blooms. “No one ever gives me flowers.” Mr. Stokes reached into his pocket and handed Tom a shiny silver quarter. “Here.”
Tom took the coin instinctively, opened his palm, saw it was a quarter, a princely sum to any of us kids, his eyes widened, and he turned and dashed down the steps, running to the grove to pick more flowers. If one bouquet was good, two bouquets had to be great.
From then on, Tom kept his eyes peeled for Mr. Stokes. When he would hear the rumble of Mr. Stokes’ truck coming up our driveway, he would dash out to the grove and pick a nice handful of flowers. Mr. Stokes had a deep, rumbling laugh, more like a “Huh, huh, huh, huh” chuckle, and he never failed to be amused when that blond-headed three-year old brought him flowers. He always gave Tom some change.
This went on for years, and sometimes proved an embarrassment for our mother, Dan, and me. Sometimes when it was cold in the winter, there weren’t any flowers to be found, and Tom would substitute a few weeds, grass stems, or leaves for his bouquet. He had no shame. It didn’t matter to Mr. Stokes, either. It was the thought that counted.
Thonotosassa, Florida, 1965
ABOVE: (left to right) Danny, age 11, Lucille (mother), Charles, age 15, and Tom Norman (front), age 8, preparing to attend church service. When we were growing up, our mother took us to church and Sunday School virtually every week. In Texas, we attended Redwater Baptist Church. In Florida, we started at West Thonotosassa Baptist Church, then joined Harney Baptist. Our father, Eugene Norman, took this photo on Easter Sunday, 1965. We weren’t as glum as we looked.
As the oldest, I usually set the pace, and over the years, whatever interest I had, Dan and Tom were right there with me. I was interested in astronomy, got an inexpensive telescope one Christmas, and the three of us would stay late outside looking through it at the dark night sky.
On the first day of school in fifth grade at Thonotosassa Elementary School, my friend, Ernie Bennett, was so glad to see me after the long summer vacation that he suggested we fight before school started. We weren’t angry with each other, we just liked to fight. We had a new teacher, Mr. Quintero, and when he saw two eleven-year old boys swinging away at each other, he freaked out, running over and separating us. He was so angry that he told us, fine, if we wanted to fight, we’d do it the right way, with gloves, and he’d teach us.
It turned out that Mr. Quintero had been a boxer in his younger years, and his older brother had been a well-known professional fighter in the 1950’s. He sent a note home to all the boys’ parents, asking if they approved their sons taking boxing lessons to return the permission slip signed. Most everyone did.
The next day, Mr. Quintero brought in some huge, sixteen ounce boxing gloves that were like pillows to us, so we could learn how to box and not hurt each other. That Christmas, I asked for a pair of boxing gloves of my own, and I got a pair similar to the ones we practiced with at school.
One of my friends came over, and we tried out the gloves in the front yard for awhile, with Dan and Tom watching. Dan was about six, and Tom was four. We got tired and thirsty, took off the gloves, and went inside for some water. When we returned, Dan and Tom had put on the huge gloves that they could barely lift, and were slowly swinging away at each other, toe-to-toe.
We laughed and laughed. Even at that early age, both my brothers were serious about boxing, and would beg me to practice with them. I would get on my knees, they would both start swinging at me at the same time, and I would hold them off while laughing at their serious demeanors. I was their human punching bag.
That was the beginning of my brothers’ boxing careers. They would put on the heavily-padded gloves, box with each other, then I’d get on my knees, down to their level, and show them how to punch, jab, and defend themselves. As they grew up, both Dan and Tom became very tough and skilled amateur boxers, never fearing to go up against fighters their same size, after all those years of practicing against their older brother.
Daddy had hunted deer in Texas, feeding our family venison for years, but the deer crop in Florida was thin. Needless to say, come hunting season we would pile into Daddy’s station wagon, and he’d drive us to a public hunting area in Pasco County. He’d bought me a Winchester Model 94 .30-.30 deer rifle, and would dutifully drive us around the woods for a couple hours. If a deer had happened to stand in the road in front of our car, we might have had a shot at it, but that never happened. That was as close as we came to hunting in Florida.
