From 1971 to 1976 or so, I was relatively heavily involved in Scouting. Perhaps not with the devotion of some family or friends, but it was an activity that was both pleasurable and expected of me, and I met many people who helped create the person I became. And three young men I got to know during these years were all named Bill. . . and now all of them are dead.
Billy Barfield was my neighbor, friend, and first senior patrol leader. He was three or four years older than me. I went on many camping trips and even to Boy Scout camp with him (where he later served as a counselor for several years). He was anything but boring: a flamboyant extrovert who loved telling funny jokes and stories, who you knew was coming down the street by his loud voice. But he also had a dark underside. My mother loved him, father tolerated him, siblings (for the most part) liked him, and he was well known for unusual, crazy stunts in the neighborhood. He was also gay. I never cared. He later became close friends and lived in the same community with my sister Beth (who care for his aged mother). He was a trained chef, once served as Barbara Bush's personal chef (according to him) when he was in the Air Force, popular with the A-list, but he lead a destructive personal life. A couple of years when I was in graduate school, he hired me to serve as doorman at the annual New Year's party, for which he prepared the food (and wonderful food it was). He later had a restaurant and bar, although drugs and profligate spending cost him those endeavors, or so I am told. He squandered a fortune. My sons got to meet him five years ago and found him funny and friendly, and they remember him fondly. Three years or so ago, he took his life. I still have a couple unusual garden marbles I picked up from his yard afterwards, that I keep in my curio cabinet.
The second was fellow Eagle Scout Bill Athey, who I wrote about on this blog. An exemplary man, he devoted much of his free time to Scouting, even serving as the scoutmaster for our old troop (68) for many years. He was a fine person and father, beloved by his scouts, and although we were never that close, we were friendly rivals during those years. I would be lucky to live up to the example he set. Last year he was felled in a crash of his light aircraft.
This month's Atlantic Magazine brought another Bill back to my attention, albeit several years after his demise. William Sparkman Jr., apparently in a bid to make sure his adopted son and a family friend would be able to receive death insurance benefits, allegedly faked his suicide in 2009 attempting to make it look as if anti-government elements in backwoods Kentucky killed him. In a good article by Richard Schapiro the details of the investigation were revealed. It was a sad thing to read. I met William (I never called him Bill, though later he answered to that name) when we were both in a provisional summer camp at Flaming Arrow (where he would later serve as director in the late 1980s). I think my little brother served as a counselor under him for a year or two as well. The summer we met, 1973, was one of fun and freedom at camp. I don't recall the exact moment we first met, but I remember a quiet gawky guy sitting off by himself with a chess set who challenged me to a game. He was quite good, and he whipped me every time until about the fifteenth game, whereupon he never beat me again, but we both failed to achieve many scouting advancements that week (severely angering Dad). Not sure why, but I figured him out on the chess board and he wasn't able to defeat me again. Nonetheless, we got along really well. We hung out, went swimming as partners, and even chased down a coachwhip (though did not capture it). He was intelligent and amusing, we had similar interests, laughed at each other, and got along very well. He was from Mulberry, and although my memory is somewhat hazy, I think his father had been a reporter or newspaperman. William in fact is the only scout (outside of my own troop) that I can even recall today. Although we didn't keep up for the most part, we wrote a couple of letters back and forth in junior high, and I heard of him over the years through the grapevine. One of the darker rumors was about his sexuality, but again, by the time I heard this (when I was in my early twenties), I really didn't care. It is mentioned in the article, though there is no hint of bad behavior. Turns out he loved kids and education, and it is sad to find out he never really got to be a teacher in his own right (although he did work as an assistant instructor for many years and he earned a teaching degree shortly before his death). It was also sad to hear that he battled lymphoma and financial difficulties, and struggled with raising and helping a troubled adopted son. It is hurtful, though not entirely surprising, that he concocted an elaborate scheme to end his life in such a way that provided for his son (although as a Scout he belied some of the merits he no doubt believed in).
So now, all my scouting Bills are gone. It makes me melancholy. All were unique and valued in their own ways, each played a role in my development as a person, and I will always remember them fondly.