Memories and Mysteries of a Friend Dead at 40
Trying to locate people I knew long ago through Google and other searches is something I seem to engage in when I’m at a standstill, unable to come up with something else to do. And that situation, since I’m excessively busy, tends to occur late at night, when I should be going to sleep but feel the day is not quite finished, still lacking something.
The problem here is that late at night, before going to sleep, is not the best time to engage in searches that may be emotionally risky.
As a few nights ago when — rather suddenly, without really thinking about it — I Googled “Bill Wiley” (not his real last name) and the name of the high school we both went to, Shenendehowa. It’s in Clifton Park, New York, a small town a bit north of Albany.
Boom — I found his obituary. Shown on the original page of the newspaper of the small California town where he’d been living. Dated March 21, 1994.
So his death was not exactly breaking news. Bill no longer played a huge part in my thoughts, but memories did come up occasionally, and I had even told Tami some stories about him. Memories and stories, it turned out, of someone long gone from this world.
Bill came to our school from a western-New York school in his junior year—1969-1970. I was in the class below his. I became aware of him as someone very cool. He made the varsity basketball team and soon won glory as a starting guard. He had strawberry-blond hair, an athletic build that he carried very nonchalantly, a winning grin.
He also — right away — found his social niche among the “bad” boys. I have no idea how it is now, but in those days a good many of the athletes in our school and the surrounding ones were “bad.” They drank and smoked a lot, roamed the streets at night in small, malicious groups, sometimes engaged in vandalism and theft. In my eyes Bill’s easy meshing with that crowd made him all the more cool.
As a tenth grader, a member of the JV basketball team who spent more time on the bench than on the court, I didn’t see myself as a likely candidate to be friends with someone like Bill. It happened through another friend of mine, Scott (not his real name), who was a varsity basketball teammate of Bill’s though not quite as good a player. I knew Scott from childhood because our fathers were good friends.
So by, I believe, the spring of that year — the spring of 1970 — I found myself roaming in those groups with Scott, Bill, and others. Swilling beer, engaging in gruff, lurid talk about girls, exuding menace; me being given an equal status with older guys who were better athletes. I was thrilled.
But it went beyond that: Bill seemed to take a special liking to me. He would make a point of walking beside me, forming a little twosome within the larger group; and he would refer to us as “we.” Why you drinking so fast, “we” haven’t finished ours yet. Cut the crap, “we” don’t think your jokes are funny.
It wasn’t a matter of asking me questions about myself, what I thought about things; that generally wasn’t done. It was more like forming a kind of alliance. I still didn’t think I was nearly cool enough for Bill Wiley, so I was quite taken with this.
Bill lived in the rather upscale development, Clifton Knolls, where we roamed at night. There was a mother at his house, a brother and a sister, but no father; I didn’t know why. There was a camper trailer in the driveway, and in the summer it became a hangout, you might say a watering hole. In the summer we roamed till very late hours, sometimes all night. Usually the light in the camper trailer was on; and Bill was there, eager to host, with beer and sometimes stronger beverages to offer.
There was one time that his mother came out to the camper trailer to say something to him. She was disheveled, with a house robe open on a décolleté nightgown, the dull, unsteady step of a drunk. I remember feeling — despite my veneer of coolness — kind of horrified, appalled.
The obit says he moved out to California (the same small town where he eventually died) in 1972. And it mentions among his survivors a father and stepmother who also live in a California town.
One can hypothesize, then, a certain picture. 1972 was the year after Bill graduated from our school. As I recall, after graduating he just hung around, showing up at our twelfth-grade booze parties; he may have worked menial jobs.
Nor did he finish school in a blaze of glory. In the fall of his senior year he and another guy were caught stealing a car; and this time he was cut from the varsity basketball team even though he was still one of the best players. He deliberately (as he told me) went to school the minimum number of days that you could go and still be allowed to graduate. There were many days when he really did nothing but sleep and get drunk.
One can see his father, then, realizing his son was going nowhere, saying, “Why don’t you come out here to live?” And indeed, it seems to go better for Bill out there. He goes to a college and gets a BA in business (it doesn’t say what year). He also moves around among a bewildering number of towns, which seems suspicious. In 1981 — he would have been twenty-eight or twenty-nine — he marries a woman with a Hispanic name “at Lake Tahoe”; they go to live in that same town where, thirteen years later, he died.
But meanwhile he becomes assistant vice-president of a bank branch “for six years”; it doesn’t say what he did the other years. He’s a member of a Catholic church and likes golfing and fishing. Seems, in other words — according to some of the evidence — to have become a solid citizen. Then he’s dead at forty or forty-one; and the obit doesn’t give a clue as to why.
It also lists, though, among his survivors, two sons — one of whom bears his last name, the other a different name; which, again, sounds suspicious. And the last thing the obit mentions is a memorial fund, in Bill’s name — for his two sons.
Did Bill basically straighten out? Or was his early death connected to drinking, to the dissolute, destructive side of his personality? No way to know from the information I have, and I’m long out of touch with anyone else who might have known.
If I had to guess, though, I’d guess it was the latter. That was Bill: on the one hand, rough, cynical, and “bad” like the other guys in that crowd; but not cruel like them, something surprisingly affable and gentle about him. On the other hand — whether by nature or because of a traumatic home environment, I don’t know — a total lack of regard for himself. I mentioned drinking, but at least back then, he was smoking like a chimney too. It may have been why he was cut from the team; out on the pickup courts, you could see he had trouble breathing.
Whatever it was, I still like Bill. I’m sad that he died at forty. Goodbye, Bill.
Previously from P. David Hornik at PJ Lifestyle:
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