By Caroline Heerwagen
Photos by Todd Blubaugh and Sean Duggan

This is a story about my friend Bill Buckingham, but more on that later. 

At midnight on January, 1st 2016, many of us kissed our loved ones, filled with hope and the thought, "this is our year." Well. I think we know how that turned out. Just days in, it became clear that it was indeed not anyone’s year. Because we, as a civilization, have all lost something this year. Whether it was our right to clean water, our fight for change, revolution, or Feminism. Whether we lost the person we looked up to as a kid, who made us feel okay for being weird, or black, or gay, or whether we lost our best friend, our father, or our husband. This was the year of Syrian refugees and the nightclub in Orlando. The year of Trump vs. Hillary, the Dakota Pipeline, and Brock Turner. We have all been through the ringer, and for what? So we could live in a world where sexism and xenophobia is okay, but David Bowie doesn’t even exist anymore?

When one of the owners of Animals Mag approached me about writing a piece they said it could be about whatever I wanted. So I chose to write a piece about Bill, and what losing him and the half dozen other people in the Los Angeles chopper community has felt like this year. I chose that. But upon sitting down to write it I realized I had really handed myself a terrible burden. I wrote, or started to write, about 5 different pieces, and deleted all of them. How could I possibly be responsible for communicating something that so many of my closest friends had gone through, with their own experiences and their own feelings? How could I possibly write an essay on it as if I owned it, or am even going through a fraction of what some of my most beloved friends are? How can I relay the feelings that each of us have experienced with these, or all of these losses and events? 

And why, oh why, did I say that I would? 

The truth is, there’s no way to write this without leaving something important out, or missing the point completely, so I’ll just write about Bill, and why losing someone you love dearly changes the shape of your thoughts. 

I’ll start by explaining that I don’t like very many people. I grew up a “Navy Brat” with change as the only constant, and an upbringing like that one can at times produce a wary person (me). I admit it begrudgingly, but it’s true, and without that fact the story doesn’t mean anything because it’s where the story starts for me. 

I admit that it takes me awhile to warm up to people, if I ever do at all. I admit that I don't give great first impressions; I've been told many times that the first impression gathered was that I was a bit of a bitch. I won’t say it’s not entirely true. For a person who writes so often about the human experience, I’m fairly good at guarding myself from it on a daily basis. It’s a shortcoming and I’m not proud of it.

But, there are always some people who have a way of bringing out the best in everyone simply by letting them be who they are without judgement. I think for most of us, when it comes to those special people you meet, and if I can speak for anyone, Bill was one of the best examples you could think of. For me, there’s hardly a better one. And the few times I have met a “Bill” in life, that person has ended up meaning a lot to me. I don’t think I ever told him that. 

Bill was my boyfriend Sean’s best friend for over 20 years. They were the best man at each other’s wedding(s), and raised their kids together. The history between the two of them was palpable, and stemmed from an attitude and energy toward life I’ve never seen before. You couldn’t really love one without loving the other. I certainly couldn’t.

Sean and Bill were motorcycle enthusiasts, and complete enablers of each others’ enthusiasm. They would collect as many rare parts and engines as they could, and the majority of their lives as friends, from what I’ve ever been able to gather, was spent around them, or on them. They especially liked the really old ones, the ones that broke down a lot, and spent a lot of time on the side of the road together figuring out how to get going again. 

Their cheery dispositions lent very well to this kind of habit, as I never saw either one of them get too frustrated about a breakdown, whether it was an engine or a life event. They just laughed their matching laughs, that boomed across any and all open spaces, and got to work. I think it was a part of the fun. 

When I met him, I knew immediately who he was, and we became fast friends through the mutual agreement that we loved Sean. He was so important to both of us, and the connection I had with my partner wasn’t dissimilar to the one they had; deep and unmoving. We’d both do anything for him. So we got along, and I never felt like I had to put up a wall when he was around. In this way, he became one of my greatest allies. A safe place in a sometimes emotionally dangerous world for me. 

I watched the way he was with people; enduringly kind, and emphatically positive. Everyone was doing their best. Everyone needed a chance. Bill was known for hiring some of the lowliest guys around to work for him. I think he liked giving people who didn’t get a chance anywhere else a shot with him. I think he felt a kinship with people on their last leg, having grown up an outcast person himself, if even by choice. 

The couple of times I confided in Bill about some frustration or other with Sean, he would just nod and laugh at his best friend’s shortcomings, neither confirming or denying them, as if to say, yes, but don’t you just love him for it? 

When he died in the early hours of August 27th on his knucklehead chopper, I think we all felt lost. Bill was the kind of guy who worked a night shoot, then a day shoot, then slept a couple hours, to wake up at 5am and ride a motorcycle all day. He was invincible, until he wasn’t, and I still can’t figure it out sometimes. 

These things happen. They happen to everyone at some point or another, and then the question becomes, what do you do without Bill? What do you do without that laugh and that kindness? The world obviously changes, and things you didn’t question you start to. I stopped riding my motorcycle, and asked Sean to write a will. I asked if we could move all of our motorcycles out to our property in Joshua Tree. Because if Bill could go, were any of us safe… ever? 

Of course, as time passes some of that does too. I stopped having heart palpitations every time Sean started up his chopper, but I still haven’t ridden mine in LA, and I wonder if I will again. I’m not a very paranoid or overly cautious person, but I find myself thinking about what it would be like to get the call that Bill’s wife got in the middle of the night. I wonder if I would be as strong as she has seemed to me, or if I would become bitter and lost in loneliness. 

It is impossible to know for sure, but these shifts and the perspectives that come with them can be some of the most important you have in your life. In fact, as far as I can figure Bill’s death has been the most sobering and life-changing event I have gone through. Though I can’t say it’s made me an entirely different person, I still have reservations about people I meet, and have to constantly work on being warmer towards them, I can say it’s never been so clear to me that I must. Never has it been so clear to me that the hundreds of people weeping at Bill’s memorial had one thing in common; they had all been handed warmth and kindness from this singular person, and they would all miss him. This legendary cool guy with award winning choppers and epic argyle pants was not just someone our community looked up to for being a pioneer, he was also everyone’s friend. 

I looked around that event and realized that if I didn’t take what Bill had given me and hand it back to the people I met in my life going forward than all of it was pointless. That’s what this year has really been to me. A wakeup call. A fog horn in the dark calling me to look up and see clearly that there is no other time than now to be kinder to each other. That everyone is doing their best. Everyone needs a chance. 

In maritime culture, it is considered ill omened to set sail on a Friday. They call it “dies infaustus", bad luck day. As it so happens, January 1st of 2016 was a Friday, and the luck we’ve had seems to prove the point; that the universe doesn’t play favorites with the people we love the most, that grief is the price we pay for love, and that still love wins out. No matter how much we pay up or pay out for it, that is our choice, and it seems to me that the majority of people always choose to love regardless of the consequences. I still choose love, and now more than ever. Bill gave me that.

We’ve all lost something this year. Just in our small community we’ve lost Bill Buckingham, and Dave Frey, and Rich Dodds, and Adam Jacobson, and Chris Garcia, and Goose, Luz, and so many others I don’t know by name. We grieve these losses, raise a flag to remember, and sail forward.