Saturday Diary / Ten things about Bill
1) My big brother was born a big jerk. That's the first thing you should know about Bill.
Maybe he was an angel for a while, but by the time I showed up five years later, not so much.
Well, OK, he was usually nice to me. But he hung out with older guys who didn't have much use for younger brothers and this was an era -- mostly the '60s -- when bullies ruled. So Bill got into the habit of sitting on me, dunking me in the pool and kicking me out of the basement when his buddies came over. Then there was The Glasses Incident.
The parents were away, Bill was in charge and kept bossing me around -- get me a pop, get me a snack, we're not watching that, go get my glasses. That last one put me over the edge, so I punched him in the face and stood back to admire my bravery. Then I thought ... I am a dead man.
I zoomed down the stairs with Bill clomp, clomping behind. As I fumbled to open the kitchen door and escape, he caught me. I curled into a ball on the floor and got pummeled.
• 2) Road trips were different. The cast was Mom, Dad, Bill, sister Jill and I. We had fun. The most memorable was a month-long swing out West from our hometown of Cincinnati when I was 12 -- to the Grand Canyon, Pike's Peak, San Francisco, lots of places.
The first two weeks, though, we spent in godforsaken Bisbee, Ariz., where my dad served his annual two weeks of active duty as an Army Reservist. While Dad fought the Cold War, the rest of us fought the lizards and giant desert bugs at our roadside motel. A bonding experience.
Even more so was the Mexican caper. We crossed the border at Nogales for a day trip, ate food, got sick, bought trinkets, and Bill and I smuggled firecrackers and switchblades through customs on our way back. As the agent ticked off the list of forbidden items, Dad assured him, "Oh, no, we've got nothing like that."
• 3) Bill went off to college and the parents moved Jill and me to New Jersey, which I, especially, hated. Smoldering with resentment, I plunged into the counterculture. I'd drop the F bomb on Mom once in a while. Who was the big jerk now?
Bill and his girlfriend Jo came for a visit. Jo sat me down, detailed all the things my parents had done for me and asked how I'd like it if they dropped dead. At some level it stuck. And Bill was looking better.
• 4) Jo was killed in a car accident nine months after she and Bill got married. They were still newlyweds, with the world stretched out before them, so the grief was crushing. She was 24.
• 5) Bill entered his Moto Guzzi phase, speeding around on motorcycles. Carefree. Careless. As if he wouldn't mind if he got killed, too. Scared the bejesus out of Mom, who kept telling him about picking gravel out of dying motorcyclists when she was a nurse.
• 6) Bill stopped by to visit me at college. It was just us. I was having a hard time, still alienated. We talked. He bought me a beer. He gave me 20 bucks when he left -- "for pizza or whatever."
• 7) Bill was selling electroplating chemicals and took me on some of his road trips, so we talked a lot. Then he bought a small business that sold abrasives to manufacturers. It did well, but he didn't have much passion for it.
A friend of his read about a guy who'd combined an optometry practice with a lens-making operation. His friend picked up on the idea and opened his first shop in Cincinnati. Called it Lenscrafters.
Bill read about a guy who'd started a car recycling business. Bill always loved cars. The idea was to specialize in a vehicle, buy wrecks, disassemble them, clean the parts meticulously, then shrink-wrap and re-sell them.
Sportscar Recyclers, like most startups, didn't make it. Unlike a lot of small business owners in such circumstances, Bill refused to file for bankruptcy. It took a couple of years, but he paid back all his creditors. I will always admire him for that.
• 8) Backing up a bit, Bill had met Helena at a bar where he worked as a bouncer for a while -- a perfect job for a 6'-4" former bully. Turned out he'd been practicing on me. He said one of his most effective techniques with unruly drunks was to haul them outside and sit on them until the cops arrived.
Bill and Helena fell in love, married, renovated a house, had fun. Helena designed displays for a big department store in Cincinnati. Bill started managing a good friend's large collection of new and classic sports cars. They had three lovely kids: Max, Alexis, Jack.
• 9) Cars and kids became the focus of Bill's life. He had helped found and build a world-class car show in Cincinnati, the Concours D'Elegance, which benefits the Arthritis Foundation. He's been M.C. for most of its 35 years.
The last time I caught his act, it went like this: As each winning car gently rolled to a stop in front of the festival tent, Bill would describe its qualities, its place in history, then chat with its owner. His breadth of knowledge was beyond impressive, as was the respect and affection for him expressed by car people from all over North America.
• 10) Bill's breadth of knowledge about everything is impressive. He reads a lot and remembers more. He knows all the roots and branches of the family tree and all the old stories. He knows where our ancestors were born, what they did, where they're buried. So he knows right where he'll fit when he becomes an ancestor. Which won't be long.
Bill knows that, too. He's clear-eyed that way. He's been fighting a rare cancer, Chordoma, for more than a decade. It started with a tumor near the base of his spine. He's had surgeries, radiation, chemos. He's been hoping to stay around long enough for scientists to find a cure, and he's donated time, tissue and money to the Chordoma Foundation.
Bill's had plenty of up times through all of this, but now he's in a wheelchair with a pump driving morphine into his back. He's promised to hang in there long enough to send all of his kids out into the world, and it looks like he's going to make it -- Jack graduates from high school in June.
Bill can still be pretty bossy, especially when the pain spikes -- just get me the damn pills! Which reminds me -- back when he chased me down the stairs and womped me on the kitchen floor, I vowed to beat him up when he was 65 and I was only 60. But I decided to write this instead.
First Published January 26, 2013 12:00 am