June 27, 2017

The dad I wish I’d known

William D. (Tommy) Thompson in 1945

 

In March of 1944, a young sailor and electrician’s mate in the Navy, and battle-tested veteran of World War II, in the Pacific walked into the gas rationing office at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia to seek extra coupons to ride his Harley-Davidson to Tampa, Florida, to visit his parents.

William Douglas (Tommy) Thompson met with the woman — Ethel McPeak from Meadows of Dan, Virginia — who ran the office and discovered she also rode a Harley. After swapping motorcycles stories with him, she granted the extra coupons.

When he returned to Norfolk to await reassignment to another ship he ran into the motorcycling woman and her then-boyfriend — motorcycle racer Joe Weatherly — at a hangout for riders in Norfolk and asked her out. She jokingly said he had to prove himself worthy so he challenged Weatherly, a two-time national motorcycle racing champion, to a race through the streets of downtown Norfolk for the right to date her.

Tommy Thompson won that race and began dating Ethel McPeak. Those dates blossomed into love.  When Germany surrendered in May of 1945, the Navy shipped him to the war in the Pacific and he was an electrician’s mate on  the USS Missouri when the word came that Japan would surrender.  On September 2, 1945, he stood in dress uniform on the deck of the battleship when World War II officially ended.

The dashing young sailor returned to Norfolk after the war and asked Ethel McPeak to marry him  She said yes and they rode their Harleys to Meadows of Dan to meet her parents, Walter and Zella McPeak, who were not all that happy to learn their only child was riding “one of them gol-derned motorcycles” and — even worse — planning to marry a man they had never met and who also rode one. He rode on to Florida while she stayed behind to calm her parents down and get their blessing to marry.

With that mission accomplished, she left Meadows of Dan and rode her bike to Tampa by herself. They married and settled in Gibsonton, a small town just south of Tampa. I came along a little over a year later.

Ethel McPeak aboard her Harley in 1946

Dad worked for U.S. Phosphorous, a Gibsonton plant right on Tampa Bay.  He put his electrician’s mate skills learned in the Navy to good use and worked on the plant’s electrical motors.

The young couple loved each other and also loved riding Harley-Davidsons. Tommy and Ethel Thompson rode in motorcycle thrill shows and made friends with a lot of carnies who wintered in the small Florida town.

One day, as was worked on an electric motor at the plant, his best friend inadvertently turned the power back on, electrocuting my dad.

I was nine months old.  I never knew him and have no memory of the grief and loss my mom suffered at the time of his death.

We stayed in Gibsonton, until I was five, before moving to Floyd.  My mother wanted to be close to her parents.  For the first eight years of my life, my mother told me my dad was a special man and could never be replaced.

But, when I was eight, she remarried and replaced the dad I only knew through her stories.  Unfortunately, my mind was set by that time and I never really gave my stepfather a chance to be a dad to me.  That was my fault, not his.

At 18, while working for The Roanoke Times, I had some comp time coming so I packed my car, left the office at 11 p.m. and drove straight through to Florida to visit my grandparents and spend some time to learning more about my dad.  I discovered he was an active roller skater and performed in shows.  He and my late aunt also were ballroom dance performers and appeared at events.  He was a daredevil who loved to take chances.

He was a man I wished I had known.  I inherited my love of motorcycles from him. I was told my tendency to be an adrenaline junkie came from him.  My mother said I was like him in more ways than I would ever know.

“You are more than your father’s son,” she often said.  “You are him.  Cherish that.”

I do.

Happy Father’s Day dad.

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