16″ x 16″ • Acrylic on Wood
Reading Thaddeus’s story I immediately became connected. His testimony is one so many of us have and relate to. Forced by his environment and circumstances to quickly adapt in order to survive. Having to gear up with street smarts, book knowledge, faith and action to make it out of his current situation. Doing it all not only for self-preservation but with the hopes to carry one’s family to safety. In this piece I honor not only Thaddeus, but the spirit that lives in many of us to rise above our adversities with the heart to carry our homes to better grounds.
by James Krause
“If you try and be too intelligent, somebody’s going to try and bump you. You’ve got to play the game,” It wasn’t the first time Thaddeas said it. It had been a lifelong dilemma that he learned to deal with. Often you hear people talk about book smart and street smart, and how a person has one or the other, but Thad had both. He knew early on that because of his skin color, he would need to check his intelligence and use his street smarts in order to retain his book smarts for when they were needed, especially within his own community and family.
Born in South Carolina, Thaddeus moved to New York where his grandmother looked after him and his four cousins. She encouraged him to read and write, and by the age of five he was doing both. When it came time for school, Thaddeus was ahead of the rest, but instead of this being recognized by his teachers, he was seen as an unruly child who they recommended be left back. They didn’t see what his grandmother did, that he just wasn’t being challenged. So, she insisted he be tested when he was in the fourth grade. Thad excelled and scored high enough that he was placed into the Intellectually Gifted Class across town, however this became a double-edged sword.
He was an exceptional young man. Both he and his grandmother knew it, but she cautioned him not to let people outside of the school know just how intelligent he was. It was a time when being a smart black person didn’t earn respect, it earned criticism, even from within his own family, especially since he was dark skinned, which even amongst other black people was seen as a negative thing. Thad did as he was told and played the game, excelling in academics while figuring out the complex nuances of existing within his own culture, one where he couldn’t always be his true self, but had to find a middle ground that would bring him minimal conflict.
One such incident took place in fourth grade, when he was beaten up by a little girl at school.
He wasn’t beaten because he was weak, or because he didn’t know how to fight, but because his grandmother told him he was never to fight, especially a girl. On the other hand, he knew when he went home to his cousins, they would see him bruised, and when they learned he let the other person win, Thaddeus would be at risk of being beaten by his cousins to teach him a lesson about standing up for himself. So, he played the game. He knew he wasn’t supposed to fight, especially with girls, but he also knew he couldn’t let himself be marked as someone who was weak and didn’t defend himself because then he would be a perpetual target. The next day, at lunch, Thaddeus found the toughest kid in his school and challenged him to a fight.
By winning, he let everyone know he wasn’t someone to be messed with. From this came a new kind of game. Thaddeus would become friends with the guys on the playground now that they saw he wasn’t a pushover, and they taught him how to play basketball.
In seventh grade however, both his grandmothers, who had raised him while his mother worked passed away. He moved in with his mother and stepfather, and things started out well enough, but before long, his stepfather began drinking regularly. By the age of fourteen Thaddeus was on his own. He was the man of the house, taking care of his mother and everything else that needed to be taken care of all while attending school and playing basketball. No one ever came to his games. He played for himself, just as he lived for himself.
At fifteen, things in the house came to a head.
Thaddeus got into a fight with his mother after his stepfather lied about catching him drinking on the street-corner with some of the boys. Although Thaddeus denied ever touching any alcohol, his mother took her husband’s side. She came at Thaddeus, and he felt so alone he saw no way other than to run away. He went to his aunt’s house across the river in New Jersey, but was sent back home to his mother.
After returning home, Thaddeus and his mother agreed that he would go to a private school. Between a scholarship for football and his mother paying the rest, he finished his last two years at a Catholic school in New York. At seventeen, he graduated and enlisted in the United States Air Force.
Thaddeus’s intelligence and penchant for playing the game, as he called it, paid off in the service. While there may have been many who outranked him, Thaddeus was one of the most qualified aircraft electricians on the base in Guam. Late one afternoon, a B-52 had taken off and was immediately in trouble. Of the four landing gear, one malfunctioned. The pilot declare an emergency and began to dump fuel in preparation for an emergency landing. They managed to successfully land on three landing gear and the B-52 was towed to the hanger to see what caused the malfunction. At three in the morning, the crew had still not successfully diagnosed the issue. The DCM, Deputy Commander of Maintenance, requested that Thad be brought in.
Thaddeus was awaked at 04:00 hours. He arrived at the hanger where crews were still trying to diagnose the troubled B-52. Taking charge, he told them to disregard everything they had tried up to that point. Instead of trying to trouble shoot the aircraft itself, he had the crews get the maintenance logs for the plane. His reasoning was that if something had happened with that landing gear, if someone had worked on it, there would be a record of it. It was quickly discovered that the emergency landing gear relay had been changed recently. After checking the wiring diagram, he found several wires had been improperly connected during the installation of the new emergency landing gear relay. He changed the wires to their proper locations and called the DCM to try and put the landing gear down. As soon as the B-52 was powered up, the stuck landing gear functioned properly.
Throughout his career in the military, Thaddeus Jones realized what was truly important to him… it was his family. His core values were country and family. Thaddeus used his commitment to ensure his sisters and his children were always taken care of. He used every lesson his hard life had taught him, he played every game, in order to succeed so that those around him could succeed. He’s spent his life sharing his gifts with others, helping them learn the game, helping them to have a chance they otherwise may have never found.