Sunday, March 28, 2010

My friend Wilbur

Sandy and I have been watching the HBO mini-series The Pacific, which follows several US Marines in World War II. Some of the characters are based on "real" men who served in Marines. In tonight's episode, the Marines (after intense fighting in Guadalcanal) went to Australia on shore leave. This got me thinking about an old friend of mine - a man named Wilbur.

Wilbur was well into his Sixties when we became acquainted.  I was 16, so Sixties seemed really old to me then. I passed by his house when I drove to and from my part-time job at a fast food restaurant in town. Almost always, he'd be sitting on his front porch, and he'd always smile and wave like he knew who I was. I learned eventually that he wasn't waving because he knew me. His thick "Coke bottle" glasses weren't doing him much good. Wilbur was going blind. As is often the case, he was learning to rely on other senses.

As to how I got to know him, I guess curiosity got the best of me. His family and mine have lived in the area for several generations, and Wilbur attended the same Baptist church that some of my cousins attend. So when I made that spontaneous decision to stop and chat with him one afternoon, all I had to do was say my name and my Dad's name. We Southerners are visiting people, so it really wasn't all that weird that I stopped by unannounced. Anyway, I found him to be a pleasant person, very well-mannered and grateful to have someone to chat with, and my visits soon became regular.

Over time, I learned quite a bit about this man who spent most of his life living quietly as a farmer. He was different in a lot of ways. For one thing, he could quote Shakespeare. I learned this one day when he asked me what I was studying in school (as he often did) and I told him we were reading MacBeth and he threw me out a couple of quotes from that play about battle. I also learned that he was a World War II veteran -- a Marine, Semper Fi -- who had served in the Pacific. I can't remember where exactly, and he never gave details, but he did say that he'd seen quite a bit of "action."

Wilbur never married. This can be perplexing to a 16 year old, so one day I just flat out asked him why not. He told me he'd only been in love once, with an Australian "girl" named Katherine, whom he met when he was on leave there during the war. He fell hard for her, and apparently it was mutual. But when he asked her to marry him, she balked. Would he be willing to live in Australia, she asked? -- because she was unwilling to move to America. Wilbur had responsibilities back home, including taking care of his mother, so moving to Australia wasn't realistic for him. They ended up parting ways, but even forty years later when Wilbur told me that story, I could feel his pain and . . . well, more than a hint of remorse.

I stayed in touch with Wilbur for several years after high school, visiting him when I was home from university. We shared a joke that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and as Wilbur's vision grew worse I would always preface our conversations with "It's me! Your girlfriend!" as soon as I stepped out of my car. Eventually my parents moved away, and my trips back to the place where I grew up became rare events. I don't remember the last time I saw Wilbur, but a few years ago my Dad informed me that my old boyfriend had passed away.

Next time I go "back home" I'm going to stop by his grave site and have another visit. Until then, I'll be thinking of him as we watch The Pacific, and wondering if there are any similarities between his story and the stories of the Marines being portrayed. And wishing I'd asked him more questions, and done a better job of listening. And keeping in touch.

Thanks for the memories, Wilbur. As long as I'm around you will not be forgotten, my friend.