The second option
Bill Himes was an only child.
“I always figured,” he said, “either my mother had a hard time with my delivery, or when she saw what she got, she knew she couldn’t do any better, so she quit.”
Bill seems to favor the second option.
In either case, the self-deprecating humor in that statement, and the seriousness of what he said next, reveal a lot about Bill:
“Actually,” he mused, “I’ve kinda missed all of my life having no brothers or sisters.”
Bill was born in 1922 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His father was a streetcar conductor until an appendectomy rendered him unable to bear the constant jolting. Then he became a coil winder at a Westinghouse maintenance and repair shop in Johnstown.
Economic conditions kept Robert and Mary Ruth (Hershberger) Himes from spoiling their only child. There wasn’t much money for luxuries.
“At the beginning of the school year, I got one pair of long pants and one pair of shoes that I wore every day for the whole school year.”
His family didn’t own a house, but rented several homes in succession. Bill’s maternal grandmother died when he was two, so his grandfather lived with them from then on.
They moved to the first time could be closer to the school he would be attending.
“When I was five years old, I had to walk five blocks to kindergarten,” Bill said.
They moved again into a nicer home that was closer to Bill’s next school.
Bill has great memories from that time of his life.
“I spen a lot of time out of doors. There was a wooded area near my house. I played there all summer long with our minister’s children.”
Lack of money didn’t keep them from having fun.
“I learned to ride a bicycle that had no front tire. We had to wire a piece of hose on the front wheel. We played ball in the street with an old ball wrapped in friction tape. We played mumbly peg with a pocket knife. I learned to roll a hoop with a stick that had a nail in it. I read all the Hardy Boys books. I can’t remember where I got them, because we certainly couldn’t afford to buy them.”
However, the family did have a radio, which needed three batteries – a large and expensive 45-volt battery for plate voltage, a second smaller battery for the grid voltage, and a 6-volt battery for the filament.
“The six-volt dry cells were expensive, so Dad got the idea of using a car battery. Unfortunately, the acid ate a hole right through the dining room rug.”
The family had an ice box rather than a refrigerator, supplemented in winter by a window box outside the kitchen window.
“Depending on how cold it was outside, it was either a refrigerator of a freezer.”
The family moved again when Bill was going into sixth grade.
“That house was in the flat at the bottom of a hill, and the school was at the top – eight blocks up. I walked that in all seasons, all kinds of weather. I even walked back home every day for lunch.”
Bill spent a lot of time with his grandfather.
“He had a truck and delivered coal from the local mines to individual homes. He also had a1927 Hupmobile, which is the car pictured on the old $20 bills.”
When Bill finished sixth grade, his life got a little easier. The junior high school was just across the bridge, two and a half blocks from his home. He remembers the next few years as very important ones.
“I built a radio with a couple of dollars worth of parts from a catalog. I would sit up half the night trying to get a signal from somewhere. I was thrilled when I was able to pick up the BBC and hear Big Ben chiming.”
Bill’s one big disappointment was that he was never able to pass the Morse Code test to get a ham radio operator’s license.
“You had to get to 13 words a minute. I got up to 12, but could never make 13.”
On March 17, 1836, the river started rising from melting snow and heavy rains.
“They let us out of school just after lunch,” Bill said. ‘Normally there was a little trickle of water under the bridge, but I had to wade in water up to my calves to get home. We carried everything we could upstairs. I learned how much adrenaline means to you. I carried a console radio from the first floor to the third by myself. When the flood was over, we needed two people to get it back down.”
As the water continued to rise, the family abandoned it and stayed at Bill’s grandmother’s house for a few days. They came back down to devastation.
“The water had gotten up to the light switches. Oil tanks had broken up the river and everything was covered the smell of oil. I don’t know how my family ever cleaned it up.”
When Bill graduated from high school, there few jobs available.
“A friend from church got me an interview at Bethlehem Steel, but my left eye was weak and I couldn’t pass eye test.”
Bill got a break when his junior high school recommended him for a job as junior draftsman at National Radiator. A girl named Jane Ann Dupin was hired there at the same time as a stenographer. They started dating, and eventually became engaged.
Bill worked at National Radiator for a year and a half, gaining enough experience to get a better job in the drafting room at Bethlehem Steel. Then another event changed the course of his life.
“We were coming home from a dance on a Sunday night when
we heard a kid on the street hawking newspapers: ‘Extra, Extra, Pearl Harbor attacked!’”
When Bill went to Pittsburgh to enlist, no branch of the service would take him because of his weak eye. But the standards changed as the demand for servicemen increased. Bill entered the army on December 2, 1942. He was stationed at a new camp in Philadelphia, where his military police unit guarded critical industries and served as escort for prisoners of war.
“I sailed to Europe twice to get prisoners. And we would take whole trainloads from Philadelphia to POW camps in the south and west.”
Bill and Jane decided to get married at the first opportunity. That happened on December 29, 1943, while Bill was on a rare ten-day furlough.
Deployed with his unit to France after D-Day, Bill briefly participated in one of the most famous logistics operations of World War II: the Red Ball Express. The rapidly advancing American armies consumed more than 800,000 gallons of fuel per day, which could only be supplied by a continuous convoy of 6,000 trucks carrying 5-gallon containers.
“Everybody available was pressed into service. I did only one trip. We stopped every hour for ten minutes. If a truck broke down, they pushed it off to the side and the rest kept going.”
After the war, Bill took advantage of GI bill to get a Mechanical Engineering degree from Pitt. The only job he could find was with a natural gas company in Wheeling, West Virginia. His first son, Douglas, was born there on Bill’s 30th birthday.
Bill and Jane were not happy in West Virginia, so Bill’s friend Tom Fiedler got him an interview with Westinghouse. He was hired as sales engineer at their Reynolds operation in 1952. Bill’s younger son, Gregory, was born in 1955, about the time Bill transferred to the Sharon plant.
In 1976, Bill found himself a bachelor again.
“After 32 years of marriage, Jane decided she didn’t want to be married anymore. I didn’t want the divorce, but I didn’t want to be married under those circumstances.
Bill worked at Westinghouse until he retired in 1984.
“I got out before I wanted to,” he said, “but they boarded up the windows and I couldn’t see out anymore, so I figured I might as well leave.”
Bill became active in several clubs: the Shenango Valley Coin Club, a local radio operators club, and the Westinghouse Retirees Association.
When the retirees formed a bocce league, Bill became a very good player. There he met a widow, (Roberta) June Egelsky.
“She was a beautiful person,” Bill said, “so we got married. The first few years we did everything together. But her asthma gradually got worse and worse. She ended up in a wheelchair, and became almost housebound. I became a cook, caregiver, and devoted all my time to her until she passed away on December 22, 2004.”
Toward the end of June’s life, Bill had started writing down little stories about his life. A couple of years after she died, he joined the writing group at the Shenango Valley Senior Center, led by Evelyn Minshull.
“If it hadn’t been for Evelyn, I wouldn’t have written many stories,” he said. “She encouraged me by writing little notes on my stories. She said she liked flow of my writing.”
Bill is genuinely surprised when his stories receive enthusiastic, positive critiques from Evelyn and the other writers in the class. But judging from their richness, it’s easy to conclude that his mother really couldn’t have done much better.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010