The late Tom Cook was a searcher, a lover of the sea, and a man of fierce backbone, writes his friend Robert Eisele.
Monique, Tom’s wife of 37 years, told me when her mother was nearly 90, she broke her hip and the trauma triggered a mini-stroke that left her convinced it was the "poor young doctor" who’d broken his hip. “Talk to her,” the doctor told Monique, “drag her into the present any way you can, or she might not recover.” So Monique talked and talked… but her mother remained confused. Finally, Monique remembered the photos in her wallet and showed them to her. But they didn’t work. Not the ones of Monique, not even the kids. Then her mother saw a photo of a big guy with a goatee and a broad smile. "Tom," she said out loud. And after that, Monique was able to tease her back into reality. Tom. Unforgettable….
Those of us who played poker with Tom had a nickname for him: “William Tell”… because he could rarely keep a poker face. His exuberance at being dealt a good hand would make his eyes gleam – the perfect “tell” that he was holding three of a kind or better.
That exuberance gleamed often because life, till the end, dealt him a very good hand. Three of a kind – Monique, Kate and Chris. Monique – his soul mate, the love of his life – is a fellow author and world traveler, his equal in every way. I asked Monique what attracted her to Tom when they were kids. She answered, “He was never boring. I never knew what he was going to come up with next!”
Khalil Gibran once said, “Make not a bond of love. Rather, let it be a flowing sea between the shores of your souls.” Tom and Monique’s relationship was a union of two people, one larger than life, the other quietly strong, who stood both alone and together. That paradox was the very signal of their strength…of a love that I’m sure still somehow flows between them. A love that found its ultimate expression in their two finest creations, Kate and Chris, both wonderful people of art and conscience. And both, always, the source of his greatest joy.
Because Tom was a family man, a pater familias. His strength came from his mother Betty. She was her family’s anchor, always there for her sons when Dad was away on long business trips. Always giving what was needed. Tom learned about family from her. His father Bill granted him wisdom about the real world, a profound work ethic, and the integrity to stand up for himself without stepping on others. Lessons that made Tom a leader, and a worthy older brother for Jim and Bill. Tom captained their brotherly ship, steering them through – and occasionally straight into – the wild seas of adolescence. But that made Jim, Bill and Tom shipmates for life, fishing the shores of Alaska, strumming guitars at the Strawberry Music Festival, vacationing on the San Juan Islands… while Bill was on his honeymoon there. Now, that is togetherness.
But despite Tom’s dedication to his family, he always had time for his friends. And what a motley crew we are. Writers, Teamsters, actors, union leaders, musicians, teachers, editors, doctors, dancers, ministers, rabbis, mullahs, rinpoches – even development executives!
I had the pleasure of coaching a soccer team with Tom, writing a script with him, going on Indian Guide campouts with our sons – where I couldn’t sleep because of his snoring – fishing with him, and definitely partying hearty with him. Tom loved a party. Nobody told a joke better. Give him a guitar and he’d regale you with songs he’d written or remembered. Tom loved folk, rock, blues and country. Anything that came from the people and not the highbrows. We argued about music. For Tom, jazz was just guys playing too many notes.
Didn’t Tom love to argue? He and I agreed on almost everything, and we still argued! He’d let you get your two cents in… and then he’d whittle your argument away with that unrelenting intellect of his. I’d love to hear him debate Ted Nugent about gun control, or Bill O’Reilly about anything. Tom’s IQ was higher than the ozone layer. He could write a fine script in weeks instead of months, he spoke German, could read a thick novel in a day. Just last summer, with a stealth cancer lurking somewhere in his body, Tom acted in a one man show he’d written: Eighty minutes of memorization, physicality and performance from a man who hadn’t acted since college. And he was good! After each demanding show, he’d take the set his son Chris designed – this big boat – and schlep it into a van to truck it home. Tom not only had intellect, he had guts. Spirit.
Perhaps because of that intellect, he loved to fish. An endeavor where the chattering monkey mind of man can be cast upon the waters. Emptied. Tom and I would be at a Writers Guild meeting, or a formal dinner, and I’d see him doing this out of the corner of my eye: (Mime casting a line and reeling it back in.) He liked to say that a day spent fishing is not subtracted from your time on earth. Let’s hear his own words about fishing from his philosophical essay, “Four Mackerel, Or Why I Fish”:
“People ask why I fish and I guess this is it. In no other sport do you have the experience of suddenly extracting a creature from an alien world, absorbing all its colors, textures, and social/spiritual strategies in a single, fresh moment… and then returning it unharmed to the sea. If on occasion this causes the fisherman to question some rather larger issues, then I guess that is simply another hazard of the sport, like sunburn on an oversized cranium or a hook in the flesh of the opposable thumb.”
