Sunday, June 21, 2015

Wild Bill and Ken

I said in a previous post that three good friends who had been in WWII were all named John. There were two others, not as close, but certainly friends, and I can’t leave them out. One was  named Bill and the other, Ken.

I thought of him as “Wild Bill.” We got to know each other when I worked for a business aviation company and he was the rep for a magazine we advertised in. Eventually he went on to publish his own magazine in that industry.

We had to be two of the unlikeliest friends anywhere. He was a brawling, hard-drinking Marine Corps fighter pilot, and I was -- me. He had an almost electric energy about him. At a business convention my wife watched him approach me when my back was turned, and she thought he was going to attack me. But it was just his normal intensity

I wrote to him once, years later, when I thought he was living in Vermont, but the mail was forwarded. I received an almost formally worded letter from Vero Beach, Florida. He was in his 60s by then, but still tough as nails, running on the beach every day with his Irish Wolfhound. He didn’t need to send a picture;    I could see that as clearly as I see this page. I’ve lost his address, but odds are against his still being alive anyway.-- not many of that era are. 

Ken had also been in the war, in the Pacific, and before that had ridden freight cars around the country, one of the army of unemployed men the Depression had cut adrift. Years later he would be amazed to see a boxcar roll by with the “KT” he had chalked on it.

He was a high school English teacher by the time I met him.        It was during our seven-year sojourn in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. It was redneck country, and he was a welcome exception to the locals. He once described to us watching a freshman buckaroo practicing how to spit, and in fact he taught in a school whose drinking fountains often clogged with chewing tobacco.

He found time to conduct an adult evening class for local aspiring writers, in reward for which he got to read a number of compositions beginning “And lo! An Angel spake…” One of my prouder moments from those years was confusing him with a piece of writing he puzzled over for a week because he thought it was too professional for that class.

He was well liked by the brighter students and I suppose tolerated for his war record by the ones who were just waiting to quit school and get on with the important stuff of drinking and riding their horses. Through it all Ken retained his even temperament, treating his students with  respect or forbearance, as each required.

The one story I ever heard him tell about the war was an intriguing one. Sweeping through an abandoned Japanese encampment, I think on Saipan, he found a magazine with a picture of a Caucasian woman under guard by what appeared to be a Japanese policeman. Not being able to read the Japanese text and preoccupied with more immediate problems, he discarded it. Only afterward did it occur to him to wonder if it could have been Amelia Earhart.