The True Myth of Friendship: Part Two

Continued from Part One…

Part Two: Billy the Kid, Bill the Buddy

1960. The move from the city brought our family thirty miles west of Chicago to a small suburban village. Our new subdivision housed Germans, Italians, Czechs, Mexicans and one family from the backwoods of Kentucky. The families on our street lived only on the northern half of the block. The southern half was paved but no homes had been built yet. Our ranch home was across the street from a German family and an Italian family. Billy’s house, across the street also, stood two houses north of the German family. It was during the first morning in our new location when I met Billy. But first, I caught sight of his dog Blackie.

On that bright summer morning I went out to our front yard to scope out the neighborhood. Our front yard, unfinished, lay before me as an uneven mass of sun baked dirt impressed with bulldozer tracks. As I was scouting the neighborhood I noticed that across the street someone opened a door of their cape cod. Immediately, a black dog bolted out between the woman’s legs, running as if it was escaping perdition. I watched the dog race down the driveway heading towards the open prairie at the end of our street.

Billy’s mom, standing on the stoop, called into the house yelling loudly, “Billy go out and catch your dog.” It took almost a minute for Billy to come stumbling out of their house. By now the dog was at the end of the block. Billy ran to the sidewalk and called down the street for Blackie. The dog, for whatever reason, was deaf to sound of him. I then saw Billy go down the street after the dog, just barely running. It appeared that physical exertion was something he did as a last straw measure.

I joined in the chase soon after when I saw Billy four houses down, bent over, huffing and puffing. This would be no problem. I had sprinter legs. I could out run any boy. I wanted Billy to know this so I chased after Blackie.

Once the dog was in tall grass, Blackie seemed to regain his perspective and turned back, having had his fill of doggie wanderlust. I walked up to Blackie, petted his beautiful black coat and slipped my hand under his dog collar. Billy then shuffled up and said, “Thanks.” I introduced myself. So did Billy. As we walked back to our houses, we talked about our new lives out in the middle of what we thought was nowhere. Billy’s family had moved to the neighborhood a year before.

Slightly plump, Billy instantly reminded me of Sluggo Smith from the Nancy comic strip. Billy would regularly wear blue jeans and a dirty white tee shirt that would never cover his belly button. Over time he stopped trying to pull his tee shirt down. And, over time I learned about his family.

Billy’s parents were German. His father was a security guard for an armored truck company. I would see him would come home and get out of his Cadillac wearing his Brink’s uniform, a gun at his side. When I was at Billy’s house, as I often was, I would see Billy’s dad come in the door and kiss his wife as she stood there waiting for him. She would then hand him a cold beer – a Schiltz. Taking the beer he would then go upstairs and change out of the uniform. After ten minutes or so Billy’s dad would come down stairs and go directly to his easy chair in their living room. This scenario was played out at 3:35 in the afternoon, five days a week. Billy’s mother, Millie, a housewife with two kids and an untamed dog, made sure that things went smoothly when Billy’s dad was home. But, between Billy and Dicky (Dicky was Billy’s brother) and Blackie dog, this was an impossible task. Billy’s mom had an easy going personality but the rest of the household each commanded a stream of consciousness narrative that would play out over and over again, turning the household mood into inevitable chaos.

I would soon learn that Billy’s father had an ugly disposition after a few beers. You certainly didn’t want to be around him any more than you had too. Avoiding him wasn’t hard, though. Most days after work, Billy’s dad was affixed in his easy chair, drinking his Schiltz, smoking his Camels and staring blankly at the TV. For supper, his wife would bring him food on a TV tray. The two of them would eat together in the living room. Then, after eating, Billy’s dad would often fall asleep in his chair. At ten o’clock the news came on. Then, after a few minutes of watching the news, he would finally go up to bed.

Whenever Billy and I wanted to play Pong and Billy’s dad was in his easy chair, us kids would walk quietly sneak up stairs to Billy’s room and close the door behind us. Billy and I kept our distance, safe in Billy’s world – his room.

