On April 15, the remains of our good friend and classmate Tom McLaughlin were interred in Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by the white headstones marking the graves of other of our nation’s foremost military heroes.
Most of us were aware Tom had served with the armed forces in the Vietnam War, but I’m reasonably certain none of us knew the full extent of his exploits until the days leading up to his death. Punctuated by a photo of Tom in his flight suit standing out front of his F-4, his obituary in the Boston Globe took up most of a full page. Reading it, I learned that Tom, a Captain in the United States Air Force, has been one of the most decorated veterans of the conflict. Awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Four Oak Leaf Clusters (meaning he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross five times) and many other awards and citations, Tom’s exploits, let alone courage, defy description. In fact, my view is that had we known the stories about Tom, some of us might have had difficulty striking up a conversation with him.
Which is my guess why Tom never mentioned a word about any of it. To anyone—apparently even Tom’s wife Sally and his children were only told necessary details. It was not until his doctors had told Tom late last year of his deteriorating condition that he had mentioned to Sally that there was a wooden box full of things from the war he needed to talk to discuss with her.
The evening before the ceremony at Arlington, Bobby and Mary Haft, Martin and Diana Hannes and Bill and Mary Schleyer hosted a gathering at the Hafts’ home in Washington, D.C. Together with Sally, Tom’s three sons and several members of the family, a host of Tom’s Section A classmates and their wives in many cases—John Bunce, Bobby Haft, Martin Hannes, John Hauge, myself, Doug Martin, John O’Donnell, Billy Schleyer and Dan Shypula—as well as several additional members of HBS Class of ’77, including in particular a dozen or more HBS Rugby Football teammates, spent hours celebrating Tom’s life and reminiscing.
The next day at Arlington under a clear blue sky, escorted by an Air Force color guard and a full military band, Tom’s flag draped coffin was laid on a caisson and pulled by mounted soldiers, one horse rider-less, down Marshall Drive to Tom’s grave site. After a brief ceremony in which the band performed Nearer My God to Thee, followed by a bugler playing Taps and a twenty one gun salute, the head of the color guard presented Sally with the Stars and Stripes, and we said goodbye to Tom in his final resting place under a willow tree.
I was close to Tom, not just because we were both members of Section A, but also because we both played rugby, first for the Harvard Business School Rugby Football Club, and later for the club’s alumni affiliate—the Harvard Olde Boys. And we played both conventional rugby, and something we found more exciting: “Seven-a-Sides.” In Seven-a-Sides rugby matches, the teams have only seven players, not fifteen as in conventional rugby, meaning the game is much quicker. And grueling.
My fondest and most admiring memories of Tom were when we played together for HBS in Seven-a-Sides rugby matches. Due to their taxing physical demands, Seven-a-Sides matches are shorter, and therefore are played in a tournament format. The lucky teams win and move on, but watch out what you wish for: keep winning and you must play multiple matches—in a single day.
My poem about Tom for Sally and the McLaughlin family is about one of those days:
Three seven-a-sides; three seven-a-sides today.
A life of days.
I am alone: the locker room door slamming, my mates long gone.
Chilled: slumped on a bench, my head flattening against the cold metal cabinet.
Stained: the grass and crud ground into my knees and elbows, the smell packing my nostrils.
Crusted: salty sweat caked on my face and eyelids.
Crushed: my throat scratching, my lips cracking.
Wracked: the pain penetrating the marrow of my bones, shooting up my spine, breaking my ass.
Loose: my joints popped, my soul as easy as the torn athletic tape hanging from my wrists.
Content: my heart humming.
Proud: no one else could survive this.
Triumphant: I can do it again tomorrow.
At peace: the drip, drip, drip of the empty shower like the beat of my life.
Lord, I pray: don’t let them find me here.
For Tom McLaughlin
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
By John D. Kuhns