The first real, out-in-the-world job I ever had was loading trucks at the local Coca-Cola bottling plant the summer I turned 16. Oh, I’d had jobs before that, working for a local tobacco farmer (from which I learned I had no desire to be a farmer), cutting grass for people in my neighborhood and other things of that nature; but that summer at Coke was the first time I was on the payroll for an actual company. My brother worked there while he attended UNC-G and it’s because of him I got the job. I’m not above nepotism if it helps pay the bills. It was hard work. Not as hard as getting sand lugs (the very bottom leaves, called that because of the sand and clay that gets splashed on them when it rains) or hanging it in the old stick barns that were still in use when I was a kid, but any job that’s outside in a North Carolina summer is hard enough. I remember a lot of things from that summer, but the best memories are of my friend, Bill.
I have no idea how long Bill had worked there, but he been around a pretty good while. He was the assistant to our supervisor and to the dispatcher and he did a little of everything. I noticed early on that he wasn’t popular with some of the older men there and, one day, I asked my brother what the problem was. He told me they all thought Bill was gay. I don’t remember my exact response, but I think it was something along the lines of “Really?” Back in the 70’s, sheltered country boys like me thought all gay men were flamboyant characters like Liberace and Bill wasn’t like that at all, so I asked why they thought he was gay. Jeff said it was because he had roommate that was very effeminate, Bill never talked about having a girlfriend, etc. I never saw it happen, but I was told that if anybody questioned his sexuality, Bill would get angry and cuss them out. Even the rumor of being gay back then was not good. Not good at all.
I don’t know if Bill was gay or not. And, I didn’t care. What I did know was that Bill was my friend. If I was having a hard day, I could always count on him to make me laugh. More than once, when I was dragging I’d hear him yell “HOLLYWOOD!” to which I’d respond “BLONDES!” (the original Blondes were his favorite wrestling team) and it would lift my spirits on the spot. Bill was a good man and it sucks that, if he was gay, he had to hide it. And, if he wasn’t, it sucks that the atmosphere of the times made the accusation of homosexuality an insult. Over the years, I’ve known a lot of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and they all had one thing in common: they were just like anyone else. And, not one of them deserved the crap they had to put up with because of other’s ignorance. Bill was no different. If he had an agenda, it was the same as the rest of us: get through the day as best we could and maybe have a little fun. I only worked there that one summer; the hours didn’t work with high school and I moved to other jobs. Jeff left a couple of years later when he graduated from college. The bottling plant is closed, the building is part of the Coliseum complex now. It’s been 35 years since that summer and I lost track of Bill a long time ago. But, I’d give anything to him yell “HOLLYWOOD!” one more time.