Recently, my sister JoAnn and I took our 93 year young mother to lunch at Canyon Country’s Route 66 Restaurant where I had an impromptu chat with my friend George Thomas, owner of this iconic restaurant. George, a former L.A. police officer, asked me for assistance in lining up military resources for his older brother Calvin’s funeral scheduled for January 5 at 10 a.m. at Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Cemetery. Calvin had served in combat with the U.S. Army as a Green Beret during the Vietnam War and he tragically passed away December 18, 2017.
George and I met again when my wife, our daughter and I took Mom back to Route 66 for another lunch a week later. Mom just loves their chocolate shakes! George and I ended up having a two hour conversation where it became clear to me that George and Calvin had an enduring life long relationship of brotherly love that I felt must be trumpeted. Their close relationship began at an early age guided by their wonderful parents Nola & Albert. It’s noted that Albert served with 82nd Airborne and fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge during WWII.
Calvin was born February 4, 1948, in Miami, Florida, but he grew up in Southern California and attended Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Barbara County. It’s noted that while Calvin attended Orcutt Jr. High School, his physical education teacher was the famous National Football great, John Madden. At age 17 during his senior year, Calvin left high school to enlist in the U.S. Army with a strong desire to emulate his Father and become a paratrooper. Calvin left home December 28, 1965, for Basic and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Bragg, Georgia. At Fort Bragg, Calvin realized that he wanted to fight in Vietnam and become a Green Beret. After months of rigorous training at Fort Bragg’s famous “Smoke Bomb Hill”, Calvin earned his Silver Wings and became one of America’s best.
1966 Pontiac GTO
Following training, Calvin returned home for a short leave of absence when he inexplicably purchased a brand new 1966 Pontiac GTO on his very last day before deploying to Vietnam. Stunned, George asked, “Why would you buy a GTO on your very last day at home?” Calvin tossed his keys to George telling him, “It’s insured and if I don’t return home from Vietnam it’s yours, but if I do make it home, it better be in pristine condition”. George told me, “This is how Calvin was, always thinking of his family and friends and rarely himself”. On October 19, 1967, Calvin arrived in South Vietnam.
Special Forces A-Team
Once in Vietnam, Calvin was assigned to a remote village in the Central Highlands with an elite A-Team, a Special Forces 12 man unit responsible for befriending and training local villagers to defeat aggressive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist fighters. In December 1968, Viet Cong guerrilla fighters overran their village but during that fierce battle, several Green Beret survivors escaped into the surrounding dense jungle. With little ammunition and no food, they attempted for over a week to locate a helicopter extraction point and were relegated to drinking creek water and eating frogs, insects and mushrooms to survive. The last memory Calvin had was sitting at a creek before awakening in an Army field hospital with no idea how long he had been there. Calvin had a high fever and was diagnosed with encephalitis which symptoms may include headaches, fever, confusion, a stiff neck, and vomiting. Potential complications typically are seizures, hallucinations, trouble speaking, memory and hearing problems, along with inflammation of the brain.
Civilian Life Complications
While Calvin was ill, the Army issued him his Honorable Discharge and he returned home December 23, 1968, but on his first night, his parents had him hospitalized for a week due to a very high fever which finally subsided. Six months after returning home from Vietnam, Calvin married his high school sweetheart and his best friend’s next door neighbor, Marilyn Webb a car-hop waitress, but sadly their marriage fell apart. Calvin, determined to carry on, enrolled at Allan Hancock College and earned an associate in arts degree and then transferred to Sonoma State University north of San Francisco. However, Vietnam anti war protests intensified which caused Calvin to feel guilty about his combat role and he began searching for answers he had about his life. Then he began trekking around California as his readjustment to civilian life had become complicated.
To pull his life together, Calvin returned to his parent’s home and began learning the cabinetry trade from his Father and together they converted their family garage into a cabinet shop. George recalls his Dad saying what a quick study Calvin had become. However, while wood working Calvin began noticing that his hands would tremble which made it extremely dangerous handling power tools. His Mom and Dad dedicated themselves to seeking answers to Calvin’s condition and after plentiful doctor examinations, at the young age of 24 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A neurologist determined that Calvin’s long periods of high fevers during his Vietnam service caused his ailment. At this point, Calvin simply could no longer work but through all of his struggles, Calvin continued pursuing his education earning a Bachelor’s Degree in History with a minor in Philosophy.
Calvin’s life became increasingly challenging from his debilitating disease, hence reliance on his family for his most basic needs became more and more necessary. Throughout the next 45 years of Calvin’s life, he and George’s relationship grew only closer. George and his parents constantly pursued one remedy with specialists after the next including two neurological surgeries at UCLA and USC but nothing would stop the disease’s dreadful progress. After Albert and Nola passed away, George became solely responsible for Calvin’s care. George honored his brother’s request to live alone in their parent’s Santa Maria home, but in 2007 it was unmistakable that he needed closer care. So George moved Calvin into his own home, but only for a few months as it was necessary to have him permanently move into the Veterans Administration Convalescent Home in the San Fernando Valley for daily care.
President Bush to the Rescue
Other than when Calvin served in Vietnam, George spent every year of his life with his older brother at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In his waning years, George conveyed, “It was terribly painful watching my dear brother lose his ability to speak relegating him to pointing at letters on his clipboard alphabet card to communicate.” Thanksgiving 2017 was Calvin’s very last but it meant the world to him and his entire family. Heartbroken, George sadly stated, “We all thought that this might just be his last Thanksgiving”. Reflecting back on his brother’s wretched disease and the immense difficulties the family endured gaining support from the VA, George said, “It was unbelievably frustrating in gaining their cooperation and assistance. Finally, after George W. Bush was elected President, everything drastically improved because W promptly selected a new secretary of Veterans Affairs and ordered the VA to step up their efficiency. Soon afterwards, the VA rightfully determined that Calvin was 100% disabled and they covered all expenses the rest of Calvin’s days.” George stated, “Through all of his trials and tribulations over the years, my brother never ever complained about his lot in life”. God bless Calvin Edward Thomas.
The Thomas Family invites Veterans to attend funeral services for Calvin Edward Thomas at Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Cemetery at 10 a.m. on January 5, 2018.
Rest in Heaven’s Arms
By Forrest Phelps-Cook
The mountains you were given
were more than most could stand,
but you did prove so well,
the strength and will of man.
You battled through the darkness,
though at times you felt despair
but somehow you held strong
for you felt your Savior near.
Your journey here is ended,
and a new one now begun.
We’ll miss you but we know
you at last are safely home.
So rest in heaven’s loving arms,
you now are free from fear,
surrounded by the love
of those you hold most dear.
Written for Calvin the day he passed away
December 18, 2017