“onkle bill”

 

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the favorite holiday of a good friend of mine, probably the noblest and most generous man I have ever met, whom I lost over 15 years ago.  William Patrick Hughes was born in February 1922 to Irish parents living in Newfoundland.  He told me that his parents had a bargain: if their child had been a girl, they would have stayed in Newfoundland; if a boy, they would go to Detroit, where Bill’s father apparently had prospects.  On the first day on the job at an automobile factory, Bill’s dad was killed on the job.

 

His mother moved to Boston, where she had relatives, and Bill grew up in Medford, close enough to an Italian neighborhood that when he was a child, Bill thought for awhile that he was one of them.  Italian food remained a favorite his whole life, and he and I had many Italian dinners together.

 

 

As a young man in World War II, Bill became a flight engineer on B-29 Superfortresses flying missions over the Pacific.  Part of his duties included crawling through a narrow tunnel inside the plane to reach the bomb bay minutes before the plane reached the target.  In the bomb bay, he would pull the pins out of the bombs to be dropped.  I’ve seen that tunnel on a B-29: it’s long and cramped, and if the plane took a solid hit from enemy fire while you were in there, you’d be toast.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to do that job.

 

His time in the war still resonated with him many decades later.  He was always willing to talk about the missions he had run, the people he had met, the experiences he had.  He talked about the friends who had been killed: one when a Japanese Zero had slammed into the cockpit of a B-29, killing everyone inside.  One who had been shot so many times while manning the plane’s guns that when it had landed and the crew had opened the ball turret, the friend inside had slopped to the ground “like porridge,” Bill said.

 

I asked him if he had ever been scared during the war.  “Oh, yeah,” he said.  Then how, I asked, did you keep going back to fight?  Because, he had said, paraphrasing Shakespeare: “A brave man only dies once; a coward dies a thousand times.”

 

Getting to Know Bill

I met Bill in the mid 1970’s, when I was a boy, in Phoenix, Arizona.  My parents had divorced about a year or so prior, and my mother was looking to move us out of the apartment where we had been staying.  Down the street—the 1500 block of West Missouri Avenue—were some very nice townhouses.  Bill, his wife Chickie, and their son Bob (who was a few months older than me) lived there, and Bill managed the properties.  He probably owned several of them, too, because Bill worked for himself, in various businesses, for as long as I knew him, and ever since getting out of the Army after WWII, he told me.  Win or lose, succeed or fail, Bill always preferred to do it on his terms.

 

The only available townhome was the model, a two-level, 1.5 bath place with a fenced-in patio leading to the pool in the complex’s courtyard.  The townhouse was decorated in what was, for the Seventies, the epitome of style: ceiling-to-floor mirrors in the living room and my bedroom, and art deco wallpaper in the foyer and entry hall.  It might sound tacky now, but it was a beautiful place then.

 

At about the same time as my mother met Bill and looked at the townhouse, a doctor also inquired about it and offered Bill cash to buy it outright.  Bill turned him down, saying it was already sold, even though my mother was a secretary with very little credit, scraping by without child support from my deadbeat father.  There was no good reason for Bill to let my mother buy that place, but he did, helping her with the paperwork so that she could get a mortgage from the bank.

 

At first my mother was suspicious: a middle-aged, well-off guy helping some hot, twenty-something divorced and struggling woman get a place right across the pool from him?  Suuuure, buddy: there were bound to be “strings” attached.  But there never were.  Bill Hughes helped my mother get that home, and I found out later on that he helped other people, too, and never asked for anything in return.  Maybe it’s because he grew up a poor kid in the Depression.  Maybe it’s because he was a dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts Democrat, which he remained his whole life.  Maybe he just had a heart as big as his laugh.

 

Me and Bob and Bill and Chickie

Or maybe it was because he wanted someone to pal around with his son, Bob.  Bob was Chickie’s boy from her first marriage; so far as I know, this was Marriage #2 for Bill, too.  Chickie (really, Chiquita—yes, like the banana) was about 10 years younger than him and was Alice to Bill’s Ralph, the devoted, ever-patient housewife to this loud, burly, larger-than-life fellow.  Bill’s pet name for her was “Chicken,” and I was “Kilgots.”  He insisted that I call him “Onkle Bill,” using the German spelling, as my mom’s from there.