The seeds were planted early, and both Dan and Tom became serious, lifelong hunters, along with their sons, and put considerable dents in the deer and wild hog populations of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Fishing was more my passion, and Dan and Tom followed closely, far surpassing my modest accomplishments in the years to come. Our father took us fishing at Lake Panosofkee when he could, which was a highlight for us. Tom even worked as a Hillsborough River fishing guide for a few years. As a teenager, Tom taught himself taxidermy, a lifelong vocation in which he excelled, creating amazingly lifelike displays of fish and wild game. He even preserved and mounted animals for Busch Gardens and the Florida Game Commission, and received national recognition for his art. Most recently, he completed impressive works of African game animals, including a fearsome Cape Buffalo for a wealthy businessman in Tampa.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Sandra Norman, holding daughter, Tammy, Danny Norman
(Charles’ brother and Sandra’s husband), Lucille Norman (Charles’ mother),
Eugene Norman (Charles’ father), holding Timmy Norman (son of Sandra and Danny), Tom Norman (Charles’ brother), Chrissy and Charles. Arjel, the dog, in front.
This Easter Sunday photo was possibly the last group photo taken of the Norman family. It was taken in the front yard of our home on Grovewood, where my mother still lives. In this photo, my father was 45, my mother, 44, Dan was 20, Tom, 17, and I was 24.
Even in life-threatening situations, which occurred a number of times in Tom’s eventful life, he showed a fearlessness that bordered on disdain of the risks he faced.
For many years, besides his taxidermy work, Tom worked for a tree service, a high-risk occupation. When storms and disasters struck, Tom and his crews would work with the utility companies to clear downed trees and help restore power. Even before Hurricane Sandy struck, Tom’s crew was in New Jersey, poised to go to work as soon as the devastating storm of the century passed by. For all the dangers of his job, however, a twelve-inch creature came closest to taking Tom’s life.
They were clearing land in a heavily-wooded area when Tom felt a stinging sensation at the tip of his finger as he picked up a pile of brush. When he saw the two holes in his finger, he knew what had happened — he’d been bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake.
Tom was an experienced snake handler. For years he had caught rattlesnakes, many over six-feet long, and had never been bitten. He knew, though, that despite their small size the pygmy rattlesnake’s venom was as deadly as that of their larger cousins, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Tom called 911.
His finger was swelling and throbbing when he arrived at University Community Hospital in North Tampa. A young emergency room doctor was doubtful of Tom’s claim to have been bitten by a poisonous pygmy rattlesnake.
“How do you know what kind of snake it was?” the doctor asked.
Tom took out a peanut butter jar he’d had inside a brown paper bag. Inside the jar, a pygmy rattlesnake twisted and squirmed, trying to get out. Tom had had the presence of mind to capture the snake and bring it with him, knowing that snakebite antivenin was species specific. The doctor, shaken, jumped back.
“I have to look this up in the book,” the doctor said. “I’ve never seen a snakebite before.”
Tom was incredulous. “You’re an emergency room doctor, and you don’t know how to treat a snakebite?”
After consulting a medical book, the doctor told Tom he would inject antivenin to counteract the snake poison. He told Tom that he might have to cut Tom’s finger along its length if the swelling continued, to relieve the pressure. If the swelling got worse, worst case scenario, he could be forced to amputate the finger.
A few months before, this hospital had gained national notoriety when doctors amputated the wrong leg of an elderly man. After they discovered the mistaken amputation of the healthy leg, they had to go back and amputate the other one. Tom remembered that.
He told the doctor, “Before you do any cutting on me, bring me a permanent marker.”
“What for?” the doctor asked.
“I know about this hospital,” Tom said. “I’m going to write, ‘DO NOT REMOVE’ on the other nine fingers.”
The doctor did not think that was funny.
