By Wayne Allensworth
I was blessed to be able to take care of my father, Bill Allensworth (1931-2022). It was a lot of work, sometimes it was overwhelming, but it strangely set me at peace. I realized it was one of the few really unselfish things I’d ever done and that it was not only my father, but me, who was the better for it. Thank you for that opportunity, Daddy, and thanks to all my family members, especially my wife Stacy, for their labor and fortitude over the last few years.
Jesus said a lot of things that startled his disciples and amazed the crowds. In Matthew Chapter 11, He said,”Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” For the first time in my life, I think I really understand what Our Lord meant.
An elegy, as opposed to a eulogy, is a wistful, nostalgic lamentation, so I called this “An Elegy for Wild Bill.”
My father didn’t care for long winded speakers. I think that in his eyes, men who talked too much tended to be short on useful abilities, and covered that up with lots of hot air, and he was probably right. I make my living with words, so I’ll try to be as brief as I can, but Daddy, forgive me ahead of time if I can’t keep from words and more words. I think that sort of puzzled you sometimes, but you overlooked it and tried to teach me the right way to live.
My father was a great man. That may seem like a strange claim to make about a man of such humble origin and background. Let me explain.
My father was my hero.
When I was a boy, I thought of him, and men like him, as the heirs of Titans from our storied past. Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. Sargent York and Audie Murphy. And then there was Wild Bill. He won’t be recalled in history books, but he was a man, a man much like those who made the frontier myth. Wild Bill was lesser than them in the scope of his accomplishments, but not in the substance of his character. Davy and Sam, and Alvin and Audie would have recognized my father as one of their own right away.
I knew back then that the world that made Daddy was going fast, and I watched him all the more closely because of it, so that I might try, however poorly the imitation might turn out, to emulate him, to carry on in that mold.
The characteristics that stood out among men like my father were competence, a can-do attitude, respect, loyalty, and an unwritten code of conduct that included a don’t back down kind of courage, a strong work ethic, honesty, a sometimes prickly sense of honor, and an earthy sense of amused fatalism.
I know that we hear nowadays about all that was wrong with that world, but let me tell you, there was so much right with it, the kind of right that made this country great through the everyday fortitude of ordinary people like my father.
He was a carpenter who could swing his hammer with authority, and as a young man, he sometimes swung his fists. A simple man with a kind of simple nobility that was unaffected and natural. I think Daddy sometimes believed us boys were working too hard at trying to be tough–the real thing came as second nature and was unforced. He could be hard on you, but not harsh or cruel. It wasn’t in him.
To all my old friends who came today: Bill loved all of you as members of our extended family, a family I was very lucky to be part of. Expressing his emotions explicitly was not something that was normal for him, but I think you knew.
You young men out there mark my words and pay attention. Try to learn about that culture. It made for an honorable way to move through life.
For all that, I don’t think I ever knew my father as well as I thought I had. It wasn’t until the years following my mother’s passing that I got to know him close up, day-to-day, and then as his health declined, when he lived in my house.
That’s when I finally became fully aware of the surprisingly gregarious character who could talk up just about anybody who came his way. That’s when I saw the Wild Bill who had charmed my mother Shirley all those years ago. It was a revelation to me, and I’m glad I saw it. How could I have underestimated that side of him? I think my wife Stacy and his grandchildren saw that in him better than I did. I was struck when people seemed to take him for a warm, fuzzy, even cute, old guy. That was not an image I would have ever associated with the Wild Bill I had pictured in my mind.
But there it was.
His suffering deeply affected me, but I think there was some blessing to his trials in that he learned how much we all loved him. He saw the deep mark he had made.
When it was clear that the end was near, he faced it with dignity, faith, and just the kind of guts I expected. He calmly told me that he knew this time had to come sooner or later and left it at that. Wild Bill was quite a guy, an uncommon common man we may not see again, and it is we who are the poorer for it.
He had told me that he dreamed of Momma often, and I think he looked forward to seeing her again in a hereafter he didn’t seem to have the slightest doubt about. Daddy didn’t give a lot of thought to “religion” in the sense of faith as a set of propositions. As always with him, it was action, not words, that counted most, and he lived out a way of life in which Christianity was a given, and traditional morality was in the air we breathed. His actions were right actions when it really counted, actions motivated by faith, faith in the sense of acting on things you can’t see or hold in your hand or justify by cold reason.
My brothers and I had the best parents anyone could have in the right time at the right place. Wild Bill wasn’t a big man, but he casts a long shadow. As he rides off into that eternal sunset, maybe we should grow to appreciate his kind more deeply, and to honor them if there is any honor left in us.
Now when I think of him, I think of America, America.
When my grandfather, Bill’s Daddy, passed away, I used the following passage from the book of Kings to capture what he, and then his son, had been saying to us with silent authority our whole lives (from 1 Kings 2:2):
Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying, I go the way of all the earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood.