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Julian Putley Pay Tribute to Thomas John Kershaw

Tommy Sea Legs was a much loved and respected personality throughout St Thomas and St John for a decade from the early 70s. His good humor and smiling visage belied the fact that he was a double amputee (both legs) caused by a land mine in the Vietnam War in the late 60s. In the islands he became a legendary figure when he bought a 34-foot Cowhorn schooner and single handed her, often to winning places, in local regattas.

His staunch friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Paul Hellings, had this to say at his memorial service on board several Cowhorns, gathered together in Coral Bay in January, where his ashes were scattered to the wind: "I met Thomas John Kershaw in 1960 when we were both in the same school system. We were from different neighborhoods, so never got to know each other well until we hit the age of having our first cars. Towards the end of the 60s the Vietnam War was chewing up and spitting out young men like a hooker on a navy base payday. Most of us were doing whatever we could, with varying degrees of success, to avoid being drafted. Tommy's father arranged to have a marine recruiter come to his house and give him a pitch about how 'real men joined the marines to defend our country from communism'. The speech appealed to the macho streak that all teenage boys have and Tommy signed up. Around the same time I was drafted into the army and was assigned to the Signal Corp and was based in Thailand while Tommy was down and dirty in the jungles of Vietnam. He only made a few months of his tour before stepping on a mine and getting blown
to bits.

"Eventually he recovered enough to return home where his guilt-wracked parents tried to protect what was left of him. It didn't work. Tommy started to hang with a bad crowd that knew he had a monthly check coming in that could buy a lot of drugs. I ran into him and saw who he was hanging out with and started to tell him that he was making a mistake. He must have agreed because he became a regular at my house where I was living with a few other Vietnam vets. We weren't angels but we had jobs and were productive people.

"Before long, Tommy asked if he could move in, and since one of the guys had just moved out, there was room for him. He was happier living with his friends in a rundown house where he had to hop up a flight of stairs than he had been at his parent's handicap accessible home. Tommy started to heal and have an identity again aside from a crippled Vietnam vet."

By early 1972 Paul and Tommy, after a short holiday in the islands, moved from the Philadelphia area to the warmer climate of the Virgins and both became enamored with the life of boats and the sea. Tommy served his sailing apprenticeship on a small sloop No Slack moored in Frenchtown, St Thomas. When Augie Hollen decided to sell his Cowhorn Taurus, Tommy jumped at the chance and almost immediately sailed her away single handed. In the months and years that followed, Paul helped Tommy outfit the boat with special fittings and fixtures for ease of handling. He appropriately renamed the handy craft Sea Legs.

Over 50 people attended the memorial service – all friends from twenty to forty years ago, remembering a special person, who in the words of dedicated friend Don Brown, "had an incredible inner strength and life force that pulled him up and over each day."

These words are his epitaph: "Tommy, you were loved. You made the most of the cards you were dealt. Rest in Peace, Thomas John Kershaw. You will never be forgotten."

Julian Putley is the author of 'The Drinking Man's Guide to the BVI', 'Sunfun Calypso', and 'Sunfun Gospel'.

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