Billy is in full raconteur mode.
“He was a lad about 17 and he’d been in a wheel chair all his life. He was traveling with his parents on one of my tours to Amsterdam and I volunteered to keep him busy one night while they went out on the town. I rolled him through the Red Light District in that chair and introduced him to the ladies of the evening. He grinned all the way back to England.”
I am sitting in the dining room of a cruise ship with Billy “The Baron”, a dashing English gent with a bit of the devil in his eye. We are 6 days into a 14 day transatlantic journey. As we look out on the endless ocean rolling by, Billy is regaling me with yet another story about his years in the travel business.
Our ship, The Independence of the Seas, is slowly making its way across the ocean from England to Florida. It will bring me home to the U.S. after a full year of travel. It will deliver Billy to his daughter in Ft Lauderdale. After a visit with the grandchildren, Billy will board yet another cruise ship headed for Panama, his third cruise this year.
Unlike Billy, I’m not a cruise ship regular. I chose to return to the U.S. by sea because I wanted a slow re-entry. I envisioned staring out onto an endless stretch of ocean for days on end, letting the memories of this year roll gently past with the waves, reviewing, savoring, and most of all, reflecting on what I’ve learned along the way. Somewhere in the middle of one of his stories, it dawns on me that Billy is engaged in a similar exercise. Except that Billy is reviewing his entire life, one beautiful story at a time.
He was born near Newcastle, England, in 1928. As a boy, his school was destroyed by German bombers. It took years for the school to be rebuilt, so he never returned. Despite this (or maybe because of it?), Billy grew up to become an enormously successful entrepreneur. At 86, he’s still working, buying and selling vintage items (like the model T Ford he sold to one of the passengers on board the ship). But these days he is much more interested in magic tricks than business. Billy is particularly fond of showing off his tricks to one of the passengers on board, a young woman in a wheel chair who lights up like a Christmas tree whenever he enters the room.
Billy’s wife, Margaret, is the star of most of his stories. He met her in a park on a lovely summer afternoon in 1949. He remembers her hair, piled high on her head, as she mucked about in a row boat on the lake. He pulled up beside her and snatched an oar to get her attention. Later that evening, they met again at a dance. It was to be the first of many. Together, they competed and won dance competitions all over England. But the best dances “were the ones we shared alone, in the conservatory, every afternoon of our lives” he recalls.
In 65 years of marriage, they were never apart for long. They worked side by side in their business, a tour company. “She was the brains behind it” Billy tells me. It grew out of a shared passion for travel. Billy’s wanderlust started in the military, when he was stationed in Cairo; it was a magical place and it left him thirsty for more. Margaret hadn’t traveled much before she met Billy, but, he tells me, “She had an explorer’s soul”. They loved organizing trips with friends and eventually hit upon the idea of doing it for money.
“Once I saved up enough to buy me a coach, we started running weekend tours to Amsterdam” Billy tells me. He remembers that there was a hole in the floor near the driver’s seat. He had to wear Margaret’s nylons to keep his legs warm while he drove.
Billy is drawn to people who are disabled (and they to him apparently, judging from the girl in the wheel chair). In the 1950’s, disabled people were marginalized, almost invisible in society. It bothered him. He decided to install a lift and wheel chair hookups in the bus so that he and Margaret could volunteer to transport a group of disabled kids around town. The idea turned out to be great for business too. Soon Billy and Margaret were offering tours that could accommodate handicapped people, a service that no other company provided at the time.
They grew the business to 7 coaches, running tours to an ever-expanding list of destinations across Europe. “Oh we went everywhere. And we met so many people. One day I would drive and she would walk up and down the aisles serving cookies and chatting with the customers. The next day we switched and she drove. She was an excellent driver.”
If you travel for a living, I wonder aloud one day, what do you do for fun? Billy looks at me like I’m mad, or perhaps a little dim. “Travel to the places you’ve not yet seen.” He shoots me a slightly mystified glance and adds “It’s a big world ya see.”
I’m beginning to sense a kindred spirit in Billy.
I ask about his favorite places in the world. This turns out to be a long conversation. Among others, he mentions the castle-lined banks of the Rhine River, the weird vibe in Girona, Spain, small towns in Austria where they still put bars on the windows to keep vampires out, and oddly enough, the Alamo. But, he says “it doesn’t really matter where you go, it’s the person you’re with that’s important.” Then he laughs and begins to tell me about the time he and Margaret pedaled a tandem bike 247 miles from Hull to Newcastle. They ran out of money and had to sleep in a shed one night. “Now that was an adventure” he chuckles.
Each day, as Billy tells his stories, my own memories bubble up, reminding me of my original purpose for this cruise. Like Billy, it seems that my best memories this year are not so much about places, but about people: Soaring above Tasmania in a sea plane with my daughter, watching the look of sublime happiness on her face (a look I haven’t seen since she was a little girl, wearing her favorite ruby slippers); my friend Susan striking yoga poses (and fear in my heart) on the walls of steep cliff overlooks in the Dalmatian Islands; my sister’s sighs of bliss as we stuffed our faces with croissants in the seaside cafes of France; a late night in a bar with our friends Doug and Sharon, learning Welsh folk songs and singing the French National Anthem with the waiters; a picnic at sunset with my husband in Australia’s Hunter Valley, watching hundreds of Kangaroos quietly creep out of the forest for their evening meal in the vineyard.
It’s a simple truth that I’m not sure I ever fully understood before my year of wandering: The only thing that matters are the people who matter.
Margaret’s wedding rings hang from a thick gold chain around Billy’s neck. He lost her in April of this year. I can see the raw grief in his watery blue eyes when he talks about her. And yet, here he is, traveling alone at age 86 on a cruise ship. Why? “Well because I’d never done it before” (again the mystified glance, as though the answer to this question is obvious). No, Billy Barron does not sit around moping, clinging to the safety and security of home and hearth – at least not for long.
One day he attends the singles luncheon on board the ship. He is not amused when he reports back to me: “It was me and three really old men”. But, he admits sheepishly, it was a good idea and Margaret probably would have liked it better than the online chat room he tried (using his neighbor’s name to sign up).
After hearing so much about Billy’s life, I’m curious about something. I ask him what he would do differently if he had the chance. “Not a thing” he says after a moment of consideration. “Not a damn thing.”
I wish I could say the same. And yet, this year of travel has left me less concerned about what I’d do differently in the past than what I want to do differently from now on. If I’m lucky enough to reach 86, I know, with crystal clear clarity, what I want to see when I look back at the years that have passed since age 51 – and what I don’t want to see. And that has been the greatest gift of this year.
One afternoon toward the end of the cruise, I head for the dining room after a workout, looking for a cold drink. Billy is there and I join him. He is, as always, dressed impeccably and he casts a baleful glance at my attire. We sit in companionable silence, watching the sun sink toward the horizon. After awhile, Billy turns to me and asks if I’ve kept a journal this year. I tell him that I have. “That’s good” he says softly. “When you live a big life, it all runs together. The details get fuzzy.”
He pauses and then leans in close. “And I’ll tell you something else, Flower” (he calls me Flower, for reasons I cannot explain). “It’s important.” I nod somberly, waiting for the next pearl of wisdom I can squeeze out of Billy Barron. And, as always, he delivers:
“That outfit does nothing for ya, nothin’ at’al.”
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