Wild Bill (The story within the story)
My introduction to Wild Bill came last year at when I was telling a Christmas story titled A Most Holy Night to a very eclectic mix of folk. Some affluent, some homeless or nearly so, some young, some old they make up a community of attendees at the South Side Abbey, a mission apply located on the South Side of Chattanooga.
Each year I write a new Christmas story and last year had not finished in time for the telling and dug into the well for my favorite. A story of an Italian immigrant who does not “fit in” and is judged harshly by the rural community he has chosen to move into. As I told it for this group “Wild Bill” as he is called kept interrupting to repeat lines I had just offered and sometimes add details as he saw fit. It seems we all have story within us, one needing to be told. I had heard Wild Bill was not to be trifled with, homeless and tough, he got his way even among the toughest of his tent community. Finally however, in frustration at being interrupted, I said, “Bill this is my story, let me tell it.”
As if he knew something I didn’t, Bill turned to me and smiled then sat quite or at least mostly so for the rest of the night. I finished and felt pretty good about the performance, it had gone well despite the interruptions.
This year as I began mulling over options for a new story, Bill’s participation the previous year kept coming to mind and I laughed to myself as I thought how he had indeed become a part of the story. Then, one Saturday afternoon I received the news. Bill had been hit by a car. No one could explain why he was crossing the busy four lane highway to get to his tent. Night after night he had gone under the bridge to arrive at his hillside retreat. But this particular weekend, possibly fueled by too much alcohol, he had decided to cross traffic. He was struck by a car and instantly killed.
I couldn’t seem to get that off my mind as I kept trying to prepare a new story for the year. I had seven performances lined up for the Christmas season, some repeats so I really needed fresh material. But I just could not get Wild Bill off my mind so I decided to tell the story in his memory. In groups of twenty twice, on stage for a hundred and fifty, on the radio and at a fund raiser I told A Most Holy Night, holding the reason close.
The last night I returned to the place I had first met Wild Bill and there among his peers I listened as it was related to me how they remembered him had interrupting the story telling the year before. They did not remember I was the story teller so much as they remembered Wild Bill and his participation. That was when I finally understood; the story had become a part of Bill, his story, one that would be brought up every year. They will forget my name and only remember that time Wild Bill kept interrupting the story teller. Wild Bill will live on in HIS story.
A Most Holy Night (or… Wild Bill’s Story)
By Michael Gray
In the little country church I attended while in my formative years tradition held that we always sang Silent Night at the end of the Christmas service. Inevitably it began with a young girl singing the first verse solo, then a verse sung in Italian by a young man in the congregation, finally followed by the whole congregation singing together. After which we all walked silently from the church. I was in my teens before I finally asked my grandmother why it was done in this manner. She said, “We do it to remember a young girl and a young man, and how they taught us what Christmas was really about.”
Here is what she told me in her own words:
Immediately after WWII a family of Italian persuasion moved into our country community; a man, his wife, and an infant girl. Rumors abounded, he was a member of Mussolini’s inner circle, he was really Jewish and had escaped Italian and German atrocities, or he had been a spy and his reward for participating on the allied side was to live in relative obscurity in America. Others wondered aloud if he had been a spy for the Reich and had been here all along. None of this was substantiated, all we really knew was he lived in a house near the railroad tracks, paid for everything with cash and that he baked, his wife selling the goods from a cart on Main Street every afternoon. Goods we all were familiar with; hard crusty breads, desserts like cannoli, and biscotti. He was generally thought unfriendly; when met on the street he lowered his head once greeted and hurriedly shuffled away.
The preacher called at their home a few times but was unsuccessful in persuading them to attend church regularly. The two or three times they did come they sat on the back row and left prior to the call to the altar. Someone suggested they were Catholic and as there was no catholic church in the area, and for that matter no admitted Catholics, I found that explanation rather exotic.
On an annual basis the Christmas pageant was held on Christmas Eve, a parade led first by three older men dressed as the wise men, several teenage boys dressed as shepherds, and then all the children bringing gifts from each family to be placed under the tree. At the end of the service the women’s auxiliary gathered the gifts and delivered them to a pre-selected “needy” family. It just so happened that the first Christmas after this man and his family moved into the neighborhood his wife passed away two weeks before Christmas. You can imagine the discussion this evoked at the auxiliary meeting. Some were in favor of giving the gifts to the Italian family that year. Others were not so kind, after all this family had made very little effort to “fit in.” Finally, it was decided by a narrow margin to give the gifts to them, after all think of the little girl, it was the thing to do.
We saw very little of the man or his daughter after that night. They began selling their baked goods through the neighborhood grocery on Lakeshore Ave. The Father seldom came out of the house and still spoke to no one when he did. Occasionally they were seen in the yard enjoying the sunshine, but if approached they hurriedly returned inside. I remember the ladies and men of the church talked about how he was ungrateful as he never came to church after that; the least he could have done was come by and say thanks.
The next year we had our Christmas pageant as always. By now, most had forgotten about the year before and the Italian’s lack of gratitude. Grandmother was especially wrapped up in the service as she was to be Mary, the Mother of Jesus and would hold a doll as the procession came down the aisle. It was at the very busiest time, just before the wise men laid their gifts at her feet and while the shepherds were still waiting at the front of the aisle and immediately after the children started down with their gifts for the needy that the incident occurred. Now if you were not in front of the church looking back as she was you would not have been aware of what was going as the children were making such a noise. But she could see the Italian gentleman, with infant girl at the very back of the church behind the children and as he made his way down the aisle she heard the voices whispering and what they were saying was not kind: Of all the gall, what does he think he is doing? Does he actually think he can come here and get gifts again this year? Who does he think he is why he was so ungrateful he never even came by to say thanks?
Because of my special place at the front, she watched the whole scene as it unfolded. The man and his daughter stood waiting their turn. Then quietly he bent and helped his little girl lay her gift, a loaf of bread at the foot of the tree. While everyone stared, speechless, the two of them began walking to the rear of the church it would have ended right then and there if it had not been for some quick thinking. She didn’t know what came over her, but she stood and started singing Silent Night. As her voice carried across the room the Italian stopped and she could see that something familiar had touched him. Those who were close, said tears welled into his eyes and when our soloist stopped, the rest of the church was completely silent and after what seemed to be an eternity and he began to sing in a language none of us knew, but with words we all understood. None of us knew Italian, and yet the language of song is universal. Looking back on that night, she said she finally understood, he did not know English and was shy as a result. But that night we had all finally spoken as one. So they sing the first verse for her, thinking in some way she knew what she was doing when she began to sing. The second verse is for the Italian who has long left this world, one who taught us love is the greatest gift of all and can be expressed in something as simple as a loaf of bread. Then we sing a verse in unison to represent coming together to celebrate the season. Finally, with a broad smile spreading across her face she told me, “Then we march out in silence to honor your Grandfather, the best darned baker I ever knew.”
© Michael Gray 2015