Looking back at your life, you probably met a few characters who stayed with you: a mean boss, crazy girlfriend, or person you would have liked to forget after a one-moment encounter. I have been lucky enough to meet quite a few characters, and have written about them in my column. For example, I put Al Dely, a gas station owner in town, in a few of my stories when I needed a voice of reason to get a point across.
Rich Perry was one of our town fire chiefs who had a heart of gold and a funny bone to match. Because of him, I am not still on my roof, where I discovered my fear of heights. Rich laughed at me over the loudspeaker of his fire truck while saying things like, “What goes up must come down, Tony!” Rich pushed me down that roof onto his ladder from embarrassment alone.
Another character was Bill Jacobs, an auxiliary policeman in Passaic and the Spanish interpreter for Passaic County. He was a cop 24/7. One day he went after two young thugs who had robbed an old lady of her purse. Bill and I worked at an office supply company and were making a delivery when Bill spotted the two purse snatchers. He drove with one hand and waved a gun out the window with the other. I was in the passenger seat wondering – not if I was going to die, but if I could make it to a bathroom before having an accident on the seat of the truck! Bill got the two kids, and I found an alleyway in time.
The other day, watching a spaghetti western, I came to the conclusion that I could never be a cowboy. Horses have no power windows, so the Wild West days were out for me. Then I remembered that I had once known a true cowboy.
Willard Squire was a real character. When we met, I was 10 years old and he was in his 80s. He lived next to my aunt and uncle in upstate New York, and was a bit of a recluse. His large house was about a quarter of a mile off the main road behind a hundred trees, so it could not be seen. Even though this was in the early 1960s, he drove a 1946 Dodge that he kept in a carriage house along with his horse and buggy. A little over five feet tall, he weighed 94 pounds soaking wet.
Willard’s wife had passed, and he spoke to no one but my aunt – who could make a tree talk. He had a large-scale train set outdoors, and would get on the steam engine to ride the train (with flat and box cars) around the house. He built his own train sets that ran in a room inside the house. He had a complete collection of National Geographic, so he was well read and educated himself about the world.
Willard took a liking to me because I always listened to him and never spoke out of turn. One day, he told me the story about his cowboy days in the late 1890s. After reading dime store western novels about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and Bat Masterson, Willard decided to go west himself. He ended up in the Montana/Wyoming territories, where his experience on the New York farm helped him get jobs as a ranch hand. He went the full route with blue jeans, cowboy boots, spurs, Stetson hat, chaps, and finally a pair of Colt .45 revolvers.
One day Willard was in town at the local saloon, playing cards and drinking with a few cowboys. One of them accused him of cheating. Words started to fly, tempers flared, and Willard shot and killed the other cowboy. According to Willard, he packed up the next day and went back home to upstate New York; his cowboy days were over. He told me he then buried the two Colts on his property so they would never hurt anyone again.
My aunt took care of Willard until he passed away in his mid to late 90s. He left her his house and all that was in it, but never revealed where he had buried the guns. When you kill a man, you take away everything that he was or would become. I think it also took a little bit of Willard.