In Tandem?

Thomas was an answer to prayer...just not the one he expected.

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- Posted on Mar 25, 2015

Joe (left) thought he could share his faith with Thomas, but it was Thomas who did most of the sharing.

Adventure Club members : Thomas Hyatt, a blind man who lives in Niceville, seeks a riding partner to pilot his tandem bike. If interested, contact Thomas directly....

My eyes brightened. An answer to prayer had shown up right there in my in-box! The e-mail was from my bicycling club. The timing couldn’t have been better. I’d been wanting to get back on my bike and back in shape ever since my wife, Susan, who used to ride with me, took a spill and decided to take a break from riding.

Here was the perfect motivation. Not only that, our pastor had been challenging our congregation to share our faith with other people. Not so easy for a buttoned-up guy like me. Well, here was someone I could reach out to.

I called the number in the ad and ended up on the phone for nearly an hour. Thomas sure was a talker! I mentioned wanting to get back in shape, and he launched into all the health benefits of vegetable juicers, which led to stories about his own battles with weight. I managed to wangle his address out of him. Turned out he lived practically around the corner from me.

“This bike’s gonna be my life-maintenance machine,” Thomas said. “Help me kick all my bad habits. With you piloting, I mean. Did I tell you about the time I drove my buddy’s motorcycle blind? Gunned it right into a culvert. Broke a couple bones and my head swelled like a watermelon. The bike blew up. What a ride! Okay, see you tomorrow.”

I hung up. Thomas was in his midforties, about a decade younger than me. Surely that motorcycle story was from long ago. I was a career Air Force man, recently retired. The closest I’d ever come to a wild ride was racing hand-built go-karts as a kid.

I met Thomas at his house early the next morning. He was standing outside in shorts and a T-shirt beside his tandem. Smoking a cigarette.

“Joe!” he called out as I approached. How did he know I was coming? “That you I hear?”

“Yeah,” I said, extending my hand awkwardly. Thomas flicked away his cigarette and extended his own hand. I took it and he pumped my arm.

“How do you like my bike?” he asked. “Got it off the internet. You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” He lit up another cigarette.

And he wants to get in shape? I adjusted the front seat on the bike and got on. Soon we were pedaling leisurely through the streets of Niceville. Thomas seemed to have the layout of the town memorized. “Turn left here,” he’d say. “Mmm, there’s the doughnut shop. I sure do love doughnuts! Hey, check it out, I can smoke and ride at the same time.”

I glanced back and he was sitting up, eyes closed in contentment, taking a big drag.

We rode about 10 miles. Thomas talked the whole time. Mostly about eating and drinking, which he apparently loved as much as smoking.

“I was hammered all through high school,” he said. “Got in fights. Spent half my time in the assistant principal’s office.” He didn’t sound regretful. Virtually every sentence was spiced with four-letter words. I heard more f-bombs in an hour than I’d heard in the previous decade.

“That was awesome!” Thomas exclaimed when we returned to his house. “Same time Wednesday? Can’t wait.”

He extended his hand again. I shook it, unable to think of a way of getting out of our arrangement. My pastor had challenged us to reach out. This wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Despite his smoking and drinking and love of high-fat food, Thomas stuck to our bicycling routine. Three times a week at 6:00 a.m. he awaited me outside his house.

I winced every time he let fly a string of cuss words. I tried not to inhale his cigarette smoke. His drinking—and drugging—stories made me cringe. But then he’d say something like, “Let me tell you, Joe, these rides are the highlight of my week. I think I’m even skinnying up!” I couldn’t bring myself to back out.

Thomas was right about the skinnying part. After a few months we were both in much better shape. We rode for 45 miles at a time now, not 10—about what Susan and I used to do back when we lived in Ohio and trained for big events like the annual Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, a weeklong ride across the state. Maybe I could do a ride like that again.

Gradually I learned Thomas’s story. His dad was American, his mom Korean. They met in Korea, where his dad was stationed at a military base. They split up after his dad got back from Vietnam. His mom married another military man. Thomas and his sister grew up on bases around the world.

In second grade, Thomas was diagnosed with a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to lose his sight gradually, until he was declared legally blind in high school. On top of everything else, his mother had mental-health issues and suffered breakdowns when he was young. Thomas had bounced around various jobs but now lived with his mother, taking care of her full time.

