Now, all of us have our own kind of drive, but little brother Bill was off the charts. Even at a young age he had boundless energy. It took a mother, a grandmother, three sisters and a brother to keep up with him. He had an insatiable need to know what made things run, so he took apart radios, televisions, anything he could find that had mysterious workings on the inside. He checked out stacks of books from the library, hoping to find out the secrets of the world, only to stash them under his bed when his mercurial interest shifted to something else.
I’ve known a few people in my life with this kind of intense drive. And when they were kids, that drive consumed them so much that it resulted in an unchecked overflow of mischief. Mama knew this and tried to keep him occupied with guitar lessons, baseball, singing to old folks in nursing homes, even Judo. She encouraged him to get odd jobs, yard work and bagging groceries at Big Star.
But, despite her efforts and earnest prayers, Bill just had too much energy and it often made him test the boundaries.
Some of his boundary testing happened at home. At the age of 6 he made himself a hangman’s noose to play “cowboy.” My grandmother caught him as he stepped onto the stool underneath the noose, saving him from accidental death. We weren’t allowed to have Cokes very often, so Bill snuck under mama’s bed to drill holes in the hidden cans, siphoning off the forbidden fluid. We had an old well on the farm. Bill poured two gallons of gas down it and threw in some M-80s, resulting in a cannon-like explosion that knocked him and his friends out cold.
Some of Bill’s energy resulted in public shenanigans. His rock band got thrown out of the basement of the dress shop on the square (their practice space), because they would intentionally crank their amps up to disturb the little old ladies buying dresses on the floor above. I also heard tell of a re-location of the Shoney’s Big Boy statue to the 50-yard line of the Carrollton High School football field. Bill Gentry engaged in his share of harmless pranks.
But one night, trouble came looking for him.
He was in a high school rock band that practiced in a two-room shack down the road from our house. There was electricity there — enough for guitar amps, so that’s where they practiced. One night they were wailing through the greatest hits of the 80’s, when a stranger walked in the front door. He had a bad cut on his arm and was gushing blood. The boys offered to take him to the hospital. They took Bill’s car.
Bill said it was obvious the guy was doing some kind of crazy drugs. He kept ranting, “I’ll get the people that did this to me.” Once they got on the road, the stranger insisted on going to his mother’s house instead of to the hospital.
He directed Bill down a lonesome dirt road. There was a small house at the end. The stranger got out and rummaged around in a woodpile. He came back to the car with a butcher knife and pressed it into Bill’s side. “You’re going to take me to find those people, or I’m going to kill you. Now get into the house.” Bill went into the house. They were in there for a long time. The other boys stayed in the car outside.
By now, the stranger’s mother drove up. Bill’s friends told her what had happened, how her son had a knife on Bill inside. She went in and the stranger tossed the knife behind the couch. Bill made a hasty exit and jumped into his hand-me-down Pinto. In the earlier confusion Bill had left his lights on and the car sputtered and wouldn’t start. Bill said, “It was like a horror movie.”
Finally, the car engine turned over and they got away as quickly as they could. When they got home, they called 911. They rode with the deputies to ID the guy and long story short, the stranger went to jail and the boys, although shaken up, were unharmed. I’m glad to say, on that scary night, mama’s prayers paid off.
Her prayers are still paying off all these years later. Somehow, Bill has grown into that relentless drive — harnessing it and making it serve him. He’s done well out in the world, first selling papers door to door, then opening a data company, then a country music club. But where his drive has really paid off is in his dream of becoming a Nashville recording artist. I guess that’s what has made me proudest, because the odds were the greatest to overcome.
He’s still full of drive. Full-to-spilling-over. You can see it in action tonight at the amphitheater in Carrollton. The concert starts at 7:30 and brother Bill will take the stage with blue eyes blazing, that energy spilling out for all of us to enjoy.
Gentry, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.