There area many things, I guess, that can quickly bond two men. With Bill Mills and me it was a few tears shed on a goose hunt.
They were Bill’s tears then. They’re my tears now.
Bill, a close friend and top goose hunting partner, died unexpectedly Sunday afternoon at his home in Eureka. He was 54.
We’ve joked our first meeting was a blind date set-up by a landowner gathering hunters take advantage of swarms of big Canada geese using his fields. We shot the geese and shot the breeze that first morning, along with another guest hunter or two. The landowner had basically invited us to supply the decoys, the labor, be the guides and dog handler for the others. We got along great from putting out the decoys in the pre-dawn dark through picking them up long after others had gone.
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It was just Bill and me the next morning. When I asked about his shotgun he started telling me about Willie, his late son/best friend.
The boy, he said, had fought health problems much of his life but had thrived. One day, however, Bill found Willie had died from natural causes, a few years before his 30th birthday. The shotgun had been Willie’s and Bill liked to hunt with it.
As he talked that January morning I just listened, nodded, and made the occasional soft comment. The most I said is that I thankfully did not know what it’s like to lose a child, nor could I even imagine the pain because it’s simply not the way things are supposed to be.
“No,” Bill said. “He was supposed to bury me.”
Tears streamed down Bill’s cheeks for several minutes, about which he later apologized and asked I not judge him.
But because of those tears I did judge him, but as a man who loved a child, lost a child and would forever mourn that child. I would only judge him negatively, I told him, if he didn’t shed tears from such a thing.
Leaving the field he thanked me for listening, and said it’s not something most of his friends were not good at doing when it came to sharing emotions.
But we usually laughed a lot when we hunted, worked on goose blinds or talked on the phone. Bill was a hard worker, and one of the best waterfowl shots I’ve ever seen, though he preferred to let others do the shooting.
He talked about Willie quite a bit, though Bill’s favorite subjects became two young granddaughters and tiny twin grandsons.
Several times we joked after he declined a chance to hunt because of his dedication to those kids.
“You mean to tell me another soccer game, where most kids can’t even kick the ball, is more important to you than what might be the best goose hunt of your life with your hunting buddies?,” I asked him at least a dozen times.
“Ab-sol-lutely!” he’d answer, and we’d both laugh.
The grandkids were his quick ticket to happiness. At times when he was talking of “working too big and fishing too little,” which was often, I’d ask about the crew and get him laughing and smiling. They often became the topic of our conversation after he’d been talking about Willie. I called him annually to check-in on the anniversary of his son’s death. A more recent time was hours before he left to go fishing in Canada, a trip he hadn’t done for years because it held so many memories of past times in the north country with Willie.
Bill’s death from an apparent heart attack first took my first thoughts to those grandchildren who had just lost the epitome of a loving grandfather.
But I smiled when I eventually realized there’s a pretty high chance Bill and Willie are together again. If Heaven is as they say I’m guessing they’re fishing for walleye, or following a bird dog through Greenwood County as it was 25 years ago.
And I’m also pretty sure those four young grandkids will never totally be without their grandfather, at least in spirit. All four have probably just gained a guardian angel that will hold them safely for the rest of their lives.
From the first days we met, the thing that most impressed me about Bill Mills was just how much he loved his family.
Do I think it’s possible he’ll find a way to look after them, from his world to theirs?
In the words of a man I already miss dearly, “Ab-sol-lutely!”