Choosing To Age in Community: 1

Thomas W. Hungerford

Born in Winslow, Arizona on April 29th, 1916
Died at Light Morning on May 25th, 2000

Tom at Light Morning in 1986

Prologue

In the spring of 1976, a large white van pulled up to an old 8×10 granary shed which served as Light Morning’s community shelter. We were working outside, building a small woodshed out of salvaged materials. Dry firewood was a necessity. We used it for both heating and cooking.

Eight or nine people climbed out of the van, looked around, and introduced themselves. Almost all of them were our age, in their 20s and 30s. One of them, however, was 60. We wondered what had attracted someone our parents’ age to visit a remote rural commune in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia.

That’s how we first met Tom Hungerford. During Tom’s many subsequent visits, and more fully after he moved here, we drew out portions of his remarkable story. Finally, on the eve of Tom’s 79th birthday in 1985, he and I sat down with a tape recorder and he reminisced about the circuitous path that led him to choose Light Morning as a place to both live and age.

Growing Up In Winslow

Robert — Tom, tell me when you were born and where you grew up.

Tom–I was born on April 29th, 1916. I grew up in northern Arizona, 60 miles east of Flagstaff, in a small town called Winslow. Winslow was a combination of Indian trading post and a repair point on the Santa Fe railroad. In the early part of the time when we were in Winslow, there were no telephones, radios, or automobiles. It was a farm type life and the material that came into town from distances came in on the railroad. There were no trucks or buses; it was all horse and wagon. The roads were dirt roads. There weren’t any paved roads in Winslow until I was 8 or 9 years old.

Periodically, a big bunch of Indians would come into Bachmann’s Trading Post. We were very curious about them. We’d go out to the Trading Post and stand around the edge and look ’em over. And they’d look us over. They did interesting things with their clothing. They’d use American coins—dimes, quarters, half dollars—to serve as buttons on their shirts and jackets.

Later on, as I got up to around to 8, 9, 10 years old, we used to go out to the Navajo and Hopi reservations which were near us. Particularly we went to the Hopi reservations, because they had dances at seasonal times of the year. They danced for crops and danced for rain. They were very colorful. They often danced in the early evenings around fires.

We lived in a small house behind my grandmother’s house on Front Street — my mother and my two older sisters and my dad. He was a pipe-fitter for the Santa Fe Railroad, a steam engine mechanic. The Santa Fe had a big shop in Winslow with a turntable so they could work on the steam engines in the roundhouse.

I have only very vague recollections of my dad during the early part of my life. When I became more interested in family, he had already left. There was little information about him and we weren’t encouraged to ask where he was or what had happened to him.

We stayed in Arizona until I was about 12 years old. My mother was very skeptical about children growing up in a small, rough town that she thought Winslow was. It was a very small town. My guess would be 1,500 to 2,000 people there. She was concerned about our education.

Then my grandmother and my uncles, who had all worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, moved to California and got jobs with the Southern Pacific. My mother was offered a very good job with Babbitt Brothers Trading Company in Kingman, Arizona. So my oldest sister went with my mother to Kingman and my other sister and I moved to California. We stayed with my grandmother. I went to 7th grade in California.

Kingman, Arizona. Miss Anderson’s 8th Grade Class, June 1928.
There’s a boy with a white shirt sitting in the front. Tom is two students behind him,
also in a white shirt, with another boy’s arm around his shoulder.

My mother wasn’t sure whether she wanted to stay in Kingman or move to California. So my sister and I moved back to Kingman when I was in the 8th grade. During that year my oldest sister got married and my other sister graduated from high school. After that year, my mother decided to move to California. She didn’t feel that Kingman had a lot to offer to young kids coming up. She thought most of the boys I associated with were toughies. [laughs]

War, Marriage, and Divorce

Tom’s Model A 1931 Ford, circa 1936

Tom went to high school, college, and graduate school in California. He majored in zoology and got a job teaching in the autumn of 1941. But on December 7th, Japanese naval airplanes and submarines attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.

I guess I was kind of naive. I didn’t anticipate Pearl Harbor having any great impact on me. Then the draft system came in. A friend of my mother’s was on the draft board. She told my mother that if I wanted to do anything other than be drafted, I better get busy, because my draft number wasn’t too far off. That was in the summer of ’42.

So Tom enlisted in the Navy. Due to his educational background, he was trained to teach other recruits about ship and aircraft recognition. Eventually he went ashore on D-Day as part of the Normandy invasion.

