By Marsha M. Brown
This GIG LINE is dedicated to Capt. William K. “Billy” Brown who as you know passed away the night of Thursday, January 31st.
Like countless Outer Bankers, I have grieved his passing…and I have been sad for every single person who knew and loved him. Hearing the news late Thursday, I felt for Linda first. Anyone who knows her can attest to the fact that she’s a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and a bold witness for the Lord. Her gentle sweet, calming voice and big, round crystal blue eyes, like the Gulf Stream itself, draws you in and as a fellow member of Manteo First Assembly I’ve had the privilege of hearing her heartfelt prayers for family and others.
The following day being Friday I was scheduled to work the weekend as usual at the Outer Banks Hotline as a Shelter Manager or in essence ‘Shelter Mom’. My weekend work schedule began on Friday at 4:00 PM until Monday at 8:00 AM. I knew Billy’s funeral was at 10:00AM and of course my Billy and I had planned to attend his celebration of life. I had attempted to write a few words down to give to Linda and the kids over the weekend but the Shelter being a place of refuge was unfortunately extremely busy. When my sweetie pie picked me up, I came out in tears. I was thinking of Linda, Kenneth, Angie & Matt and on the way home to get dressed the tears kept coming.
As expected, our big church was full – full of loving family, childhood friends, fishing buddies and former students who fondly spoke of Billy and how he had profoundly touched their lives, brought them joy, made them laugh and inspired them to become better people. There were other family members there too, Billy’s brothers…not the DNA kind…the soldier kind…members of a family that only some belong to; those who have donned the uniform of our United States military. In Capt. Billy Brown’s case he was in the U. S. Army, where he served in Vietnam as an SP 4. Through his service he represented America, our ‘Stars and Stripes’ earned by blood shed on foreign soil.
Just prior to the close of the beautiful service celebrating his life, I made my way to the front of the church. I was literally exhausted from the weekend. I clumsily made my way to a place where I could speak and said a few words for Billy hardly making it through. My eyes were drawn to the red, white and blue symbol of the freedoms that we stand for our flag – that was draped across his casket and I found it hard to speak. Not for lack of words of praise for Capt. William K. “Billy” Brown, not for lack of words of comfort for his loving prayerful wife, adoring children and grandchildren but for the gratitude I felt for his service to our country.
Like Johnny Booth and others who spoke sweetly about Billy, recalling the good and fun times, I wanted to speak eloquently with great command of the English language and use every memorable word I could muster about Billy’s bravery, sacrifice and the anguish he no doubt had endured during that horrible time in Vietnam. I wanted to tell everyone that my Billy had explained to our grandson Jeffrey that he had witnessed first hand while he served in Vietnam, Atheists who had professed on numerous occasions that there was no God, yet who cried out to Him for forgiveness and help in the face of death countless times. I wanted to say in an eloquent way that Linda’s Billy was a hero, an American man who fought for all of us. As I spoke, I looked at Linda’s sweet face and I saw a broken heart for the loss of the man she loved. I looked to the back of the church and I saw two U. S. Army soldiers who were assigned from Fort Bragg to take part in the celebration and to honor Billy’s life. I struggled through hoping Linda and Kenneth and the rest of the family would forgive my inept presentation for all that Billy was.
I wanted to tell everyone that Billy reminded me of my father and son’s love of the water, that Billy shared my love of writing and telling stories and that when I had called him for advice about writing a book, he gladly shared the knowledge he had with me. I wanted to tell them that I was so proud of him for writing about the things that touched his life as reflected in his book, Mullet Roar.
I struggled through the emotions I felt for our brave hometown boy who, like others, had not only achieved so much in life but who had also fought for others. Billy had served in the U. S. Army during the Battle of la Drang, in Vietnam. That battle that inspired the book, “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” followed by the movie “We Were Soldiers”. Per Wikipedia the battle was about a Battalion of 400 young, inexperienced “newly-created air cavalry” American solders who were ordered to land into the “Valley of Death” – a camp where 4,000 experienced, veteran North Vietnam Army were located. And that even while the odds were stacked against them and with little hope of overcoming the challenge, Charter Boat Captain, writer, artist and history teacher Billy Brown and his comrades somehow, successfully achieved their mission enabling the surviving troops to return home. I wanted to tell everyone there that when Capt. Billy Brown saw my Billy Brown, he’d ask him, “Have you been in any fox holes lately?” and that he had told my Billy that while in la Drang a helicopter that was going down almost landed right on top of him.
