I wrote this some years ago. I’m re-posting it, with some minor editing, because “There, but for the grace…”
I don’t spend much 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.
Today I’ve been thinking about my friend Bill. I met him during a period in my early twenties when I was driving airplanes for a living. We were drawn to each other by a mutual love of airplanes, flight attendants, and the bars of the Fort Lauderdale area.
This was not 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 fellow named Willard, 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 source if you wanted to become an international arms dealer. 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, however, was a player, 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 guys in 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. I’d just married my first wife, and lost track of him 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 until the early eighties when I got too obnoxious for anyone to want to associate with me who didn’t have to. But Bill was often around in those days. I spoke his language. 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 former deputy.
Then I 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 changes in me, 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 to his fellow barflies. 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 the real thing.
When Pete died unexpectedly up in Daytona Beach during Bike Week, Bill didn’t even make it to the wake, and finally, the time came when I was browsing the obits one morning and saw his name.
That was 23 years ago today (August 2020). 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. I wasn’t able to help find his ex-wife, the mother of his only child. Bill was buried by some of his friends from the bar where he hung out, who took up a collection to fund his funeral. I went to the funeral home to pay my respects and spent a pleasant couple of hours telling his friends what a character he’d been — backing up all the tall tales he’d told his drinking buddies about his days in the CIA, as a gunrunner, and all the adventures we’d had together.
Seemed like the least I could do.
I wasn’t familiar with the A-26, so googled it. Looks like a delightful aircraft…in its day!
I’m listening to a bunch of Keroauc jazz recordings, which seems fitting for this piece. The way our culture glamorizes drinking and it’s destructiveness…Jack sings that song clearly.