Billy Martin was among those born to be remembered Had Billy Martin been a film maker, he probably would have found company with Woody Allen, Sean Penn, Orson Welles… those actor/directors that are said to star “on both sides of the camera.” He loved to tell stories and was frequently the subject of stories others liked to tell.
I grew up on the outskirts of Old Forge and, thanks to mobility issues inherent at that age, I was largely “cut off” from the kids and people that occupied “town.”
I had no visible neighbors to the left or right, and the woods beyond my backyard went forever. The Caprons, who would eventually settle across the street, had not arrived yet, so we faced a wall of trees out our front window.
Then, one day, a young man took residence diagonally across the street. Billy Martin was the only adult male I was able to observe regularly, other than my father, and his comings and goings animated the neighborhood.
Youth and inexperience had me first assuming Billy was typical. I mean, you don’t know till you know, right?
Billy was a good friend of my father’s and on some nights, when nothing good was on TV, my father would stand and grab the car keys: “I think I’ll see if the Billy Martin show is playing tonight,” which meant he was headed to town for at least an hour or two.
Bill told my father, who owned the bowling lanes on North Street, that he had starred for Tupper Lake’s football team.
One winter night, when the two were alone at the lanes, Billy had a hankering to demonstrate his grid-iron skills.
My father, who happened to have a “bar prop” football, joined him outside.
It was the wee-hours and the snow, by this time, had piled to about four inches on the street.
Billy took off from scrimmage, faking left, dodging right, shaking one imaginary defender after another.
He spread his arms to show he was “open,” and my father passed the ball. Billy caught it mid-stride and juked a third time before running the distance of North Street, fading into the dark and snow.
My father tracked Billy’s footprints, which zagged and stuttered. One could easily envision defenders lunging and coming up empty as Billy evaded one arm-tackle after another.
Once he got to Appleton’s Garage, Billy stopped. When my father eventually caught up, Billy was standing trophy-like under the street-light, snow falling gently, as he clutched the football, barely out of breath.
The moment was all very Vince Lombardi but for a minor glitch.
“Billy…,” huffed my father, who had followed the footprints.
“Your boots…,” he said.
“Your boots are on the wrong feet…”
One morning a bartender of ours, Dave, who was living with us at the time, got in his car to go to work. He threw the Opal in gear and backed from the driveway till it became “hung up.”
He pulled forward and reversed it again, this time harder.
He tried again, hitting the gas still harder. Dave’s head snapped as his car again jolted to a stop.
Finally Dave noticed Billy laughing his way toward him from across the street.
It turns out, Billy had accidentally stored one part of a rope on Dave’s axel and the other on a nearby tree.
The young Bill Martin was always up for challenge, no matter the variety. He once scaled my father’s 100-foot tower, without training or proper gear, to fix the bowling lanes’ TV antenna.
Another time he agreed to fill in by rinsing and bagging clams for the bowling lanes’ Friday Night Clam Special. He realized what he had gotten into when he was led to a lowly spot in the kitchen corner. After sitting on an overturned milk-crate for two hours, where he fished clams from a tub of cold water, Bill assessed his status in life. “I’m a shell of a man,” he concluded.
Many remember Billy as having pioneered the residential speed bump which, during one driveway test, landed him in the hospital with rib injuries.
[When friends visited and asked how he was feeling, Billy of course answered famously: “Run down.”]
Billy told me that while hospitalized he flicked on the TV and saw my father on “Bowling for Dollars” as a contestant. Before those bowlers took shots at the “jackpot,” it was customary to first say “hi” to some folks at home.
Like an Adirondack version of Babe Ruth promising to hit a homer for a polio-stricken kid, my father gave a shout-out to the hospitalized Billy Martin.
Then, he proceeded to fumble through his pants and shirt pockets, plucking scraps with other names he had jotted on the way to the studio… Napkins emerged, matchbook covers, register receipts…
Eventually, like Sally Field at the Oscars, the host cut him off.
Billy said he laughed wildly from his hospital bed, sore ribs and all.
I don’t know why Billy was reminded of that story every time he saw me, but he repeated it to me dozens of times, and each time he laughed till his eyes watered.
Bill was also a skilled operator of heavy equipment, and my father marveled at his dozer skills on several jobs he did for us.
Early on Bill worked for Hall & Lindsay. Later he started his business, Bill Martin Excavating, which he ran for over two decades.
One day, while in high school, I was spending some long hours painting the hull of my family’s tour boat. When I got to the low spots, I would pull up a chair to sit. Billy, who was bulldozing nearby, found the sight amusing. He pulled up, turned off the machine, leaned forward, and said, “We have to think of a career for you that you can do sitting down… How about a movie critic!”
“How about you and I just switch jobs,” I said.
His prediction was accurate, though, as I’ve spent nearly my whole work-life in a chair, hoping I turn out to be genetically resistant to blood clots.
My father always believed that the solitude of Billy’s bulldozer was where he honed his material—his stories, his jokes, his quips. And by the end of Bill’s work day he was always ready for an audience, which he seldom had trouble finding.