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Mack Williams: Requiem for an old ‘science guy’

Mack Williams

A few years ago, an old science-guy friend of mine passed away. He was a science guy long before Bill Nye; and he was also named Bill.
I first met Bill at church. Science guys go to church too; and to me, God is still in the business of Creation through evolution, doing a little “tinkering,” (but nothing for people to get upset and “raise Hell” about).
I only saw Bill at Sunday school. Perhaps he composed his own sermons, or preferred a Bible study atmosphere. Who knows?
A group of us went on a rock and mineral field trip one time to the Moorefield Mine in the little town of Amelia Courthouse, Virginia, where Amazonite is mined for semi-precious jewelry. While others chipped with rock hammers, Bill’s full-sized pick strikes sent us ducking the flying rock shrapnel!
His sometimes quick temper almost led to a fight with the mine’s owner over rock identification (while many people are charged-up about politics, Bill was charged up about rocks).
I took my son Jeremy to Bill’s workroom, and it was like being on the old “Mr. Wizard Show!” Science things abounded, including boxes of rocks, a butterfly net, microscopes, and an impressive set of specific gravity scales. The scales of justice tip “innocent” or “guilty.” The scales of the afterlife in Ancient Egypt compared the lightness of the decedent’s heart with that of a feather. And Bill’s scales tipped just the right amount to show how much water was displaced by each sample of rock or mineral.
Mixed in with all of this was an old khaki pith helmet complete with United States Marine Corps insignia.
Another science friend, mentored by Bill in his youth, related to me a special story told him by Bill about his time on the South Pacific island of Bougainville while a Marine in World war II.
Bill was deeply depressed and considering suicide, when the sight of a most beautiful flower in the Bougainville jungle renewed his interest in life (as well as botany, and all other things scientific).
Bill had his own pressed plant collection, including a flower from June 1969, the month and year I graduated from East Rowan. That flower still had some color, while the “flower of my youth” is long gone.
Bill told me that to cure “jungle rot,” the Marines soaked their feet in the salty, lapping edges of the Pacific (a much “oversized” foot bath).
I lined up Bill to give lectures at the science museum, and he always arrived in his old Gremlin automobile, his PC attached with bungee cords to a hand-truck for easy portability. His programs were always interesting and well-attended. Fellow employee Brian and I often tell visitors that Bill was our “science father,” jokingly adding that we are “twins,” saying: “Don’t you see?”(like Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins”(1988). While Brian is 6’ 10’’, I’m 5’ 6 1/4” (I claim fractions).
It’s been some years now since Bill passed away. I saw his old automobile going down a street the other day (the only Gremlin in Danville). Seeing someone else driving Bill’s old white-with-blue-stripe Gremlin reminded me of someone wearing a dead man’s clothes (if your clothes-shopping is done primarily at “Goodwill,” you may, too).
Bill spent his last year in a nursing home, and another friend told me Bill had said that if he weren’t allowed to do some outside “roaming” in Nature, he would put an end to himself. After Bill’s passing, that friend said this may have been the case.
I don’t know for sure the details of Bill’s death. But I like to think that his particular species of spirit, “self-released” or not, hearkened back to the island where that particular species of “life-saving” flower grows, thanking it for those additional earthly years, once in peril.

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