The Mary Lou tragedy

When Billy passed away last summer his obituary was a one-liner, date of birth and date deceased. A sad fate to befall anyone for sure, but it felt even more so because Billy came from prominence. Like any such tragic stories it’s complicated and nuanced and I won’t pretend to have all the answers – nor do I know all the details of the story – but what I do know is worth sharing.

Billy’s father, Bill Sr, was a well to do farmer in the Deep South. He was believed to be a direct descendant of a famous Revolutionary War general. The family owned and farmed large tracts of land, some of which was said to have been deeded to them by the British crown before the Revolutionary War.

Tobacco farming was big in those days. Bill Sr. was an excellent farmer and managed his money well. The story goes that one day Bill Sr. went to buy a new car and the salesman asked him which bank he’d draw the check on. Bill Sr. shrugged and replied, “which bank do you want?” He had enough money in any bank in town to pay for that new car. But Bill Sr. was also a tough character, a childhood friend of Billy’s who knew him well said Bill Sr. cursed a lot, even by standards of the day.

Many of the subsequent details are vague or missing. Billy’s childhood friend once confided in me that he has little or no memory for a period of about a year in the late 1960s. Drugs, alcohol, social change, it was a turbulent time and perhaps even more so for rural area kids of a certain privilege. One night Billy’s childhood friend drove his muscle car home from the beach as hard as he could. In the haze of alcohol he thought he was going north of 100MPH on a county road only to realize when he pulled into his daddy’s farm that he’d literally never gotten that Mustang out of second gear. That night Billy’s childhood friend quit hard liquor forever, he later enlisted in the US Marines and lived well through his adult years, as he still does today.

Billy always claimed to have spent time in Vietnam during the most difficult years of that conflict. I don’t know if that’s true or not but there was a DD-214 in his belongings when we eventually cleaned out the farm. As best as I can tell during his adult years Billy dabbled in real estate and invested in various businesses. Most of the time he teetered on the edge of trouble, eventually spending time in Federal penitentiary on multiple occasions for drug and other offenses.

Other than drugs and alcohol there was trauma in the family too. Billy’s sister had been in an abusive marriage for years when one night in a struggle she pulled out a gun and shot her husband dead. Bill Sr. hired all the best lawyers in the state and eventually she was acquitted.

When Bill Sr. passed away Billy and his sister inherited nearly equal tracts of land but by then farming in that part of the state had largely given way to suburban sprawl. As it were, Billy’s farm was close to a popular beach town and by virtue of booming land values Billy and his sister were millionaires back in a day when a million dollars was still considered a small fortune. Cars, boats, women, expensive homes, motorcycles and shady friends. I don’t know exactly how or when but most of the family fortune was eventually squandered. Around the time I met Billy about a decade ago he was believed to have sold a piece of land for nearly $4 million dollars. Only a few years later when we tried to protect the family farm from foreclosure we were never able to account for any of that money other than a handful of cars and motorcycles sitting in various shady shops around the county.

After his last stint in jail Billy’s health was poor and he’d fallen back into drugs and alcohol. One day late summer this past year his childhood friend went to check on him and found him dead. When I wondered out loud how a young man with so much promise could end up living so much tragedy Billy’s childhood friend offered his opinion:

“Too damn much money” he responded.

You could certainly argue that having more money than you need to live comfortably tends to invite trouble but I’ve always wondered about another issue: the tragedy of Mary Lou.

You see, both Billy and his sister are believed to have been adopted. Mary Lou, a third sibling a few years older than Billy, was Bill Sr.’s only biological child. Things were different back in those days and farming was still quite dangerous. One day little Mary Lou wandered around on the farm when she was kicked in the head by a mule. Bill Sr. jumped in one of his many cars that were sitting around the farm but in a tragic twist of fate, one of his quirky habits was that he had many cars but every last one was low on gas all the time. On the bridge over the river into town, Bill Sr. ran out of gas. By the time Mary Lou finally got to the hospital it was too late. She was only 3.

I’ve always wondered how that damn tragedy affected Bill Sr, was his gruff character related to some horrible guilt feeling? Life and the hereafter are complicated issues but I think the Coco movie put forth a defensible theory: little Mary Lou is not gone as long as somebody in this world is willing to remember her story.

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