It seems like an ocean of rough water has passed beneath the bridge, but it’s finally smooth sailing for Billy Ray Williams. My life-long mentor, confidant and fishing partner passed away on the eve of Easter 2016.
Not surprisingly, Dad did it his way.
He was sneaky about it, waiting patiently until his bride of 72 years and an army of family had left the bedroom before he checked out in the arms of his oldest daughter, Linda. He was 92.
I wrote this story several years ago as a Father’s Day tribute to my Dad. Some may have read it before, but others may have not. It pretty much summarizes who he was—a kind, stand-up guy with a zest for adventure who always lived life to the fullest while he was able.
RIP Dad, and tight lines to you.
Casual acquaintances call him Bill. But his closest friends know him as “Wild Bill.”
My dad earned that distinctive nickname, but nearly killed himself in the process.
At 87, he doesn’t get around near as well as he once did. Even so, Wild Bill is still as tough as boot leather. Just ask and he’ll tell you.
He’s the guy who took me hunting and fishing as a kid. The same one who taught me how to trim a horse’s hoof, shoot a shotgun and skin a cottontail.
He’s the guy who constantly warned me about keeping the empty beer cans swept out of my pick-up bed at a time in my life when I honestly believed I was bulletproof. The same one who cautioned me to steer clear of girls who wore too much make-up, and always told me to treat every woman with respect.
He’s the guy who spent hours helping me develop a round-house curve and knuckleball at a time when many didn’t realize the dangers of throwing too much junk at 11 years of age. The same one who stuffed a worn out catcher’s mitt with a greasy shop rag to muffle the sting of a fastball rather than buying a new one.
He’s the guy with a passionate love for flying who claims to have spun a 450 Stearman 10,000 feet before pulling it out just above his parent’s front yard, all for the mere hell of it. The same one who once set a plane down in a wheat field between Dallas and Sweetwater after a strong headwind drained his fuel reserves prematurely, then finished the jag on tractor gas.
He’s the guy who once owned a black stud named “Bullet” that would rear on its hind legs on command. The same one who grew up amid the Great Depression and worked fields with his siblings to raise cotton that sold for four cents a pound.
He’s the guy who enlisted in the Navy in 1942, one year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,400 servicemen and civilians. The same one who spent 3 1/2 years working as an electrician aboard the USS Fogg, a 306-foot Naval destroyer escort that carried him on six trips across the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans.
He’s the guy who raced home on military leave in 1944, just so he could marry the woman he once relied on to shuffle love notes to another girl while he was in high school. The same one who called my mother his wife for 72 years.
He’s the guy who worked for 23 years at an hourly wage as a troubleshooter for General Telephone and sold real estate and firewood on the side before hanging it up at 55. The same one who pinched his pennies and somehow managed to scrape together enough dough to build his family a mountain retreat on the side of a cliff in Red River, N.M., way back in the 1970s.
He’s the guy who once owned a herd of cows so crazy and mean that they wouldn’t load without chasing him through the trailer and out the emergency hatch. The same one who sped his ‘68 Ford down the highway so fast that my Uncle Glenn couldn’t catch up to warn him that the load of hay stacked high in his pick-up bed was ablaze.
He’s the guy who jumped at the opportunity to straddle my Texas Chopper, even though he could barely walk. The same one who would have cranked it and taken off if given half the chance.
I could go on and on with stories about my dad, but not all of them would be good.
He lived through heart attacks, prostate cancer and multiple bouts with pneumonia and other respiratory problems. His rugged face bears at least a dozen scars from skin cancer removal.
In 1980, he twisted the throttle too hard on my dirt bike and flipped it on solid rock. The blow to his tailbone was so hard it crushed two vertebrae in his spinal column.
The doctors told him he may not ever be able to walk again. Obviously, they didn’t know Wild Bill very well.
It took months of therapy, but Dad slowly got his legs back beneath him. Eventually, he was right back at it, doing all the risky things that had earned him a daredevil reputation.
Wild Bill nearly met his match in 1986. He and my mother were vacationing in New Mexico when some neighbors invited him to ride along on horseback to deliver water to some Boy Scouts camped in the mountains.
Dad was fast to accept—even quicker to ask for the chance to mount the greenest gelding in the barn.
While the water delivery went smoothly, the return trip turned sour when dad’s horse suddenly burst into a gallop down a rocky, mountain jeep trail and refused to stop.
The other men found him around the bend, lying at the edge of the trail. He was unconscious and blood was trickling from his ear. Two hoof scars in the trail indicated the horse had stopped hard, throwing Dad into a head-on collision with a fir tree.
Wild Bill doesn’t remember much about it, but he was taken by ambulance to Taos, then transferred to an intensive care unit in Santa Fe, roughly 800 miles from his home in Wylie, Texas.
It was a rough time for our family, even rougher for Wild Bill. His brain swelled, demanding surgery to relieve the pressure.
Some doctors believed he might not make it. And if he did, the long-term prognosis was rocky.
And bumpy it was. After three months in Santa Fe, Wild Bill was flown to Dallas Baylor Hospital where he spent another two months tied in a hospital bed, haunting nurses and anyone else who passed through the door. I once found a butter knife hid beneath his bed pillow and asked what it was for.
“If they tie me up again I’m cuttin’ myself loose and gettin’ the hell outta here,” he said.
Doctors said his brain injuries were likely terminal and that he would probably never make a full recovery. I was standing in the room the morning a physician told my mother he would never drive again, but Wild Bill refused to accept it.
It took several years, but he gradually bounced back to a level nobody ever expected. Except him.
• • •
Wild Bill was a fighter who didn’t savvy the word “quit.”
He was a warrior until the end.
His wit as genuine as ever.
His handshake firm as a vise.
When the cowboy finally rode away, the world around him kept right on turning. Though he will be sorely missed by those closest to him, the legacy he left behind will live on for years to come.
I’m proud to have called him my Dad.
Email Matt Williams at
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]