12.09.2015

Bill Hoyt

On a bleak morning in November, I found myself standing in Ivers & Alcorn funeral home on Main Street in Merced, California. It was the second time I’d been there in 8 months. The dense fog of the Central Valley was just starting to burn away as my cousins and I stood and greeted dozens of people arriving for my maternal grandfather’s funeral. Adolph Soto Tafoya passed away at 91 years old.

At this point, a man I’d never seen before marched right up to me, extended his hand, looked me square in the eyes and said “You must be Carlo’s son.” I was. I’m 6 feet tall, but with his steady voice, firm grip, and unwavering blue eyes, I felt as if this man towered over me. “I’m glad to meet you. And I’m sorry for your loss,” he went on. “Your grandfather was a great man.” This man’s name was Bill Hoyt.
Now, my grandfather was infamous for his storytelling. I spent countless hours listening to his accounts of being the youngest of 11 children. I memorized his stories about farming in the San Joaquin Valley during the tail end of the Great Depression. They were sprawling tales of hardship and first generation immigrant families coexisting and intermarrying, whether they were Mexican, Italian, Portuguese, or Japanese. My grandfather worked for a Japanese family that owned a large rice growing enterprise called Koda Farms, located in South Dos Palos, California. When the US Government came around to displace Japanese-Americans to internment camps, Keisaburo Koda handed the keys of his business over to my grandfather’s family to steward on their behalf. That alone is remarkable to me, and is always a reminder of what a different time it was.

My grandfather’s stories often involved his time serving in the 601st Bomb Squadron in the Army Air Corps in World War II. This is another fact which is an interesting historical marker to me. The “Air Force” proper didn’t even exist until 1947, but grandpa served in the Army Air Corps precursor from 1942 to 1945. He went in as an enlisted man and came out as a non-commissioned Staff Sergeant. He was stationed in England and would regale me and my cousins with the exploits of young men from vastly different walks of life pulling together for the common good. Looking back, it’s clear to me that he was always careful to whitewash all of the death and destruction he witnessed firsthand until we were older, allowing the stories to take on different meaning as they were repeated. They grew with maturity and nuance just as our ability to comprehend them did.
 
I heard stories about his return home, his occupations, and met his neighborhood crew on 10th street – full of colorful characters like Rojas, Amado, Elias, and Tony Vargas – where he and my grandmother Carmen Martini lived for over 50 years. They were an interracial couple when they married in 1947. My grandfather worked for years as a produce rep for a large company in Fresno, and some of my favorite memories were the days I got to tag along and make deliveries with him when I was about 5 or 6 years old. We would enter a restaurant or market through the back door, and it was straight out of a Scorsese film. The room would light up as he spoke a flurry of languages. My grandfather was a charismatic man, always smiling, and always telling a story. Even then, I got the sense that I was making memories, no longer just listening to his version of them, but an active participant. It was a fun time.

In my four decades of hearing these stories and living in that world, not once did I ever hear the name Bill Hoyt. At this point, my dad quickly joined the conversation and filled in the gaps in my knowledge. It turns out that Bill and my father are the same age, were childhood friends, classmates in high school, and had operated in overlapping circles of friends in their day. Bill volunteered “I learned a lot from him,” explaining that at one point he had worked directly for my grandfather. “I knew your grandmother Carmen too,” he went on. “Your grandparents were very special people.” I noticed my mom putting her hand on Bill’s shoulder as her eyes welled up, a small gesture acknowledging what he’d said about her parents.
My grandmother had unexpectedly passed away just 8 months prior, and I was worried about what these losses were doing to my mom in rapid succession, still so sick of people simply going through the motions and offering empty platitudes. But, Bill Hoyt wasn’t offering any empty platitudes. He chose his words in a deliberate manner and delivered them with a type of sincerity that erased any doubt in my skeptical mind. I turned to introduce this man to my wife and kids. He looked at us, and I mean he really looked, eyeing down to my 6 year old son, back up to me, and over to my dad. “You have a beautiful family,” he said to me. “It’s no surprise, you come from good people,” he said winking in my father’s direction. It was humbling to say the least.

I started thinking about this scene from the perspective of this man I’d just met, wondering what the view was like from Bill Hoyt’s corner of the universe. I imagined him waking up and readying himself for a 9:00am service, one of many he’d probably attended in his hometown. I imagined him driving to the funeral home not knowing who he might encounter. I imagined what would compel him to attend the funeral of a man he’d worked for in some capacity more than 50 years ago. I imagined him seeing a childhood friend he probably hadn’t talked to in 20 years (my dad), and I imagined him feeling the need to pay his respects to that man’s father-in-law. It all felt so far removed. It was the last vestiges of a small insular community where everyone had known everyone. It was another marker of a different time and place, where few people, save us grandchildren, had strayed very far from their beginnings.
It struck me how little we give people credit for their own history. 

There’s a human tendency to give less credence to the things we weren’t there to witness for ourselves; I’d even observed this in the professional workplace over the years and had called it the “if I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen” dynamic. My grandfather was 91 years old when he died. I was 41, which meant he would have just turned 50 years old at the time I was born. He’d lived an entire lifetime before I even took my first breath. There was 50 years’ worth of different experiences and different people that had left mutual impressions. My grandfather had clearly touched Bill Hoyt’s life in some meaningful way and had left a lasting impression. This small truth was magic to me at the time; it sort of buoyed my spirit in what was otherwise a dark time.

In the fog of emotions and conversations that day, one of my younger cousins leaned over to me and whispered “Who’s that?” I responded quickly, still a little stunned by the encounter, “Friend of my dad’s.” I followed that up with “He worked with grandpa.” I felt myself wince a little when I said it, like I’d somehow diminished the relationship they’d had, or was betraying the impression he’d just made on me. I liked Bill, instantly. Not just because he said nice things about people I cared about, but because of the way he said them. I liked the way this man talked. There was a simple assuredness to his tone. He spoke in fact, his own truth. I didn’t want to dismiss that feeling. It needed some kind of punctuation. I leaned back over to my cousin as guests continued to pore in, “His name is Bill Hoyt.”

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