The antivenin appeared to work, no amputation was necessary, and after a hospital stay, Tom was released to return home; however, he had a delayed allergic reaction to the antivenin, went into seizures, and was rushed back to the hospital, to the intensive care unit, where he eventually recovered.
Faced with possible death, Tom could still extract some humor from the situation. When he recounted the incident with a straight face, his listeners could not help but laugh at the way Tom described his life-threatening travails.
I had to hear of my brother’s accomplishments from afar, through letters, photos, phone calls and visits, having been continuously imprisoned since 1978, thirty-eight years. I learned of the birth of Tom’s and Diane’s first son, Tommy, in December, 1978, when my father visited me in the Hillsborough County jail, a dark, dangerous, inhumane dungeon unfit for human habitation, where I spent almost two years. I got my first peek at my nephew through bulletproof glass when Tommy’s proud parents brought him for me to see. For years, when I was imprisoned reasonable driving distances from Tampa, Tom and Diane would bring their boys to visit Uncle Charlie. John was born in May, 1984, followed by Joseph.
A photo of Charlie with his three nephews at the Polk C.I. visiting park in 1992 (below) is included in “Life In Prison — A Photo Exhibit.” I never had children — my life situation precluded that role — but I always felt as close to and loved Dan’s and Tom’s children as though they were my own. To this day I am thrilled when I call my mother’s number, and she asks if I want to speak to one of my nephews or nieces.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Charlie’s nephews, sons of his youngest brother, Tom:Tommy, Joseph, and John, 1992, Polk C.I.
Tom and I spoke together on the phone barely a month before he died. I told him I was working on obtaining a new parole hearing, and needed letters of support from family, Normans, particularly my brothers. Tom asked me what I wanted him to say. I told him whatever he felt moved to say would be fine, and asked him to talk to his sons, too. Tom told me that he’d always idolized his big brother, and my artwork had inspired him to be an artist, too. I was very touched by his words, having never realized the impact I had on him.
Monday afternoon, March 14th, Tom and Diane visited with Mama after they got off work, in our family home on Grovewood Avenue in Thonotosassa, where we moved in 1969. Mama told me they stayed about an hour, just talking, spending time together.
After the funeral held this morning, I talked with my mother on the phone in the afternoon. I asked her about that last visit. “Son, if I’d known that was going to be the last time I saw Tom, I would have locked the doors, held him, and not let go.”
My mother and brother, Dan, were crying, grief-stricken and heartbroken at the sudden death of Tom. Everyone was, and we will all grieve in our own ways. Being in prison, I feel helpless, hopeless, impotent to offer comfort to my loved ones except through meager words. How I wish I could be there with them to share the burden, but I can’t. All I can offer are my prayers and encouragement to be strong, to keep the faith, secure in the knowledge that Tom was a committed Christian, and his soul resides in a better place.
Mama told me that Tom and Diane began attending the Church of Christ in Thonotosassa some years ago, and their son, Tommy, and wife, Carla, take their three boys there every Sunday. The pastor of this church, Brother Weaver, conducted the funeral service, and touched our family with his words. He said that Tom was not only a church member, but also he was his friend. No one ever sat down with Tom and had a boring conversation, he said. He knew Tom well — Tom was like that. He had strong opinions and he expressed them. Oftentimes his observations of certain people were cutting, but extremely accurate and usually hilarious. If you didn’t want to hear the truth, don’t ask Tom.
No matter how unexpected our brother’s passing was, and before his time, the fact that he died peacefully in his sleep, and not in some tragic accident, provides a small blessing to his family, his loved ones.
Tom was one-of-a-kind and much beloved. I could tell a hundred stories about him, and, over time, as the empty place he left in my heart heals, I’ll put them to paper. I miss him. We all do. Rest in peace, my brother. We will always love you.
Charles, age 36, at right, his youngest brother, Tom, age 29, at left, and their aunt,
Alice Walker, center, Zephyrhills C.I. 1986