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My Friend Bill has Crossed the Great Divide
My friend William A Gray
William A Gray
After high school I began working in a textile mill. This was the same mill my father had worked and would work until his 70th birthday. The work wasn't too hard but the conditions were horrible. It was hot and the humidity had to be maintained at a high level due to the processes involved in making yarns that would be woven into bedding. Mill workers were among the best folk I ever knew. Common everyday folk who had high moral standards and a strong work ethic.
It was while working 3rd shift in the Spinning Department I met, James Gray. James and I did the same job and sometimes would go into the cafeteria to drink coffee and chat. He knew that I had a band and we often played music at churches. We also had a gig at the Veterans Hospital in Black Mountain playing in the Recreation Room for veterans who were in the hospital for extended periods and could come down for our musical program.
James told me he had a brother who also played guitar and he would like for me to meet him and maybe pick a few tunes. I told him that would be cool and it wasn't long before we drove out to where his brother and mother lived. Right off the bat I knew I liked Bill. He was a couple of years older than me and slow talking, laid back and easy going and he chewed Beech Nut chewing tobacco. Bill had grand mal epilepsy and had been home bound most of his life. He was taken out of school because of his frequent seizures but later completed his GED. He was an avid reader and especially loved history.
Bill could play the guitar pretty good and we needed another musician in our band. I ask him if he would be interested in playing with us. He told me he had never played before anyone but might like to go with us to the veterans hospital just to see what it was like. I told him I would pick him up and he could go with us on our next engagement.
In a week or so I drove to his house to pick him up since he didn't drive. His brother was alo there and they drove separately to the VA. When we arrived and set up in the rec hall, Bill wouldn't come inside but peeped through a window and watched as we played music. Towards the end of our program, he eventually came inside and sat down in one of the chairs.
A short while later Bill sent word to me he would like to give it a try. We arranged to have a practice session and Bill opened up and showed how well he could play guitar. His first love was the Chet Atkins style of playing but with our group he did flatpicking using the old Carter lick. He became part of our band for the next year. I had joined the Air Force and our band dissolved.
When I came back home our friendship was rekindled. Bill's epilepsy had been under control for a few years and I would drive him to doctor visits to have his phenobarbital prescriptions renewed. Bill's doctor had retired but he would write Bill's prescriptions until his doctor's license expired.
I had gotten married and my time to play music was cut to almost nothing. Bill had found another outlet as well and began hanging out at a used car lot owned by one of his cousins. He would help him by washing cars and earned a little money too. His cousin encouraged him to apply for a driver's license. In our state getting a license would be difficult since he had epilepsy. There is a 3 year seizure free requirement and Bill qualified. Soon he had a license and bought a car.
With increased mobility, Bill also found a new job and of all things, a girlfriend!! Bill and his girlfriend, Brenda both worked at our local WalMart. Bill was a candy stocker and and Brenda worked in another area. They soon were married and I think both Bill and Brenda were happy.
That was 30 years ago and this past Saturday morning at 4 am, Bill died after a short illness. He had the dreaded cancer. I was blessed to visit him just a few weeks ago and he was the same old Bill and like our best friends, we picked up right where we left off. I ask him if he remembered us going to Brevard years ago and into a department store where they had Martin guitars. We had taken two down and tuned them up and played a few tunes in the store. Neither one of us could have purchased a Martin guitar that day but the experience was one we never forgot. It took me until my 50th birthday before I would purchase a Martin.
Today I will attend his memorial service I have precious memories of our friendship especially when he and his mom lived in a little house on Glendale Avenue. Mrs Gray did domestic work and didn't cook a lot so many times when I visited especially around meal time, we would share good old mater sandwiches.