GOODBYE, MR. CHIP

I’ve mentioned Chip Williams several times already. He was an active brother when I joined Lambda Chi and he provided my first ever drink of hard liquor. He led me and some of my pledge brothers on new adventures….painting and hanging a banner before the first football game that fall….my first visit to a strip bar…(don’t ask, the details are NOT worth telling)….shepherding a group of us freshly minted new actives on a group blind date, a tale related elsewhere.

John Ray Williams was one of those people you meet in life who you immediately feel comfortable with. He exuded…not an air of danger… but a sense of adventure…a sense that knowing him would lead to lands unknown. He was a man’s man who could drink, screw, hunt, play ball, party and tell lies with the best of them. Never alone himself, you absolutely wanted to get an invite to the party and would change your plans to his because his were a damned sight better, without exception.

Chip was a natural leader who, during our pledge Hell Week, made certain the group of us knew how to work together if the lesson hadn’t quite set in with all of us prior to then.

But he was also the guy who could spend an entire month never seeing daylight. Living on the top floor of the fraternity house he and a couple of others slept in rather than go to class and, when well rested enough, would get up late in the day, drink and party all night getting to bed just before dawn, and repeat the cycle for nearly thirty days straight.

Believe it or not, such a month of debauchery necessarily meant the same month was bereft of academic endeavor. Surprisingly, he survived the semester and returned to school. Now these facts were related to me second and third hand during my unofficial orientation into the Lambda Chi mystique. So the term facts may not be entirely accurate. But my personal observations gave no cause to doubt their veracity.

Yet here Chip was the fall of 1966 still enrolled as a student at WVU. That was the last time you could use his name and student in the same sentence. When the next semester began in January of 1967, Chip Williams was in line to have his draft status changed from 2-S, student, to 1-A, prime cannon fodder for Viet Nam.

Despite not being in school he hung around Morgantown for a time. His fiancee, Jo Ann Bray, was a Morgantown native and was the main attraction for his stay. I do not recall the exact length of his stay but eventually he returned to his home in Marlinton, Pocahontas County southeast of Elkins where his widowed mother resided. Meanwhile the rest of us Lambda Chis, indeed the 13,000 students at WVU, had day to day concerns that did not include John Ray Williams.

Chip was able to avoid the draft until later that year. We got occasional whiffs of his activities, perhaps from a phone call, a trip of his to Morgantown, or maybe even from bumping into JoAnn on campus. But when we did learn that Uncle Sam not only wanted him but had got him, there was a kind of a collective “Oh, Shit”. The war in Asia had no end in sight and anyone you knew bound for there went with no assurance you would see them alive again.

It was sometime around March of 1968 when I had my next personal Chip encounter. He arrived ready to raise hell. He had completed his basic training and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, La. He told stories of his advenures in “Tigerland”, an environment that simulated conditions he and his fellow trainees would likely find in combat in Viet Nam. Naturally these tales were accompanied by pitchers of beer. And of course he made ample time for JoAnn. ( And she was a hell of a woman. Not a beauty but still easy on the eyes. She complemented Chip. She had more sense than him but could still get down and party when called for.)

Chip had received his orders to join the war and this was his last leave before he made a trip half way around the world. His time to return to the army world drew nigh and of course we had to send him off in style.

Several of us went to a place formally called Richwood Avenue Confectionary. Nobody ever called it that. It was known as “Mario’s” or “Fishbowl”. The reason for the latter was that its chief attraction was the serving of draft beer in large, chilled mugs called fishbowls. These glasses could hold between 22 and 28 ounces of beer and cost at that time, I believe, 35 cents. The owners of the place were an old Italian couple, Mauro and Rose Spina. Their business was also kind of a neighborhood convenience store with a limited selection of food staples like bread and milk available.

