Skip to content

Thomas Tod [death in German] Struckman

March 1, 2016



Thomas Tod Struckman 1944-1997.

My brother Tom said he didn’t believe in God, but that he was responsible for himself. “Isn’t that noble of me?” We talked about God in 1964 when I was in high school, he was in college. In Dillon, Montana, at Western Montana College.  He called it a glorified high school.  The English professor didn’t know who Leslie Fiedler was, he said.  Tom went to Western because he had been expelled from Missoula for not attending classes.  He had flunked out.

If he ever changed his mind about God,  I can’t ask him now. I don’t think he feared death, because of his attitude and I’d say he had a premonition when I last spoke to him. That was weeks before, when he was just 53. The conversation itself was a near miracle. I’ll tell you later.

My nephew Jon and I had driven to Missoula’s north side to visit Tom in his small house for perhaps a half an hour in 1997, mid-August, two or three weeks before his death. He had just been released from Community Hospital after a massive heart attack.

We found him dressed in his usual gray t-shirt and old jeans, sitting on his gas heater with his hospital name band still on his arm like a badge of pride. The heater, brown enamel with a stovepipe, was cold, of course, just a convenient place to sit. It was August. The house had four rooms, counting the bathroom. It always had a good smell. The smell of old stuff: blankets, books, table, chairs, wood. Jon and I sat on the floor, on a threadbare Persian rug passed down from our father.

Tom said he was almost too weak to walk the 100 feet to his garden. He said the doctor told him that the heart attack destroyed 70 percent of his heart. He had told Jon of the question of losing part of one’s heart, the seat of emotion, of love.

His attitude? With the characteristic flip of his head and a sniff, he told us that “they gave me nitroglycerin, but it doesn’t matter because I won’t take it.” I didn’t ask him why. I was just glad to see him. I was afraid. Afraid he would take offense and throw me out as he had done several times before.

You see Tom and I hadn’t spoken for eleven years, since the day in 1986 when he yelled at our family, “Fuck you!” and we trooped out of his house.

He had no telephone. I missed him and wrote him letters that he didn’t answer. I had gone to his door and he shouted at me to leave him alone. I sent him candy at Christmas. Then in the summer of 1997 my nephew Geoff called to say that Tom had bad chest pain. In short, I asked him to tell Tom that he should go to the hospital because they had a drug that could help. Tom respected my pharmacy training and Geoff called me back. Tom got up and told him: “A drug? Let’s go!” Tom was admitted right then.

My other nephew, Jon, told me that Tom had a phone in his hospital room. After hesitating, I telephoned him.

[Phone rings.]


“Tom, it’s me. Your brother. Dan!”


Despite my sorrow, I agreed to drive to Missoula with Jon to attempt a visit. That’s when I saw Tom. He said he remembered answering the hospital bedside phone, but he fumbled it and never knew who called. We reminisced about old times working on the railroad together. I told Tom I still hated this guy named Rod who disparaged some beans I cooked. I was surprised that Tom said that I was too harsh in my memory of him. We shook hands and Tom gave me a military style hand salute. I offered him some chewing tobacco. He said, “Okay. No. That stuff will give you a heart attack.” Jon and I left, elated. I was near tears I was so glad.

Tom entered our world April 6, 1944, left it in 1997. No one knows the date because, like I said, our friend Mark found Tom’s body on his kitchen floor, rotten, covered with maggots. The corpse had been there for weeks, but nobody knows how many.

He had visited Tom to ask him if he was “between cats,” you see. Mark had been adopted by a stray. He said he knocked on the door a few times. Tom was nearly always home. Mark looked through the window on Tom’s kitchen door and saw what looked like a scarecrow on the floor. Mark opened the door and saw what it was, then called the cops. Then Mark phoned me. He said, “Tom died.”

I questioned Mark, who was in shock. That’s when he told me about looking in on Tom. I thanked him. We didn’t have much of a conversation. I looked at our daughter Clara after I hung up. Then I cried. Felt good to cry and cry. I was so grateful to Jon for practically forcing me to go to Missoula to visit.

