By Fran Thompson
I have heard many a Billy Walker story during my 29 years putting together the local rag every two weeks. But I never could get Billy to agree to be interviewed for a story, although about five years back he gave me hope that he would consider it and get back to me. It was always going to be a longshot. But it would have been interesting.
The only time I sat down with Billy, who passed away on Aug. 11, was at the Loose Moose (now the Undertow) one weekday afternoon – maybe 20 years ago. Billy was sitting with our mutual friend, Earl Callaway and they invited me to join them. I later told Earl I felt like we were in the presence of the pope or Vito Corleone, as locals among the patrons, one after another, came over to pay respects to a man who was easily the sharpest dresser in the joint.
“In a sense, he was like The Godfather of Orange Beach,’’ said Ken Lambert, the first musician hired to play guitar at the Flora-Bama. A good friend of Billy’s since 1978, Lambert prayed with and for Billy and his family 30 minutes before he passed away.
“By the time I got back home, Lois Gale (Billy’s wife) had called to say he passed away,’’ Lambert said. “I know that when he went home, he did know Christ as his savior, and that is a comforting thing.’’
Lambert said Billy and his crew were among the Flora-Bama’s first regulars. And he also spent many hours drinking with Billy at Walker Marina.
“I will probably be part of the service and I’m thinking of all the things I don’t want to say,’’ Lambert said. “There are so many Billy stories out there about what an outlaw he was, and I know that’s all true.
“But in those days, we were all pretty wild. And there were times when we were not welcome drinking guests, even in our own homes. But what I remember most is that he was a big man with a big heart. You did not want him for an enemy. But if he liked you, you could always count on him to be a good friend. I will miss him.’’
Joe Gilchrist, who bought the Flora-Bama from the Tampary family in 1978 and is still part owner of the famous roadhouse (with John McInnis, Cam Price and Pat McLellan) recalls Billy as “one of the great characters of all time.’’ That’s high praise, since Gilchrist firmly believes that the characters who frequent the ‘Bama are the heart and soul of that unique bistro.
He said he met Billy’s mom the first week after he bought the Flora-Bama and she told him she was going to tell Billy to be nice to him.
“Then I meet this very imposing man, and the first thing he asks me is if I have insurance. I said, ‘sure I have insurance on the place,’ and he said he meant insurance for broken legs. We became great friends. He was a wonderful pal to have on your side.’’
Gilchrist said he once asked Billy to back him up while he tried to calm down a group of rowdies at the ‘Bama if his first plan – buying them all a drink – did not work. He said Billy left and came back wearing a trench coat into which he sewed pockets that held a knife, a pistol and a sawed off shotgun.
“I was standing behind him and just saw him open the coat,’’ Gilchrist said. “End of problem. I know this. It was always good to have Billy as your sponsor.’’
Billy Walker was the toughest man on an island that was full of them in the 1970’s. But I have never heard him referred to as a bully and I’ve heard numerous stories about him standing up for his friends and fellow Islanders who were not as big and tough.
“If he befriended you, he was warm and kind,’’ said Callaway, a player on Pleasure Island’s first youth football team.
“There was talk on the school bus about forming a football team on the island, but you had to be 70 lbs. to play,’’ Callaway said. “All the other kids on the bus were teasing me about only being 49 lbs. When I got home, I was all bummed out, and daddy (Ray) asked me what was wrong. I told him about the football team, and daddy said to just call Billy up. I didn’t even think to do that. But I did call, and Billy was just as sweet as he could be. He said I could play for him anytime. He didn’t care how much I weighed.’’
Callaway, who eventually would own Billy’s boat, The Sea Duster, said even after he joined the Orange Beach charter fleet, Billy looked out for him.
“The captains used to pull into the Gulf Gate Lodge between trips and grab lunch. This was during my rock ‘n roll years, and I had long hair,’’ Callaway said. “The other captains were kidding me about my long hair and asking me where my dress was when Billy said that every SOB in the place that doesn’t like Earl’s hair should put their hands up. Well, of course, none of them would do it.’’
Margaret Childress Long, Orange Beach’s official historian, used to take the school bus from Orange Beach to Foley with Billy. “I was in the first grade, and Eleanor Lauder was the school bus driver. We had a small bus. Did not have enough students for a big bus until “59. Some of the Walker cousins got into a fight in the back of the bus and started hitting each other and I heard someone say, ‘I am going to jerk your arm off and beat you with the bloody end of it.’ I got off the bus crying and ran up the hill to Brownie and Neil Lauder’s home. Brownie called some of the Walker boys’ mothers. Years later, I asked Billy if he was the one who said that. He said, ‘Well, it probably was me because that was one of my favorite statements.’
“We moved here in ’49,’’ Long added. “My brother Foster Childress and James Huff always talked about how helpful Billy was with fishing tips. Billy was a great fisherman and nice to everyone. Just don’t make him mad.’’
Gulf Shores native Joey Ward said on his facebook page that Billy was also his youth football coach, and he often fished with him on The Sea Duster.
“Over the years on the back of that old boat, I heard stories of great men and wild tales. They were stories of Gods. Bear Bryant, Kenny Stabler, Bobby Walker, Butch Frith, Mike Miceli, Niki Nguyen, the Callaways, Jerry Lowe – Coastal Outlaws in their time, bigger than life itself,’’ he stated. “I even got to fish with members of the Alabama football team.’’
Billy was recruited to Alabama to play football, and like his great friend Kenny Stabler, who graduated from Foley High eight years later, he was a lifelong Tide fan.
“He would reach around and hug you and make you feel like everything was going to be alright,’’ said Zana Price, Billy’s niece. “I can still picture the Thelma Ann or The Sea Duster coming into the marina – their motors purring. The smell of diesel fuel and fish being cleaned and the salt air. It puts you right back in time.’’
As Zana notes (right), Billy was born into a fishing family. His father, Rufus, died when he slipped and broke his neck while trying to surf a wave through Perdido Pass on the Sea Duster, a classic black cyprus boat, commissioned in 1935 for Rufus, and built by Daniel Callaway on land near where Orange Beach Baptist Church parishioners now worship.
A historical marker at Perdido Pass states that the Callaways and the Walkers were among the island’s first settlers. Lemuel Walker Sr. arrived around 1865, and his son, Lemuel Jr., moved here to take care of his aging father in the 1890’s. The Walkers and the Call aways worked together to develop the region’s first community center and established both mail service and the charter fishing industry on the island. Roland Walker Sr. was one of the first fisherman to experiment with artificial reefs and was instrumental in gaining state support for artificial reef construction. Callaways and Walkers dug a ditch through dunes connecting Terry Cove and the Gulf that blew open and created Perdido Pass after the hurricane of September 27, 1906.
Maybe a year ago, I was shopping in the Gulf Shores Winn-Dixie when a lady asked me where she could find one of the “In Mullet We Trust’’ shirts I was wearing, as her husband loved to mullet fish.
The lady introduced herself as Lois Gale Walker, and I told her it was a pleasure to finally meet the main character in my all-time favorite Flora-Bama story. Lois Gale said when she learned the story I referenced was in Kenny Stabler’s early 1970’s autobiography, she ran around Baldwin County trying to buy up all the copies. Gilchrist even has a name for the story: The Battle at the ‘Bama.
As Gilchrist tells it, Billy and Lois Gale were at the Flora-Bama back in the early 1970’s when a group of men made comments that Billy found inappropriate. A fight ensued, with all five of the men piling on top of Billy. Seeing her husband in peril, Lois Gale jumped on one man’s back. The man’s thumb ended up near Billy’s mouth, and the commotion that followed allowed Billy to free himself and whip all five of his opponents. Because he won the fight and there was a severed extremity to be accounted for, Billy ended up in court. The judge called Lois Gale to the witness stand to ask her if she saw Billy bite the man’s thumb off. “No Sir, but I did see him spit it out,’’ she answered.