Bill was a year older than me and five years to the day older than our brother Bob. We spent the first 16 years of my life in the same household, but were completely different individuals. He was also an accountant, but we lived our separate lives and got together a few times each year. No matter how much or little we saw of each other, you can never break the bonds that brothers have.
Other than Mom, I guess I’ve known Bill longer than anyone else here. Mom tells the story, although I really don’t remember this one, that when we lived in the Western UP in Republic, Bill and I would play outside together during the only two weeks of summer. They had just finished paving the street in front of the church and the tar was still wet and gooey. We lived in the back of the church, and Mom kept an eye on us all of the time, but there was very little traffic so we went out and played in the fresh tar. The way I understand it my bib overalls had one of those trap doors in the back and mine had become unbuttoned. Bill got a stick and, whenever I bent over to pick up something he painted my butt with tar. It took Mom a long time to wash the tar off and it never did come off the wagon we painted.
I probably shouldn’t have said “butt” in church. Dad is probably up there giving me “the look”, and I’m sure Father Mel will suggest meeting me in the confessional after the luncheon.
Growing up in Three Rivers, we lived out in the country and since there weren’t many kids to play with, we learned to do things with each other. Bill was a year older than me and Bob was four years younger. So when Bill and I wanted to play catch, Mom would make us include Bob. To Bob, we weren’t Bill and Jack…we were “the boys”. Bob would go in and tell Mom that the boys wouldn’t play with him, and Mom would come out and tell us to let Bob play. We would argue that he was too small, but Mom said play with him anyway. We would often throw him ground balls; the balls would bounce through the yard, jump up and hit him in the face and, often, give him a bloody nose. He would run inside screaming to Mom, and we would get yelled at but, then again, what are brothers for?
Tom and Bill Kline lived a couple of long city blocks away and we would often go over to their house and play. Tom was Bill’s age and Bill Kline was a couple of years younger than me. They had just gotten a couple of BB guns and we had been shooting them at tin cans. Bill, Tom and I were standing in the yard talking and Bill Kline was spinning in a circle shooting the BB gun at random. One of the BBs hit brother Bill and the BB went under the skin in his chest. We pushed the BB back to the hole where it came in and pinched it out like a zit. We put mercurochrome on it and never told Mom and Dad. They never would have let us go back there and play and besides my friend Bruce, there were no other kids within walking distance. Sorry Bill, but I told Mom that story yesterday. But I didn’t tell her about the time we opened and sampled Tom and Bill’s grandma’s dandelion wine. That secret is still safe with me.
After we moved to St. Joe on Lake Michigan, we met a kid named Skip who ended up being my best friend. Our family started taking trips to Florida over Christmas break and we would stop on the way back in Tennessee or Alabama and buy fireworks. Bill and I would meet Skip down at the beach and set off firecrackers. Since the statute of limitations has expired, I will confess that what we bought was illegal in Michigan. We had some big ones…cherry bombs…silver tubes…M-80s…and we would look for dead carp that had washed up on shore. We’d use a stick and put an M-80 under the carp, light it, then run away and watch it blow to smithereens. It only took one time of gagging and retching to learn that you should run more than ten feet away and you should always run upwind.
Bill was a year older so he was a grade ahead of me in school. We were completely different people, but younger brothers tend to want to do what older brothers do and older brothers, however much they deny it, are protective of younger brothers. Bill took Latin as a required language so I did too. I’m still not sure why we did that. There aren’t a lot of people that speak Latin these days and, since we both made our careers in accounting, we didn’t use a lot of Latin to help us understand tax law. The Latin teacher would give all the students Latin names. Bill’s was Gulielmus, but we called him Gulie for short.
When we got into High School, Bill was in the choir because he loved to sing. You had to try out for choir, and if you didn’t make it, you had to take chorus or band. Of course, I had to do what Bill did, so I tried out for choir and made it. I had a little pull with the teacher because Bill was well liked, I could stay on pitch, and we had the same genes. We were in musicals together and, although we were never the leads, we always had prominent parts. Last year Mom took Bill and Lois, Bob and Patti, and me to see Brigadoon at the show palace in Hudson, Florida. Bill and I were both in Brigadoon in high school, but I couldn’t remember what parts we played. Not only did Bill know who he played, he knew who I played and described much of the story line. I glanced over at him several times during the performance and he was mouthing every word to every song.
After he graduated, Bill went off to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. I was a senior and Jimmy Wohler and I decided to take a road trip to see big brother. North Central was a church school, and when we got there, Bill gave us the normal parent oriented tour. That night we went to a party with him, and it was nothing like any church school I would have envisioned. As long as I never run for public office, those skeletons will stay buried in the closet and, Bill; I still won’t tell what went on that night.
After I graduated from high school, Bill, Skip, Jim Thierbach and I went to New Orleans for a guy’s graduation trip. On the way down in Jim’s ’57 Chevy, we had car trouble in Memphis, Tennessee. The battery kept getting weaker and weaker and we knew we needed a new one. We didn’t have much money, so being dumb teenagers, we decided to steal one from a parked car. We pulled up to a dark carport, snuck up to the house, and were trying to decide who would actually do it. Bill said he wouldn’t do it, maybe Jack would. I said I wouldn’t do it, maybe Skip would. Skip said he wouldn’t do it, maybe Jim would. The James Gang we weren’t, so we chipped in five bucks apiece and bought a battery at a Western Auto store. As for the rest of the trip, we all promised not to tell what happened. What goes on in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans and Father Mel, I’ve already taken care of that one.