One day, I mentioned to Susan that I felt strong enough to do the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure again. Plus, it would be nice to see old friends in Ohio.

“So why not do it?” she asked.

“Well, it was more fun when we did it together,” I said. “You could do it with Thomas,” she offered.

I looked at her as if she were crazy. “Susan, Thomas is...” I stopped. What did I think about Thomas? I envisioned sharing a tent with him (riders camped their way across the state). I couldn’t imagine it. But neither could I imagine riding across Ohio by myself. I hadn’t been on a bike alone in months.

Riding without Thomas’s constant soundtrack would be so...boring. And I had to admit, the guy was upbeat. At the end of every ride he made it feel like we’d just completed the Tour de France.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What if he’s drunk the whole time?”

“What if he’s not?” said Susan. “You know how much it would mean to him.”

I casually mentioned the ride to Thomas.

“Wait till the guys hear about this!” he crowed. “Four hundred miles? They will never believe it.”

No taking that one back. We trained in earnest. Thomas got himself a sleeping bag and I got the camping gear and the tandem ready. That spring we drove to Ohio and set up camp at the starting point. The first leg, 50 miles, began the following morning.

Thomas introduced himself to some military riders I knew from back when I was stationed in Ohio, including a three-star general. Thomas seemed nervous around the higher-ups and said he was taking the shuttle bus into town.

The afternoon wore on. Where was Thomas? We ate dinner, and still no Thomas. Finally, at eight o’clock, I got on the shuttle bus.

“Did you happen to notice a blind guy riding the bus this afternoon?” I asked the driver.

“You mean Thomas?” the driver asked with a grin. “Oh, yeah.”

A few minutes later, the bus stopped outside a bar. “I let him off here,” the driver said.

Warily I went inside. Sure enough, there was Thomas, seated on a barstool, surrounded by a laughing crowd.

“Yep, drove it right into a culvert!” he shouted boisterously. “Bike blew up. Luckily I got thrown. My head swelled like a watermelon.”

I made a beeline for him. “Thomas, we have to ride fifty miles tomorrow.”

“Joe!” he cried. “Don’t worry about me, buddy.”

“Thomas, we have to go. Now.”

At last he swaggered out of the bar with me.

Back at the campground, we crawled into our tent. Thomas reeked of beer and cigarettes. “I didn’t appreciate that,” he growled, sounding more sober.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But you can’t ride if you’re drunk. And you’re embarrassing me in front of my friends.”

Thomas sat bolt upright. “What?” he demanded. “Embarrassing you? Because I’m not a spit-shine military guy like you? Because I don’t have a perfect life like yours? You know, I’m not just some poor blind guy you get church points for helping out. Why do you think I’ve been telling you everything about myself all these months? I thought we were friends, Joe. Are we?

I lay there, stunned. For an instant I had the strange sensation God was picking me up and carrying me out of that tent—and putting me on our tandem bike. On Thomas’s seat. Suddenly I realized what it felt like for him. The ride was dark. And silent. Because no voice came from the front of the bike. No stories. No supportive words. Nothing but silent disapproval.

I could have said all kinds of things at that moment. But what came out was a simple, heartfelt apology.

Thomas hung his head. “No, you’re right, Joe. I totally embarrassed you. You know, all this time we were riding I told myself you were my friend because you never turned around to say anything judgmental about my crazy life. But probably you just didn’t have the heart to tell me. Don’t worry. I’ll pack up and go home tomorrow.”

“No!” I cried. “Thomas, listen. I do want you to ride. I can’t imagine finishing this ride without you. We’re a team.”

For once, Thomas was silent. “Really?” he asked finally.

“Really.”

We did the entire ride across Ohio. Even with Thomas visiting several more watering holes along the way. The two of us made lots of new friends because Thomas was so outgoing. He became something of a celebrity among the riders.

And we kept riding after that. We rode through Thomas’s grief after his mother died. We rode after he got a job washing dishes at a restaurant to pay for her funeral.

And we rode after Thomas began coming to my church. He started out at a ministry for recovering addicts. Now he’s a regular at Bible study, a weight-loss ministry and an annual outdoor camp for the blind. I didn’t invite him to any of these things. He just started going because he decided my church might welcome him the way I finally had.

I’ve had many friends in my life, but never one like Thomas. He taught me to see—not just him, but myself too. 

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