I was in the first grade when I met Billy Fraser. I was sitting half way back on the right side of the bus when it stopped in front of a small ramshackle farm house. A boy came out to get on the bus. He matched the house. He was skinny, in a pair of worn bib overalls with worn knee patches. He had a thin, feed sack shirt, and was barefooted. He was smaller than me.
The boy climbed on, looking down at his feet as he came through the center aisle. The seat next to me was the first one vacant so he plopped down. After a moment of silence, he glanced over at me shyly.
“Hi,” I said, I’m Johnny Harris. What’s your name?”
He looked at me again, and seemed a little surprised. “I’m Billy,” he said. Billy Fraser.”
I learned that Billy was a year older than me, but he was still in the first grade because he had missed so much school the year before. He was the youngest of seven children. His family owned a tiny 20-acre plot of land which they farmed and gardened. His dad worked odd jobs around the county to make a little cash money.
Over the next few years, Billy and I sat together daily on the school bus. His farm was about a mile from ours, within easy walking distance, and Billy was the closest kid of my age to our farm. We went to school in Gorman, about ten miles to the east. There were only a couple other boys our age on our bus route. On the 45-minute trip to and from school we shared stories and musings about adventures, games, girls, teachers and all the other important topics small boys ponder.
Billy was quiet. In school, he never raised his hand and never spoke unless spoken to. Though he was a year older than the rest of the class he was a small, thin boy. It did not help his popularity that he was usually dirty. Billy didn’t like baths. His feet stayed almost scaly looking, with ingrained dirt, and his body always had the slight yeasty smell of unwashed flesh. Despite all, he was my friend.
There were other members of our school bus gang. Danny Mitchell’s dad owned a cattle farm about a mile north of our place. The Mitchells were fairly prosperous, for rural Eastland County, and Andy was the loudest of our group, always ready to try something new, and always willing to give his opinion about any topic.
Gary Phillips lived a little more than a mile east, across the Leon River bridge. His dad, another farmer, raised peanuts as a cash crop, but was mainly a subsistence farmer. Toby Rogers was in our class, but he lived east, within a couple of miles of the town
One afternoon, when we were all around nine or ten years old, Billy and I decided to visit Danny at his family’s farm. We met up and rode over.
Danny was out in the hencoop collecting eggs. He had finished and was about to carry the basket into the house. We waited until he returned.
We talked about wars and heroes. Danny had visions of glory. He said, “I just hope I get a little bigger before we get into a war with those Commies. We’ll be heroes and kick them all the way back to where they came from.” He punctuated this with roundhouse swings and a couple of kicks. He looked at Billy and me. “What about you guys? You’re going to be heroes too aren’t you? They may have a parade for us if we live.”
Billy shrugged, “Yeah, I guess so. ‘Never been shot at but I think I’d be okay.” Billy’s older brother Leon was a Marine, and had been in Korea. Billy said. “Leon’s got medals, so I guess he was a hero, but he don’t talk about it much.” He stared across the field for a while. His voice was lower when he muttered, “He sure don’t act like he did before he went into the Marines.”
My dad had just returned from Korea. He had been an officer in the Corps of Engineers and had served in World War II and Korea. He told me they spent most of their time building roads and bridges, and then tearing down roads and bridges. I told him that seemed sort of silly, and he just nodded and said, “There are a lot of silly things in life you just have to make the best of.”
I didn’t understand, but he was my dad, so I accepted the remark. But, some of the other things he had said made me wonder about what being a hero really meant. I picked up a rock and skimmed it across the water. “I don’t think we know. I don’t think anybody knows what they will do when somebody shoots a gun at them until it happens.”
Danny jumped up. “That’s dumb! “he said. “We’re heroes. We’re Americans and we’re all heroes If you don’t believe me I’ll tan your hide!”
I was bigger and stronger than Danny. I wasn’t worried about fighting him, but he was my buddy and I didn’t want him mad. “Yeah,” I said. “I think the three of us would be heroes, I just wasn’t sure about everybody else.”
We all agreed to be heroes in all future wars, and headed down to the bank of the tank to see if we could catch any crawdads. We ran back to Billy’s house. We told his mother what we were doing, She found some string, and offered us a plate with chopped up bits of bacon.
We grabbed the string and bacon, and dashed back down to the tank. Over the next couple of hours, we caught almost a hundred crawdads. That evening Mrs. Mitchell boiled them up. It was dark before she finished. She told us all to stay and eat. “I’ll have Mr. Mitchell drive you boys home in his truck she told Billy and me. I don’t think your folks will mind. It’s not the first time you two have been out after dark. That WAS the first time I ever ate crawdads.
Ms. Mitchell was right. My folks didn’t mind. In fact, Mr. Mitchell had seen my dad on the road. ‘Had flagged him down and told him where we were. Billy’s family hadn’t worried. He was often out at night hunting, fishing, or just getting off by himself.
Billy was one of seven children. Two of his brothers were grown and out of the house, but there were still five children and two adults living in a small farmhouse of about 600 square feet. Billy liked to be outside and on his own whenever he could.
In 1957, my family moved away from the farm. My dad had accepted an engineering job and we moved to Dallas. I never saw Billy or Danny again.
In the Fall of 1969 my grandmother called me. She still lived on her farm, not far from the Fraser’s little place. Billy’s mom had called her. Vietnam had grabbed another of my childhood friends.
Billy had been killed in Vietnam. By that time, I hadn’t seen him for about ten years. I went to his memorial service. His sister said he had always been the same quiet reserved boy I had known at nine. ‘Had always liked going out into the woods and being by himself. Billy had talked about maybe being a forest ranger when he got out of the army. He had joined up so he could go to college after serving his hitch. Vietnam had flared up shortly after he had completed boot camp and Billy went overseas as an infantryman.
His company was ambushed while on patrol wading thru a booby-trapped rice paddy. Several of his companions were hit immediately. Their Lieutenant shouted an order to take cover and return fire. He was hit in the head, dying instantly. Billy was wounded in the right shoulder. The man to his left was shot in the upper body and was bleeding from his nose and mouth. Billy stooped, lifted him on his left shoulder, he bodied up another wounded man on his own wounded shoulder, carried them both 300 yards to safety. He returned, and retrieved the body of his lieutenant. After he had returned with the last of his wounded friends, he collapsed and died within minutes.
Billy was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
Billy Fraser never grew taller than 5’-5 and weighed about 110 pounds. Of course, size can be measured many ways. And I guess Danny was right about one of us anyway. When somebody shot at him, Billy had been okay. Turned out he WAS a hero.
Still, I think he would have been a hell of a forest ranger if he’d had the chance.
Writers’ workshop and writing group