I remember the many times Bill and I would go over to Shiawassee duck hunting before Billy and Curt were old enough to hunt and take my place. I’d get up at 2 AM in Hastings and get over to Bill’s in Lansing by 3 or so. He’d be at the kitchen table eating a plate of cold spaghetti and tomatoes and we’d take off for the hunt. We’d get there, register, and then stand outside, sometimes in rain or snow or a mix waiting for the drawing. I wasn’t a lucky influence and we rarely got what we would call a good draw. We had our favorite areas, would choose them if we had the chance, and would get to the parking lot as soon as we could. We’d load up the canoe with guns, decoys and coffee and head out for the best spots. We’d paddle up the canals, get out on an icy or rain slicked path, drag the loaded canoe up and over the dike, get back in the canoe and paddle to the next dike where we’d do it all over again. We would often spend 3 or 4 hours standing in 33 degree water, get completely skunked, and come back the next week to do it all over again. We shot our fair share of ducks and geese and created many memories. When the boys got old enough they became his hunting partners and I didn’t go as much. I’m sure they have a hundred stories to tell about those times.
Bob lived in Dallas, Texas at one time so Bill and I went down there a couple of times to fish the lakes around there. Lake Fork, at one time, had produced 35 of the top 50 bass in the Texas record books so we fished that one a lot. You’d think that we would spend every minute trying to land a 10 pounder, and we did fish for bass some, but we really loved to fish for specks. I have never caught, nor seen caught, any bigger specks in my entire life and we would catch as many as we wanted to clean. We’d tie Bob’s boat to one of the many bridges or to an old submerged tree and fish ˜til dark. Bill wasn’t much of an early riser as many of you know, so we never made it out there at the crack of dawn, but that didn’t matter. We’d stay in a motel once in a while, get up and have some breakfast, and we were chomping at the bit ready to go. Every time we just about got in the car, Bill would feel the call to nature, grab and handful of reading materials, and head for the john. I can still see Bob and me sitting on the bumper of Bob’s truck and the tongue of his boat trailer knowing we were in for a 15 minute crap. I probably shouldn’t have said crap in church either so, Father Mel, just add that one to my list. Sorry, Dad!
Brother Bob and I are feeling just a bit guilty. Over Christmas when all three of us boys were at Mom’s condo, we ragged on Bill just a little about doing another tax season. We kidded him about how long it would take for him to end up in the hospital. Having been in the tax business for thirty years I know how stressful tax season can be. But I also know the satisfaction that you get by helping people with difficult problems. True, you get your share of clients that view you as an extension of the IRS and think you get a cut of their tax money. Actually I think they just need a cat to kick and you’re the closest one. But I also know how good you feel when you’ve done the best you can and they really appreciate it. That self worth overshadows the fact you are so dog tired you can hardly stay awake long enough to catch the evening news. Bill was good at taxes and was doing what he loved. As they say in the old westerns, he died with his boots on.
And Beth, I don’t think either one of us are going to be able to talk your Dad into a water aerobics class now.
There are tons of other stories, but Father Mel said to keep it short and I can see he’s already on his second page of confession notes. At about this time I’m sure that Lois and Mom, and many of the rest of you are thinking, “I thought Jack would get up and say a bunch of nice things about Bill and that would be it. Yes, the stories are mildly interesting, but they seem to be about your experiences with Bill. How does that help us?” The answer is, I don’t know. I’m not Dr. Phil and, other than the fact that we have the same hair style or lack thereof, I don’t have his credentials to know the psychological steps to handling grief. After the officer tells you that your husband is gone, or your son is gone, or after your mother calls and tells you your brother or father or friend is gone, and you get past the initial shock that feels like you just got hit between the eyes with a hammer, how do you make sense of it all?
We all handle it differently. When I first get the word that someone close to me has died, my head starts spinning and my entire life’s experiences with that individual passes before my eyes. It’s all crystal clear in my head and I have to put it down on paper. Sometimes I password protect it, file it in “My Documents” in Word, and no one else ever sees it. Sometimes I share it with one or two people and once in a while I read it at the memorial service in front of real people like most of you are. So write your version of Bill’s eulogy. Where I use the term brother, insert husband or son or father or friend. And where I tell the story about Bill painting my butt with tar, insert some of your experiences with Bill. Not all people can relate with how it feels to lose a spouse or a son or a father or a brother or a really close friend so we’re kind of on our own. We all have to find what works for us to get through it.
In my case, brothers are always brothers, no matter whether one decides to leave the game early or not, and those experiences are my definition of Bill. But in this case it still raises two problems. The first one is personal. When I was a kid I was afraid at night when the lights went out. Two things got me. I thought when planes flew over, they would drop tornadoes on us. I know, I know…it’s a mixture of fears. I get it, but it still bothered me. The other fear was that a giraffe would nibble my ears off, so even if it was a hundred degrees in the bedroom…and this was before air conditioning…I would pull the sheet or covers up around my neck and cover my ears. Why a giraffe, you ask? It was because our bedroom was upstairs in Three Rivers and a giraffe was the only animal that could reach high enough to get his head through the open window.
So one Christmas we stayed at Grandma and Grandpa Riggs’ house and slept in the way back bedroom upstairs. We all slept in one bed with Bill in the middle, Bob on one side and me on the other. Right after the lights went out, it was pitch black and someone or something grabbed my ear and pulled. Bill said he didn’t do it, so I laid there all night in fear waiting for the axe murderer to finish the job. Bill never admitted it and Bob couldn’t reach that far, so Bill, if you did do it, give me some kind of sign……I guess I’ll never really know the truth on that one.
The other dilemma is shared by all of us. We all have to figure out how to be content with the stories we remember about our relationship with Bill, ‘cuz there won’t be any new ones. We’ll miss you Bro!