I wanted to bring praise to the Lord for bringing Billy home. I wanted to tell Linda that my Billy has said time and time again that few if any men have been to Vietnam that didn’t ask for God’s help or prayed or soul searched. I wanted to remind us all that Billy was not only an American hero having fought and survived but when he came home who did he choose to marry out of all the single girls out there? A young woman who would grow into one of the most dedicated Christians soldiers I know as his wife. I wanted to call attention to the fact that even though he had seen heartache, devastation and misery at that early time in his life, he still found a way to embrace love and tenderness as seen through his children and grandchildren. I wanted to say that the beauty Billy captured in his paintings showed his grasp of a Master’s creation and light. I wanted to say that I believe with all my heart that Linda’s prayers were precious and golden to him too.
I wanted my last reflection of Billy to be that he was a hero because he was. I went back to my seat and my Billy thanked me. He had wanted to do the same thing but it was too close – he and Capt. Billy had a kinship that was special. Within seconds, the two soldiers made their way to his casket where they removed the American flag that had honored Billy’s body and to the sound of TAPS, they gingerly folded it and presented it to Linda.
Following everyone out of the church my eyes met one of the soldiers and I mouthed the words ‘thank you’ and ‘thank you for your service’. I was grateful they were there for Billy and Linda and the kids. I know he would have been proud. I hoped they would go away from there proud too that a ‘brother’ was respectfully and wonderfully honored that day.
What I’d like for everyone to know from this GIG LINE column today is that life is precious and all of our good intentions don’t always get the job done. But, in Billy Brown’s life, he set an example of taking the time to do the things that mattered, that he loved and with who he loved. He took the time to teach not only history but life and joy in loving the work that you do, in expressing yourselves and finding ways to do good things for others.
In preparation for GIG LINE I called Tama Creef, Archivist at the Outer Banks History Center (252-473-2655) to ask if they had any recordings of Billy. Tama investigated what they had and called me back to tell me they did and that she would set it up for us to watch the tapes when we got there. So my sweetie pie and I went downtown Tuesday afternoon and watched approximately two hours of VHS tapes of an interview with Capt. Billy Brown on June 30, 1999 interviewed by Sarah Downing, Assistant Curator. It was great. In the interview, Billy was sitting outside with marsh grass behind him on a pretty day answering questions about his life and fishing. I think at least three times Billy brought up that he had been in Vietnam…and it was obvious his service mattered a great deal to him. On at least one occasion he was talking about a fishing trip and threatening weather that Sonny Briggs had called to warn him about and he was right…75 MPH winds that Billy wasn’t sure he’d make it back from. And when he talked about it, he looked up toward the heavens as if he knew who had brought him in.
I encourage you to take the time to go to the Outer Banks History Center and spend the time learning more about Billy, his love of family, fishing, hunting, nature and his respect for good people who had helped shape his life like Joe Berry. In the tapes, he’s funny and happy and smart. Call Tama and let her introduce you to the wonderful opportunity to hear and see first hand accounts of our heritage on the Outer Banks as spoken by Billy and others.
And if you don’t already own one of the beautiful prints of the originals Billy painted of his beloved Oregon Inlet Fishing Center Charter Fleet and many other pictures, please don’t miss out. When asked, Linda told me she had both Billy’s prints and his book Mullet Roar if you’d like to contact her. Her phone number is (252) 473-3345 and you can buy them from her direct. Having worked with her at a recent Artist & Craft Show, the prices for Billy’s work is very reasonable and now more than ever…a real treasure.
Until next time, remember all veterans, be happy, be safe, be proud and stay tuned…
Well boys I’ve crossed the bar this final time, this trip won’t last too long,
Not far away beams I see that shine way down on me
The waters that I’ve loved these years, lap this farewell time toward shore,
I feel no sting of war or pain; I feel no loss for more…
For years we’ve fished together, through heat and cold and rain,
We’ve seen the tides ebb in and out, the changes ever more
My time with you has been well spent, I wouldn’t change a thing
Your friendship, care and stories have made me who I am
The love of fishing for harvest spent, by drop net, hook or tow
Means all the same to fisherman who know what we must do
Hard winds, blow days, stiff tide…the bar our troubles lie
But we’ll do what’s called of us, or no matter what…we’ll try
The breeze that blows cross the ocean, sound and shore
You’ll know my heart is there, where it always was before
To y’all I say it’s all OK, I found my buoy late in life
And I am on my way…
I’m past the channel now my friends,
And I see my life that’s past
I thank you for your prayers…especially my wife’s
I’m soaring in an Eagles flight, ready now to meet the Light.
Contact the Editor
Marsha M. Brown has been writing a weekly Gig Line since 2012. Marsha is the widow of Vietnam War army veteran Billy Brown of Manteo, NC. She was instrumental in establishing the Dare County Veterans Advisory Council and maintains an active role in the veteran community. You can reach Marsha with questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a story to tell or a veteran to feature? She would love to hear from you!