That, my friends, is writing… from Tom’s book, Wish Harbor and Other Water Stories. In a way, it’s a description of the writing process that fed his life, his work, and the edification of his audience. “Extracting a creature from an alien world…and then returning it unharmed to the sea.” Extracting experience, giving it back completely, truly to the sea of us.
Tom’s greatest writing achievements were in television and film because he never looked down on those endeavors. Tom knew whenever a real writer writes, literature is possible. As T.S. Cook, his nom de plume, he elevated the television movie genre with his Writers Guild Award-winning script, Nightbreaker, the story of American soldiers used as guinea pigs in atomic bomb tests. The Switch, teleplay by Tom from the story he wrote with his good friend, Ron Schultz, dealt with the end of life and the right to die. In all, Tom had 17 TV movies produced, many the best of an era when television films were the best the medium had to offer. Tom won another Writers Guild Award and an Academy Award nomination for China Syndrome, the prophetic movie, starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, about the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, followed just weeks after its release by the Three Mile Island disaster.
In the past few years, Tom discovered playwriting. His play Ravensridge, produced at the Fremont Theatre, dealt with the issue of union busting. And his Guest of the Sultan explored a historical meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al Kamil in Egypt during the Crusades. Tom, always looking out for his fellow writers, was also one of the founding members of the playwright-centric “Fierce Backbone Theatre Company.”
Fierce backbone. There’s a metaphor for the man. For Tom was a warrior whose decades-long career graced us with works of deep social relevance, as witnessed by the titles I’ve mentioned. He was a big man, a descendant of the Hatfields… yet there wasn’t a bully bone in his body. He was a bully beater. That’s why he was such a dedicated Writers Guild member. Tom knew that his fellow writers, for all their anxieties, were willing to stand their ground with him. He was a born leader, a man who served the Guild on the Board of Directors, as a strike captain, a Pension and Health trustee and more. And along the way, he won many battles for his fellow writers.
That’s because Tom wasn’t afraid to fight. He was arrested while demonstrating against nuclear weapons. He marched the picket line not just for his Gucci-wearing fellow writers, but for the denim-clad workers of the Service Employees International. When the American Muslim community was vilified after 9/11, Tom read the Koran to educate himself about Islam, then wrote Guest of the Sultan and later taught writing workshops for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Why? Because American Muslims were fast becoming the pariahs of our culture. They were being bullied. And Tom Cook wouldn’t stand for it – even if the cause, at the time, was unpopular.
Tom wasn’t a contrarian, though. He was a warrior. And he put his money where his mouth was. When a network that had produced two of his movies insisted he use nuclear weapons as a plot point, glorifying them as humanity’s defense against the cosmos, he refused. Tom knew they’d never work with him again, at a time when his Hollywood career was entering the ninth inning. He needed that network. But Tom had an innate sense of justice, wound into the helix of his DNA, and he refused to compromise his ideals.
But he was no pain-in-the-ass ideologue. Tom constantly questioned his own assumptions, refusing to grow smug or complacent. There were always those big eyes, beaming with life and mischief, that earthy, wonderful sense of humor… and that wisdom. A wisdom he never thought he’d attained.
For Tom was a searcher. A sailor who loved the sea and the mysteries he found there. He deeply respected that other Fisherman – the one whom this church, Tom’s church, worships. But he was a searcher to the very end. And in that, we find his wisdom. In his own words, from his essay “Four Mackerel Or Why I Fish”:
“Surely there are Buddhist fishermen working the waters, pulling from the depths, banishing the self to surrender to the Oneness. To lean into hardship, to be calm and accepting, to expose the core of Being and let those personal spooks (which we are so adept at creating) be flushed out by white wind. But is enlightenment attainable by the species that invented the stiletto high heel? I hope so. I’d like to have the option.”
Tom, if ever a man was to be given that option, it’s you. If I had a glass of Jameson’s, I’d toast you right now. But a verse of Dylan Thomas will have to do:
“And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”
Tom passed away on January 5th after a four-month struggle with a stealth cancer that blindsided him. But he never stopped fighting it because there was warrior blood in him.
Tom Cook was never one to rest in peace.