My wife and I just got back from Georgetown, Texas, the town I grew up in and the place my father and stepmother still call home. And now, this Sunday morning, I’m looking inward, to see what sort of thoughts bubble up about this recent visit with two people I’m very close to.
I feel that there’s a story I want to tell this morning about the visit. There are thoughts, some tinged with a sense of melancholy, that need getting down and organizing.
Earlier this week, days before we took off to Georgetown, my father was much in my thoughts. This preoccupation was triggered when I got into a box of old photos and found two of him that were taken when he was just a boy. I spent a long time holding those pictures in my hands and looking at them. They were likely taken in the early to mid-1940s, at a time when a great war raged and the world was a much different sort of place. Today, in 2018, my father is an octogenarian, but I can still see signs of that boy when I look at those images.
Last night, I sat across the dining room table from my father after dinner and while the dishes were being cleared. As often happens on such visits, I prompted him with questions about what his life had been like decades ago. He often complains about how bad his memory has gotten, but he somehow always manages to recollect past events, in minute detail, and then share them.
“Did I ever tell you about Billy Dowdy?” my dad asked as he removed his glasses, an act which allowed him, I suppose, to see way back.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“So you didn’t know Billy Dowdy?”
Janie, my stepmother, said, “Roy, he couldn’t have known him.”
As it turns out, Billy Dowdy was a man several years younger than my father. He’d grown up in a little shack of a place that was located in a field behind my father’s boyhood home and not far from the San Gabriel River, a vein of blue-green water that the two youngsters knew well and swam in together.
In 1953, after finishing high school, my father joined the US Air Force and was sent overseas, for four years, to places like Guam and Japan, to learn and send messages in Morse code. Before being shipped off to those faraway places, he recalls saying goodbyes to everyone he’d ever been close to. Of course, Billy Dowdy was one of those who’d received such a farewell.
In 1957, when dad had completed his military service, he returned to Georgetown and went to see Billy, to let him know that he was back in town. Much to my dad’s amazement, Billy, the boy, was now Billy, the alcoholic man. He’d aged more than four years could account for. Dad recalls that his boyhood buddy now carried a bottle with him wherever he went and that he would take his first swig immediately upon waking up and wouldn’t take his last until the booze ran dry or he’d pass out. Where had Billy, the lad full of life and possibility, gone off to?
My father liked to party too, and sometimes he’d pick Billy up in his old roadster and the two would go honky-tonking together. Dad remembers how his boyhood companion could sing exactly like Hank Williams. He had a beautiful voice, and my father would drive and listen to Billy sing those sad cowboy songs as the two moved through the dark night with the windows rolled down and the breeze ruffling their combed and oiled hair.
Billy got arrested a lot and died in the Georgetown jail. That was how Billy’s story ended. It was also the point my father stopped telling it. He put his glasses back on and looked down at the table.
When he looked back up again, he asked, “How had Billy gone from what he’d been to what he’d become in four short years?” Such a transformation was beyond my father’s understanding.
I’m sitting here thinking about the question my father asked and how universal it is. How have any of us become the people we are now? How much of all that was by choice and how much was outside our human control?