 

 

I spent a lot of time with the Hughes—they were the type of nuclear family that I had recently lost.  Bob and I were very different: he was tough and rebellious, not interested in school, and never hesitant to do something that might get him hurt or grounded or both.  I was quiet and meek and cautious, and I followed Bob’s lead.  We rode skateboards and bikes together, went swimming, hung out at Chris-Town Mall or at the Boys Club, and played in the “dirt hills” (a vacant construction lot with dozens of dirt mounds) behind our complex.

 

We caused a lot of problems for Bill, which would often cause him to sigh in exasperation, “Boy, oh, boy.”  For an example, one summer, despite complaints from the townhome owners and scoldings from Bill, Bob and I could not be persuaded to stop climbing onto—and roaming around—the catwalks that circled the second floors of the connected townhomes.  We didn’t mean any harm: we were just two bored, goofy boy-children.  Bill had the highly effective tactic of interrogating us separately to ascertain the truth about our shenanigans, which eventually taught us to fabricate our cover stories and flimflam excuses BEFORE we engaged in what we knew to be frowned-upon behavior.

 

Sometimes Bill would lose his patience with Bob and me, and he had a volcanic temper: bellowing thunderous vulgarities, pounding his fists on the table, and turning as red as the socks of his hometown baseball team.  Though we certainly deserved it sometimes, he never laid a hand on either of us—well, at least not me, though my mother would not have disapproved.  As fast as he was to anger, though, he was quick to cool off and make up: “Are you ready to stop being an asshole?” he’d ask.  Then, he’d suggest, “How about if we shake hands and start today over?” and once we did, all was forgiven and forgotten.

 

Bill liked to eat out, almost always with dessert and a glass or two of nice wine for him and Chickie.  One of his favorite places to take us was the now-defunct Lunt Avenue Marble Club, a posh restaurant way outside this free-school-lunch kid’s milieu.  I don’t remember much about the place except that there were lots of glass tabletops with thousands of marbles underneath them.  The best part about going to the Lunt Avenue Marble Club was the obligatory trip afterwards to the hobby store nearby, where they sold miniature, wooden, pre-built, pre-painted airplane models.  Bill would sometimes put on a show about not getting us anything, but he would always buy at least one or two for each of us: Bob liked WWII models; I preferred WWI.  I don’t remember how much they cost, but they weren’t cheap; nevertheless, after awhile, we had quite a collection.

 

On the Road with the Hughes

My family had always had money problems, specifically a lack thereof, but Bill and his family were quite the opposite.  Bill always had a big luxury car (he preferred Cadillacs) or high-end pickup truck (in his later years), and his family wore nice clothes.  They also liked to travel, and were kind enough to take me along.

 

Bill always drove—Bill loved to drive.  We’d get up around 6:00 with him bellowing good-naturedly at me and Bob, “Let go of your c***s and grab your socks: it’s time to march!”  If that was how every day started in the Army, as he asserted it had, then I wanted no part of military life.

 

We’d have breakfast, then get in the car.  We wouldn’t stop until lunch—and it was never fast food.  We’d get back in the car and drive for another four hours or so.  Bathroom breaks?  You were supposed to do that at lunch and when we stopped for the night.  Pulling off the highway for the bathroom used to annoy him: I soon learned to limit my fluid intake.  It’s a habit I’ve tried, unsuccessfully to convince my wife Joni, Queen of Diet Pepsi, to adopt.

 

So after lunch, we’d go on and on until it was getting about 5:00 or 6:00 and Bill had found a motel he liked: nothing tacky or sketchy.  When we pulled in at some place, Bill would get out and talk to the person at the front desk while Chickie and Bob and I waited in the car.  Most of the time, he’d wave us to come in.  Sometimes, he’d waddle back out—Bill was overweight and had bad knees that he eventually had replaced—get in the car, and say, “I didn’t like that asshole’s attitude,” or just, “This place sucks.”  Unlike now, back then, in the mid-70’s, saying that something “sucks” was not a term used in polite conversation.  Then we’d set off in search of a nicer motel, preferably one with a good restaurant nearby.

