The Fireman's Wife

Nikki Araguz, formerly Justin Purdue, clashes with family over her late husband's legacy.

Whatever the plaintiffs' true intentions, once they filed the lawsuits, they ensured that Thomas's sacrifice would be forever linked to questions about his romantic life, about secrets he may have kept from his family, about whether he was a stooge or a man who, because he was tested, truly understood what it meant to love someone without condition.

As different as their lives were, Nikki's and Thomas's backgrounds were both tremendously influenced by the same thing: trucks.

Nikki pinpoints the exact moment in 2007 she won over Thomas's four- and six-year-old sons to her expert manipulation of Optimus Prime, the 18-wheeled king of the Transformers which, in a sort of cosmic joke, was the first movie the four of them saw together.

Thomas proposed to Nikki during a private Gulf cruise.
Courtesy of Nikki Araguz
Thomas proposed to Nikki during a private Gulf cruise.
Nikki says she has always considered herself a female.
Courtesy of Nikki Araguz
Nikki says she has always considered herself a female.

The boys had been struggling to convert Optimus back into his tractor-trailer form when Nikki, who grew up playing with Barbies, successfully completed the task. It surprised her as much as it did them.

The boys' dad used to drive a truck, as did his dad. Big Tom often took Thomas on his route, and if he had to stop and get out of the cab to check on something, he'd look back up and find Thomas in the driver's seat, his little hands on the giant wheel, pretending to drive.

Nikki's grandfather was a truck driver, and her mother was made a widow on June 20, 1976, when Christin Wayne Purdue's car was struck by a semi in Bryan, Texas.

A specialist in the Army, Purdue had been stationed with his wife, Sheri, and infant son Gary in Fort Ord, Monterey County, California. On June 4, 1975, the day his second boy, Justin Graham, was born in Carmel, Purdue was ordered to a base in Germany.

Sheri and her two young sons moved into her parents' house in Bryan while Purdue was away. He returned in December 1975 and had only one month to be with his second son before he was killed.

That morning, before the accident, when the day was still like any other, Sheri noticed something unusual in her year-old son's mouth. It looked like Justin had two tongues. Sheri summoned her stepmom, and the two women stood there, exploring Justin's mouth for clues.

"Enlarged saliva glands," the pediatrician told Sheri.

Satisfied it wasn't anything more serious, Sheri moved on. In 1978 she married Chuck Bockelman, and the couple had a baby girl, Vanessa. All should have been well, but Sheri once again became concerned about a part of Justin's anatomy.

She believed that, by age two, his penis had not developed in proportion to his age. In fact, she believed, it had not grown at all. Once again, she shared her worries with a pediatrician.

"Some have it, some don't," the doctor told her. But Sheri didn't buy it.

She told the Houston Press that she had a real reason to be concerned: The women in her family have passed down a "rare reproductive problem." Her mother, Sheri says, had uterus didelphys — two sets of female reproductive organs and one kidney. Sheri's mother passed along similar abnormalities to two of her six daughters, according to Sheri.

But Justin's situation was not merely anatomical — even at two, his whole demeanor seemed to tilt toward the female. By age four, he showed an interest in dolls, and instead of playing outside, he preferred to help Sheri clean and decorate the house. Soon, he was begging for a Barbie.

"We always played Barbies," says Nikki's sister Vanessa. "We always did girl things. She hung out with my girlfriends. We talked about boys. It was never like I had a brother, it was always like I had a sister."

The pediatrician suggested Sheri buy Justin an action figure to steer him toward traditional boy behavior. Sheri hit the toy store and came home with The Six Million Dollar Man, hoping Steve Austin's bionic arm would whip Justin into proper boy shape.

"I brought that Six Million Dollar Man home and that child's face fell," Sheri recalls. Justin went back to hogging his sister's Barbies, and Steve Austin was relegated to the dustbin.

Sheri described Justin's elementary school experience in her personal writing in 2003: "We increasingly worried about Justin's social and emotional well-being. The other boys in our neighborhood were ruthless, teasing and calling him a 'sissy.' Teachers expressed concern that he socialized only with girls, avoiding boy activities and friends. In 2nd grade, an elementary school counselor began an attempt to 'conform' Justin's effeminate manner through behavior modification. For example, she instructed him to sit on his hands instead of using them to gesture while talking — a common female trait. She directed him to walk more like a boy — discouraging the sway of his hips and spring in his step."

In middle school, classmates bestowed many new names upon Justin. Fag. Gay. Queer. (It may not have helped that Sheri encouraged Justin to model — as a boy — for a Foley's spring fashion show.) Justin's older brother Gary would often have to roll up his sleeves and teach the boys some manners.

"I got into some fights over her, because...I was defending my little brother," Gary says. "...I didn't even have any concept of homosexuality or transsexuality or anything like that, you know — all I knew was somebody was calling my little brother a faggot."

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