I found out about the death of Rod Thomas, my friend and Voice of America colleague, while at the beach in my birth state of South Carolina. I knew Rod had been seriously ill for several months, but his passing, on April 5 at age 64, was still a jolt. “Time passes,” said another friend, Angelo Dundee, the Hall of Fame boxing trainer who died February 1 at age 90. “Time goes bye-bye.”
The beach is a good place to ponder friendship and the passing of time. I traveled to South Carolina to visit my elderly parents, who live a short distance from the beach but can no longer get to it because of old age and mobility issues. I remembered swimming in the Atlantic as a boy and being caught in a powerful undertow, feeling helpless as the current swept me out. My father was a college football halfback and in his prime was quick and fast. He sprinted from his beach chair, dove into the water and rescued me. Now, at almost 83, he has difficulty getting up from a chair and walking.
Walking barefoot in the sand, I remembered many of my good times with Rod. He was a boxing fan and he enjoyed my telephone chats with Angelo, conversations we often broadcast on my show. “You know, Angelo is the kind of guy I’d like sitting next to me at a bar,” said Rod. “I could listen to his stories for hours.”
Rod was also a wonderful storyteller. I sat next to him at bars and heard a few stories, but my colleagues and I heard most gathered around his office cubicle. Stories about his children and grandchildren; stories about being in the Army; stories about his own football-playing days; stories about being served smoked bat in Accra, Ghana.
Rod traveled with me to Ghana in 2001 and on several other sports trips, always providing excellent technical and emotional support. I’ll remember the laughs and jokes, especially when it seemed like things were falling apart. When our van broke down between Accra and Kumasi and the driver did repairs deep in the Ghanaian “tall grass,” as my friend Shaka Ssali likes to say, Rod lit a cigar and started telling stories by the side of the road. I felt a certain comfort in the cigar smoke. My father used to be a big cigar smoker. He served in Vietnam in the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s and I remember after he was gone for awhile, I walked through our front door and smelled cigar smoke. I knew immediately, “Dad is home.”
Like smoke in the air and like sand between your toes, time passes. Time goes bye-bye.