The Ghost of Bill Birt

             

We have a framed photo on our living room wall, a photo that survived a fire that destroyed our first home in the Northwest, near Dabob Bay in Quilcene, Washington. The photo features Trish, at our wedding, going down the aisle with her father. The image has definitely ‘ambered’ and darkened since November of 1971, but, there in the background, in profile, with his signature thick, black-framed glasses, is Bill Birt.

Actually, the pair of glasses would be truly Bill Birt-characteristic if they featured finger- dirtied medical tape at the bridge.

Now, and for years, though he was one of the first of my friends to pass on (and I’m not totally pleased with using a softer version of ‘to die,’ which he did, and tragically), somehow, Bill Birt hangs around, sort of a ghost.

Bill might laugh, too loudly, at that dumb little joke.

I have too many Bill Birt stories to tell here. There’s “The Bill Birt Shirt,” “Bill Birt and the Magic Lougie,” “Bill Birt and the Stream of Urine,” “Bill Birt’s Stolen Surf Racks,” “Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi,” “Bill Birt Talks to Girls,” “Bill Birt Tries Out (too many) Boards from the Surfboard’s Hawaii shop,” “Bill Birt Follows up the Psychedelicizing of the Senior Area with Vandalism,” “Not-Quite Ditching Bill Birt,” “Bill Birt Goes a Hundred mph,” “Bill Birt and the Three Fingers.”

WHAT I should mention is that William Birt, Jr. was one of my friends since first grade or so, and that most of the stories reveal him to be someone who so desperately wanted to be cool; at least cooler, at least as cool as the cooler among his classmates. This proved almost impossible for a guy who was bigger than his contemporaries, who had hair on his chest in the sixth grade; enough, as my comment at the time went, to seem to want to choke him. He always seemed to have a little wad of white spittle in one or both corners of his mouth. 

WHAT (and this was somewhat surprising to me) I became aware of as I started writing about Bill as another one of the guys who started surfing a year or so after I did, is that I was (and am) a (possibly) just-slightly-cooler version of Bill Birt; so desirous of the same things he wanted; to be part of some group. 

WHAT most of these stories have in common is that Bill Birt rarely filtered things that came into his mind before he spoke. And, in speaking, when most of us wanted to be present but sort of unnoticed (because each of us is aware that any grouping of teenagers reveals the often-cruel struggle to develop and maintain some sort of hierarchy), Bill spoke out.

This was brave, and, often, I was the beneficiary of some new insight. When Bill told a girl in the line at the snack trailer at school (really, ice cream and candy) when we were, probably, Juniors, that he had heard she and her boyfriend were now having sex, and she, sort of shyly, looking at both of our faces (my expression no doubt not containing the shock at the question and the anticipation of the answer), nodded.

“And how is it?”

“Billlllll.”  Long pause, during which her shocked expression turned to a (slightly wicked) smile.

WHAT our so-soon-after-high school and now long-broken circle of friends didn’t really grasp, is that, away from us, in other groupings, Bill found a wonderful girlfriend, got married, and achieved real success. Bill Birt was the youngest registered lobbyist in the State of California. And then, on some rain-slicked highway… this story isn’t at all clear, he went off the road.

But, he’s still in the photo on my wall.

Image

                                                                   Bill Birt On Every Wave

Still angry about my ‘borrowing’ his wetsuit for Donn Franzich to use, Bill was talking about me at school. And I, of course, was defending myself.

“Yeah, well, his mom got on the phone after I admitted taking it…Bill said he wouldn’t get mad… and, you know, they were at church… besides… and his mom said, ‘Billy needed his wetsuit. He went surfing, and he got cold.’ So, Billy’s mom…”

“Yeah, well; next time, I’ll…besides, your mom… his mom got on the phone with my mom and said she was sorry her son is such a thieving dork.”

“I have to go.”

“So,” continuing the rant to Phillip and Ray, “next time we’re surfing, I’m going to take off in front of Erwin on every wave.”

“Every wave,” I heard from Phillip, and Ray, and probably Mark, Bill Buel, Billy McLain. “What’re YOU gonna do?”

“Every wave?”

The next time turned out to be the day after Ray, and Bill Buel and I stayed up way too late (for me) at Phillip’s house, smoking cigarettes, listening to the Doors, Buel acting all scary and weird. I rode to the beach in the back of Ray’s Ranchero, maybe trying to sleep under some blankets and boards. When we got to Grandview, it was stormy and overhead. 

Bill showed up a bit later, alone. Someone must have told him about the night before. Bill Buel, probably. “And Erwin was, like, freaking out.” Buel, no doubt, went into the same Jesus-on-the-cross (in this case, with a cigarette) pose. “‘This is the end… my only friend, the end…’ He was all scared and shit.”

Later, up on the bluff, one of our mutual friends asked him about his threat, supposedly (the way I heard it) after the wave on which I got briefly covered up, came out sitting down. “So, every wave?”

“Well. You know…”

“But you never even made it out.”

“Well. You know; Erwin probably did think I was at church. I mean, I was.”

“Uh huh.”

WHAT I’d like to say is I rode back home with Bill Birt, shotgun, comfortable in his parents’ super big car with the super big trunk with the big cardboard box (for wetsuits, trunks, damp towels) with big block blue letters that spelled out, ‘KOTEX,’ all caps.  No, I’m sure I rode back in the back of the Ranchero, under a blanket, under some boards, knowing (or merely wanting to believe) I was somewhat cooler than Bill Birt.

WELL. You know…”

Of all my old surfing friends, I see Bill most often.

NOTE: Wanting an illustration for this piece, I actually considered removing the photo from the professionally-sealed oval frame. Checking it more closely, beyond Bill is the woman who would become his wife. Very attractive. She didn’t come from Fallbrook. She supposedly asked Bill why, when they would run into old friends of his, they always seemed surprised.

I’m imagining Bill just shrugged.

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