Billy Woolverton finds his way back to his long lost family
This story was originally published almost 10 years ago in “The Blue Room.” This January marked the 10 year anniversary of Billy Woolverton being reunited with his family. I recently heard from Billy, who is still doing well in Texas, and I thought it was an appropriate time to remember his amazing story.
When Billy Woolverton picks up the phone in Azle, Texas, on a mid-January morning he’s doing something he hasn’t done in a handful of years.
“Can you hang on just a second?” he asks in the unmistakable drawl of a polite southern gentleman. “I’ve gotta turn the T.V. down. I’m watching the Dukes of Hazard.”
“Sure,” I tell him, picturing the well-worn lines of his weather beaten face, the soft curls of his auburn hair and the contagious smile that crinkles his eyes in the corners, as he lowers the volume on his sister’s television set.
He sounds at ease as he settles himself into the couch while he recounts the events that led him back to the sister he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years and the mother he was ripped away from as a toddler and had long thought dead.
Until September 2005, Billy called a self-made campsite adjacent to the railroad tracks along Portland, Maine’s, Ocean Avenue his home. He certainly didn’t enjoy the luxury of television, but had built his sturdy Styrofoam tent with the help of home insulation, which helped to keep him warm in almost any weather. He built a fire nightly and fashioned a clothes line to dry his laundry. An alarm system created from tin cans alerted him to intruders and animals.
Billy gathered water from a nearby warehouse on the weekends when nobody was around, ate meals at the Preble Street Resource Center and spent his days walking, reading and writing, his lean body and homemade walking stick a well recognized presence on the streets of Portland. Generally a good-natured person, Billy often hummed tunes as he walked, singing songs by Canned Heat and Willie Nelson while he trekked some 15 miles per day.
Billy, 52, was surviving. He came to Portland during the 1990s on a tip from a fellow traveler after hitchhiking across the country. He hated staying at the shelter and rarely did so for fear of catching a cold or the flu. Billy was not homeless by choice, but homeless by circumstance (he lost both his apartment and his job) and carried an ache in his heart from a tumultuous childhood.
While minding his own business one day, Billy was approached outside of the Wayside Soup Kitchen about participating in a play written and performed by the local homeless population. The play was headed up by Dolores Vail and sponsored by the Maine Council of Churches. Billy says he’d always wanted to help break the stereotype that homeless people somehow deserved the unfortunate predicament they were in. He saw the play as a vehicle to achieve his goal. A gifted writer in his youth, he decided to give it a shot and eagerly agreed to participate, thinking, “at least I’ll get a free meal.” That casual decision put Billy on a path that helped lead him back home, both spiritually and physically, and he said goodbye to the people whose unwavering friendship sustained him through Maine’s long, cold winters.
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to tell you good folks that as of tomorrow I will be on my way back to the great state of Texas. I have had to promise, no more riding freight trains, no more hitchhiking and absolutely no more dumpster diving. I guess I will have to settle for a Chevy pick-up and a hunting dog riding on the toolbox. I appreciate everything you folks have done for me. You folks shall always be in my heart.
He listened to his friends tell their stories about how they came to live on the street, then he went home to his campsite and wrote down what they had told him, quickly producing the play’s first script. Billy hadn’t written since the 1980s when he had a few poems published; now his words flowed freely.
“I started scribbling notes,” he recalls, “and I came up with a poem about the soup kitchen.”
That story formed the basis for the play, “Hear Our Stories; Know Our Names,” which received immediate attention for the raw issues it exposed. Billy was recognized for co-writing and starring in much of the production.
Though he knew the play was a gem, he says he wasn’t sure it would last more than a few performances. Two years later it was still going strong. For Billy the play was more than a vehicle to jumpstart his writing, it led him to a family he wasn’t sure existed. Kidnapped from his teenage mother at the tender age of 2, Billy had all but given up hope of seeing his mother and sister again.
However, two thousand miles away, a woman from Texas named Shanna Adams had been looking for Billy for years, entering his name into Google on an almost daily basis, praying she would get a hit. One day a picture popped up alongside information about “Hear Our Stories, Know Our Names.” Shanna was certain that one of the men in the picture was her half-brother. Stolen from her mother more than a dozen years before she was born, Shanna had never met the older brother her mother referred to as “Billy Boy.” Acting on gut feeling, she called the Maine Council of Churches and explained that she believed Billy Woolverton was her half brother.
As a child Billy began to suspect that something was amiss in his family.
“I remember thinking, I don’t look like anyone, I don’t have the same hair and I’m a different height,” he says.
Billy couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right; one day while rummaging through a drawer, at age 11, his suspicions were confirmed. He discovered two different birth certificates for himself and several faded black and white photos, it was then he realized he was adopted. Because of the circumstances surrounding his adoption, Billy’s parents remained tight-lipped about how he came to be their son.
“When I found the birth certificates and pictures it basically caused an avalanche,” he says. “That mountain that everyone leaned on caved in. I was so close to the truth.”