Mario’s was pretty nondescript with metal tables and chairs, a few high backed wooden booths, a short counter where the beer taps were, and the two smallest public restrooms in existence. Its claim to fame lay in a tradition of posting hand-written notes on its walls and ceiling when any patron or group of patrons accomplished some earthshaking feat. So in one place you’d find news that Bill Smith had drunk four fishbowls in fifteen minutes. In another spot on the wall you’d learn that Tommy Milhouse had eaten 23 pickled eggs and next to that someone else had chugged one of the fishbowls in 3.8 seconds.

In any event Mario’s was where you could kick back, have some beer, relax, play the jukebox, and have no pressure to impress any other person in the world. Actually the place was so unpretentious that it was almost pretentious. Almost. An ideal spot for an afternoon drinking with someone just about to leave for war.

The six or seven of us had a great time, getting tipsy, swapping lies, and trying to ignore the reality that our friend, our brother was going to be in harm’s way for the next year. We left Mario’s before dinner and Chip went to be with JoAnn while the rest of us returned to the chapter house.

We heard little of Chip in the ensuing months. Though he had taught me and some of my buddies how to party, he taught us so well that we could sail along without him. A summer passed. An addition to the house was completed over that summer and one weekend a dozen or more of us living close to Morgantown spent the weekend here moving in and assembling new furniture. And drinking. When we were back for the start of school in August our revamped digs were a treat, though the way we handled our sleeping area meant we didn’t have individual rooms except for study. Our arrangements took some getting used to but we managed. Beer was still cheap and easily available and that fact mitigated any of our difficulties.

The fall semester of 1968 was not unusual in any particular way. Football games, parties, some in house shenanigans, girls. Only the names changed. There was a memorable foray into Pittsburgh for the annual WVU -Pitt gridiron battle, but that full story is reported in another chapter. There was a significant personal change for me. I actually went to class, completed any assignments and studied. Two straight semesters of academic probation are highly motivating. I was in no hurry to have my draft status amended and reunite with Chip in Southeast Asia.

Fall officially arrived as did the end of football season. I had turned 21 over the summer and most of my close running mates were the same age. We could drink legally in every state. Woo Hoo!

Fall had come and was morphing into winter. We had returned from our Thanksgiving break and were looking forward to the last big social event of the semester, the Christmas party.

It had become a tradition at our party for us to exchange gifts on a grab bag basis. The gifts would be doled out by Santa, Mrs. Clause and some elves. These roles were filled by brothers. Santa did not make his appearance until he was pretty damn drunk. At the appropriate point in the festivities, the band we’d hired would take a break, bells would jingle and Santa, that most jolly of old elves would make his entrance exclaiming “Ho ho ho, God damn it”

So this Friday after Thanksgiving in early December, with the house decorated and final cleanup and setup for the party to take place following dinner, we were primed for fun as we got home from class that day. We were informed by one of the guys that he heard that Chip was missing in action in Viet Nam. Alarmed we wondered how to get confirmation or hopefully learn it was not true. Brother Dave Owens then entered the house and told us Chip indeed was not missing. He was dead. Killed in action.

We were collectively shocked. The rest of that evening is kind of a blur. The party proceeded as scheduled. Hell, about half the guys there had never even met Chip. In a more general sense, as college students with deferments, and WVU being a fairly conservative campus with few war protests and nothing on a large scale, we were pretty far removed from the reality of death that war brings. So we partied, even if in a somewhat reserved manner, escorted our dates home and came back to the house where the shock had worn off and the truth set in.

Seven or eight of us gathered in Larry Oliver’s room. Chip had been Ollie’s big brother when we pledged. Bob Freeland, Bill Roderick and Joe Korzeniewski were there. I don’t recall the others. But we as one were distraught at Chip’s death and angry over the disaster that was Viet Nam. We swore. We cried. We pounded our fists into the upper bunk in the room. We repeated those reactions in various sequences.

