William Grady Reed
July 13th, 1942 - March 13th, 2005
Before most of us could drive, Billy’s friends (and there were a lot of them) would scheme to spend the night at his family’s apartment. Capehart, the dependent housing on the bluff overlooking NSA, where both our families eventually relocated, was still under construction. The Reeds, meanwhile, were temporarily domiciled in wooden barracks dating from the WWII era. But to our young eyes those converted quarters had one inestimable advantage: their convenience to the pinball heaven of Boomtown. As soon as Billy’s parents had dropped off to sleep, we’d scamper out the second floor window. The late 1950s were the heyday of coin-operated gambling machines in Maryland. Waldorf, on the southern shore, was the Mecca, but Boomtown was its own Promised Land. The GIs stationed across the road were easy converts, but so were the sons of their noncoms and occasional commanding officers. Every bar, bistro, and hamburger joint up and down the strip possessed two or three gambling machines, often in a variety that was frankly bewildering. The great thing for us, there was no age-limit. If you could reach the coin slot, you could gamble with your grandfather. We turned up our noses at the fruit-laden one-armed bandits. They were for suckers. Our hearts belonged to the bingo-pinball machines. They drew us in like moths to a flame. Glass-covered labyrinths of bright paint and garish lights, they were pocked with 25-numbered holes into which you tried to guide five steel balls. Coax three or more of them into the right alignment, and you won. Sometimes you won big. For the more nickels you fed into the machine, the higher you might drive up the odds. You might even luck out and bribe the machine into unlocking sections of the game board, which could then be rotated like some one-dimensional Rubik’s cube, creating new combinations for winning really, really big. We were drunk on our pinball wizardry, positive we could beat the machine’s tilt mechanism every time. All it really took was the subtle nudge, the gentle slap, and the careful hula. Master those fine-motor skills, and you could manipulate gravity itself, caroming the steel ball off pegs and springboards straight into the desired hole. But it was all self-deception. There wasn’t a slot on the planet capable of fattening racketeer bank accounts faster than the bingo-pinball machine. Its Chicago-based manufacturer had fixed the gears that set the odds and controlled the payout. Still, we stayed up all night emptying our commissary earnings into those cash-boxes, tethered to the forlorn hope one of us might score a bonanza and spot dejected onlookers to the consolation of hamburger with fries. The number of evenings this happened, I can’t precisely recall. But it must have been at least a dozen times, and maybe way more, if truth be told.
There are other warm memories—rolling on the rug in Billy’s Capehart home guffawing at the video staging of that nineteenth-century melodrama that today we call professional wrestling. Or car trips to the mega-bingo parlor with his mom and brothers. All remain as vivid as a Technicolor film retrieved from movie vaults of memory.
If Chip knew how to work the angles, and Dennis owned the pluperfect jump shot (he was later found dead under mysterious circumstances in NYC), Billy’s talent was attracting pretty girls. There was no question of his good looks. A compact build set off by dark wavy hair, and a half smile he must have filched from Elvis. But I suspect it was more than looks alone that gave him his Romeo advantage with women. He was, quite simply, a helluva nice guy, and the girls picked up on it.
Though we had drifted apart our senior year, the Eisenhower recession that put JFK in the White House in 1960 probably swayed us to join the army. I couldn’t land a job at the local plastic plant, Billy was probably running into the same employment roadblocks. In any event, we ended up enlisting on the buddy system in October 1960. We attended basic training together at Fort Jackson, SC. After that we went our separate ways, I to signal school in Fort Gordon, GA, and then Germany; Billy to finance school at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. Following a year in Korea, he finished his three-year term at Fort Hood, TX.
When he returned to civilian life, Billy landed a position at NSA, but quit after four years when the agency moved him to the graveyard shift. Thereafter he worked as a letter carrier for the Post Office. That’s what he was doing when he died. Billy loved softball, both playing the game and managing teams, particularly ones on which his son, Billy, Jr., earned a reputation as one of the state’s truly outstanding players. He was a big fan of the ponies, too, visiting the track with a regularity that was almost religious. Chip and he were co-owners of several thoroughbreds in the 1980s and ‘90s.
It must have been in the ‘80s when I visited Billy for a late night beer at his apartment in Bowie, MD. Catching up after too many years apart was grand. Our last contact was in 2002. I dialed him up regarding the 40th reunion of the class of 1962. They wanted us to attend. Billy really wasn’t interested, especially after I related a recent conversation with another army brat sidekick, Casey Conard. Casey used to run with us before his father got transferred to the Midwest. When I reached him by phone he was living in the Los Angeles area. Casey started the conversation by stressing how the Lord had had other plans for him. There had been four years in the Marines after high school, he told me, a stint in Vietnam, and a post-discharge career in the warehousing and lumber sales business. Casey had been a superb athlete in high school. When he moved to the West Coast, bodysurfing in the frigid Pacific became his passion. It ended with a crash after powerful waves one morning slammed him to the ocean floor, breaking his spine. Casey has been a paraplegic ever since. Billy reacted sharply to the melancholy news. “That’s why I don’t like to go back to those times,” he said. I dropped the subject. Only recently has it dawned on me what must have been racing through Billy’s mind when we were reminiscing about Casey. In his early forties Billy had suffered a heart attack. The doctor told him to expect a short life if he didn’t give up drinking and smoking. Billy quit both habits straightaway, only to resume heavy smoking six months later. Tobacco was one vice he couldn’t vanquish. “It is probably what killed him,” Chip allows.
The end started when Billy entered the hospital for routine angioplasty a trifling more than five years ago. The stint-inserting procedure went terribly wrong. Billy’s kidneys shut down. For the next six months he was on dialysis. A few days before he died, the pain had become so bad he could barely walk. His son had to help him to the car. In the hospital it became quickly obvious death was not far off. Twelve hours after slipping into a coma, Billy passed away.
Ever since learning of his death, I've been recalling Billy with a frequency that's almost become habitual. One recollection still has the power to sting: his BS meter. It was a delicately-tuned instrument where I was concerned. I can't remember ever slipping anything by him, though it was not for want of trying. Yet, one memory above all others keeps welling up unbidden. I know Billy shared it. It resounded in a refrain he often repeated to Chip as to how the best job he ever had, from the standpoint of easy money and minimal hassle, was chasing tips in the Fort Meade commissary. If Billy forgot to mention the agony of watching pocketfuls of hard-earned change disappear into Boomtown's arcade wasteland, it was probably due to innocent oversight. Those losses thread the fabric of my fond memories, as I'm sure they did for him.
Billy Reed was one of those guys you regret not saying goodbye to. It still troubles me.
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