The truth, however, was something his adoptive parents (an aunt and uncle on his biological father’s side) weren’t going to give up easily. Questions about what happened to his real parents were met with harsh beatings and finally reform school. By age 15 Billy ran away from home for good, beginning a 34-year transient lifestyle.
He eventually learned that his biological father kidnapped him and his sister Julia Sue from their teenaged mother in Houston. The children were then each deposited with a different family member to be raised in Dallas.
And as quickly as he scooped them up from their lives in Houston, their father was gone, memories of their mother faded and like children tend to do, Billy and Julia Sue adjusted to their new surroundings and to their new relationship—as cousins. The facts of their early lives clouded over like a fog settling into their brains or brief flash of memory that almost feels imagined. Because they were in fact kidnapped, details surrounding the incident were kept secret.
“Mom was an intelligent woman,” Billy says of his mother’s attempts to locate him and Julia Sue, “but she was just a child herself, there was no legal recourse back then.”
This past summer Billy was using the computer at the Maine Council of Churches to type up some of his poetry, as he did a few times a week, when Administrative Assistant Sandi Buzzell began to ask him a series of strange questions. She asked about his eyes, his hair and his astrological sign and then she asked Billy to come into her office and sit down. There weren’t any chairs, so he leaned his tall frame on an old bookcase.
“A woman called from South Texas,” Billy remembers hearing, “and she says she’s your half sister.”
Impossible, Billy thought to himself, I don’t have a half sister.
“I got defensive,” he admits. “Then Sandi looked at me and said, ‘is your mom’s name Margie Sue?’ I just started bawling, and she said, ‘your family’s found you.”‘
The soon to be future, finally meeting my mother and family after all of these years will be a big change for me. I grew accustomed to bouts of loneliness and solitude, which I hope I put to good use writing and performing on the stage. I will miss the people and the southern Maine outdoors. But, fortunately, I will not miss the stature, homelessness and unemployable, and the ghosts of past addictions.
“I couldn’t get any sleep that night,” Billy says of hearing the news, “I was so amazed, it was unbelievable.”
He had long assumed his mother was dead and would often look up to the sky and talk to her when he was lonely or scared. Because the old photographs he had found as an 11-year-old boy showed him as a baby in the arms of a much older woman, Billy never realized his mother was just 15 years older than him. He later learned that the woman in the photos was his mother’s great aunt.
“The first thing I said is, ‘mom is that you?”‘ he says, recalling their first phone conversation. After a short silence an emotional voice came through on the other end of the line.
“Yes, baby. It’s me.”
A dam of emotion was released and Billy cried a cathartic river, more he says, than he had cried in 30 or 40 years.
What I can say, is suddenly having a family and knowing you are returning home…I wish other folks could enjoy the true spiritual pleasure and know that someone has always cared, for so many years, and never given up finding their dear loved ones. That is the main problem of the streets. That is the bigger problem of the homeless…no spirituality and no community ties and no family. Everyone in this world feels the human need to belong. Money, drugs, alcohol (or) running with the pack does not replace the inner feeling of not belonging.
In the weeks that followed that phone call, Billy talked with Shanna and Margie Sue constantly and finally decided to make his way home. At his going away party thrown by the cast of “Hear Our Stories, Know Our Names” at the Village Café he equated the next chapter of his life to jumping out of an airplane. Gifts were given, a pair of Boston Red Sox anklets, tears were shed and one last supper was shared.
Billy arrived in Silsbee, Texas, in late summer and spent three months with his mother in her condemned trailer, destroyed during Hurricane Rita. During Christmas he moved to Azle to live with Julia Sue Hare, the sister he grew up thinking was a cousin.
And while Billy once said writing and poetry were simply getting him out of the woods, now he plans to use it as a vehicle to help his mother. A book of his poetry will be published this month with the help of the Woodford’s Congregational Church. He has also reconnected with his daughter Tina, who he had left behind when she was a child in California. For now Billy’s busy healing old wounds, but he admits he’s not sure what’s next. However, he’s not ruling out a return to Portland someday, if only for a visit.
“I’m not sure about the future,” he says. “I wanted to come down here and get to know my family. I’m kind of mystified by it (this experience). It’s something new everyday, especially after living outside for so long. Now I’m sitting inside, watching T.V. and petting this cat.”
I hope you folks will enjoy the poems, the writings and the scribbles, I must be moving on. Thanks to Carrie Buntrock Moore for giving me the flyer for the homeless drama. Without you darling, all this good, which I feel blessed, would not be possible. The rest of the cast…remember I will be hitting the typewriter and the computer and whipping my family into shape to film and record me. So, I doubt I will have time to be bored. I have faith in all of you. Yes, my parting to you all will be like putting on roller skates to go on the ice rink. But remember, you must crawl out of the tent before you can walk.
Sincerely love and eternal good wishes, long prayers
Your Tejas actor, performer, writer, playwright, poet
Billy Lee Woolverton