Mostly we lamented the fucking useless loss of life. Mostly in relation to our friend and brother, but still a part knowing he was not alone in sacrificing his life for an unjustified cause. We cried and swore and pounded our fists some more then finally went to bed.

Surprisingly the funeral was to be Saturday morning in Marlinton and some of us planned to attend. Ollie would drive and Ghrist, Roderick and Korzeniewski and I would ride with him. Larry Smith, our erstwhile pledge trainer and also very close to Chip drove down from Uniontown, Pa. to travel along.

Although not officially winter yet, on Saturday morning the temperatures were in the teens and there was snow when we departed Morgantown. There were no superhighways to carry us that cold 1968 day. It was all two lane, windy, snow-covered pavement. More than once we fretted that Ollie’s Chevy Impala might not handle all the curves. But eventually we got to Marlinton and headed to the church where the services were to be held.

Marlinton was a town of, at most, 2-3000 people. The church held several hundred of them. When we had stopped for gas before driving to the church, the attendant made an easy guess as to why we were there. The church was full and it seemed hundreds more waited outside. Chip was the quintessential small town boy and it was evident that everyone in Marlinton knew him and was mourning his death.

The services commenced. All I truly remember is that no one remained tearless. Young girls in the choir were visibly bawling. Our little group, sophisticated college men all, were no exception and we were not embarrassed by our display. One notable thing is that Chip was in an open casket, in dress uniform, and of course we filed through the line for a viewing. Among other personal items buried with him was an unopened bottle of Calvert whiskey, his favorite, and the very potion he had shared with me and Ollie for our first taste of liquor on the night we went “lair decoratin.”

Next came the trip to the cemetery for burial. The spot where Chip was to be interred was on a hillside. The ground was white with snow and there was a biting wind. The preacher offered his prayers and verses and last brief eulogy. There was a military honor guard which presented a twenty-one gun salute. And then came The ultimate……the playing of Taps. It was bitter cold and it obviously affected the bugler. Some of his notes of Taps emerged in a stutter. That is a sound I will never ever forget. I really truly honestly wish I had never had the reason to hear that sound, but in the over all scenario, that stuttering playing of Taps was the perfect punctuation to the poignancy of the moment.

We Lambda Chis had had a chance to speak briefly with Chip’s fiancee JoAnn and be introduced to his mother Nellie as well as his sister and other family. We were invited back to The Williams house for the wake. The house was small but warm and comfortable and unbelievably crowded. We did the usual things one does at those events, eating some, chatting some, maybe crying a little but also telling stories that would bring laughter.

Eventually it was time for us to return to Morgantown. As we gathered our coats and prepared to say our goodbyes Nellie Williams, his mom, approached us. She wanted to make sure our road trip went well and had ordered some of the food to be packed for us. She was genuinely concerned that we would be driving in worsening weather. Dear Sweet Nellie Williams had just buried her only son, probably fifty years prematurely and she was ignoring her emotional needs to make sure her beloved son’s fraternity brothers were taken care of. She was a truly remarkable woman.

We got back to Morgantown safely, profoundly affected by our entire experience. I think of John Ray Williams, Chip, often. Always with a smile in remembrance of how full of life he was. Always with a tear in remembrance of how his life, along with 58,000 others, was wasted by his country.

Rest in peace, Chip, rest in peace.

 

 

This is a link to Chip’s place on the Virtual Wall, an online version of the Vietnam Memorial. You can leave a comment or search its data base for others you may have known.

http://www.vvmf.org/thewall/Wall_Id_No=56315

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Comments

  • Marion  On November 29, 2012 at 6:08 PM

    And this is the sad anniversary of his death.

    Very touching…..Thank you.

    • umoc193  On November 29, 2012 at 6:40 PM

      The spooky coincidence is that I wrote this last year on the anniversary, but didn’t realize it at the time. I simply had not memorized the date.

      Thanks for reading.

  • Diane Hickman  On November 29, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    What a beautiful eulogy for your beloved friend. Touched me.

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