One night in the spring of 1964 when I and my friends were angry at the world and looking to tangle with it however we could, we conducted a house party raid. A “house party raid” means walking into someone else’s party, brazenly collecting all the beer stacked in the kitchen—and walking out with it. There was risk involved in this, because nobody wants to have their booze stolen when they’re half-drunk, and the people at this particular party weren’t the sort of people who were known for petting bunnies. They also knew most of us by reputation and some of us by name.
But we were angry young men, and so the raid went ahead, screw it. It might have succeeded, too, except that one of the friends who’d come with us wasn’t angry at the world or at anything in it. And so while the rest of us were angrily gathering the beer and getting ready to march out with it, this non-angry friend forgot what we were up to, ambled into the midst of the party in the living room and started a friendly conversation. And so, while we were finishing up stashing the beer—a sizeable haul—into the trunk of our car, a couple of our intended victims dragged our non-angry companion out the front door of the party house with a shotgun pressed against the side of his head.
We had to give up the beer to get him back, and we just barely got out of there with our teeth intact and our asses free of buckshot, although our non-angry companion seemed to think the whole thing was good fun. His name was Billy Walsh, and I have an astonishing clear memory of thinking, as we drove up 15th Avenue toward Highway 16 and away from that failed raid, that of all the friends I’d grown up with in Prince George—and not just the ones in the car that night—Billy was going to have the shortest life.
I was wrong. I mistook Billy’s amiable cheerfulness, which the worst disasters that befell him across his 72 years of life never seemed able to steal from him, for recklessness, or worse, stupidity. But Billy Walsh was, in retrospect, never stupid or reckless at the same time, and most of the time, he was neither. He was among the sweetest and most courteous human beings I’ve ever known, and he was among the most astute.
Billy himself, it turned out, worried that his life was going to be short. A few months after that house party raid, his father, a big, red-faced man not yet fifty, keeled over dead from a massive heart attack. Billy, who was physically pretty much a dead ringer, worried that if he drank the way his father had, he would suffer a similar fate. So, off and on because teetotaling isn’t really an option for a normal man living in Northern B.C., he cut back his drinking, and for a while, he even gave it up. On his way to fifty, and without making a big deal of it, he made other adjustments, a lot of them, and he became the uniquely complicated and loveable man he was. Once he had successfully eluded his genetic fate, he made more still adjustments, and so he outlived his father by more than twenty years, passing the respectable milestone of 70 years.
Don’t get me wrong. For all his sweetness, Billy was never what you’d call saintly. For one thing, he had the foulest mouth I’ve ever encountered in a human being, and since I’m from Prince George, B.C., that’s saying something. Yet Bill almost never cursed in anger. He just had a unique way of making a point. He spoke, and I think he thought, in metaphor: his cellphone was his “shoe-phone” (a reference to the 1960s television show, Get Smart); he wasn’t in real estate, he was a dirt salesman who “sold dirt”, and there were hundreds of other expressions he used that came at you so fast that they were impossible to track, let alone explain, even though you knew pretty much what he meant. A conversation with him about logging technology or construction equipment or practices would make your head spin. He had a way of summarizing things that was so graphic you had to concentrate to realize that it not only made sense but that it was insightful—it led you to other things, as metaphor is supposed to. The last few times I talked to him, I realized that some of the metaphor derived from the cadence of his speech: he spoke in something very close to blank verse, like the Elizabethans did; like William Shakespeare. Not that Billy Walsh ought to be confused with Shakespeare.
But there’s this: because Billy, as a person, was so utterly without rancour and malice, his insights had a kind of lightness to them—even when he was talking about something as technical as logging practices or how to grade a sidehill with a D-7 cat—that kept you thinking about what he’d said after he’d delivered it to you. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t go thirty seconds without laughing about something, either. Sweetness isn’t always sugar. Billy’s sweetness was full of wisdom, nearly always the hard-edged kind.
One of the last times I saw him, the subject of some recent cougar attacks, one of them fatal, came up. “You don’t want to think about that too much,” he said, shaking his head as if to rid it of what he was imagining. “When a bear attacks you, he’s just going to try to knock you down—maybe he’ll kill you, but really, he just wants to get the hell out of there. But if you’ve ever watched a cat playing with a mouse….” He didn’t have to finish that sentence.
Over the last twenty years or so, I made a point of seeing Billy whenever I was in Prince George. A few years back, while I was showing my then eleven-year-old daughter where I’d grown up, Billy brought us out to his cabin on Klucluz Lake, and he spent more than an hour driving her around in his beloved Ford farm tractor, talking to her the while as if she was an equal and yet an enchanted princess straight from a faraway palace. After the ride was over, she was truly an enchanted princess, but one who knew more about the drive mechanisms of Ford farm tractors than I did.
That’s how Billy was. That same day, before we left, Billy and I talked about mortality. He mentioned that he was grateful to still be alive, and he didn’t predict how many more years he would get. He spoke wistfully about the things he’d been good at (heavy equipment and how it worked or ought to; being loyal to family and friends) and more wistfully still about the things he hadn’t been good at (women, and how to deal with people who had crusty things stuffed in their ears or up their butts). As he spoke I realized I hadn’t once in my life even tried to make so candid a self-assessment, and I didn’t try to that day.
I’m going to miss knowing that Billy Walsh is in the world. I’ll miss him because he knew, well before I did, that life isn’t a raid, and because he became for me, far off as I was, one of the essential nodes of sweetness and clarity in my world. And there aren’t exactly a lot of places or people where those two things—sweetness and clarity—are to be found together.
1280 words, August 6,2018