Remembering Bill

I don’t spend a lot of time regretting the past. There are a lot of things I’ve done that—given the opportunity—I’d probably do differently (or not at all), but you have to be careful what you wish for. The Law of Unintended Consequences is nothing to mess with.

This evening I was thinking about my friend Bill. I met him during a period in my early twenties when I was hanging around the aviation industry. We were drawn to each other by a mutual love of airplanes, flight attendants, and the bars of the Fort Lauderdale area.

It wasn’t too long after the Bay of Pigs, and there was a lot of stuff happening in Africa around then as well. The company we both worked for had, at one time, some clandestine connections with interests in the Caribbean, and shady characters of some repute still wandered around the small airports of South Florida and the islands to the south. I found this moderately interesting. Bill found it fascinating.

A gentleman named Willard Rich, well-known in the aviation community, acquired in some fashion a Douglas A-26 that had been converted for use as a high-speed executive aircraft. (This was in the early days of the biz-jet era, and the Douglas dated to just before the advent of the Lockheeds, DeHavillands and Lears that inaugurated it.) I took one ride in the thing, noted the amount of oil leaking from one of the big radial engines during takeoff, and deplaned as rapidly and permanently as possible when we landed. Bill’s envy knew no bounds, and his fascination with the former attack bomber increased.

The Douglas languished at the local airplane patch for about a year before a potential buyer appeared. This individual had a reputation for shady dealings involving the transportation and sale of firearms—usually, or so the story went, in considerable quantities. When he showed up and began negotiating for the A-26, Bill saw his chance for glory. Days passed, during which time some of the airport wags let it be known in my friend’s hearing that “the man” was looking to buy some guns.

A buddy of ours in the local sheriff’s office called me up shortly thereafter and asked me what in hell our mutual friend had gotten himself into. Apparently his agency and the Treasury Department were both investigating Bill, who had gone down to the local K-Mart and inquired about purchasing a large quantity of M1 Carbine rifles. This was in the days right after the Gun Control Act of 1968, and such things were still possible. In fact, the gun was still being manufactured commercially, it’s just that K-Mart wasn’t the best possible source if you wanted to become a gunrunner. The worthy employees of that establishment, mindful of their newly-issued Federal Firearms Licenses, immediately picked up the phone and called the ATF.

If Bill hadn’t been hanging around with the shady A-26 buyer, probably no one would have paid any attention. This guy was a player, though, and the Feds apparently figured him for loading a bunch of guns into the Douglas and aviating southward. Bill got some hard questioning from some flinty-eyed suits, the thing was exposed for what it was, and everyone went about their business with a snicker every time poor Bill walked past.

Not too long after that—none too surprisingly—Bill took a job flying a puddle-jumper around the Turks and Caicos Islands for some folks who were developing a resort on Providenciales.  Back in those days, Provo was a fairly barren rock with a lot of cactus, some scrubby brush, a few lizards, and not a sign of Cameron Diaz — although it had some of the nicest diving reefs in Christiandom.  Nowadays it’s a lush tropical paradise, courtesy of a desalination plant and the infusion of a billion dollars or so.  The — literally — desert island now even has a golf course, and some of the most exclusive real estate on the planet.

The surrounding little hunks of isolated rock were heavily populated with iguanas, back in those days.  Probably still are, unless they’ve been displaced by McMansions like those on the larger island.  Bill and a couple of his friends got the idea that they could make a killing by cornering the market on iguana tail, and selling it to gourmet restaurants back in the USA.  (Believe it or not, iguana tail, the only meat of any volume on the bony lizards, is quite yummy when grilled.  Tastes like — you guessed it — chicken.

Activity ensued.  Bill and Algernon, his islander sidekick, found a like-minded would-be entrepreneur named Joe, who had a few bucks of someone’s money to be invested in the venture.  I could write another essay about Joe, but won’t in deference to his family, who still  live in my neighborhood.  They got together a crew to harvest tails, an old truck to haul them to the airport, and a beat-up D-18 Twin Beech to fly the delicacies to Miami, where they were to be turned over to the slavering chefs.

Unfortunately for the enterprise, no one had polled the chefs.  It turned out, after marketing efforts began in earnest, that the cooks all seemed to agree that the nether regions of remarkably ugly reptiles would not be gracing the pages of their menus.

Sic transit gloria gourmandi.  Or something like that.

After I joined the cops I lost track of Bill for a while. He kept cropping up, though. He and the sheriff’s guy got drunk with me the night my older daughter was born, and the three of us hung out whenever we were in town together.  Bill worked for my police department for a while as an unsworn security guard.  He spent some months sleeping on our couch after a financial crash and soured relationship laid him low. We still drank together, and occasionally hung out with Pete, the now former deputy. Bill worked for him for a while doing courier work.

Then I got took sober, and Bill vanished. The idea of not drinking was more than he could handle. I looked him up a number of times — let him know I was still available as a friend — but he couldn’t handle the change, I guess. Rumors got back to me that he was getting more and more dysfunctional, and telling wilder and wilder tales about the old days.

Bill had always been a guy who’d lie when it was easier to tell the truth. On any number of occasions he told me tall tales about our early days together that were totally bogus, apparently unaware or uncaring that I was there and knew what had—and usually what hadn’t—happened. Whatever it was about himself that he was running from, he managed to weave a world of confabulation that prevented him or anyone else from getting a look at it.

I tried to stay in touch. I’d call Bill from time to time, or drop into one of his haunts, but I wasn’t comfortable in — nor did I enjoy — the bar scene any more. Finally I quit calling. I might have tried harder, but he seemed to know what he wanted. When Pete died unexpectedly in Daytona Beach, where he’d gone for Bike Week, Bill called to tell me, but didn’t even make it to the wake.

Finally the time came when I was browsing the obits one morning and saw his name. I contacted the funeral home, and found that they were anxious to talk to anyone who might know something about his family or any other connections.  Although I knew he had an ex and a daughter somewhere, I wasn’t able to help, and he was buried by some of friends from the bar where he’d hung out during his last years.

I went to the wake to pay my respects, and spent a pleasant couple of hours telling his friends what a character he’d been, and backing up all the stories he’d told them about his days in the CIA, as a gunrunner, and all the adventures we’d had together.

It seemed like the least I could do.

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