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That’s what Bill H., my most memorable friend, liked to be called. Just Bill.
Bill became a student at the community college where I taught English after he retired in his sixties from his ceiling installation business. He was a working-class Master Carpenter who had grown up on Mission Hill, Roxbury (moving constantly to stay ahead of the landlords), during the depression. He remembered his parents dancing in the kitchen the night FDR won. After high school, he got his carpenter’s license and joined the union–he was a loyal union Democrat all his life. He also joined the army and fought in Europe, seeing men blown up just yards away. Later, he guarded Italian POWs somewhere in the South. He got to like them. Once he rode his Harley to my house to drive me in my Honda to the airport. As we took off he said, “You know, Jimmy, this is the first Japanese car I have ever been in.” Though he had served in Europe, he never forgave what happened to our POWs in the Pacific Asian theater.
But Bill seemed to like everyone. If someone said, “Hi, how are you?” Bill would always answer “Super fantastic” and somehow convey the idea that his mood was partly because he was with the asker. Then he would ask it back, with real interest. He never failed to get a big smile from anyone he met.
Bill enrolled at the college after raising his six kids partly because he always regretted that he had not been able to pursue his education, partly because as a senior citizen it was free, but mostly for a more concrete reason: to learn The Amiga Toaster. The Toaster was hardware from NewTek that connected to an Amiga computer and allowed the addition of letters to videotapes. That’s it. In the days of Reagan, boys and girls, you needed the first truly multitasking personal computer (it’s true–no rwars, please) and additional hardware to create credits for videos. Or you could pay about a million times more and get a device called a Chyron or some such. Bill could afford an Amiga and a Toaster. But he was a computer newbie. I had an Amiga. That was one basis of our friendship.
Bill’s quest arose from his passion for motorcycles. He rode them in all weather and probably in almost all states of the Union and of the mind. His dream was to ride across the country when he was ninety-nine. More to the point, he co-hosted a Community Access Cable Channel show about motorcycles with another enthusiast, also christened William. But whereas Bill was the very model of an extreme ectomorph (the ones who never have heart attacks and eat anything they like) the co-host was a very large man, perhaps even a hog on a Hog. So, of course, he was Big Bill to Just Plain Bill. (BTW–that’s the title of an old radio soap opera.) Their show was very popular locally. A natural, in fact, given the existing audience for bike talk. He had a lot of video already done. He wanted to produce it for wider distribution. The Amiga Toaster was an essential part of that dream. So he came to the college to volunteer at the TV Studio (he ran one of the cameras), take the classes he loved, and win the love and admiration of everyone he met there. You can find an oil painting of him done by one of the art faculty just outside the doors of the big theater. Bill smiling out at us, wearing a red, white, and blue tie!
Once he and Big Bill were offered a chance to go on a reality show. But he was told that when asked if he would take his bike over his wife he was to say “Yes.” Bill was a devoted husband and refused to go on. He told me Big Bill did, said what he was told to say, and suffered for it in his marriage.
Bill loved to earn extra money by driving for a limo company. He loved playing chauffeur. And he drove fast. I know from trying to follow him once. He got lots of tickets, but he never had to pay them because he always showed up at court to contest them and somehow the magistrates would dismiss them. (Mostly because, of course, the cops don’t have time to show up to testify.) His great pleasure was to treat the customer like royalty.
Bill loved the poetry of Robert W. Service and of Edgar Allen Poe. He had a slight speech impediment, but that did not stop him from memorizing and reciting “The Ballad of Sam McGee” or “The Raven” in public. More than once he came to my American Literature class to perform the Poe, to the utter amazement of the students. Tall and thin, with his gray hair and long face, he looked the part. His enthusiasm and joy won everyone over. My contribution was to convince him to slow down a bit and see silence as part of the poetry.
He never realized his ambition to ride his motorcycle across the country at the age of ninety-nine. He became the Commander of his hometown VFW. One Veteran’s Day when a parade was forming he exercised a skill he was proud of. He always joked that if a dollar fell to the floor he would be the first to retrieve it. For a man in his eighties, he was very spry. This time it was not money that fell. Nothing fell. It was just that there were some wooden prop rifles on the ground behind an SUV, ready to be carried to the parade staging area. Bill darted down to get them. The SUV, driven by his best friend, backed over him. People yelled in horror. The poor driver, confused, went forward and then backed up again in response to the commotion. Bill died there.
The line at the Funeral Home stretched for blocks. The most joyful man I ever knew had ridden away from us.