Bill Owens – December 19th, 2008

GEDC0100Last Friday afternoon I met with Bill Owens at The Boonville Lodge Bar & Grill and following his warm greeting comprising a firm handshake and his patented train-whistle impression, we sat down to talk. The first thing he said was, “Sorry I’m a little late, my grandmother just died”…”Oh, I’m sorry, Bill “I replied, thinking he is must be much younger than he looks and she still must still be into her hundreds!…”It’s o.k.” he said, “they saved the baby!” He paused before breaking into a big grin. “That’s an old Okie joke” he quickly explained…He then added, “Sorry I didn’t shave. I look bad. If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself” –his face creased up as he displayed a wide smile, his eyes glinting with mischief.
Bill was born in the small town of Stillwell, Oklahoma in 1929, one of fifteen children (eight boys and seven girls) born to Emmitt and Linnie between 1914 and 1938 – “and yet they would still ask my Dad what he did when he wasn’t working?!!”…Emmitt worked at a blacksmith’s with three of his brothers, each earning $1 for a day’s work which sometimes meant shoeing ten horses each. They moved to Tahlequah in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains and then on to Bristow, a town the size of Ukiah, when Bill was eight years old. Times were very hard – “There was fifteen of us and we often had no clothes. Fifteen nekkid little Okies in the house! One day my Dad bought us straw hats so we could then look out of the windows”…He completed his schooling at the end of 9th grade in El Reno and then moved to Temple, Oklahoma where in 1942, aged fourteen, he went to work with his father at a ranch where he was responsible for feeding six hundred head of cattle each day, starting at 5am and finishing when it was dark…”Do we even have to work on Sunday, Dad?” he once inquired…”Them steers gotta eat on Sunday, son” his Dad wisely replied…
From the age of eleven Bill had being playing the guitar and, with friends on banjo, violin, and mandolin, he was to spend many evenings during his Oklahoma days entertaining other neighbors at their homes, everyone enjoying their homemade beer and moonshine, although Bill himself wasn’t to have his first drink until July 29th, 1959. They would play late into the night and then Bill would try to get some sleep despite living just yards away from thirteen sets of rail tracks on the main line to Oklahoma City. It was during this time, as the house rattled and the trains roared by all night long, that Bill worked on his train whistle impression that so many friends have heard and marveled at ever since. His impression became very accurate – “‘Be quiet in there, Bill’, my father would yell in the night. ‘It isn’t me, it’s the trains’, I’d reply”…
During the summer of 1946, the family moved to Arizona for a few months before continuing west, this time settling in Madera, California where he began work on the irrigation systems of the central valley, mainly amongst fields of alfalfa and sugar beets…In the winter of 1947/48, Bill made a trip to Boonville where his sister Cleo had settled in 1941. He looked for work but found nothing and returned to Madera after just a few weeks.
By January 1951, the Korean War had broken out and Bill was drafted into the army. He trained as a medic and, apart from the five days R & R over Christmas 1951 spent in Tokyo, Japan, he ended up driving ambulances in that conflict until September 25th, 1952 when he was honorably discharged. On his return to Madera his father decided to return to Oklahoma but they had to wait until Bill collected his soldier’s benefits. It was while waiting to collect these benefits at the Unemployment Office on January 3rd, 1953, that Bill heard of the passing of his music hero, Hank Williams – “there was great sadness at that news, I can tell you”…A few weeks later, driving a ’41 Buick, he joined the rest of the family in cars and trucks with trailers on their trek home to Oklahoma. However, once there, Bill felt unsettled and decided to give northern California another try. He returned to Boonville in early 1953, moved in with his sister, and began working in the woods for Kay and Frank Hiatt. This was to be his future and at various times he worked at other logging companies such as Van Pelt Logging, Elmer Logging, and Three Co Logging. His co-worker for many days in the woods was Paul Hughbanks – “a great guy and one of my closest friends”…
There was lots of work in those booming years of the logging industry – “well, I should say, lots of work for those who wanted it!”…Often, after a hard day’s work in the woods, Bill and friends would spend evenings at the various Valley drinking establishments, particularly The Track Inn and The Boonville Lodge, then owned by Russell and Gladys Mann. “To win a bet I once walked on my hands from The Track Inn to The Lodge. I could even stand on one hand and drink a beer at the same time. Not anymore though!”…The bars were very busy – “it was quite a wild scene” – and Bill would frequently entertain the customers with his singing and guitar playing from the corner of the Lodge or at The Track Inn where he would be joined by Bud Johnson, Harold Fryman, and Jack Baker – their music adding to the great atmosphere… Bill also hung out at two other lively Valley bars – Weiss’s in Boonville  (“it had a nice restaurant too”) and The Last Resort in Philo, where he often tended bar even after a day of logging.
During his early years in Anderson Valley he met and married Patricia Lawrence, but they split up after five years in 1960 when she ran off with his best friend, Quinton Jones. “We all remained good friends – I still see them. It was meant to be that way and both she and I were happier”…In 1961 he fell in love with Wanda Housley – “an Arkie who was working at both Gowans’ fruit company and Jack’s Valley Store. We were married on August 4th, 1963 and over the next few years we had three sons – Mike, Bob, Ricky, and then some time later, James.”…Sunday was family day – “I love seafood and we’d sometimes take the family to Ft. Bragg and eat at one of the restaurants on the Wharf where Wanda loved the fish sticks”…Talking of wives, Bill tells of an incident when he was pursued by a C.H.P. officer along the highway going at 120 m.p.h. whilst driving on both sides of the road. The officer finally caught up and forced Bill to pull over. “What do you think you’re doing, you were driving like a mad man?”…”I’m sorry, officer”, Bill replied, “But my wife ran off with a C.H.P. officer and I thought you were bringing her back!”…