I called our son Todd who went to Tom’s. Todd phoned us later and told us that he had helped clean up Tom’s remains. He said a couple of men were trying to put Tom’s swollen body into a metal coffin with a rubber gasket. They told him to go away. Todd said he started to leave, then returned. He realized he didn’t have to take orders from them, he told me. He said he was good with all of us in Billings going to Missoula the next day.

Then Todd called us again about eight or nine o’clock unable to sleep. He was alone in his house. He asked us to come to Missoula right away.

When we arrived five or six hours later, Tom’s little house was dark, except for the glow of perhaps a dozen scented candles. No one was there. The candles, mostly on the kitchen stove, added perfume to the penetrating, sweet, putrid smell. I noticed a used white latex glove on the gravel walk leading to the back steps.   I picked it up and took it indoors. We noticed an image like a snow angel on Tom’s kitchen floor where Todd had scrubbed away the remnants of the body.

The next day I photographed every room in Tom’s house. Tom practiced what he called “voluntary simplicity.” This meant living gracefully in a non-materialistic way. Tom’s house was a kind of work of art and I wanted to make a record of it.

That’s when I noticed a pattern of pink comma-shaped specks on his kitchen walls, ceiling, even into his bathroom through the open door. I even found the pink commas on a prescription bottle of amlodipine, a blood pressure med, on an open shelf above his kitchen sink.

I could scarcely believe the droplets could travel so far—all the way to the far side of his bathroom. I don’t know, maybe 12 feet. Gray water was still standing in his bathtub. A saucepan for rinsing his hair was on the edge of the tub.

According to a Stiff, a book about death by Mary Roach, after a certain amount of time a cadaver inflates with gas produced by bacteria in the gut. The body swells until it eventually bursts–splits open–spraying its liquefied contents like an aerosol. At a research cadaver farm in Tennessee a man told Roach that he had never witnessed a body explode, but he had heard it happen twice. Hence, the many light pink comma-shaped marks on the walls and ceiling. The little tails of each speck pointed to the place Tom’s body had laid when it popped.

Right. I can describe Tom’s appearance in death better than how he looked in life. See? I never saw Tom’s cadaver just his imprint on his kitchen linoleum. The imprint came of our son’s scrubbing the linoleum with chlorinated cleanser.

Tom was hip. I mean, actually hip. He was fun. Even for me, once we reached adulthood. He did it all, he did it first, and he did it better. I’ll try to give you a better picture of him.  He described himself as handsome, easy-going, comfortable.

I spent my early childhood running toward, then from, Tom. Our father died early on. I admired Tom and wanted to play with him. He had neat stuff. He chased me away from him. He usually punched me with his fists. Usually in the arms and stomach, not my face. He didn’t like me. I was sloppy. He was a perfectionist and he regarded me with disdain because my facial features were large and plain. You see, I was destined to become considerably taller than he was.


Tom poses behind his house in Missoula in 1976.

Therefore I started out looking and acting clumsy and ungainly. My eventual tall stature was not evident during our childhood and Tom was, frankly, ashamed to be seen with me, so he punched me and ridiculed me so that I wouldn’t follow him around like a mongrel when his friends were there.

I am here simply telling the truth, not so that you will pity me. If he were alive, Tom would tell you that nobody needs to pity me. Or him either. I just want to tell about Tom here.

He studied Zen Buddhism when he was perhaps 25 years old. The rest of his life he faithfully meditated several times a day, sitting erect in the lotus position, often facing a wall.

I think I forgot to mention that Tom was schizophrenic, but he took no medicine. The U.S. government agreed with the evaluation by the psychiatrist. Tom received a small social security disability pension that he had to supplement with food stamps and several hundred dollars a month our sister and I sent him from our share of our mother’s state teacher’s retirement.

Over the years I have known several schizophrenic patients in my career as a pharmacist and none of them acted like Tom. He was not delusional, suffered no apparent discomfort, was not paranoid. However, the last 10 years of his life he wanted nothing to do with me. He was fairly socially isolated by that time. He disliked me, and that was that. Was he schizophrenic? Beats me. In 1966 our mother had him evaluated at the State Mental Hospital in Warm Springs. Tom wrote me a letter: “…Being crazy is not fun. Life in the zoo is gray and bleak. They have a library with a bust of Shakespeare on the outside, but nothing by him inside.”

Tom was scholarly. He studied English literature in Missoula, getting A’s from even the most demanding professors, then got into the graduate program in Eugene, Oregon. In 1967 he dropped out of school. He became a hippie and moved in with his friends in Seattle.

Our uncle in Seattle bought Tom a light green1953 Chevy sedan and had Tom visit a doctor who prescribed Triavil. No longer available, Triavil was a combined antipsychotic/antidepressant pill and Tom did well. Tom and his friends got jobs with the Seattle Parks Department. It was a sweet job that was undemanding, but paid well. It was the perfect job for him and his friends. They all smoked hashish. Really good hashish from Lebanon. They played music on guitars and drums and drew pictures with colored pens. Life was good. I joined them the next winter and smoked their hash and ate countless peanut butter and honey sandwiches and drank their milk. And smoked their cigarettes. I talked Tom into moving back from Seattle to Montana. I hoped we could make a living as musicians.

The spring of 1969 Tom and I got into the old Chevy, bound for Missoula. A car that age in Montana would be in far better condition than one in Seattle, with its rust-producing fog and rain. You could feel the car body flex and twist as we drove.

Tom and I were dissimilar in temperament. I am describing him here.

From the outset we knew Tom was unusually gifted, although I’m not sure what his gift was. It was being cool. He had huge pride in himself.

I guess I was first aware when I watched Tom make a soap carving with Ivory soap. I remember that he copied an image of “Sir Edmund Hillary climbing a mountain” in our encyclopedia, the 1950 edition of “The Book of Knowledge.” The figure was perhaps three inches tall, perfectly proportioned, without any broken limbs, a mountain climber wielding an ice axe, carrying a huge pack and coil of rope. The space between his legs was empty of soap, same as the areas around his arms. The detail was perfect, right down to the expression on his face. It did not look like the work of a 7th- or 8th-grader. Of course, I tried my hand at soap carving also, and I tried to make a duck or a fish or a cat. Didn’t matter. They all looked about the same. Tom’s derision when he saw my lame attempt was heartless and merciless.

You know how kids like to draw? Tom’s drawings looked like the illustrations in books. He was so into mountain climbing that he typed up his own book, titled “The Conquest of Everest,” with full-page illustrations of climbers and Sherpas, maps, drawings of the mountain, with all of the climbing routes labeled. That’s when I learned the word “col” means mountain saddle.

Tom picked and chose at what he would excel. The French horn in high school, then the classical guitar in college. (He traded his horn for a Gibson guitar.) Folk ballads. (He could play and sing all of the verses to many Joan Baez songs.)   Marvel Comics. He was into Marvels the first year they came out. He wrote a play when he went to the University of Oregon, titled “It.” (He gave it to our mother for her birthday.) He could play marbles. (He had a canvas bank bag fat with marbles.) He collected baseball cards, he built model airplanes, he made a telegraph set, he built a wooden castle complete with moat and drawbridge. He carefully painted every knight and every knight’s horse.   The list goes on.

Even as an adult he learned to swim by reading a book. He became even better at drawing from life by reading another book. He built a harpsichord. And a clavichord and years before, a banjo.

You get the idea. He read books. Hundreds and hundreds. The last book he read before he died was Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” His nephew Geoff bought it for him. No. Geoff bought him the book but Tom had him return it because it had been abridged.

Although Tom’s life had been cut short, it was not abridged. In other words, like his friend Peter Koch said, there was no transistor missing.

From → Uncategorized

  1. permalink

    Didn’t know him, Dan. But I feel like I “get” him now.

  2. Mike permalink

    Dan I remember Tom and how upset he would become when we would enter his room. I think we were always trying to get into his things because he had such cool stuff in our eyes. I think he laughed his ass off at you and I playing with our chemistry sets making up various concoctions to kill ants down at the vacant lot. He will always be thought of and missed.

  3. Tony Wagner permalink

    I love reading what you write Dan. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you, Dan, for sharing this story of your
    brother, Tom. Sounds like his life was a roller coaster
    of fun times & times of great darkness.
    You tried to be a caring brother, but most of the
    time, he was incapable of accepting your love &
    He was brilliant in whatever he set his mind to.
    Amazingly, he taught himself to swim by reading a
    I hope that by writing this, you find some peace
    in your heart & soul. Blessings, jan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: