Cousin Bill Hilton died in his sleep on February 21, a few months after reaching 70. The men in my immediate family don't last very long, especially when we don't take care of our remarkable fragile shells.
One of my earliest memories is of Cousin Bill. As a very young child, while snooping around his house, I came upon a pack of Q-Tips®. I had no idea what they were and asked my 12-year-older cousin to explain them to me.
"Grownups use these to clean stuff out of cracks and holes," he said, demonstrating on his ear. Then, he bent the swab in half. "You have to break them before you throw them away. If you don't, they take them out of the garbage and sell them back to you!" I asked Bill this past summer if he remembered telling me that. He laughed and said he didn't. Still, more than a half-century later, I cringe whenever I see a discarded, yet unbroken cotton swab.
My next clear memory of Bill was made a decade later on a deep, winter morning when he showed up at our door early on a Saturday after a heavy overnight snow. He was headed "to the dump on Kosar's Hill" and wanted to know if we had anything to get rid of. We did not.
He then asked me if I wanted to come along. Now, I had heard plenty of stories about my Cousin Bill in general and his driving in particular. He was reckless. Dangerous. He ruined cars. Destroyed property. Injured passengers. "A danger and a detriment on the highway." That was Bill.
Naturally enough, I jumped at the chance. Ignoring the very real concern that was plain on my mother's face, I pulled on my coat and climbed into his car, a Chevy Corvair (you know, the vehicle deemed "unsafe at any speed").
Bill had a cast on his right arm—he said the result of some bar fight—but it didn't seem to interfere with his ability to drive. We spun our way down Teifer, around Third, and up Midway to head south on Route 18. We had to wind down the windows a bit to "keep the air moving" so things wouldn't fog up as we went. I don't recall going particularly fast, we were in a Corvair, after all. I do remember sliding around every corner we took as we drove through Conneaut Lake Town, sticking to 18, towards Hartstown.
For those of you that don't know, what we knew as "Kosar's Hill" was the north-eastward facing slope of a steep ridge of sand and gravel a couple miles south of Conneaut Lake. Right before the crest there was a road to the left that led up to an old, abandoned gravel pit. In that pit was the dump. Nothing formal, mind you, just a collection of trash and unwanted, worn out appliances.
Once there and after discarding his trash, we found an old TV set. Bill said we had to take the time to break the picture tube. Awkwardly, with his left hand throwing the rock because of the cast on his right. That task complete, we began our trip home. Down the hill and out onto the highway, towards Town.
My cousin bragged about how good his little car was in the snow. "Watch this," he said as he turned left from the roadway, out into the open field that was the Conneaut Lake Airport. We barreled along, picking up speed. There was well over a foot of snow on the ground, blowing up and around us. We had to close the windows to keep the stuff outside the car.
The Corvair rattled its protests. Bill raised his voice a bit. "We have to jump a ditch at the end to get back on the roads. You might want to grab hold of something!" A completely unnecessary statement seeing that I already had a death-grip on both door handle and dashboard.
The ditch came up, looking like the Grand Canyon to me. We jumped it and skidded broadside, facing north, onto the appropriately-named Free Road. We took it, past Dio Yost's, to 285, into Town, and back to the east side. "Crack your window. We're fogging up, again."
But Bill didn't take me straight home. We took a left at Iroquois, down over the hill to Cherokee, then Konneyaut Trail to the lake, and then wound our way along the unplowed back roads. Along the lakefront at Hazel Park, behind the houses there on Edgeview, that now-closed little road that went up the hill by Harned's. A left on Center, to Shady, to Fourth, to Lakeview, to Second, to Bank, to First, to Oakland, with Bill steering and shifting and laughing and grinning the whole way.
At Oakland, we spun onto the property that once held the hotel, pausing at the very top of the hill to take in the view.
"I've always wanted to drive a car down a flight of stairs," said my cousin who, by now, I was well convinced was completely nuts. He edged the Corvair down to the main set of steps closest the Lake, then reconsidered. "We'll get stuck at the landing. Let's try the other." We backed away and sidled to the single set of southern concrete steps. Down we went, slowly and kitty-cornered and sort of scraping bottom.
Then, we sped back to First around the bend on Oakmere, and up the hill to Pine Ridge which dead-ended at a cliff too steep, even for Cousin Bill. He swore, cookied us around and headed back down Pine Ridge and onto Oakmere where his faithful and surefooted Corvair finally lost its grip and broke loose. Bill yanked the hand brake and we skidded to stop, mere inches to spare between the nose of our ride and a telephone pole.
Bill looked at me, deadpanned. "That's why they call it an 'emergency brake.'"
That tiny mishap broke the spell. He had me home within a few minutes. He came inside to say "Hi-Bye," like he did for the rest of his life. Dad was up by then. Both of my parents were visibly relieved to have me home in one piece.
"How'd it go?" One of them asked.
Back from the biggest adventure of my young life, I shrugged. "Fine. There and back."
Cousin Bill shot me that fierce, predator's grin. The one I'll never get to see again.
Isn't it funny, what sticks with you?
Since then, I've done lots of stupid stuff in cars. Not so much driving fast (which can kill you dead). But driving in places I have no purpose being. Burying VWs in the snow so far off the road that the tow-truck driver looks at you in wonder. Taking Plymouths up dry creek beds and desert sands and running over so many creosote bushes that the cars smell like railroad ties. Sticking Hondas so deep in the mud that you don't think you're ever going to get them out. Plus, I know, for an absolute fact, that I am the very last person in the world to take a Ford Escort Station Wagon along the lake at Hazel Park and up past the Harned place.
I'd like to think, impossible as it might be that, maybe, once or twice, when at my most stupid, I could have been able to get my crazy cousin to grab hold of the door handle and the dash.
And during every winter, with every snow storm, I am compelled to go out for a drive—even it's nothing more than a simple 'round the block. And even if I'm all alone I'm never by myself because, you see, my Cousin Bill is always along for the ride.
top of page
Questions, comments, suggestions? Please email me!