Tom never talked about his wartime experiences, especially D-Day. He kept it all bottled up. Today that’s called P.T.S.D. — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fifty years after World War II, however, and while he was living at Light Morning, Tom’s bottled up trauma would be reactivated in a dramatic way.

In the last year of the war I met and married Norma, a Chicago girl. She got pregnant and we had a son, Tom. When I got out of the Service, Norma said that she didn’t want to go to California with me. So I got a job with a publishing company in Chicago.

Five years later, after he and Norma had adopted a daughter, Tom was offered a promotion in the company and the family moved to California.

We spent 5 years in California. Then I was offered another promotion at the company headquarters and we returned to Chicago. But I had some troubles with Norma and she filed for divorce. That’s when I first came upon the Edgar Cayce readings. It was in the 1950s, when I was involved in the divorce. I was really quite beside myself and didn’t know what to do.

One of the girls working for me in the editorial department gave me a book about Cayce by Gina Cerminara. It was called Many Mansions. That was responsible for me making a real turnaround.

Robert — Who was Edgar Cayce?

Tom — Edgar Cayce was a psychic who came from Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Apparently when he was quite young he discovered that he could lie down and go into a sleep-like coma and answer questions about people and situations that an interviewer would have to ask.

The same girl also introduced me to Joel Goldsmith. She gave me his little book The Infinite Way and introduced me to an Infinite Way study group that was going on in Chicago.

I was in very bad shape when the Cayce material and Joel’s material showed up. It had reached such a point that instead of going to work one morning, I was going to jump into Lake Michigan and start swimming until I sank.

But Edgar Cayce and Joel Goldsmith helped me see that there was something more to life— or at least the possibility of it—than birth to death. And that you can’t really get out of your responsibility for your part in the whole process by suicide.

Robert–This kind of thinking was something new in your life?

Tom–Never heard of anything like that before. Anything in terms of spiritual development would be the normal church. And I didn’t have very much of a background in that either. I belonged to the Lutheran church because Norma and her family belonged to it. I didn’t see any reason for not going, but I had no feeling that it was making much of a contribution to my life. It was more a keeping peace in the family kind of thing.

The Razor’s Edge

I stayed in Chicago until I felt that there wasn’t any possibility of getting back together with Norma again. I had made some connections in New York City and I wanted to try my wings. So in 1965 I went to New York, fully expecting to get the type of job and salary that I had in Chicago. I needed that level of income because of the alimony and child support I had to pay; and wanted to pay.

Then I got a shock of my life.

The first year I was in New York, I turned 50. I got in touch with two executive search groups and they told me right off that I would have very little opportunity to get the kind of job I’d had; that I’d be very lucky to get a job that would pay enough to take care of my alimony and child support.

I was really nonplussed. This was the first time I had come in contact with what happens to you when you age. It didn’t seem that at age 50 I was very old. But I guess it was somewhat reasonable that I would have only 15 years to contribute to a company, given the standard mandatory retirement age of 65.

Robert–So you suddenly found yourself being seen as older than you felt.

Tom–Yeah, I’ll say! I hadn’t any notion of that. I didn’t relate to the kinds of things I was experiencing. Yet there they were. This is society, and this is society’s belief about the aging process.

Tom eventually took a job with Carleton Press, a vanity publishing company in New York City. It involved a lot of traveling to interview prospective authors. His territory was from Florida to Canada and from the East Coast to the Mississippi.

In his last year with Carleton, his child support payments ended. The alimony also ended when Norma remarried. After leaving Carleton Press, Tom drove a taxi cab in New York City for two and a half years.

I had always had an inkling to drive a taxi cab in New York, and I couldn’t see any reason not to do it, because I didn’t have any financial obligations except to myself.

Robert — Where did you get a desire to drive a taxi cab?

Tom — I’d read a book by Somerset Maugham called The Razor’s Edge. It’s about a young man who came out of World War I very much questioning life, and how people approach it, and what to do about it. He traveled all over Europe and ended up in India, where he had a spiritual experience. Then he gave up an inheritance he had and went to New York to drive a taxi cab.

In the first year I drove a cab, I met two other fellows who were driving for the same reason. [laughs] They had also read The Razor’s Edge.

In order to get a taxi driver’s license, you first have to drive for one of the garages for six months. So I did. This was one position where age didn’t cause any difficulties, as long as you looked good and were healthy. During those six months, I’d been seeing and wanting to drive a Checkered Taxi Cab. So after I got my taxi driver’s medallion, I bought one.

Tom with his Checkered Cab

Robert — What was it like driving a cab in New York City?

