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John R. Eggers: Who is your guardian angel?

His name was Tom. The thing that really made him special was he not only believed in guardian angels, he persuaded you to believe in them also.

Tom was the 12th child of a family of 12 children. He was the last one to be born and, coincidently, he was the smallest. Kids often called him the runt of the family, but Tom didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t a close friend of mine but occasionally we would walk home from school together. We lived in the same part of town. I guess that is how I got to know more about Tom than other kids, and I had this notion there was something special about him.

Perhaps it was his strong Baptist faith that enabled him to talk about guardian angels so casually. If you asked him about angels, he would get around to the verse in the Book of Acts where Peter was escorted out of prison by an angel and when he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John, a servant girl, Rhoda, recognized his voice and ran back to tell the group that Peter was there. The group replied, “It must be his angel.”

I never argued with Tom about angels. My grandmother talked about them, as did my mother. It was generally understood that guardian angels existed.

People knew Tom’s stories about his own experience with guardian angels, and old folks sitting outside on their porch swings would often ask Tom to visit and talk about his experiences. “Tom, tell us about what happened to you the time you were almost hit by a train.”

Tom would tell them when he and his grandmother were coming home from the movies, Tom was about 8 or 9 at the time, they had to cross the railroad tracks. Tom’s grandmother was holding his hand. When they approached the track, a train happened to be traveling on it. Tom always considered himself to be a fast runner and being just a kid and doing dumb things kids often do, Tom let go of his grandmother’s hand and bolted towards the track.

The train was probably no more than 60 feet from where Tom and his grandmother stood. When Tom took off, his grandmother let out a scream. Tom was in the middle of the track with the train bearing down on him when all of sudden something lifted him off the ground and propelled him across the track. It was like he was shot out of a cannon.

After the train passed, his terrified grandmother gave him what we used to call a “talking to.” Tom was as shocked as his grandmother was and said to her, “Well, Granny, I guess my guardian angel saved me.”

Then there was the time Tom was walking on the ice with his brown and white dog, Fido, in the early spring when the lake was still frozen. Although parents warned their kids not to walk on the ice that time of the year, Tom was a daring kid, as you now know, and walking on the ice was something he dared himself to do. He was about 20 yards from shore when the ice broke from under him and he found himself in about 15 feet of icy cold water.

He tried climbing out of the water several times, but to no avail. “Fido, Fido, go get help. Go get help.” Fido was a smart old dog and he seemed to know what to do. He took off running to the shore and within five or 10 minutes returned with a rope.

He gave one end to Tom and with the other end he ran to shore and wrapped it around a tree several times and held on to the end with his teeth.

Tom hoisted himself out and crawled to shore. Once again, Tom proclaimed his guardian angel was around and told Fido what to do.

Tom often called upon his guardian angel to help him take tests in school, to give him courage in asking a girl for a date and to help him sing well in the school choir. As we walked home from school, Tom would say, “Johnny, my guardian angel was with me today. I asked him to help me study for the test and I got the highest mark in the class.” And then he would ask me as he often did, “Who’s your guardian angel, Johnny?”

After high school graduation, we parted ways.

Tom didn’t have enough money to go to college, so he eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army about the same time I went into the Peace Corps. This was during the Vietnam War.

Tom was a good soldier as you can imagine and before long he earned enough stripes to be put in charge of a platoon. Although he was a small figure of a man, his men had a great deal of respect for him and they, too, sensed a mystical presence about him that told them, everything was going to be okay.

About a month before his term of duty was up, the platoon was on a mission in search of Viet Cong. They got caught up in a nasty battle. Bullets and rockets and grenades were flying every which way. His men were pinned down in a circle when an enemy grenade landed right in the middle of them. Without hesitation, Tom pounced on it.

For this courageous act of valor, Tom was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

There was a special memorial ceremony held for Tom. Many of his classmates were present. We talked about what a unique individual he was and by and by we talked about his relationship with guardian angels. We all agreed that for Tom’s men, Tom was their guardian angel.

I think our guardian angels are those friends and relatives who have gone before us. Being a guardian angel gives them something to do before we arrive, and then we become a guardian angel for people we care about. Whatever the case may be, as Tom would admit, “There are guardian angels.”

And then he would add, “Who is your guardian angel?”

— John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.