National Geographic : 2006 Aug
His expense accounts elicited gasps. Yet the man who listed two AK-47s as "auto insurance" on his expense reportfrom Yemen, presented the occasionalgift of a sheep or goat to a Bedouin host, or bought a Cessna 185 to fly himself around Alaska was merely beingpractical. Tom, Bruce, andLynn-Long Island,1972 home he described it, with typical understate ment, as one of the most emotional experi ences of his life. "I introduced myself to the sheikh, and as we talked in Arabic the growing congregation of old Kazakhs, magnificent in their costumes and manners, began to gather around. When I showed them pictures of Mecca and the pil grimage they were damn near crying. Many rubbed their hands on my clothes and then on their face for what blessing a hajji might bring. I was pretty choked up." Crowned with such experiences, Tom's GEOGRAPHIC career came to a close in 1994, and his family prepared, with some anxiety, for his homecoming. "Tom was never hap pier than when he was getting ready for an assignment-packing, studying maps, mak ing plans," Lynn said, "so I didn't know what to expect when he retired. But he never looked back. He loved being home, building his boats, having lunch with his buddies. He was still a wanderer, of course. He'd go off on a walk and be gone for two or three hours, because he'd gotten caught up talking to a neighbor, or some perfect stranger he'd met on the road. But in general, he just went native." Tom toiled over his memoirs, a PG-rated version of the long, hilarious, self-deprecating tales he'd been telling over the lunch table 116 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2006 lom in Extremaaura,Spain, 1989 for decades-although writing them down, a lonely business, wasn't nearly as much fun as telling them. His sagas did find a new audience at George Washington University, where he taught "geography with its boots on," and at the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC office, where the next generation of writers and pho tographers always greeted his arrival as cause for celebration. Tom was a generous mentor, and on my own trips to the Middle East I fol lowed his trail into deserts and back alleys from Jalalabad to Damascus. There I often found people who knew him and were his friends, and who welcomed me, Tom's tribes man, as if I were his son. The last few months of his life he spent pur suing his latest passion-stargazing-with the enthusiasm of a kid watching a parade. Even in the dead of winter, Tom, in his beret, was out in the backyard practically every night, studying the heavens through a telescope Lynn bought him for Christmas. The engineer in him, typically, spotted ways to improve the machinery, and he'd soon jury-rigged a new mount for it using parts from another tele scope. Just before his own machinery gave out, he was scanning the sky charts and reading every book about the cosmos he could find. Knowing Tom Abercrombie, I'd say he was just plotting his next expedition.