Saturday, August 16, 2008

An unlikely alliance

Bernard Rosenberg is back. The Alaskan adventurer, fishing guide, art teacher and writer who detailed his younger days for Flint Expatriates last May, remembers his unlikely friendship with the man known as Wild Bill.

Wild Bill was a greaser I sought out when we both went to Southwestern High School in the sixties because he hunted, and I wanted to do the same. Since none of my surrounding city-slick peers owned guns or even knew how to shoot one, he was my logical choice. I clearly remember bringing a box of shot shells to school to impress him. Then, it was pretty much up to him to carry through with my overture, and he did this in the shortest of time by indicating he would come by my house to pick me up on a Saturday morning so that we could practice with shooting clays.

I’d been trap shooting before with my father. Never, had I done it with a friend, and now this black leather jacketed hood from hell was scheduled to come to my world and show me his ways.

He did.

Wild Bill showed up at my doorstep driving a coal black 56 Chevy that was every bit as dark as his greased back hair. Riding in the front seat right next to him was a white and brown long-haired setter that was his bird dog and constant companion. In the back seat was a case of clays, a cardboard box full of individual packages of 25 count shells, and two zipped-up leather gun cases that held shotguns. Along with the guns was a cooler of beer, a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, and a meat package wrapped tightly with several pounds of pressed baloney.

His car radio was cranked up blaring out Motown tunes, and strewn about the front seat were discarded packs of empty cigarette wrappers, two dozen issues of yesterday’s newspaper, a beat-up and dog-eared men’s magazine, and so many empty crushed tin cans of Stroh’s beer that a half dozen of them fell out when I opened the passenger door. This was his world, and I slid right into it alongside his four legged friend. Believe me, if I had a tail it would have wagged just as happily as his setter when it licked my face. I was glad to be there.

Truth reveals itself in times like these, and it was the bond between guns and the outdoors that had brought us together. Though we were both city kids from two different sides of the tracks, the rails of our new friendship led us right out of town and into the neighboring fields. There were farms and woods once we left Flint, and in short time the pavement surrendered itself to the endless miles of dirt thoroughfares that belonged to Wild Bill. Though he did not have a stream, he had his dirt roads, and his life had grown up riding them. Now it was his time to show his ways to another, and I supposed that’s why he became so attentive to me. Right away I knew he cared, and that truth was as obvious as what rode with him in his front seat. Now, he had two companions.

As we drove deeper into the country Bill explained that many of the fields and the accompanying woods would hold small game for us to hunt in the coming months. He touted them as loaded with opportunity for squirrel, rabbit, and pheasant, and all I needed to do was to practice with him until mid-October, which was the opening of the small game hunting season. Since this was early September, there was plenty of time for us to get ready for the hunt, and since shooting pheasants was his preference, the more I practiced the better would be my aim when I went out with him. That suited me fine, and by the time we had wound our way to an old barn in the middle of nowhere, his practice area lay in wait for our the guns, shells, clays, and lunch. There was no one except just us and the late Michigan summer.

I learned a lot from this new friend. We split everything all the way from the cases of shot shells to the clays we threw. Wild Bill was an excellent shooter, and his twelve gauge was an excellent gun. For me, he lent his sixteen and I took to it real quick. We spent hours at his private range and for many Saturdays returned to it. All of those earlier years with my BB gun were now traded in for larger arms and greater ammunition. The memories of tiny birds were replaced by spinning clays and I got pretty good. By the time mid-October rolled around I was ready for the hunt.

It was always the same. I worked at the Fruit House on Saturdays and hunted on Sundays. By sun up I would find Bill parked in my driveway and ready to go. His dog would be in the front seat and the guns would be in the back. Motown would blare out the radio and the baloney and beer would always be there. The cigarette packs never ended, and the crushed beer cans would fall out every time I opened the door. This was our routine. Every Sunday began at six and ended by three. We spent eight hours on the roads once a week for the entire four months of hunting season. That’s a hundred and twenty eight hours each season with the biggest greaser in school. We did this for three years until Wild Bill graduated a year before me and volunteered to go to Vietnam.

It was one of the most adventuresome times of my entire adolescent life.

No one could ever figure out our friendship. Crossing the line between boys who wore penny loafers and boys who wore black leather jackets just wasn’t done in our high school, yet we crossed it. We each grew in our association with each other because of common bonds. Yet he was wild. I saw this all the way from the bruises on his face to the days he was suspended from school for fighting. Mercilessly, he tackled his foes as life tackled him. He was suspended, arrested, barred, and censored for many things, yet he never failed in his friendship to me. Even when he came back from war he returned to my life, and through my urging went to my university to get a degree to teach via governmental paybacks.

Bill is now gone from my life. We had a terrible fall from friendship during the last of my university days when he became violent and turned on me and almost beat me senseless. I smashed a glass pitcher and went for him with a sheared broken-glass handle in order to save my life. He jumped through a plate-glass window to escape. That’s the last I saw of him.

I didn't hear about him for several years until a school-board attorney called and asked me if I thought this person was capable of carrying through on his threat to take a teacher’s life. My advice was to take him seriously. Those three hunting seasons computed to three hundred and seventy four hours with a man who pulled the trigger each and every time and seldom missed. After all, he hadn’t earned the nickname Wild Bill for nothing.

Yet my recollections of Wild Bill are not dominated by this bad ending. He was simply my friend from the other side who taught me his ways and showed me his roads. I will always remember him in that coal black Chevy with his dog and me right beside him. We were good friends, and that has left me with a most cherished memory.

Photo of the 1956 Chevy courtesy of photographer
John P Sullivan.


  1. Thanks for sharing that recollection, Bernard. I had a somewhat similar experience.

    While attending Longfellow Junior High in the mid-sixties, I had a black-leathered, knife-wielding, (and in this case) cycle-riding friend, too. John Freeman was his name--one of two such tough guys at Longfellow.

    I was small of stature in those days (still am, compared to regulation-size adult human beings, I suppose). I was frequently the target of larger specimens of humanity who evidently needed to establish their superiority.

    One day while I was at my locker, one of those "big bullies" began hasseling me. A moment after they had finished their business and headed down the hall, I had a sense that someone had come up and was standing behind me. I turned and looked up to find John--big, bad, John.

    John leaned over and said in a serious and convincing voice, "If anyone ever bothers you again, just let me know." I knew he meant it. And I knew that if anybody were to mess with me, they would have to answer to John. I think I grew about a half-a-foot that day.

    An odd couple we were, also. But friends just the same.

    Randy Gearhart

  2. Good, albeit a mite disturbing, post. A bunch of hood girls once came to my house, for the purpose of beating me up. That was in Clio, though, and they never became my friends.

  3. Since Bill had been in Vietnam, I wonder if the reason that he became suddenly violent to a good friend may have been PTSD?

  4. Since Bill had been in Vietnam, I wonder if the reason that he became suddenly violent to a good friend may have been PTSD?

  5. I knew Bud Rosenberg when we went to school at Zimmerman as well as Southwestern. He was a friendly and decent man who was very strong probably due to working in the family business. I have no doubt that "Wild Bill" soon discovered this.


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