My Buddy Bill



My Buddy Bill

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La Grange, KY – Yesterday was chore day. Clean and organize Purple Thunder. Take stock of my food stuffs. Fold my blankets. Re-situate my books which fly in all directions during sharp turns. Do laundry. I pulled off of I-65 South, into La Grange, hoping it would have a laundry mat and bank so I could buy quarters and wash my wears. They had both and it was on.

I tossed my laundry into the machine, spoke with a friend in Houston, then my uncle, who, along with my aunt, is doing some cool stuff over at Each Little World. After hanging up, I sat outside to read while my wash cycled when this older chap approached me. “Where you from, fella?” he asked.

“Philadelphia,” I replied.

“Ben Franklin, right? That’s where he’s from?” he asked.

“He sure is,” I said.

“Been in Kentucky long?”

I told him I arrived hours earlier. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Yup, lived here most of my life,” he said. “I worked in Texas for while, but unless you’re from Texas, they treat everyone like a Yankee. Even a guy like me from Kentucky.”

He asked what brought me here. I explained that I was traveling the country this summer, writing articles for my website. “I wish I would’ve traveled more. Been out west and further south, but never been above the Mason-Dixon line,” he told me. “I really would’ve liked to visit New England. I hear it’s nice up there.”

He heard correctly, I told him, then said, “You’ve still got plenty of time. New England isn’t going anywhere.”

Then he explained that he was dying of cancer. In 2008, he was diagnosed with melanoma. Surgeons removed a chunk cancer from his torso and three-quarters of his right lung. After six cycles of chemo, he was diagnosed with bone cancer in his finger. “Doctor told me I had six months to live,” he said. “Well, I proved him wrong. He doesn’t tell me how much time I have anymore. It ain’t up to him anyway. That’ll be decided by Him,” he said, pointing his cancer-ridden finger toward the sky.

He asked if I noticed his accent. I did. “Really?” he asked, “Seems there are fewer accents these days.” This was followed by numerous questions about Philadelphia. What’s it like? Is it humid? How far from New York? He went on to tell me about La Grange, about how it was only one of two towns in the nation that has active freight railroad track running through its Main Street. “Make sure you don’t double park, ’cause them trains can’t stop that quick,” he warned. “It happens quite a bit. New fella double parks to run in and grab a paper, comes out and his car is a mess. Them trains also take off doors now and again.”

Railroad tracks cutting through La Grange, KY’s Main Street.

After all this, I asked him his name. “Bill,” he said. Then he asked mine. “Nathan, that’s a nice name,” he said. “You read the Bible? I’ve been reading the Bible a lot since my cancer. A lot of people think Mary descended from Solomon, but there’s a genealogy in Luke that says she’s descended from Nathan.”

I asked if I could take a picture. He became self-conscious about his teeth. “People always thinkin’ folks around here missin’ teeth, and it’s true. Lots of folks are,” he laughed.

For nearly 90 minutes we stood there, chatting. Bill was like a boy new to the world, asking questions about computers, digital photography, what it’s like to travel that way I do, places I’ve been. Then he began telling me about places to visit around Kentucky. “Harrisburg, that’s where Lincoln was born,” he said. “Lots of people think he was born in Illinios, but it ain’t so.

“If you go down here to 63, follow that to a little town called Centerfield, you’ll see a white church on the corner,” he informed. “Next to it is a cemetary. D.W. Griffith, the famous movie producer is buried there. Ever heard of him? Did that movie, Birth of a Nation, about the Civil War. Ever seen it?… There’s a lot of Civil War battlefields ’round here, too. You got Gettysburg up there in Pennsylvania, right?”

The grave of movie producer/director D.W. Griffith, who pioneered the close-up and fade away.

We chatted as I folded my laundry. Then I realized Bill wasn’t doing laundry. He was just hanging out. I asked how his family was holding up. “My sister takes it the hardest,” he said, tearing up. “I ain’t afraid to die. I lived a good life and I know He’ll take care of me. But it’s hard making sure things are in place… that my boys, my family will be taken care of when I go.”

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