He’s there early, just about every morning, sitting in front of the CHP on Highway 49.
Central Valley native, WWII veteran, business owner, father, Bud Light drinker, world traveler — Bill is now nearly 92 years old. He gets up every day and walks from his nearby apartment up to the CHP, where he sits for a bit while the cars go by.
Our introduction to Bill came in the form of an email from a reader.
Some time over a year ago, I noticed a sweet looking gentlemen wearing a veterans hat sitting in his walker by the flags outside Oakhurst CHP. He is there every morning. I feel the urge to stop and chat but just have not made time. I feel like I need to know his story. He just seems so serene and full history. — Brenna
After a phone call to CHP in Oakhurst, we received permission from Bill to give him a call. We talked on the phone for a bit and made an arrangement to meet one morning. That day arrived and sure enough, at 7:30 a.m. there was Bill, sitting contentedly on his perch in the rain. That turned out to be likely the last rain of the year, but it’s a testament to the man’s fortitude that he trudged up the hill in the windy, wet weather, in order to keep his appointment on a day that many of us would have preferred to phone it in.
Bill is legally blind. He can see shapes and shadows but no features of a face, for instance, and he can no longer read. He’s easy to get along with. He’s wearing his favorite jacket, retro-fitted by his daughter from zipper to snaps so his fingers don’t have to fuss as much, especially on a cold day.
His walker moves along faithfully, through gravel, leaves and puddles, down hill and across the road, pushed by a man whose life has been filled with hard work, determination, and success.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he intones loudly as we walk. I was thinking he was enthusiastic about the journey but, later, Bill told me the neuropathy he feels is so painful, that’s one of the ways he copes with it. He also sang a beautiful rendition of “Irish Eyes,” and says that helps with the pain, too. It sure sounded pretty to me.
Bill Howie was born in San Francisco in 1926, and raised in Bakersfield, where he spent time as a young teen hitting golf balls out on the railroad tracks.
Getting out of Bakersfield was as easy as joining the Navy, which Bill did as soon as he could, and wound up as a signalman at Midway Island in the last year before World War II was officially over. Living and working in a tower 180-feet high, with no kitchen or toilet except down on the ground, Bill says there were a lot of fellas like himself on Midway.
Using a projected light to send Morse code out over the ocean, as well as flags, Bill and his Navy buddies would communicate with submarines and ships, including the DE 261 Dionne. It was a tough life, he says, not for “mama’s babies.” When asked how tough, Bill simply recounts that there were some guys who tied rocks to their bodies and jumped into the bay.
When the war finally ended, Bill got out on “points,” with the Advanced Service Rating Score system that the United States Army used at the time to determine which soldiers were eligible to be repatriated to the United States for discharge from military service.
Back in the U.S., Bill started sprinkler work as a pipefitter, and took great pride in his work, eventually opening up Howie Brothers Auto Parts and Machine Shop in Fresno with brother Laurence. They installed automatic sprinklers in buildings all over California.
Falling off a 26-foot scaffolding didn’t stop him either. It was one of two serious falls he took while working and, in each case, Bill jokes that it wasn’t so much the falling that was a problem — rather, it was the sudden stop. It didn’t matter — he could rough in and top out faster than anyone. A fire inspector would come by and leave no punch list.
Bill has always loved the high country of the Sierra, and eventually his business in Fresno grew to the point where he opened a shop on Highway 41 in Oakhurst: Mountain Auto Parts. He hired someone to run the business and came up from the city two days a week to oversee operations.
Bill says he remembers when you could play football on the main road in town, 35-40 years ago. Now, he laughs, you don’t even dare cross Highway 41. Eventually he moved to North Fork, on ten acres, where he stayed until macular degeneration brought on blindness, before his move to apartments in Oakhurst in 2004.
Back in the 1950s, Bill married and ultimately divorced, and now his family includes two great granddaughters who are a light in his life. Recently, he received the most perfect of acknowledgments for his service to the country: a purple heart, in the form of a hand-drawn and purple-colored cut-out heart sent in the mail with this entry on the back:
Dear Great Grandpa Bill, Thank you for your service to the U.S.A. We are safe because of you. Love, Nika
At this stage of the game, Bill has balance issues, pain and neuropathy in his feet and ankles. That doesn’t stop him, though. The self-proclaimed “bull-headed old fart” says he walks every day because, “I know very well that if I just sit here, I will sit here the rest of my life, and hurt twice as much as if I got off my duff.”
Bill leaves the house every morning around 7:15 or 7:30 a.m., heading for the sidewalk in front of the CHP. Right now, he says he gets an average of about six beeps per day from cars passing by, with about 16 being his record high. He’d like for that average to improve, however, reminding friends and neighbors that he can’t see you wave but he appreciates a good beep.
“A beep or a beep beep. It says, good morning. Hello. I know ya.”
Thanks, Bill. Now we know you.