In 1983, I was traveling with a tiny theater company doing vaudeville-type shows in community centers and bars—anywhere we could earn $25 each plus enough gas money to get to the next small town in our ramshackle yellow bus.
As we passed through Bozeman, Montana, in early February, a heavy snow slowed us down. The radio crackled warnings about black ice and poor visibility, so we opted to impose on friends who were doing a production of Fiddler on the Roof at Montana State University. See a show, hit a few bars, sleep on a sofa: This is as close to prudence as it gets when you’re an itinerant 20-something troubadour.
They’d just finished lunch at a café in Orange County—Chuck Rees, his wife, Laurie, and her mother, Ann Marie Effert. Then Rees, 51, spotted smoke rising from a hill a few blocks away. “Let’s get up there!” he cried.
Keeping the dark plumes in sight, the trio drove through winding, unfamiliar streets and eventually came upon a white two-story house with black smoke billowing from the back.
Rees pulled his car alongside a couple standing on the curb in front of the house. “Anybody in there?” he asked them.
“I knocked, but nobody answered,” the man said. “We’ve called 911.”
Rees threw his car into park. “Chuck, don’t,” Laurie said, although she knew he wouldn’t listen. He’d once dropped the receiver of a pay phone in the middle of a conversation with her to chase a purse snatcher.
He pointed to the flames coursing up the back of the house. The woman looked at him, frightened.
“Laurie, I’ve got to,” he said, and jumped out of the car.
Rees ran up the driveway along the right side of the house, hoping to find the source of the fire and put it out with a garden hose. A locked gate blocked his way into the backyard. He considered climbing over it, but a large Labrador retriever mix appeared on the other side and bared its teeth at him. That means somebody lives here, Rees thought.
He sprinted to the front door and tried the handle; it was locked. He pounded on the door; no one answered. Then he moved along the left side of the house, past what looked like a small addition. He grabbed onto a chain-link fence and pulled it back far enough for him to squeeze through. When he scaled a six-foot-high cinder blockwall just inside the fence, another large Lab mix stood waiting for him; this one was wagging its tail.
As he scanned the back of the house for a hose, Rees noticed a small steel door in the addition. He banged on it with his fist. “Is anybody in there?” he shouted. “Your house is on fire!” No one answered. He banged on the door again.
Soon he heard a woman’s faint voice from the other side of the door. “Hello?” she said.
There's a good movie playing down-town. How about let's taking in a movie tonight?" asked my wife.
"I guess so." I told her.
I really did not like going to the movie theater. It was located right on the edge of a very seedy part of town. When we arrived we parked the car and started the block or so walk to the Florida Theater.
"Can you spare a dollar?" or "Can you spare some change" asked almost every person that we passed.
Most people coming to this part of town to the movies had already learned that it was best not to speak and to just keep on walking. As we rounded the last corner I saw a gentleman sitting on the sidewalk, his back to the building. Next to him was a large duffle bag.
He was very unclean and unshaven. Around his eyes were very dark circles. It appeared as though he had not washed his face for quiet a long time. His clothes were old and worn and there was very little doubt that they were in need of a good washing.
As we passed him by he said not a word. My wife proceeded up to the ticket booth to purchased the tickets.
"Going to see the movie?" asked the man.
"Yea, my wife wants to see it." I replied.
"It's a very good movie." He said.
"Have you seen it?" I asked.
"No. Just heard that it was..uh, that it was very good." he replied.
"Well, I had better go in" I said.
"Could you spare a dollar?" he asked.
"Sorry. But the wife's got all the money." I said to him, as I turned and walked away.
We entered the theater and my wife purchased a large bucket of popcorn and two drinks. After seating ourselves I slowly started eating the popcorn. All at once I looked over at my wife.
"Can I have twenty dollars?" I asked her.
"Twenty dollars! For what?" she said.
"I just need twenty dollars, Hon." I replied.
She reached into her wallet and she took out a twenty dollar bill. I took the money and I walked back to the entrance of the theater where the man was still sitting. I had decided that I was not going to give the gentleman any money. That I would invite him in to see the movie and feed him while he watched the show. He looked up at me as I approached him.
"I'll pay for it if you want to come in and see the movie?" I said to him.
"I can't leave my stuff. Somebody will steal it. Besides I'm not dressed for the movies." said the man, looking down at his clothing.
"I'll tell you what. I'll put your bag in the trunk of my car until after the movie."
The man quickly reached over and grabbed his bag and held onto it, as if I were going to take it from him.
"It'll be safe." I told him.
Slowly he got up from the ground and picked up his bag. We walked about block and a half to where my car was parked. I placed the large bag in the trunk and I locked it. We then walked back to the theater where I purchased his ticket.
"Roger." I said to the man, holding out my hand.
"Willy" he said, wiping his hand on his pants before shaking my hand.
I purchased a bucket of popcorn, a hot dog, and a large drink which I handed to Willy.
I don't recall the name of the movie that we saw that day. I do remember it being one of those women type movies. You know, the kind that make women cry.
Every now and then I would see a tear rolling down Willy's cheek, Each time a tear appeared he would turn his head to the side and wipe the tears away with his fingers.
After the movie was over the three of us left the theater and headed back toward our car. All Willy could talk about the entire time was the movie. My wife and he were talking about the movie as if they were old friends.
"How about some Baskin Robbins ice cream" I offered and the three of us walked over to the ice cream parlor.
"What kind of ice cream do you like, Willy?"
"Do they have that kind that has the marshmallows and the nuts in it?" he asked.
"That's called Rocky Road." said Judy.
"Haven't had none of that since before Vietnam." said Willy.
"Three Rocky Roads. Double scoops" I yelled out.
Willy Laughed and turned his head to the side as if he were embarrassed. The clerk reached across the counter handing Willy his double scoop of Rocky Road. Slowly he licked the ice cream and then he closed his eyes and just stood there.
All at once the top scoop fell off his cone and splattered on the floor. I couldn't help but laugh. Then Judy started laughing.
Willy's eyes got real big and his face was that of a young boy who felt that he was going to get into trouble. Then he started laughing. The three of us just stood there laughing as hard as we could. After we ate our cones we walked to the car. I took Willy's bag out of the trunk.
"Where do you live, Willy?" I asked him.
"I got a place over at the mission on Market Street." he answered.
"You take it easy, Dude" I told Willy, as I shook his hand and we parted ways.
Judy and I got in the car and we headed home. All weekend long I thought about Willy and why he had taken to the streets. I wondered if it might have been his experience in Vietnam that had something to do with him not caring about himself any more.
Monday morning I drove back downtown to see if I might find Willy. I did not see him anywhere on the streets. I drove to the mission on Market Street to see if anyone knew of him.
"Oh! You mean Willy Williams. He left out of here on Saturday morning, headed to Kentucky on the Greyhound bus." said the gentleman.
"Kentucky?" I said.
"Yea. Old Willy came in here Friday night acting really different. He took a hot shower for the first time in months. He shaved his face. Then asked Billy to cut his hair."
"He told old Bill that he was going back home to his family. He said something about having forgotten that life was supposed to be a fun time."
~ Written by Roger Dean Kiser from "Stories from The Life and Times of Roger Dean Kiser" His web site is HERE. ~