His name is Billy and he’s 88 years old. I call him Uncle Billy because he’s my husband’s great-uncle. I always enjoy talking with him, and especially listening to his many stories.
My husband and I spent the 4th of July at Lake Guntersville, AL at his cousin’s lake house. Though we had lots of fun riding the Jet Ski and being pulled on a tube by the boat, I had just as much fun just sitting and talking with Uncle Billy.
When Billy was 19, he desperately wanted to join the Marines. He tried 3 times before he was accepted. He was such a tall, thing young man, that he didn’t meet the weight requirements to enlist. On his final try, he loaded up on bananas just before the weigh-in and just barely made it. This was at the height of World War 2, and he loved his country so much that he felt his calling was to join in the fight.
Last year Uncle Billy was flown out to Washington, D.C. on the Freedom Flight for Vets to see the WWII Memorial. There was an article written about him and his trip in the Huntsville Times. He felt it was such an honor to be given the opportunity to see the memorial. He tells of how each veteran was assigned a “caretaker” for the visit, and how he felt they were treated like heroes during the entire trip. They were greeted in D.C. by current military personnel. Wherever they went, they were treated with great respect, as they deserved to be.
Billy and I spent a lot of time talking at the lake. He told me of his many antics growing up in Gadsden. He said he found it ironic that he had fought in a war and survived, then was almost killed when he came home. He was working on the brakes on his car, with the car jacked up. The jack slipped and the car landed on him. Though he wasn’t hurt, they had to call an ambulance to take his aunt to the hospital, because she had fainted.
He told me of how he used to love riding his motorcycle… fast. He drove it up a hill near his house and when he hit the top of the hill he went airborne. His bike went one way and he went another. He suffered some scratches and bruises, nothing more.
Billy talks a lot about the war. He would tell me stories about it, then we’d move on to another subject. Soon he’d begin talking about the war again, and say, “I guess I’m back on that subject again. I don’t mean to keep dwelling on it.” My response to him was that when you’ve gone through something like that, it becomes a part of you. It never leaves you. It has to be talked about. If not, then the horrors of what he saw and did will haunt him endlessly.
At this point, Billy tells me of how it was one of the bloodiest wars fought. They killed more than 120,000 people in the name of war. Innocent men, women, children and animals were killed. The women, children and animals are the hardest to forget he says. They wiped out entire villages. He talks about raising the flag at Iwo Jima, and the pride he felt in watching that great event.
Soon after, we moved onto other subjects. He tells me of the raccoons that come to his back door each night for a handout from him. It started out with just one coming to his door looking for food. Then he began bringing a friend with him. Now there’s a smaller raccoon that joins them.
Billy loves animals. He told me of a hawk that would fly above his back yard, and he loved watching it fly around. One day he saw the hawk just sitting in the yard. He carefully approached it. The hawk continued to just sit there unmoving. At first he thought it had died sitting up. But as he got closer he could see its eyes open and moving occasionally. He got close enough to touch the hawk and was able to pick it up. He felt no fear in doing so. He tucked it under his arm and put it in his car. He wanted to take it to a nearby animal hospital, but when he got there the hospital was closed. He continued on and drove to his daughter’s house, where he was met by his son-in-law, Gary. Gary told Billy it would be a good idea to just let the hawk go, and that he’s lucky the hawk didn’t hurt him. They put the bird out in the yard. After a few minutes, the hawk flew away. In talking to one of his neighbors, he found out the hawk had flown into her window and must have been sitting there dazed after the impact.
After we eat, Billy and I resume talking. We talk some more about his youth, the war, his family, how he met and fell in love with his wife. They have 4 children, and he’s proud of all of them. He tells me of how sad he is that all his grandkids are now growing up and moving away. It makes him sad to not see them as much as he used to.
As we talk about the war some more, he tells me of how the soldiers were treated after the war. He says they were treated just like the refuse left behind from the fighting. The Marines were used to haul the garbage to the ocean and dump it there. He feels they were forgotten just as easily when the war ended. Billy says that when they came home, nobody wanted to hear about the war, or the things they saw and did. It wasn’t until the “baby boomer” generation grew up that it became acceptable to talk about it and people wanted to hear the stories.
Soon Billy and I finish our conversation. As he goes inside for a drink, his daughter looked at me and said, “I’m sorry he’s boring you like that. He always tells the same stories over and over, and all the rest of us have heard them all.” I replied that there was no reason to apologize for him. I told her I love hearing his stories and that I find them interesting. I say that I can’t imagine the things he’s seen and done in his lifetime.
I love and respect Uncle Billy, though I haven’t known him long. I’m proud to call him my friend and hero. It was one of the best Independence Days I’ve spent. It reminded me of the reason we celebrate this holiday and the gratitude we need to show for all those who fought for our independence in the past, as well as those who continue to guard our freedom now.