This photo was taken on the morning of October 25, 1970 -- the day Bill died. Pictured is the back of our house and the garage that he died in.
by Stannie Anderson
William Arvel Anderson
July 23, 1952 - October 25, 1970
"Bill" --an essay on the loss of a son
From the time he was born, he was called Bill.
Some relatives said it was too grown-up a name for a little baby. But it suited him. He was logical, intelligent, sensitive. And as he grew, he was gay, mischievous, teasing, and handsome with dark-lashed, grey-green eyes that set female hearts a-jumping.
He was a natural-born mechanic. He would sit for hours, when he was 2, just turning a piece of machinery over and over in his exploring fingers.
When he was 3-1/2, he watched my bewildered, non-mechanical ways of trying to start a power lawnmower, then offered the gentle suggestion, "Mommy, you don't have the nose of it hooked up." I looked and found a small hook-like piece that I could "hook up" to the spark plug—and the lawnmower soon roared to life.
At 5 years, he asked permission to play with his little motor on the library table. I said yes, without really thinking about it. Later I found he had carefully marked the places for the screws, drilled holes, and mounted his motor securely.
Electronics absorbed him—intrigued him—challenged him.
He haunted the alleys, looking for discarded radios and TV sets. He commandeered his little friends into helping him carry home the sometimes heavy pieces of radio equipment. Then, methodically, he tore it up and studied the pieces and the way they fit.
For two years I despaired of his ever doing anything but tear things up. But when he was 10 years old, I had broken the control off my iron. He swiftly went down to the basement, rummaged around the pieces of 14 irons he had down there and come back with a repaired iron. He fixed fans, rewired lamps, repaired my dishwasher and the television set—and in his spare time wired up some electrical tricks to play on his family and friends.
His sense of humor often got him into trouble.
Once he was thrown out of the YMCA. He had surreptitiously reached behind the jukebox and turned up the volume. Then when another boy dropped a coin into the jukebox, he howling bombardment of sound drove everyone out of the building until the vexed swimming instructor could pull the plug.
His mechanical genius led him to discoveries. Once, he fiddled with some locks and found he could open all the locks of a certain series—about one third of the lockers in his junior high school. This included the physical education coach's equipment locker. The coach was nearly distracted when he found boys bouncing basketballs all over the gym floor—when he had distinctly remembered locking his locker. Bill's loyal friends grinned and
didn't tell on him.
He liked to tease his class mates. One boy in high school liked to sneak out of the classroom five minutes early, to meet his girlfriend. He didn't have a watch, so he asked Bill for the time. Although there was still 15 minutes left of the class period, Bill solemnly would assure him there was only 5 minutes left. After the third time, the boy got wise and asked another boy the time.
But Bill had taken the precaution to brief all the boys at nearby desks—and the bewildered boy found he had left the classroom 30 minutes early.
In some ways he was always special and different. But in others, he was like all the other boys. He didn't do anything much to stand out in a crowd. He didn't want to be a leader. He just wanted to be one of the guys.
As he grew, he continued his intense interest in electronics. He built some astonishingly complex projects and won blue ribbons for them in the elementary division of the Topeka Regional Science Fair.
But, on his 12th birthday anniversary, love entered Bill's life. His parents bought him a 1949 Chevrolet that ran. He couldn't drive it—but he could—and did—take it apart and put it back together again, many times. Neighbors were astonished to pass by the garage and find the engine of the Chevy in a bushel basket.
After that, he bundled up his electronic equipment and gave it all away. He was grateful for his knowledge of wiring that he could use in working with cars, but he never turned backward in his interests.
Next came a white convertible with red seats. It was given to him by a woman who was going to junk it because it didn't run. Bill learned a lot more about cars before he junked it. Then came a succession of cars. Most were junk cars. Most were junk cars given to him or traded. Some he just stripped for parts. Others he got running and traded for other cars that weren't running. He didn't make any money—but he was getting rich in knowledge. He read avidly and talked to every expert mechanic he could buttonhole.
His life began to take on purpose. His dream was to design the beautiful engines like the Hemi. Bill always felt it would be nice to have a car with a sleek body and luxurious interior—but his real fascination lay under the hood.
As he worked on cars and lifted heavier and heavier objects, his muscles began to harden. He became one of the strongest boys at his school, although some others were quicker on their feet.
He began to gather friends of all races, most of them interested in cars. The garage at the rear of his home became a meeting place for teenaged boys who wanted to "talk cars" and work with Bill. He was glad to have them—but whether they were there or not, he continued with his work.
Bill dated and liked girls, but he still hadn't found one that fascinated him as much as cars. Teasingly, I sometimes told he'd never really get interested in a girl unless she had a Hemi engine, a four-barrel carburetor, four-on-the-floor, and mags.
Only two weeks ago had come the highest joy of his life: Ownership of a sleek, red, 442, Dodge Coronet RT. He had a job, and the payments would be a squeeze—but at last a boyhood dream had come true.
This son of mine, who drove expertly and with a heavy foot on the gas pedal, refused to take his friends "styling" in the new RT, but instead drove it home slowly, lovingly. There must be no dents in the beloved RT.
"I'm going to leave it parked in front of the house for a day or two, Mom, so the neighbors can turn green," he said with a gay smile.