Blackie dog didn’t know better. The dog often grabbed uneaten food from the TV tray while Billy’s dad slept. Aroused from sleep by the slobbering dog, the old man would let a string curses resound throughout the neighborhood. Hair would stand up and children would cower.

Billy’s room. Bill was the first techie I knew of. His room was decorated with ‘60s electronics: Eight track players, wall size woofers and tweeters, lava lamps, a commodore computer, an Atari game player, a color TV set and black lights.

Billy loved electronics: Radio Shack bags were all over his room as were subscription copies of Popular Mechanics and circuit diagrams. Under his bed were trays of resistors, rectifiers, Zener diodes, LEDs, capacitors, PC boards and a solder gun with solder. It was a mini low voltage electronics lab.

Billy would spend hours devising small electronic doodads: AM radios, beepers, BCD counting displays and countless other devices. He once devised an entrance alarm for their home’s doors. He wanted to know when his mother or father came home. I knew why.

It made sense, later, when Billy graduated from high school that he attended DeVry Institute of Technology. He would receive a Bachelors degree in Electronics Technology. One of his positions later in life: a QC manager in a prominent electronics firm. Billy was a hands-on techie with logical know-how. But, there was no science versus romantic conflict in him. He was also an ebullient romantic at heart. He nourished his romantic side with a constant stream of music.

Billy owned a large stack of LPs. And, as LPs were being replaced with eight track tapes Billy began another collection, but this time for his car. Billy bought music almost daily. A small sampling of his music would include the following: “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman Turner (BTO), “Saturday Night Fever” by the by Bee Gees, the whole Woodstock album, “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Emerson Lake and Palmer, The Carpenters album, “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees, The White Album by the Beatles and Rolling Stones’ albums. Billy especially liked the Fifth Dimension song “Bill”. He played this one almost every day. I had to listen.

When Billy played his music, the earth moved. The reverb would fill every inch of his house. Billy’s mother would yell and Billy’s father would yell but Billy would just shut the door to his room and crank the volume even more. For Billy, music was the ‘potential’ he needed in order for his ‘circuits’ to function well.

As I mentioned, Billy was a hands-on kind of guy. He worked on his car and sometimes on his parent’s car. He changed the oil, the filters, the tires, the air freshener – he wanted to work on it all and he did. One summer he took the engine out of his car. For Billy taking the engine out wasn’t a big problem. Putting it back in and making it work was a whole other situation. It didn’t go well. The car was finally towed to a mechanic who was able to restore the engine to its working order. Billy learned a lot about cars from working on them and I watched or helped as I could. If Billy was a book the title would be Zen and The Art Of Do-It-Yourself Mechanics.

Billy and I were best friends. I played with the other kids on the block but I spent most of my time with Billy. Because we were close I invited Billy to our church.

I wanted Billy to know about Jesus. I soon found out that Billy’s dad wanted nothing to do with the church. I could tell that this mom was interested in the Lord but she stayed home with Billy’s father. Billy attended the weekly boys club. During one summer we both attended the Vacation Bible School. We had fun together making crafts with popsicle sticks, listening to Bible stories and drinking gallons of Kool-Aid.

It was during this VBS week that the pastor held a chapel service for all of the kids. He asked if anyone wanted to follow Jesus. Billy and I both raised our hands. After a prayer we both went up front to talk with somebody about our decision. We were then given new Bibles. And, on a Sunday night not long after this Billy and I were both baptized. We gave our testimonies and were then immersed in the Baptist tradition. Billy unabashedly gave his testimony while standing in the baptismal tank.

Speaking with a newly found smile, I could tell that Billy was thrilled to be a part of something, something bigger than him, something that he could bump up against and know that it would not yell back at him. He felt accepted and loved. His words that day became words of thanksgiving for being accepted by Jesus and by his church family. I will never forget the day my best friend Billy decided to follow Jesus.

Above the choir loft, next to the baptismal tank, a wooden sign hung with a single line of text: “The Lord is in His Holy temple. Let all the earth keep silent. Habakkuk 2:20”.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the earth was not about to keep silent, especially not for Billy and me.


Part Two: Billy the Kid, Bill the Buddy, …continued here.

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