To have an old friend visit for three days after several years of separation is a rare pleasure. I live far off the beaten track, so I appreciate the extra effort too.
I met Bill in 1972, when he came to work in our emergency room. He had a full beard and long dark hair, a kind of savage appearance, but he knew his business inside and out. He should, he had recently returned from a full tour in Vietnam, where he had worked in the receiving trauma center at a huge Air Force base. He had witnessed and dealt with every horrible injury that war can inflict.
Bill was suffering from culture shock in those days, trying to adjust to everyday American life outside of a foreign war zone — nobody was shelling our hospital every night. It was tough, but he had some things going for him. One, he was willing to talk. Two, he could tell a good story. Three, he had preserved his sense of humor. The first story I heard him tell was about his initial bus trip to the base, accompanied by gun ship helicopters firing .50 caliber rounds straight down into jungle on each side of the road. He made the experience sound funny. It wasn’t, but he made us laugh.
Bill had no illusions about that war, before, during, or after. Faced with Satan’s choice of enlistment or the draft, he had enlisted, but he knew the whole thing was a political fraud from the start (certain family pressures kept him from the Canadian solution, pressures the family would live to regret). He did the job, survived, and returned to remake his life.
Curiosity has saved many lives, I think, and Bill had abundant curiosity. He studied new subjects at the university, and he studied new subjects on his own. Always we talked about these subjects. How do you make beer? We made beer. What does free-market mean? We learned. How do you cut a tree down? Who was Thomas Paine? On and on and on, year after year, we partied and studied and talked.
We’re both getting on in years, and we’re both slowing down. We have experienced the death of loved ones, the misery and expense of divorce, the ravages of taxes, success here, and failure there, and the acute awareness of mortal fragility. So what did we talk about for three days?
New ideas, like The Voluntary City. This is an eye-opening collection of essays on how people manage(d) to solve their social problems without the state, plus a brief but critical look at the phony epistemology of state planners.
Over and over, something would remind me of Mike (In Tokyo) Rogers’ new book. Bill told a story about his trip to Nepal, and the flight to Thailand. It was his birthday, so the airline put him in first class — free. There his glass was never empty. That reminded me of Mike Rogers’ story about New Year celebrations, so I got out the book, and we read the story out loud, laughing all the way. Then we read another story. And another. We read the whole book aloud! The only other writer I could read like that is Mark Twain.
Then the weekend was over. We had talked and read and laughed and cried, listened to classical music, rock, and jazz, we drank wine, smoked in silence, watched the Ospreys hunt, and walked in the forest. It was good. By the time I got up this morning, Bill was gone. No regrets, and no good-byes.