Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Eulogy For Billy Gentry

My spouse's stepfather passed away this past January of 2019, and a few days before the memorial service, which was held at the grave site, I wrote this eulogy for him.  However, due to the nature of how the service was structured, which was out of my wife's control, the setting was not appropriate nor long enough for me to read my thoughts of him.

So, here it is for you to peruse, followed by his obituary, which I also wrote and submitted to the Bakersfield Californian, to the Shafter Press, and to the town newspaper of his residence when he passed away, The Wasco Tribune. All of this, I did as a gift for Brenda and her family during their difficult time.

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Photo by Fred Herrman


Billy Lloyd Gentry 
May 16, 1934 - January 29, 2019

Hi, for those of you who do not know me, my name is Fred Herrman, and, I am the spouse of Billy’s eldest daughter, Brenda. 

One has to realize that I did not know Billy when he was a young, strapping man working on farms and ranches. He was about sixty-three years old when I first met him in 1997, which was about a year after Brenda and I met. The Billy I knew was the now the retired Billy; the poking around the driveway Billy, and the not quite sure how to operate the microwave oven properly, Billy.  I’ve seen old photos though.  I’ve seen him with his cut-off-sleeved t-shirts, showing off his arm muscles, and sporting his caramel blonde mutton chops.  And I’ve seen early videos of him being a bit cheeky with Letha too.

But so, when I think of him, I think of a sweet, soft-spoken elderly man who was generally tinkering around in the daytime, and was mostly quiet at night.  It doesn’t mean that he didn’t still have his moments. If he was displeased with something, he would let the world know.  A momentary pause of fire and brimstone.  But then it was usually over pretty quickly, and that was that. 

My own relationship with him involved Billy often sharing things with me.  Be it a gadget that he found as he hunted around for various collectibles. “Hey Fred, how much do you think this is worth?” With that, I’d look down to see some random piece of industrial metal, whose purpose on this earth I simply had no idea.  “I don’t know,” I’d reply.  “You’ll probably just have to ask around a bit.  Somebody may know it’s value.”  But it made me feel good, though, that he thought enough of me as to overestimate my abilities, thinking that I might have a sort running catalogue of widgets and their comparable prices in my head. Unfortunately, I just don’t have random access memory, Billy. 

And then, there was the other type of sharing he’d do with me all of the time.  His stories.  Something that at any moment, in the trailer dining room, as he was setting up his domino tiles for some kind of solitary game play, or while I was getting his TV cable box back up and running, and he was laying on his bed watching me fiddle aimlessly with the equipment.  His memory of long ago events would suddenly be sparked, and he’d be off on one of his countrified sagas. I loved those stories. 

And each time he would tell me of one of his tales, I would create in my own mind the colorful characters that he described, adding in, the plush green topography of the countryside that he mentioned, along with the other aspects of his story, as if I were a writer filling out all of the details to the bits of facts that he had laid out like scattered clues for me to follow.  It was the oral version of your mom or dad reading to you out of a book at bedtime when you were a child, and your mind painting in all of the vivid brushstrokes along the way. 

Here are some fragments of memories from him that I have been able to hold onto over the years:

Billy started out in Bowie Texas, then went to Wilton, Arkansas near Ashdown, then over to Hughes Arkansas. In each of these places, he did fieldwork, often picking cotton.  Somewhere in all of that, he lived in Florida and Oklahoma.  His father had a cousin with the surname, Underwood, in Mississippi. This cousin had thirty-five to forty acres of cotton fields that were worked by several families who stayed on the land. They would each get a dollar an hour, and if they all picked the particular field that they were working on totally clean of cotton that day, they would each earn an extra quarter. 

He told me about his travels in and out of Winston, Missouri, and something about how he and one or two of his brothers, and maybe a friend as well, were following a river, looking for a car that either they, or someone else had left in the water.  Though I didn’t completely understand the plot to this story, my mind was flush with ideas of what the area looked like at the time, which was probably in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. 

Billy told me that he spent several years in Eloy, Arizona.  With the work that he and others did harvesting grain, potatoes, and wheat, and while using a pick-up truck to do their tasks, they were able to work hard every day and save $200.00 to put down for a 1952 Ford with an overhead cam.  “It was a pretty car,” he said, “which cost a total of $350.00 when everything was said and done.”  I told him that my own father, also coincidentally named Bill, and who was several years older than Billy, had purchased his first car in Long Island, New York for $35.00, so he had Billy beat for first-time car deals.

Billy said that while in Eloy, when the rains came and formed small rivers out of the mountains, he would go out to these temporary natural canals to collect the rain water in buckets and then bring them back to use at their home.  He also told me that at one time, he had an old dog, and an old Mercury automobile, both of which were very faithful to him.  He said that his dog was unfriendly to pretty much everyone else, but he was nice to Billy since Billy was his master.  “The hand that feeds…”

I asked Billy how, after living in at least six other states, he ended up settling in California.  He said that being in Eloy, Arizona allowed him and his brothers to take trips back and forth to California.  At some point, one of his brothers decided to go northeastward to Missouri.  And at about the same time, the United States Federal Highway System was expanded, and the government constructed Interstate 10, which circumvented traffic around, and no longer through, the town of Eloy.  Thus, the opportunities began to decrease in Eloy, and so he knew that it was time to move on.  So, that’s about the time that he arrived in California for good, settling in Wasco, a time when work was abundant in the Central Valley.  He said that you could gain an agricultural job very easily in both Wasco and Shafter in the early 1960’s. 

What I found really interesting about Billy was exactly that, which I’ve just described; he lived in so many places throughout his life.  And because of the type of work that he did through the years, namely, his ranch and farm work interspersed with his traveling and relocating, he had a lot of life experiences to draw from in his later years for the telling of his countless yarns.

