Many years ago, a new member began posting on the surf forum over at 2ndlight.com. He called himself “Wild Bill” and he dropped the information on several posts that he was from New Jersey. At first, Bill’s posts were rather subdued; but over time he began to threaten us with the fact that he was going to paddle out at our beaches wearing speedos. Of course, these weird posts moved him from “Wallflower” status to a poster who was gaining popularity.
One day, I read that he was coming to town and I sent him a message that if he needed someone to surf with; he could call me. He responded and he told me a general description of who he was and I drove off to the beach to meet this character.
So I sat and waited in my car. I was thinking to myself that it is kind of odd to meet a stranger from some surf forum. What if this guy was some wacko? How would I make my escape and get to another beach if he struck me as being the potential brother of Jeffrey Dahmer?
Then, a man walked up next to my car. He was older than I was and appeared to be a former drill sergeant. I got out and he introduced himself. After a few minutes of awkward conversation; we decided to paddle out and catch some waves.
In between the breaks in the action, Bill began to tell me some pretty cool stories about growing up in New Jersey and his life. Thankfully, this seemingly tough, drill-sergeant type seemed to find my stories humorous as well. By the time the day ended, Bill and I made plans to meet later in the week.
As luck would have it, there was a new surf contest being held in New Jersey and it was scheduled for Belmar. Bill called me first and said that I should come up and surf in it. He offered for me to sleep in his spare bedroom.
A few months later, I arrived in Belmar and I met Bill’s family. Bill took me to the surf shop he worked at part-time called Eastern Lines. I met the owner, Don, and a local musician named Barry who had a band called Barry and the Penetrators. Everyone treated me like a king. In fact, when it came time for me to leave, I almost felt like a person who was given to much. This was the way Bill was. He may have seemed like that crazy soldier from a Vietnam movie, but as a person; Bill was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off of his back.
A Pain Ben-Gay Can’t Cure
One day, Bill called me and during our conversation he told me that he was surfing and his shoulder hurt. He told me that he put Ben-Gay on it but it was still bothering him. He laughed and told me that growing old really sucks!
I didn’t think much of it.
A few weeks later he called me again. This time he seemed subdued and I could tell something was wrong. Then he spoke up.
I had my shoulder checked out. It’s bad. They think I have a mass. They think it could be cancerous.
Thus, began Bill’s battle.
During the few years of Bill’s battle, we spoke several times a week. I continued to visit Belmar and Bill would come down to Florida with the Eastern Lines crew for the Surf Expo and we would all go out. Bill was doing great with his treatments. Sure, sometimes he would call and he would complain that he felt sick or that he lost weight but he was still active and surfing.
Then the calls stopped for a few weeks.
Out of the blue I received a call from Bill. When he spoke his voice sounded raspy and he told me had been hospitalized. He said the cancer came back and it really messed him up but that he was out of the hospital and that he and the family were coming down in a few weeks.
When I saw him again, he was a lot thinner than what I expected. We hung out and went out to dinner and he seemed to still have that fighting spirit. I knew he could beat this and that I would be seeing him for the Surf Expo.
Before he left, he told me that he had something for me. It was wrapped in a simple plastic bag. I took it out and there was an issue of International Surfing Magazine issued from January 1969.
Bill told me that his friend was sent to Vietnam and when he arrived in the states; it was the first thing he saw when he landed. His wife gave it to Bill after he passed away because he and Bill were so close. Now Bill was handing it to me.
Back to Belmar
My flight landed in Atlantic City and I braved the cold of February in the northeast. I was back in Belmar. His wife greeted me at the door and the boys came out to see me. Once again, the old friends treated me like a king and I felt guilty that they gave me more than what I could repay them.
I have never been back since.
I have seen Barry a few times. He is friends with my surfboard shaper. I have written to Bill’s wife on the rare occasion and posted on Don’s Facebook page. Our friendship and his departure was something that I did not want to deal with.
To Bill, I was like Kelly Slater. He told me once that I was one of the best surfers he had ever seen and he had seen a long list of surfers that I think are great. He must have fed me over a thousand slices of those massive New Jersey pizzas! Refused to let me buy him a beer. I always felt that I never lived up to being on that pedestal that Bill had placed me on.
Wise Words From the Drunk Man
During the trip to the funeral, we all met up at the local bar to tell stories about Bill. It was late in the night and one of the local guys was sitting next to me at the bar. He was telling stories to the other people there and I was listening. When the others stepped away, it was only the drunk guy and myself. He started telling me a few things about his job in New York and then he stopped himself.
His next statement threw me off.
“You are an intimidating person to talk to. I can tell you see me as the person that I am and you do not care about how much money I am making or my job. You are judging me by my character and I can tell the things I am telling you about my money and my job are not impressing you.”
We continued to talk that night and the guy told me his problems. I listened and I gave him some advice here and there. Long after leaving Belmar, I fought with Bill’s death and the dynamics of our relationship. I also mulled over why a stranger who was a seemingly well-off business person would just tell me this statement out of the blue.
It took a long time before these words would make sense to me and why Bill and I were such good friends. Bill saw the same things that the drunk guy saw. That I could see him as Bill Simmone, not “Wild Bill” the gruff, surfer guy. I saw him as a guy with a good heart who could be strong enough to win a battle. I saw him as the family man. When he was scared that he was going to leave his family and that he would lose the fight; he turned to me to give him that push to soldier on. He knew that I would listen and tell him the truth.
Oddly enough, I know I picked this up from my father. I frequently witnessed the same scene. My father and a friend sitting on a bar stool with a beer in hand. The guy pouring out his problems and my father throwing out some words of wisdom. Never seeming to judge the guy and being impartial and just sometimes…listening.
As for paying back some kindness…
Belmar was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and a lot of the shops on the boardwalk were damaged. But the people in Belmar are tough and they are rebuilding the town.
If you are in Belmar, please stop by the shops. It is the off season now and they need everything to help them get by. Buy some pizza and check out some clothes or surfboards in Eastern Lines.
And thanks Bill for the friendship and for never carrying out your threat of wearing speedos!