On December 6th, 1965, Emmitt Owens died and Bill returned to Madera with Wanda and their two kids to stay with his widowed mother, who was to live there until 1994 before passing away when she was 98 years old. The family remained there for three years, during which time he returned to ranching. “That was a really tough job. It was well over 100 degrees day after day in the summer and there were 18,000 head of cattle to be fed. I also had to haul hay – the bales were over two hundred pounds each and in one season we hauled 98.000…I also got to meet Ronald Reagan during that time – when he was campaigning for Governor he came by the ranch and we shook hands and talked a while…The owner of one ranch used to brag about the size of his property. He told me he could set off in his truck at 2pm one day and still be on his land at 2pm the next day. I replied that my Dad had a truck like that too!”
They returned to Anderson Valley in 1968 and have been here ever since with Bill working in the logging industry until his retirement in 1995, at which point he was working for Charlie Hiatt, the son of his first employer in the Valley. Bill has continued to play music and, although he stopped drinking in 1976 as a promise to his wife and kids that he has kept ever since, he has often appeared at the bars and other Valley functions with his guitar and a story to tell.
“I love the Valley. I always have, ever since that first visit to see my sister in 1947. I used to know everyone here – I still do know many of them. Going out, playing music in so many places, and talking to so many people is what I love about this place. I love to talk to people – I’ve never had a problem with that and here I get to talk to so many people I like…
“ I used to like hunting at Jim Clow’s place – we never wasted anything we shot, not like some hunters these days. That comes from my days back in Oklahoma when we used to raise pigs and they’d get to be 800 pounds or more. We’d butcher ‘em and never waste anything, except the squeal of course! I also had rabbits – I ate so much rabbit that I could look at a rabbit trail and tell you how much soup it would make!…Back in Madera we’d often hunt with the retired Yankee pitcher, Don Larson – the guy who threw a no-hitter in the World Series. He told me he was hung-over on that day!”
I next asked Bill for his responses/opinions on various Valley institutions/entities…The Wineries? – “They provide work for many but I think there are too many grapes now – at the expense of apples. Soon you’ll have to throw in some peaches to make a good apple pie”…The local radio station, KZYX & Z? – “It’s pretty good. I enjoy Jimmy Humble’s show and have played on it a few times”…The A.V.A.? – “I like it. I was a neighbor of Bruce Anderson for many years and we got along real good. I know some people have bad things to say about him – they may be right; but I always liked him. Yes, I enjoy the paper”… The School? – “When they were discussing building it back in the late fifties I voted ‘yes’ – that was the only thing I have ever voted for”… Talking of voting, when asked whom he would vote for to be Mayor of the Valley, assuming such a position existed and he had to vote, Bill suggested Donald Pardini. “He’d do a good job. I like his boys, Tony and Ernie too, but I’m not sure I’d vote for them to be mayor”…
As for any thoughts about ever moving from the Valley, Bill says that Wanda has mentioned the possibility of one day going back to Arkansas but it probably won’t happen now. Besides they are needed here, he explained, as they are kept busy delivering the Ukiah Daily Journal to all its customers between Ukiah and Navarro. Wanda and Bill have had this job for nearly three years now and it takes them about four hours each day. Bill thinks that at 79 years old he may be the oldest paperboy in America!
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Hello, Bill, how are you today?”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When somebody says. ‘I hate that guy’ “
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “I love the Valley’s community events. They inspire me. We recently missed the Christmas Dinner at The Grange and were very disappointed.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Mistreatment of the elderly or kids.”
”What sound or noise do you love? – “Music…or train whistles.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “I can never forget the screaming noise of the big chainsaws we used to have in the woods…Oh, and I hate to hear the alarm clock at 4am but I’m o.k. once I get up”
What is your favorite curse word or phrase? – “Oh, shit!!!”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Well, music definitely – I love the banjo but cannot pick really so I play guitar and harmonica…I also like to make redwood split products.”
What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted? – “A musician definitely. I had a couple of chances to go and do that but each time I decided to stay with my family”.
What profession would you not like to do? – “I did it. Heaving heavy bales of hay for $2.25 an hour, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.”
Do you have any words to live by? – “Treat people respectfully and try not to look like you’ve been sucking a dill pickle for five days.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?  – “Well, Bill, I had my doubts that you’d ever get here, but you’re very welcome”…

Published in: on December 24, 2008 at 8:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. That story was very interesting Bill thank you for sharing it with me (us).

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