 

We’d do that, day after day, about 10 hours a day in the car, for….weeks, sometimes.  Being self-employed, Bill could take off as much time—and spend as much on gas and motels and restaurants—as he wanted.  As a kid, I had no understanding of this: Bob and I just played and goofed off and napped and daydreamed in the back seat as he roared down the highway.  Now, as a working adult, I marvel at how he, a self-made man with no more than a high-school education, accomplished this.  He didn’t brag, he didn’t show off: he just lived the way he wanted to, in a certain style, and he didn’t compromise.

 

 

There are three trips I especially remember.  One was going to Guaymas, Mexico, a fishing town on the Gulf of California, about 450 miles south of Phoenix.  Bob and I would skateboard around in one of the town squares, and the local kids were very impressed, even though our boards weren’t all that, and Bob and I weren’t anything like Tony Hawk.  Guaymas taught me that how the locals ate shrimp cocktail was to stuff a tall fountain glass with peeled shrimp and fill the rest of the glass with lime juice.  Shrimp caught that morning and drenched in juice from freshly-squeezed limes is MUCH better than frozen shrimp in cocktail sauce.  The locals also drizzled lime on slices of watermelon and sprinkled salt over it, a summertime treat that I’ve introduced to my kids.

 

Another trip was to visit what was then (in a less-PC time) the Confederate Air Force base in Harlingen, Texas (they’ve since changed their name to “Commemorative Air Force” and moved to Midland).  The CAF is a historical organization that restores and flies real WWII aircraft; as a former military man, Bill was an extremely proud member.  We spent a lot of time there, walking around and looking at the planes, especially Bill’s love, “Fifi,” the only still-flying B29 Superfortress in the world.  Bill pulled some strings and we got to go aboard Fifi, sit in the cockpit, and see that tunnel that Bill used to crawl through to the bomb bay.

 

 

The third trip was a summer driving tour across Canada, crossing at Detroit and heading all the way east.  As in, to Nova Scotia and on a ferry to Newfoundland, then all the way to St. John’s at the end of the island.  Bill had wanted to see the house he was born in (which we found) and his father’s grave (which we didn’t).  After returning to the mainland, we drove down through New Brunswick to Wells, Maine, a beach town, where we spent a week or so (probably longer) at a beach house.  I liked Wells so much that in 1997, I took my Joni and our daughter Beth (Ally Jane had not been born) there on vacation, and they fell in love with it, too.

 

Being Bill

On nice summer evenings, Bill would go for bike rides with Chickie, so much so that when we went to Canada, he put a bike rack on the top of the car and they brought their bikes along.  On other evenings, after dinner, Bill would get into silk pajamas and watch TV with Chickie.  On Saturday afternoons, he liked to watch golf on TV, though I never knew him to play.

 

His favorite drink was Chivas Regal.  His favorite holiday—as I mentioned—was Saint Patrick’s Day.  He told me that he used to smoke, but had quit years before I met him.  He appreciated feminine beauty (“Tell me that’s all bad, Kilgots,” he say, upon seeing a young lovely go by) and would flirt with the waitresses at restaurants, much to Chickie’s mock exasperation.  He was always charming, not skeevy: he was definitely not a “dirty old man.”

 

He’d sing ditties—many of them off-color—that he had learned in the military.  One of his favorites was:

 

 You’re in the Army now

You’re not behind a plow

You’ll never get rich

You son of a bitch

You’re in the Army now!

 

He told a lot of jokes—again, most of them not for mixed company, and when he laughed, his face would turn red and his belly would shake like Santa Claus.  He liked dogs, and in Phoenix, he had a mixed-breed terrier named Trixie.  In Illinois, he had a Newfoundland named Londo, named after a similar dog that lived in the neighborhood when he was a boy.

