I knew Thomas Ahlstrom as part of our merry little band of would-be pranksters living in Chicago in the late 60's. There were me and my new husband, Barry Stoner, and Michael Hall, the latter two students at the Lutheran School of Theology on the South Side; Michael's wife Sherry; Carl Franzen, a friend of theirs from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota; and Thomas Ahlstrom. We called ourselves The Magic Strider, since most of us had read Tolkien. To me, Carl was always the Magic Strider himself. Thomas, however, was Gandalf.
Thomas was our saint, our guru, our long-haired throwback to some other age when men inhabited coffee houses and spoke of current events and philosophy. Not a beatnik. Not a hippie. Thomas was an icon unto himself. A man who took sly pleasure in relating that he had told a garage of auto mechanics that "the barn needed new shoes." A man willing if not always able to go along with any little scheme that the group, i.e. Carl, imagined. A soup and sandwich shop? We planned it out but it never happened. Figure out a way to claim an old run-down mansion that had been owned by the family of either Leopold or Loeb, a house and grounds straight out of a Vincent Price movie, ancient pipe organ and all. We did run that one down as far as it could be run, but gave it up when it began to involve multiple claims and lawyers. We had no computers in those days. Who did the research? Thomas? I don't remember. It would have been right up his alley.
Mostly I remember him from the St. Peter days, the days when many of us decamped back to Gustavus when my husband received an internship there for a year. I took a few classes for free (a lovely bit of nepotism that likely is unavailable these days) and formed a habit of meeting Thos - have I mentioned that we called him Thos? - at the student union where he would command a booth and consume newspapers, coffee and cigarettes for hours and hours on end. I would slide into the booth with a coke (I didn't drink coffee), light a cigarette, and ask him what was new. Understand that until this point he would not have looked up from whatever he was reading. And then, finally, he would tell me. Show me an article. Maybe even a book he was reading. And talk about it. And I would just sit there and smoke and listen to him talk as if he were the oracle at Delphi or something. Rarely having a clue as to what he was talking about. I seem to remember us having long conversations, but frankly I don't think we did. I think he talked and I listened until I was ready to leave, and then Thos would go back to whatever he had been reading or thinking about, likely not missing a comma either in the written word or in whatever paragraph he had been writing in his head, before my arrival.
It was much the same the last time I saw him. I was in Minneapolis for a layover - was going to see Carl and and his wife,Gail, of course. But I wanted to see Thomas, too. It had been years.
You can find him, they told me, in the coffee shop in the Mall of America. We may even have made a date to meet there. But Mall of America? Thomas? A Magic Strider of the first water? Nevertheless.
I did find him there, and it seemed utterly natural. I think it was the people. I think Thomas was always trying to figure America out and where better to do research than from a coffee shop in the Mall of America? As usual, I don't remember what he said. He seemed glad to see me - likely wondered why I wanted to see him after so many years. I wish I had told him it was because he was one of those people who remain in your life, who is always somewhere smoking a cigarette, drinking a cup of coffee, and pouring over the newspapers looking for clues to existence. And here I find that indeed he still was, although cigarettes may have gone the way of the dinosaurs by then. There was comfort of a sort in that.
I loved him, the way you love people like that. I count myself fortunate to have known him, for however little time there was. And I have never forgotten him. I doubt that I ever will.