Tom — I loved it. I loved it. I loved the city. I’d been there in the Service and never expected to be able to come back there and live. I was studying with Lorene McClintock, an Infinite Way teacher who was also a good friend. She told me that if you really love something — and it doesn’t have to be a person necessarily — it would open up its secrets to you.

“You have a very special feeling about New York,” she said. “Any time anyone talks to you about it, you can tell right away that it’s unusual. Just be conscious of the fact that you love the city, and it will show an aspect of itself to you that few see.”

So that was the basis of my taxi cab driving. I drove at all different times of day. I saw the buildings and the streets in unusual perspectives; the docks where the ships came in. I never had any difficulties. I was always willing to take people wherever they wanted to go. Some taxi cab drivers wouldn’t take people to certain parts of Brooklyn, or to Harlem, or to parts of the Bronx. I felt that if you weren’t afraid, and if you loved the city, how could you get in trouble?

It was a wonderful, wonderful experience!

Then one day Tom’s cab was broad-sided by a car driven by a man who was a diabetic and had gone into insulin shock.

He didn’t know where he was; didn’t know what he was doing. When he came out of the insulin shock, though, there was no problem. In fact, he ended up becoming a rather good friend. But even before the accident, I was barely making it financially, just trying to keep my nose above water. Although the man’s insurance company paid for the repair of my cab, it didn’t pay for my lost income.

So I started driving a lot, trying to make up the difference. That wasn’t such a good idea. Prior to the accident, I’d always had an intuition about when it was time to stop driving for the day. I learned that if I followed that intuition and stopped driving, it was good.

But after the accident, I was pushing too hard, getting tired, driving more than I would normally need to. Then out at LaGuardia one day, another guy hit me. That was it. I had to sell the medallion and the cab.

Tom’s taxi medallion
On the back of his medallion Tom laminated
a holographic image of Pegasus

Harmony House

After seven years in New York City, Tom moved to Virginia Beach to participate in a six-month work/study program at the A.R.E.

Robert — What is the A.R.E.?

TomIt’s an organization that was formed to work with the Edgar Cayce readings. It’s called the Association for Research and Enlightenment.

Robert — What was the work-study program?

The people who were in the program lived and worked at a hotel next to the A.R.E. We did all the work: ran the cafeteria, fixed the rooms, and so forth. We also meditated together morning and evening. And twice a week we had a Search for God study group.

Robert–This was your first experience living with other people?

Tom–Yes.

Robert–Were you the oldest person in the program?

Tom–I was. There was one woman who was 50, another about 45, and I was 60. At the other end, there was a girl who was 18. I was perfectly welcomed by everyone in the program. None of them had any reservations about my age at all.

During a second work/study session, Daisy joined us. She was a real advocate for modern intentional communities. She started talking about the possibility of forming a community, either on the land or in a group house someplace.

After that second work-study program ended, nine of the people moved into a group house in Virginia Beach. They called it Harmony House.

Tom — All the people in Harmony House were from the work/study program. Once again I was the old one. [Laughs] The next oldest was Daisy, who was 30. And below that they were all in their twenties and teens.

Robert–How did they feel about having someone your age in the house with them?

Tom–The kids didn’t mind at all; in fact, they sort of liked it. We tried to work together and learn together. We were open to whatever somebody brought along — discussing it and seeing how it fit into the framework we were working with. It was a very fine experience.

We all worked around town. We had to support ourselves and get enough money to make the place go. We ate our evening meal together at a communal table and hired someone in the group to prepare that meal.

I had never experienced that kind of lifestyle. [Laughs] We had two evening meetings a week. One was a general house meeting where we thrashed out things like whether we were giving the cook enough money. There were a myriad of things like that that needed to be taken care of.

The other weekly meeting was a “share meeting,” where we’d do arts and crafts together, or read books that people found, or listen to tape recordings. That’s when we found The Comforter, that was later republished as The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You. That book had a real impact on us.

Robert–What was it about?

Tom–It was a story about dreams. The people on Ata were guided by the dreams of their strong dreamers. They woke up in the morning and shared their dreams, then worked together during the daytime. At night they ate communally and fed one another.

Robert–Literally?

Tom–Literally. A waking dreamer had told them that if they fed one another they would never be without food; they would never lack. We were so moved by this that a couple of times we had Ata dinners. Boy, I’ll tell you, we learned a lot from those dinners — what people like and how you approach them when you’re trying to feed them. It was quite an experience.

