William "Bill" Gill Wafer, 83, of Bennettsville died peacefully in his sleep at home in the early hours of Thursday, May 12. For a man who had spent years on the dramatic fringes of history and, later, medical uncertainty, it proved to be a bittersweet blessing. He never thought he would live so long, but his body proved to be as stubborn as his spirit. His tenacity in holding on as long as possible and in as much good humor as he could muster came as little surprise to the family that adored him.

Legend has it, Bill entered this world in the front yard of a non-descript company house in Gilbert, La., in the shade of a chinaberry tree. The location of his outdoor birth was probably not nearly as remarkable as the fact that he was the last surviving baby born into the family of nine children. It would be an experience that ensured he learned rank and file at an early age, as well as solidified a lifelong hatred of chinaberry trees.

While a student at Gilbert High School, Bill eagerly participated in FFA, where he learned how to castrate a rooster. It was a skill he took great pride in discussing, typically during a meal and almost always in front of pleasant company.

Bill was related to many characters, but perhaps the most inspiring was his cousin, Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, the ace pilot who started the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, better known as the “Flying Tigers.” To young Bill, however, he was simply “Uncle Claire.” During one of Claire’s visits back home to Louisiana, he received word he needed to go downtown to the town’s lone phone booth to take a call from Washington. Bill was invited to come along. There, in that phone booth, squeezed between an aviation legend and tempered glass, Bill stood quietly as the general took a call from President Franklin Roosevelt.

Bill’s ancestors fought in nearly every modern U.S. war, and military service was expected. In fact, his father fought in World War I, as well as against Pancho Villa. It was a tough act to follow, to be sure. Bill elected to join the Air Force. During his decade in radio communications, he served in the Korean War and achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant. Later, his work as a military contractor left him bouncing around the globe on missions that rivaled those of James Bond – from the deserts of Northern Africa to the jungles of Southeast Asia. His daughter-in-law once waited for a flight in an airport terminal in Kabul, Afghanistan where about fifty years before he had been stabbed and nearly killed during a mob attack. Like a cat, that was but one of his lives.

Over the years, he met President Eisenhower, flew over Antarctica and rode down the Mississippi River on a barge loaded with a NASA Saturn booster rocket in the early days of the Space Race. He lived all over the world, calling at least 40 countries home at one point or another. While in England, he acquired his first car – an Austin A-7 – from a man who wanted only Bill’s bicycle in trade. Bill would later judge the transaction as more than fair.

Those who knew Bill for any appreciable amount of time knew well he was a straight shooter with a distinctive personality. Ever a renegade, he was placed under house arrest on several occasions around the world. Guards in Beirut and Norway were moderately hospitable, he recalled. Those in Egypt, however, not so much. He was also pretty confident he was at one point a wanted man in Saudi Arabia following an unfortunate international incident involving, of all things, a camel.

After Bill left military contracting, he found himself drifting around the country, from job to job. He arrived in Bennettsville to work at the town’s radio station, WBSC. His swashbuckling days came to a screeching halt in 1966 when he was charmed by Miss Joan Caddell, a young teacher at Bennettsville High School. It was a union that led him to willingly, immediately, permanently drop anchor. He later took a position with the Marlboro Electric Cooperative, where he worked for nearly 30 years. The job provided for his growing family, and was far from staid. As the 1984 tornado ravaged Bennettsville, Bill left the safety of his home to brave the storm before the funnel cloud had even cleared the county line. His children didn’t see him for three days while he worked to help restore power. It was a scenario that played out again during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Natural disasters weren’t his only workplace hazard. His son once came home to see tire tracks across his father’s pants leg. Earlier that day, Bill’s unoccupied work truck had run over him due to a faulty brake. It was a story that delighted and amazed his coworkers at the Co-Op until his last day on the job when he retired as a system engineer.

Bill was an avid fan of John Wayne, who at this point, you probably understand was the only actor Hollywood had to offer alpha enough to earn his esteem. He loved Louisiana State University football and the couch-comforts of old Buicks. Never shying from the challenge of a far-flung road trip, he once braved a cross-country drive to California in a Buick station wagon packed with his three kids, wife and mother-in-law. His preferred vacation spot in later years, however, was in a camper at the Ocracoke Island Campground.

Bill blazed his own way in life, experiencing more of its spectrum than any one person has any right to expect. He was a self-made and thoroughly capable man, and a diligent and committed provider for his family. He had a strong moral compass, and wasn’t afraid to take the road less traveled. He had backbone and grit, and enjoyed boxed wine, typically, from a jelly jar. Up until his eye sight failed him, he read newspapers daily. He was curious about the world, and it showed in his intellect. He was kind to animals, especially his many cats. In later years, Bill was an unabashed curmudgeon, a role he embraced with equal parts crankiness and wit. He could be raunchy and charmingly vulgar. His smile was devilish and absolute pure gold. When you saw it, you knew you had just caught lightning in a bottle. It is just one of the multitudes of things that will forever be missed.

Bill is survived by his children, William G. Wafer, Jr. of Elgin, S.C., David Wafer (Kimberly) of Mooresville, N.C, and Zora Foster (Travis) of Chester, S.C.; sister Maxie Hardin of Dallas, Tex. and grandchildren, Cade Foster, Rayna Foster and Tallulah Wafer. He is predeceased by his beloved wife Joan Caddell Wafer.

A memorial service will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Bennettsville Monday, May 23 at 11 a.m. A private family burial is scheduled at the Cross Hill Cemetery in Carthage. 

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