Just look at that smile. "Deacon" William Wallace was my friend. I read a "what if" story last night written by a fellow blogger that really got me to thinking about old times, and good friends. And, Willie came to mind.
I don't remember a time that I did not know Willie. From my youngest childhood memories, Willie was always a part of my life. He worked for my Granddaddy, and then for my Father as a delivery man in their Appliance/TV/sometimes Furniture business. In fact, some of you local visitors may have known Willie.
For over 30 years, he delivered God only knows how many mega-tons of refrigerators, console TVs, washers, dryers, couches, dressers, etc. to thousands of homes in NW Louisiana. Willie was born in the country outside of Vivian, Louisiana in the mid 1920s. Though he was ill educated (I think he only got through about the third grade), he was without a doubt one of the most successful men I ever knew. In my book, if a man can have not one ill thing said of him in truth...well, that's success.
Willie had an infectious air of true happiness always. I don't think that I can describe his "laugh," but it was one of those "bend over at the waist" laughs. Lord, when he got tickled (and he was easily tickled), you would hear a laugh that only a stone-faced monster wouldn't join with. And that smile you see on his face in the photo was as close to "permanent" as any human ever bore.
I do not know the story of what happened to his parents, but I know that he was raised by his Grandparents up in Vivian. He once just cracked me up. Even though he could read, Willie couldn't write very well. Of course, in the days of his raising in the segregated US South there was not much educational opportunity for a poor negro boy from a poor spot in a poor State. I don't remember how it came up, but we were talking about reading, and writing, and grades in school. He told me, "Andy, neither one of my grandparents could read. But they both knowed what a 'F' looked like." Oh man, he was funny...and fun to be around.
I started working around the appliance store when I was about 12 years old during the summers when I was off from school. I was his assistant. I would fetch tools for him, and help him install window unit air conditioners, and just really any little chore around the store. Willie loved everybody, and everybody loved him. He especially loved little children, and would always try to visit with us when we were little kids.
At the ripe old age of 8, Willie had left school, and gone to work for the Grocery store in the small town of Vivian (about 30 miles north of Shreveport) as a "package boy." I believe it was "Wilson's Grocery," but I'm not sure. He worked faithfully for Wilson's, and eventually became a butcher as he grew into manhood.
I asked him once why he quit that job, as I knew that butchers made much more money than appliance delivery men. He told me, "I got 'fraid of the saw. The old man that taught me meat cuttin' tole me that if I ever got 'fraid of the saw, it was time to quit...if you don't, you're gonna lose a finger, or worse." So, Willie moved to the big city of Shreveport, and went to work for my Granddaddy. Goodness, what a faithful man he was! Always on time...never sluffed off...never called in sick...always cheerful and courteous to the customers he delivered to. Now, don't get me wrong...Willie did have one fault. He only had ONE gear, and it was down there somewhere between "slow & real slow." And that was the worst thing you could come up with about him.
During those years, he and his wife raised three daughters who all went to Southern University, and became professionals. I believe that two became teachers, and one became a nurse. But, I'm not positive. Regardless, they all made successes of their lives.
The older I got, the more time I spent working at the store, and eventually worked full-time by about age 20. So, I got to know him better and better. And oh man, did my boys ever love Willie! My kids hung around the store just like I did when I was a kid, so for Willie it was just like a "second generation" lovefest when it came to my boys. My oldest son was so cute. When he started talking, he called Willie, "WeeWee." He also called Willie's delivery partner (whose name was Curley), "Turkey." They were "WeeWee & Turkey." Lord, Willie would keel over laughing every time #1 son would say that...
What a jewel of a man Willie was. My little vignettes do not do justice to the substance of the gentleman. So, on to the "what ifs?" In the late 1980's/early 1990's, it became apparent that Daddy was going to have to close the store. The oil patch had dried up around here. Oil was about $10 a barrel...people were going bankrupt left and right...businesses were closing, etc. And, the reality was that the days of "Mom & Pop" Appliance & TV stores were over. The big box stores were beginning to dominate the market, and major chains with buying power were forcing the "little guy" to close up shop. And, that's cool. That's life.
So, with a sad sort of resolve we began to make preparations to close up. Daddy worried about what Willie would do. He was 64, and needed to work a little longer before getting his full social security. So, Willie went on down to the Social Security office and began to make preparations for drawing it. Now, I do not remember the exact details of this. But, it seems that Willie was one year older than he thought he was. According to SS records, when he originally enrolled, his birth records showed a birth year one year before he thought he was born.
Problem solved! He had been eligible to draw for several months already. This set Dad's mind at ease. As we began to shut down...sell off inventory, etc. there were plenty of us "family" around to handle everything. But, Willie wanted to stay on and help us through the sad task. That's the kind of man he was. My Dad ("Mr. Don," as Willie always called him) had been like a younger brother to Willie, and in truth he was as close to "family" as anybody could be.
There was no "date certain" as to the store's closing. But, he was "in for a pound." About a month before we finally wrapped things up, Willie went on a delivery to a mobile home park out on Hwy 80 East. About 30 minutes later, the phone rang at the store. I picked it up, and it was Willie. "I need Mr. Don." Daddy was a little busy at the time, so I asked him if I'd "do," figuring that there was a problem with the customer, or something. Well, I wish I hadn't. "Andy, I have killed a child." Crap...my face went white. I hollered for Daddy to come pick up the phone. I stood there as Daddy talked to Willie for a minute, then slammed down the phone, and headed for the exit door.
I walked along with Daddy, and he told me that Willie had run over a little kid in the trailer park. I had heard Daddy ask, "Willie, are you sure the child is dead?" Willie had answered him, "Yessir...he ain't movin'." So, Daddy charged on out there, and sure enough, as Willie was driving down the street in the mobile home park (at his slow pace of 5mph...which was the speed limit in the park), a little two-year-old boy had careened down his driveway on a "Big Wheel" into the street, directly underneath the delivery truck, and had been killed by the back wheels on impact.
Willie knew that something was wrong. He would later tell me (through tear-filled eyes), "I felt somethin' go BUMP in the back. I never seen that little boy until I got out of the truck to see what was hit." Merciful Jesus! I have thought a thousand times what a horrible sight that must have been...and how the sweetest man that ever lived must have died inside a million times over it. Well, there were witnesses to it all, and it was one of those cases of "it happens, and nothing could have prevented it."
It turned out that the little boy that was killed was the son of a fellow I knew. He and I had gone through school together, but he was one year younger than I. It was a sad time for everyone. As the news began to pass from mouth to mouth throughout the afternoon, dozens of people began to show up at the store to give Willie a hug, and try to spread some love on a hurting heart. He wouldn't go home. He needed to "be" with people, I guess. Finally Daddy drove him home, and we got his car out there later to his house in Cedar Grove.
I've often thought, "What if...?"
What if Willie had known he was eligible to retire a year earlier? Would he have been enjoying a well-deserved retirement, and been spared that awful memory?
What if we hadn't sold that dang washing machine (or whateveritwas) that was being delivered?
What if Willie had gone ahead on and retired, and I had been making that delivery instead of him?
It was a tough time...for the family of the little boy...for our family...for everybody.
Well, the store closed, and we all went our separate ways on different paths. Willie lived until Oct. 3, 2007. He spent most of his retirement working around his Church, and being "Deacon Wallace" to other old folks.
He stayed in contact with us, and would often go with Daddy to help him out if he needed a helper on a project or something. As is normal, Willie's health faded. He had what he (as a lot of old black folks do) called "Sugar." His diabetes resulted in a foot amputation a couple of years before he "passed" on to Heaven.