Something else that Harmony House read and studied together was Light Morning’s just-published book, Season of Changes. When they learned that the group who wrote it had moved to an old Appalachian farm to put its teachings into practice, they decided to pay Light Morning a visit. So they drove here in a large white passenger van. That’s when we first met Tom.

Everyone was very impressed by coming here. We always felt like every time we came, we got something we could take back and use in a practical way with our own group; more so than any other contact we had. Light Morning community had a greater impact on us than anything else.

Robert — What happened after Harmony House?

Tom — I continued to visit Light Morning. I remember one time that you and Joyce and I took an old building apart. We started backwards and removed the roof, and then we took the building right down to the ground. [Laughs] We straightened all the nails, saved all the lumber, re-used everything. And I never felt there was any reluctance on anyone’s part here related to my age.

Tom Rescues His Mother

In 1976, during one of Tom’s visits to Light Morning, he learned that his mother, age 90, had fallen and was in the hospital. So he decided to drive to California. Tom had a small pickup truck with a cap on top. All his worldly possessions fit in the back of that truck, with enough room left over for a mat and a sleeping bag. We were impressed.

When I got to California, my mother had been transferred to a nursing home. I couldn’t find anything wrong with her, except that she was afraid to get up and try to walk. She also seemed to be hallucinating. I began to get the impression that she was being drugged. And not only her, but a lot of the other patients, too, as a means of being able to handle them.

Tom finally persuaded the nursing home to cut down on his mother’s medications and helped her walk down the halls with a walker.

Then I got the idea that I was going to take her home.

Robert— Most people would probably think that it was just her time to go. They’d say, why bring a 90-year-old woman back home again.

Tom–She wanted to go home, and I didn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t go home. As far as I was concerned, I’d rather have her at home instead of having to go back and forth to the nursing home all the time — even though I knew it would be a lot more work for me.

I suppose it was connected to my feeling that she had always done things for me during my life, and encouraged me to go my way and make the most of everything as I saw it. And this was something I could do for her: to have her at her home and return the favor.

Perhaps some of Tom’s resistance to having his mother end her days in a nursing home came from his grandmother’s experiences in one. Tom had been close to her while he was growing up and had lived with her for a year in California. After the war, she had gone to stay with one of Tom’s uncles. But when his uncle remarried, his new wife didn’t get along well with her mother-in-law. So Tom’s grandmother ended up in a nursing home.

Robert–How did your grandmother do in the nursing home?

Tom–Not well at all. She didn’t live but about a couple of months afterwards. My grandmother was used to having control of her life. I can just imagine what it must have been like for her to be confined to a nursing home. They would tie her down. Or try to. And she’d get untied, and get out, and fall again. Eventually she just died.

Robert–Maybe she was trying to get out of the nursing home.

Tom–Probably was.

Robert–She wasn’t put there due to any physical incapacity?

Tom–It was due to not being able to get along with her daughter-in-law.

Robert–And she had no other place to go?

Tom–That’s right.

Robert–So after you got your mother out of the nursing home, how long did you stay with her and take care of her?

Tom–Almost seven years. She would have been 97 years old a month after she died.

Robert–What did you learn from caring for your mother during the last years of her life?

Tom–The main thing I learned about my mother was what a wonderful woman she was. She lived a life of service without knowing she was doing that, without trying to be that. She just was that; that was her.

And she didn’t think there was anything unusual about it. After I went to stay with her, I saw that people who knew her knew that if there was anything she could do for them, all they had to do was ask and she would do it.

Robert–What did you learn about other people’s attitudes toward aging during the time that you cared for her?

Tom–During the latter portion of it, she couldn’t get around as easily as before. Her sight wasn’t as good. Her hearing wasn’t as good. As it became more difficult for people to communicate with her, they just weren’t willing to visit. Apparently they didn’t see the value. It would have been of great value for them to just come and stay for five or ten minutes. A few did. But not many.

Then there was the attitude of her doctor.

“You know,” he said, “she’s over ninety. What do you expect?”

And I said, “Well, I expect her to be treated well, no matter what her age is, regardless of whether she’s ninety or a hundred or whatever.”

Robert–So he was writing her off?

Tom–Oh, yeah. In fact, his attitude was so bad that I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to get her another doctor.”

Tom’s mother had made advance arrangements with The Neptune Society. So after she died and was cremated, Tom went out on a Neptune Society boat and scattered her ashes on the waters of San Francisco Bay.

* * *

Tom’s story will continue next week.

One thought on “Choosing To Age in Community: 1”

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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