Then he drove it back to the garage. Methodically—with the patience of a born mechanic—he took the engine apart. He nearly drove me and his 15-year-old brother out of the house while he was spray painting some of the parts. He dickered with a friend to buy a new cam for the RT, and set out to get it purring like a kitten before he took it out on the road.
"I don't have to drive it, Mom," he said seriously. "I know it's out there in the garage—and it's MINE!"
But now there was the old 1963 Corvair to put back together.
On Sunday evening, he had rushed into the living room where his brother Mike, 15, and I were watching television.
"Marmaduke! I'm going to be styling tonight!"
I couldn't help but smile at his contagious enthusiasm about finishing his repair work on the Corvair, which he would sell to help with payments on his beautiful, sleek red Dodge RT.
He slipped on a yellow sweater and headed out toward the garage to finish the work on the Corvair, so he could go "styling."
A bunch of the boys helped him drop the engine back into it, then left the garage. Bill planned to get it together before he sold it. Then, he went to work under the Corvair.
Bill talked for a few minutes to a young neighbor. He called a pleasant greeting to another passing neighbor, who didn't see him but knew he was working under the car.
Did he forget about jack supports—or, boylike, did he take a chance that the car would not fall? We'll never know. But 30 minutes later, the jack slipped—and the car fell on him, crushing his chest. He died almost instantly.
He didn't look dead when I pulled him from under the car—just a little dazed, as he did in the mornings when I awakened him from heavy sleep.
Our doctor, who had cared for Bill since he was 3 years old, told us in the emergency room. There was an emptiness. It seemed strange to be going home and not taking Bill with us.
We cleaned house that night, Mike and I. We looked through the Bible and selected Scripture. We both loved the beautiful Ecclesiastes 3. We talked about music and decided to include both classical and traditional. We knew we wanted his teenage friends to be his pallbearers. There were 10 boys—six white, three black, one Mexican-American. Bill would have thoroughly approved of that. He had close friends in all races.
A neighbor called, "Is Bill going to be all right?"
"No, Bill's dead."
A teenage friend called and asked to speak to Bill.
There was a long pause.
Then, "There was an accident. Bill's dead."
Now it became reality.
We went through the motions. We had his suit cleaned. He seldom wore it. He preferred old clothes, well-seasoned with grease, that could be worn while working on cars.
We decided he would wear one of his Dad's neckties that he had worn proudly on another occasion. We bought him a yellow shirt with a button-down collar. He'd always said, even though the button-down was going out of style, "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing any other kind of collar."
We left his hair long. (Last round of a long battle, Bill, my darling—it's a draw; you win, because it's long, and I win because I've finally brushed that unruly lock out of your eyes.)
We bought him a cat's eye tie pin. He'd always eyed them with longing. And of course, we knew he'd wear his beloved black Adler socks. He hadn't worn any other kind since the seventh grade of junior high school.
His father and I were mute when the saleswoman innocently suggested it would be more economical to buy three pairs of underwear instead of one. We exchanged glances, in private grief. "Just one. That will be enough," his father said quietly.
We went out to the cemetery and selected a gravesite beside a limpid pond with graceful white ducks floating around, There were no monuments. Just markers sunken into the ground—trees, flowers, and birds. The only sounds were the crunch of crisp leaves under our feet and the raucous calls of the ducks.
It was Autumn—the most beautiful in years—and the trees were flaming in scarlet, gold and brown. With sadness, I at last really understood the old reference to Autumn as "the season of the beautiful death."
Bill's death was beautiful. And sad. And haunting in its incompleteness.
We had worried so much about the possibility of losing him in Vietnam. But now the fatal danger had come in our own garage.
Our consolation came in the knowledge that death had claimed him quickly, with unconsciousness occurring within seconds. The tremendous blow had ruptured his heart and lungs.
Growing stronger as we made funeral arrangements was the conviction that we did not want Bill's death to be a meaningless, traditional gesture.
He was contemporary. He would now forever be 18—handsome with those dark-lashed gray-green eyes, joyous, never to experience hardship, failure in his career, disappointment in love. And so he represented to us—and to many others—all the young boys and girls who die when they are poised between childhood and the world of the grownups.
So, in a sense he belonged to everybody. And our grief was everyone's grief.
Once the first, scalding, unbelieving tears were over, we decided there must be none at his funeral. It would be a celebration of the life of William Arvel Anderson. We loved him. We were deeply grateful for having had him, if only for 18 years. We wanted to celebrate his life in a simple, loving ceremony that Bill, if he could have commented, would have called "a real cool funeral."
How could we make a somber occasion of our farewell to Bill, who was laughter and joy all his life?
Our minister, Chaplain Robert Perske, a family friend, helped us with the arrangements.
It was cold on the day of Bill's funeral. But the sun shone brightly. Colored leaves floated lazily downward to the street as we made our way into the mortuary and found our seats.
Now there was religious organ music—tender and soft—for a boy who believed in God but was reticent about displaying it. Another family friend, Dr. James Horne, would sing "Goin' Home," the lovely words to the New World Symphony, which Bill played over and over again on his phonograph.
Two young girls with guitars as accompaniment would sing the haunting, brave modern songs Bill liked: "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (there is a season for everything: a time to be born and a time to die) and "There's a New World A'Comin!"
Now I know why it is called "the season of the beautiful death."
Someone places three red roses in my hand. Red roses for love.
So long, Bill. Happy styling on your journey into a brave new world.