William is staying at the shelter in Port Townsend, and I’ll be honest, here: I could have talked with him for hours more if he hadn’t been called in to dinner. William said it “felt good to unload” and talk, and thanked me for listening and taking an interest in his life.
William is 71 years old, and although he was born and raised in the immediate area, when asked if he’d traveled, he started listing off confusing city names: William is an Army vet, and served in Viet Nam.
William was drafted and assigned to work on optics for guidance systems on tanks, missiles, and other equipment. As a result, he was flown around on helicopters all over Southeast Asia, and usually air-dropped into locations to work.
He quickly discovered he loved the Vietnamese people. “They were all so hard-working and not the enemy at all,” he said. Soon enough, William started to question why we were even in Viet Nam to begin with.
After a while, William became addicted to heroin and alcohol, and the Army did what it does best with addicts in their ranks: They repeatedly dried him out and then sent him back out to work. One time, he spent eight months in rehab. He shook his head as he remembered that time. “It wasn’t like here,” he said, gesturing to the shelter. “This was just a room with cots. You had a bucket to puke into next to the cot.” William wasn’t the only one repeatedly drying out in the Army’s “rehab” unit.
He also started selling stereo equipment on the black market. He’d get it cheap in Viet Nam and ship it home so his family could sell the components (this is not uncommon from our days in Viet Nam). He says, “To this day, I have no idea how I got an honorable discharge, except that everyone else was doing what I was doing, anyway.”
“At one point,” William said, “I had to choose: Do I stay loyal to the local people who were my friends, or do I stay loyal to my boss – the Army?”
He chose the locals.
The Army tossed him out of the guidance systems program and, as punishment, put him on work detail with the locals, doing hard labor. He laughed about it, saying, “I was out there, pounding nails with the locals, repairing buildings that had been damaged during monsoon season – and I loved it! I loved working with them, I loved the hard work, I loved being in the hot sun!” On his days off, he’d even sneak off the base and go visit his friends in the villages.
Before going into the Army, William had never even been around a Black person. Now he found himself surrounded by fellow soldiers who were Black, and locals who didn’t look like himself, either. “I found myself drawn to the Blacks,” he said. “I just loved them. I started to feel like I couldn’t relate to people from my own race anymore. I couldn’t understand all this hatred towards other people.”
Back on base in the States, William came to realize the Army was still segregated: Blacks had their own barracks, “and it was more dangerous there than in Viet Nam,” he added. The violence between Blacks and whites was prevalent – even though they’d just fought side by side in Viet Nam. Naturally gregarious, William made friends, and became the only white person allowed in the Black barracks. They nicknamed him, “Slick.”
William says his friends would describe him as honest, helpful, and funny. (I’d add “loyal” to the list.) His mom is 99 years old and lives nearby in a facility, in a room right next to her childhood friend. His older brother and sister-in-law live in Chile.
He loves R&B, and reggae. He’s a huge fan of The Pointer Sisters, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. He even dropped quotes from James Brown casually into our conversation. William also talked about how “pure” kids are, and the fact that they haven’t been touched by the hatred we all learn as we get older.
William wishes the violence around the world would end, too. “All this violence in Russia against the Ukraine – who does this? These are grown people, killing each other for nothing.”
When asked what he wants others to know about homeless people, he had to work hard to put his thoughts into words. He finally said, “People need to understand that homeless people are stuck in their circumstances. Rents are high. It’s expensive to live. Not everyone can get into a place like this.” He went on to talk about how he’s known people through the years who ended up homeless and died, frozen to death during the winter because they couldn’t get in to a shelter.