 

Speaking of when he was a boy, one of my prized possessions is a copy of Robin Hood that he was given when he was young, and which he gave to me.  On the inside cover, it says:

 

 To Billie, from Mary

Christmas 1931

I don’t know who Mary was—perhaps his mother?  When he gave it to me, he wrote under that:

 

To my friend Kent Kilgore

From Onkle Bill

Thanksgiving, 1983

Love

 

He liked to read, and insisted on being the first one at the newspaper in the morning: it annoyed him if someone read the paper before he did.  For breakfast, he usually had toast or a bagel with freshly-squeezed orange juice.  After he got his knees replaced, he walked more and slimmed down.

 

Bill wasn’t much for movies (though he would often send Bob and me to them), didn’t discuss politics, wasn’t really into sports (though I’m sure he would have loved to see the Sox win the World Series).  He was nominally Catholic but not a churchgoer.  He didn’t talk about his first wife, but stayed in touch with all his grown children from that marriage.

 

He was an excellent Scrabble player, fond of putting down obscure words and then daring anyone to call him on it: “Do you challenge me, you asshole?”  If you lose a challenge in Scrabble, you lose your next turn; Bill never bluffed, and a trip to the dictionary would always prove him right.

 

So far as I know, Bill didn’t go to college, but he was very intelligent.  More so, however, he had profound common sense, unshakeable self-confidence, and tremendous charisma.  He was your old-school “man’s man”: tough, blunt, and fearless, but also kind and noble.  He had old-fashioned core beliefs:  say what you mean and mean what you say; treat people well; keep your word when you promise something.  And never lose heart:  “Don’t worry about nothin’; nothin’ will be ok.”

 

Goodbyes, Hellos, Goodbyes

Bill and his family moved away in 1977, if I recall correctly.  Why, I’m not sure: I think perhaps he was tired of Phoenix.  They went first to San Antonio, Texas, where I visited them, back in the days when you could put your kid on a bus and send them 1000 miles without having to worry about it.  Then they moved to Elk Grove Village, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where I spent the summer of 1979 with them as my mother moved us from Phoenix to Greenbelt, Maryland.  That was the year we went to Canada, and it might have been the same year we visited the Confederate Air Force—my memories are fuzzy.

 

Bob and I grew more and more different and drifted apart—the last time we were together was when he came to spend part of the summer with us when I was 15.  Bill and I stayed in touch, though.  He moved back to San Antonio and my mother and I saw him and Chickie every so often, when the two of them would pop into town on business.

 

 

In 1988, Bill was the best man at my wedding.  Joni and I visited Bill and Chickie in San Antonio in March, 1993.  Bill had invested in solar-powered water pumps, and he had a prototype that he’d drive around in the back of his pick-up truck to show potential buyers.  He was also negotiating with several Middle Eastern countries for demonstrations and sales.  It was on a flight back from Saudi Arabia in July, 1997 that Bill suffered an aortic aneurysm and died shortly after the plane landed.  Coincidentally, Joni and Beth and I had just gotten back from Wells Beach, Maine, where Bill and I had vacationed many years before.  I flew out to San Antonio for his funeral and burial at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.  He was 75.

 

It’s impossible for me to overstate how much of an effect Bill Hughes had on my life.  He helped my mother establish herself and her career after a divorce and losing her home.  He was a father figure when I desperately needed one.  He taught me many things—by what he said and what he did—on how to conduct one’s self, on how to deal with people, on how to be honorable and true to one’s word.

 

When I was a younger man and found myself in a quandary, I’d ask myself, “What would Bill do?”  That might sound corny to you, or smack too much of hero-worship, but I meant it sincerely.  I sometimes didn’t live in a way that would have made Bill proud, but I have continued to try.  Chickie and I have stayed in touch, and in 2013, my family and I visited her in Illinois, where she lives with her son Tim.

 

I had never met anyone like Onkel Bill before, and I haven’t since.  He was a great man, and I consider myself very lucky and blessed to have been his friend.

 

 

 

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