Grisamore: If it ever makes it to the silver screen

gris@macon.comFebruary 19, 2012 

If someone ever writes a movie script based on the life of John “Bud” Thomas, I want to be first in line at the box office. I might even buy an extra bag of popcorn for the show.

You may ask what could possibly be interesting about an 83-year-old man who retired 19 years ago. What is fascinating about a guy who can’t play golf for a few weeks because he just got a new pacemaker?

What is so intriguing about a man who holds court at the Burger King on Pio Nono every morning -- one of the local think tanks where the problems of the world are solved over biscuits and coffee?

Well, I’m convinced there are enough stories for a nice documentary. (I wonder if folks are taking notes at the Macon Film Festival.)

This Bud’s for you.

Of course, his memoirs also would include his trip to the South Pole with the famous Adm. Richard Byrd. Yep, the bottom of the world. Not many folks can top that.

It could cover, in great detail, his 44 years with the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department, one of the longest tenures of anyone in the history of the department. He put out a lot of fires and rescued a lot of cats.

And he could reflect on more than 40 years teaching Sunday School at the Macon Regional Youth Detention Center on Riggins Mill Road. He has been a difference-maker in our community. He will be there again this morning.

In June, Thomas will celebrate his 84th birthday. There are days when he feels every bit an octogenarian. There are other days when he is so young at heart he might trick you into believing he’s not old enough to grow whiskers.

He has called Macon home for every one of his years, except for the two years he spent in the Navy, and the two months bobbing in the water off that icy continent.

He lived in a house on Piedmont Avenue so close to the old Mabel White Baptist Church he could already have one foot on the front porch before they finished the benediction every Sunday morning.

He was the second of five children, and the first boy, so he was named after his father, John R. Thomas Sr. Nobody ever called him that, though. His sister ordained him as “Bud,” and the name stuck like a piece of tar paper.

His father was a fireman. He would later follow in his dad’s footsteps. He first went into the Navy following his senior year at Lanier High School in 1946.

He enlisted two weeks before his 18th birthday. He had never traveled more than 100 miles from home. He had never seen the ocean or floated on anything larger than a rowboat.

The Navy sent him for basic training at Camp Green Bay/Great Lakes in Waukegan, Ill. When he crossed the Chicago River, he looked out the window and rubbed his eyes.

“It was black and dirty, not red and muddy like the Ocmulgee back home,” he said, laughing.

In December 1946, two days after Christmas, he set sail as a crew member on the USS Philippine Sea, an aircraft carrier that was part of “Operation High Jump.” It was the largest Antarctic expedition ever organized, with 13 ships and more than 4,000 men. On his ship was Adm. Richard Byrd, the famed explorer.

“I got to shake his hand,” said Thomas. (Memo: Make sure this scene is in the movie.)

The South Pole was a long way from south Georgia in February 1947 -- 65 years ago this month. The carrier anchored in the Ross Sea, but Bud and his buddies never got to go ashore. They never got to leave their footprints on the icecap or send a postcard home.

Although it was summertime in the southern hemisphere, and the sun stayed in the sky 24 hours a day, the temperatures often dipped to 60 below. It was like being trapped inside a snow globe.

He returned home and joined the fire department in 1949. He was hired by Chief B.H. Brown and rose through the ranks from private to district chief. To keep food on the table and a roof over his head, he moonlighted as a house painter and made deliveries for Dixon’s Drugs on Houston Avenue.

One morning, he arrived for church at Mabel White and was asked if he could teach Sunday School out at the youth detention center, some eight miles across town. The regular teacher was at home sick in bed.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “They took me back and locked me up in the cell with the young men. But I do believe God led me to go there that day. I’ve been going there every other week for 42 years.”

For 17 years, his wife, Louise, went with him and taught the girls class.

“I’ve had people come up and tell me they remember me,” he said. “I’m going to keep teaching it until the Lord tells me to quit.”

It would be an inspirational movie, folks.

Even if it never makes it to the silver screen, at least now the story has been told.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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