Fred Tomasello Jr. Guest Contributor
Sometimes, we men just won’t ask for help.
When I got out of the Marine Corps in March 1970, my wife and our two children began attending St. John Presbyterian Church in West Tampa even though we lived about 30 miles away in Brandon, Florida. We were drawn by the rumors and reputation of the former Peace Corps member who learned to speak Spanish in the poverty stricken barrios of South America’s and who could do so much with so little. I had to see for myself. After a year of faithful attendance, Reverend James Holmes asked if he could visit us in our home.
Our appearance on Sundays gave the illusion we were the All-American poster family of churchgoers. We dressed in our best clothes, were polite, smiled to everyone and projected Christian love.
So why did the Reverend’s visit prompt such a nagging fear in me?
Sitting in our living room and sipping Cuban cafe con leche, Jim shocked me by asking if I would consider becoming a church deacon.
“I can’t Jim,” I said. “I’m a big sinner. In the Marine Corps, we killed people. I’ve done some horrible things. Not only that, I’m angry all the time. I cuss and drink. And I hate people, a lot of people.”
“Fred, when Jesus recruited his disciples, he looked for people like you. We’re all sinners. Our church needs young people like you and your wife. We need your whole family. You all can be of help. Think about that before you decide. Now show me the rest of your home.”
In our bedroom, Jim put his fingers into fist-sized holes in our walls and touched the dents smashed into our door. Jim made eye contact with me and, with an innocent look on his face, asked “Fred, what is this?”
“That’s where I got mad and punched the wall and the door.”
“My goodness. Why’d you do that?”
“Well, Jim. Let me put it this way. When I come home from working with idiots all day and my wife pisses me off, I punch the walls instead of her face.”
“Fred, you need to do something about your temper. I know some people who could help. Are you and your wife willing to get support?”
How could I say no to this gentle and honest person who faced me, gave me an accurate and open evaluation and then tossed our marriage a lifeline?
I realized Jim Holmes was a courageous and soft-spoken man of God. My wife and I started going to marriage counseling at St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, all arranged by Rev. Holmes, a Presbyterian minister who persuaded the nun in charge that help should not be restricted to Catholics alone, but to all of God’s children. When our marriage counselor split us up because we fought so much in front of him, Jim set me up with Dr. William Anton, a clinical psychologist and the son of Julio Anton, an Elder in our church. I visited him for many years. During the time our family attended St. John’s, I served as a Deacon and later became an Elder.
In 1972 I began working as a postal carrier in the Tampa Post office, and in 1975 I was promoted to Customer Services Representative. Our daughter JoAnna had also joined our family and we were doing OK financially. My wife was a stay-at-home mom, and I was proud that I could bring home enough money for her to do that. We had only one car.
During the Christmas rush, I was assigned to work in the mail processing plant on Tour 1, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. At the end of the heavy volume season, one day after Christmas, I was invited to attend a party at Clemente’s Bar. I drove there, parked the car and started drinking at 7:30 in the morning – Bloody Marys, shots of whiskey, rum, and sweet, minty Schnapps. A beer tap never stopped flowing. Telling funny stories and imitating supervisors and managers for several hours, I felt like the life of the party. Deep down however, I felt like a traitor fraternizing with these non-combat, draft-dodging, ass-kissing, backstabbing men who had a 3-year head-start on my career because I volunteered to serve my country in the Vietnam war.
Inside that dark bar, rowdy with laughter and jukebox music, I downed one drink after another.
The back door opened. A shaft of blinding light pierced the darkness, interrupting our revelry. In walked a man, back-light obscuring his face and features. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him, squinting.
“Fred, it’s time for you to come home,” the man said.
Recognizing my pastor’s voice, I yelled, “Hey, everyone! It’s Jim Holmes, my preacher! Come in here, Jim! Have a drink.”
“Your preacher!” Several people squawked and turned away like he was a vampire. “What the hell’s he doing here?”
“Fred, come on now. It’s time to go,” Jim repeated in a soft, calm voice.
Staring at him, then at those around me, I finally saw a clock. It was nearly noon.
“You’re absolutely correct, Jim. Time to go home. See ’ya everybody,” I said and stumbled outside into sunlight so bright I couldn’t see. The air was crisp and cold and the tips of my ears stung.
“Fred, give me your car keys. I’ll give you a ride.”
Inside Jim’s car, with the windows closed and the heater blowing warm air, I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, I was laying on a couch, covered with a blanket. Nothing about my surroundings looked familiar. I sat up, puzzled. Not only was this not my house, I didn’t know whose house it was. What I did know was that I badly needed to use the bathroom. I jumped up and trotted through hallways and doorways until I found a commode. I urinated for a long time. Then I vomited.
After washing my face and cleaning up the toilet, I searched the house. I had to find out where I was. On a mantle above the fireplace, I saw some family pictures of fellow church members Louis and Virginia Dosal.
Instead of taking me home to yet another battle with my wife, Reverend Holmes took me to a friend’s house to sleep it off. No one was home. My car wasn’t around and neither were my keys. I sat on the couch and wondered what I should do. It was 4 p.m. I assumed it was still the same day after Christmas, but I couldn’t be sure.
About 30 minutes later, Jim pulled into the driveway and took me back to Clemente’s where I drove our family car home to a marriage that was foreshadowed to fail.
For many years afterwards, this story was repeated. The guys at work expressed shock and amazement that a preacher would come into a bar and take someone out like that.
“You’re right,” I always counter. “That’s what makes him such a good pastor. He takes care of his sheep.”
In 1984, I left our house for an apartment. Reverend Holmes interceded and talked me into moving back but nothing changed. A year later, I left for good. Jim called me and visited me often to see how I was doing.
“Fred, you need to see your kids,” he always stressed.
“I try to, Jim. But they don’t want to see me. They cry all the time. It’s painful to them and me. I don’t want any more pain.”
By then, I had met Kathy and soon we were married in a Catholic church.
Jim and and his wife Pat retired and before he died Jim’s eyesight failed. He was legally blind but you would never know by listening to him. Pat would read him the newspaper every day and when we visited, Reverend Holmes was still full of God’s love. Every once in a while, I would read a letter from Jim to the editor of the Tampa Tribune. To the end, he championed the poor and cared for all of God’s children.
“Churchgoers mean well,” Jim would say, “but every now and then you have to prick their Christian consciences.”
Whenever we would meet, Jim always asked, “Fred, have you heard from your kids?”
“No, not yet,” I replied. “But I keep praying.”
“They’ll come around someday,” Jim said. “It’s a shame. After all these years, you’ve missed out on a lot with your kids and grandkids but, you know, so have they.”
Jim was the closest living example I have ever met to the reincarnation of Jesus Christ on earth. I love Jim and thank him for pastoring me, my family, the members of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, the people of Tampa and everyone else whose life he touched.
James Norwood Holmes was the first person to offer me help in gestures that epitomize the pure love of God.