In my mind, Billy had the voice and look of an old prospector.  “There’s gold in them there hills!”  His white hair, which always seems to be on the verge of needing a haircut, tended to flutter in the breeze as he pottered around his latest adopted rattletrap vehicle.  And alas, I suppose that I was destined to learn a bit of verbiage from Billy. Some sayings and phrases from the old country that have particular color to them.  However, a lot of his terminology was dated from the 1930’s and 1940’s, and he had simply just never updated it. 

For instance, when referring to someone in an unflattering way, he might call them a “pecker wood.”  Now, I’m sure that term was meant to pack some punch to it, and maybe in 1930-whatever, it did, amongst former World War One sailors berating each other in a port-side bar.  But to me, it just laid flat. It meant nothing. “Billy, that term is so completely antiquated that it carries absolutely no negative connotation to me or to anyone else in your midst. You do realize that, don’t you?” And, what is a “pecker wood” anyways?  An arborist?  A tree-trimmer?  I still do not know. 

This was a man of many lands and many homesteads, and I admired that as aged as he had gotten, he still loved going out into the city or the backcountry and just getting lost for a while.  Who even knows what he was up to.  Scrapping (or, “antiquing”)…playing poker…looking for yet another orphaned car to bring back home… And yet, by day’s end, he’d be back in his room, searching the cable channels for some fresh wrestling.  And by the way, I’m still not sure to this day if Billy really believed that pro-wrestling is legitimate, or if he knew internally that it is all pre-choreographed, and yet, he simply enjoyed the spectacle of it all, anyways.  Either way, he just loved it and always effused about the latest steroid-filled wrestling monsters with passion. 

I will end my thoughts today with one of my favorite memories.  Given that his two daughters were working on a specific day a couple of years ago, I accompanied Billy to an important follow-up eye appointment that was scheduled in Bakersfield.  The doctor who was assigned to see him was overwhelmed with longer than expected sessions when we arrived, so Billy and I had to wait.  But instead of making us sit in the crowded lobby, the nursing staff allowed us to sit in the examining room. 

We were in there for around forty-five minutes; just Billy and I. He sat in the tall eye-examining chair with his white hair contrasting wildly with his dark blue hooded sweatshirt, and I, just sort of slumped into a guest chair facing him in this small, shoebox-shaped room. 

And so we just talked…mostly he doing the talking, me doing the listening. For instance, he reminisced about a neighbor who had upset him many years back when he lived on Gun Club Road, related to something about water being borrowed without permission, and then a whole bunch of profanity that ensued between them. And actually…now that I’m thinking back…he did use the term “pecker wood” in that context.  But he and the man eventually all got sorted out, and things were fine.  And then Billy talked about a brother here, an acquaintance there, with all of whom, he had had various adventures in some far off settings somewhere.  It was all very nice. An unexpectedly quiet afternoon spent with him, and it was comforting listen to Billy’s soft voice sharing cherished portions of his memories with me from so long ago. I won’t forget those moments with Billy.  And I will miss him. 

-Fred Herrman, 02.07.2019

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Obituary

Billy Lloyd Gentry was born on May 16, 1934 in Bowie, Texas to Oscar Greenberry Gentry, of Mississippi, and Ola Gentry, of Oklahoma.  Billy was one of nine siblings: Sydney Gentry (d), William-Allen Gentry (d), Ruby Tremor (d), Lois Harris, Orville Gentry (d), (Billy Gentry), Ray Gentry, Henry Gentry, and Jimmy Gentry.  Billy lived in many places including his birth state of Texas, as well as Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arizona, and California.  One of Billy’s great-grandparents was full Cherokee Native American.

Throughout his life, Billy loved games of chance, often driving an hour or more away from home to visit casinos to play cards.  He regularly engaged in dominoes and wagered on sports events on television with his brother Henry.  Billy also enjoyed scouting the city for antiques, bringing home various discovered items in order to assess their value.

At family gatherings, without fail, he told stories of his youthful explorations with friends and acquaintances around the country.  Having held various jobs, including farm and ranch related sharecropper tasks, Billy met many people from differing backgrounds and, thus, was never at a loss for adventurous stories to recount.  Billy’s father, Oscar, had a cousin in Baldwin, Mississippi named Claude Gentry who authored the book, “Kit Carson.” (Magnolia Pub ©1956)

Billy is survived by the mother of his children, Letha Bean, his siblings, Lois Harris, Ray Gentry, Henry Gentry & wife Kathy Gentry, Jimmy Gentry, his children, Sandra Gentry, Kenny Gentry & wife Kelly Gentry, Timmy Gentry, Johnny Berumen & wife Misty Graves, Brenda Berumen & husband Fred Herrman, his nieces & nephews, William-Allen Jr. Gentry, Wynell Gentry, Crystal Gentry, Victoria Gentry, Vicky Gentry, Brandon Gentry, Joanie Gentry, Peggie Harris, Teresa Harris, Eddie Harris, Lola Gentry, Kim Gentry, Laura Gentry, Linda Gentry, Debbie Gentry, Jeffrey Gentry, Jamie Gentry, his grandchildren, Carson Gentry, Austin Brakebill, Johnny Lee Berumen, Brittany Berumen, and great-grandchildren, Alexis Berumen, Sydney Berumen, Addison Berumen, Brody Berumen, Brae Berumen, Bailey Berumen, and Bree Brown.

Billy will be buried at Wasco Memorial Park on Thursday, February 07, 2019 at 2:00pm.  We will all miss him greatly.

-Fred Herrman, 02.04.2019
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