Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Billy and Jiggs are special to me

I was nearing my fifth birthday when our family moved to Sheridan, a tiny town in western Oregon. That’s where I met Billy, a boy my age, who lived across the street from our house. Billy was only allowed to play indoors, but we soon became best friends.

 It was the late nineteen-forties, before the days of television or electronic devices. Billy and I spent the autumn days using our imaginations to keep us occupied. Our favorite pastime was acting out western themes in Billy’s bedroom using our collection of miniature cowboy figurines and a western village made from empty cereal boxes.

Billy’s dad had built shelves on every wall of Billy’s bedroom and lining the shelves was a western village made from shredded wheat boxes. In those days, Nabisco Shredded Wheat could be purchased in a rectangular box that was decorated like a western building. Among the many choices were, a bunk house, a saloon, and the most coveted sheriff’s office complete with jail. Billy had nearly all of the cereal box buildings.

 One morning, as I doused the final biscuit of shredded wheat with milk and blanketed it with sugar, I could hardly wait to add the empty box, a frontier hotel, to the collection in Billy’s room. That day I anxiously loaded my collection of miniature metal cowboys into the box and rushed across the street to Billy’s house, excited to share my newest treasure. But this morning there were a lot of people at Billy’s house. I knocked on the door and Billy’s dad answered. I could see tears in his eyes and knew something was wrong.

“Billy has gone to be with God,” he said.

For a moment I just looked up at him and stared. Billy’s dad was a tall man and he squatted down and took me in his arms and hugged me.

“You were his best friend,” he said. “Billy loved it when you came to visit.”

I looked down at the box filled with metal cowboy figurines. “I was bringing these to give to Billy,” I said.

He stared at the box in my hands. “Come here,” he said, taking my hand. He led me, through the crowd in the living room and we ended up in Billy’s bedroom.

I stared at Billy’s empty bed and looked up at the frontier village we had built. It was lining the walls like always.

“Where do you think Billy would want this?” Billy’s dad asked scanning the dozen or so buildings of the western town.

I checked every building, the Sheriff’s office with the jail, the saloon with swinging doors and the corral with horses, a cowboy on a bucking bronco and another cowboy swinging a lasso. My eyes stopped at the church. It was white with a tall steeple and a big front door. I pulled Billy’s favorite cowboy from the box and handed it to his father. “Put him at the door of the church,” I said. “Maybe he can go visit Billy.”

Billy’s dad opened the door of the church and placed the cowboy at the door. I imagined the cowboy was walking into the church and was the first visitor Billy would have in Heaven.

That afternoon I was sad, very sad. I told my mother about Billy and sat on my bed, wondering what I would do without my friend. My older sister came home from school and I told her about Billy. She said I could play with her and brought a game into my room, but I didn’t feel like playing. I curled up on the bed and fell asleep.

“Larry,” my mother called from downstairs, waking me up. “Time for dinner.”

I got up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I noticed it was dark outside, and I turned on the bedroom light. “Hurry, Larry,” my sister anxiously called.

I stumbled down stairs, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The kitchen was brightly lit and balloons dangled from the chairs. In the center of the table was a cake with five burning candles. My father was standing behind my mother. My younger sister, with blond curls dancing from her head, was jumping up and down, a big smile on her face.

“Happy birthday,” they all screamed as I entered the room.

“Wow! I forgot it was my birthday,” I said.

“Hurry make a wish,” my sister said.

I made a wish and climbed up on a chair and blew out the candles.

My dad came from behind my mother and held out my present, a brown and white puppy with floppy ears and big brown eyes. I took the puppy, unable to speak. I had always wanted a dog and looked down at the little thing in my arms. I couldn’t believe it was true. It looked up at me with sad eyes and licked my face.

“Look!” I exclaimed, “Jiggs likes me.”

“Jiggs,” my dad said. “What kind of a name is that for a dog?”

I looked at my dad. “He’s my dog and I like the name Jiggs.”

“Then Jiggs it is,” my dad said.

I didn’t have Jiggs very long, but that’s another story. To this day, when I see a child with cancer I remember my two best friends, Billy and Jiggs, and I offer up a prayer for children with cancer and remember Billy and Jiggs, my two best friends.

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