Pilot Billie. I have always been tickled by the name “Pilot.” Wasn’t that the name of the guy in the Bible who sentenced Jesus to death? I often think maybe it had something to do with an airplane pilot. How he got the name Pilot I’ll never know. The people who named him are dead and gone.
Most of us know Pilot Billie as the youngest son of Suzie Jim Billie. I was born in 1944 and Pilot was born in 1946. We were childhood friends and we had a lot of fun together. And we are both still around. He was the first guy I remember playing around with as a kid. So, I’d like to honor Pilot Billie in my editorial this month.
I was born in that zoo that you all know about, and we had a camp over on what used to be known as the Dania Reservation. We lived right behind where the Native Village is. It was a high terrain and there was a big sandy bluff out there. Below the bluff was a kind of lake that was basically the end of the high tide – when the ocean came through the river it would wind up in that lake and at low tide it would run on out. Anyway, that’s where we used to get our fish and eat manatees and all that kind of stuff.
There was one particular time, when I was, like, 5 years old – old enough to remember quite a bit of it. See, I used to run around naked when I was a kid, around my camp. And so did Pilot. He would run around naked, too. It was a standard thing. I mean, who were we supposed to hide from?
Pilot’s family must have been living down on the Trail and had recently come up to a camp close to us. I was out here walking around in the sand. It must have been cool weather during that particular time.
Now, some of the drunk Indians would try to drive into camp and would come through this road that wasn’t anything but sand. Then they’d get stuck in that sand and the tires would dig in deeper if they tried to drive it out. On this day, I noticed as I was walking through that sand that no vehicles were coming. Since it was wintertime, the sun had heated up the sand and you could lie in that sand, cover your legs up and your body up and feel nice and warm.
So here I was lying in one of those tire tracks, when along comes this young boy and he was naked, too. So he and I started chatting. I told him “Lie down, I want to put sand on you.” I covered his legs. And he thought it was good. So every day – I don’t know how long this went on – we would come out there around noontime and play in that sand, covering up our bodies and feeling so warm.
And that’s how I first met Pilot Billie. I didn’t realize at the time that he had a little problem. We always had a lot of fun and his little problem never really got in the way of our fun.
At that particular time, whatever year it was, Hank Williams Sr., or somebody that sounded like him, was singing a song that went something like this: Chewin’ tobacca, chewin’ tobacca, chewin’ tobacca rag pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING!
At the end of the verse the singer made a sound like he was spitting.
Every day when we’d see each other, that is the first song that we’d start singin’: Hey Pilot! Chewin’ tobacca, chewin’ tobacca, chewin’ tobacca rag pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING, pffut-DING. We’d roll in the sand and laugh our tails off.
So this went on for quite a while. He would come to my camp and eat and I would go to his camp where Suzie was. And we would play over there. Then my mother took me down to Tamiami Trail and I didn’t see Pilot for a while. By now I was getting up to be 6-7 years old. When we saw each other, he couldn’t talk very well. But that was always our greeting. Hey Pilot! How you been? Pffut-DING!
Today if I ran into him that would be the first darn thing that he and I would do.
After I went to Vietnam and came back, I noticed he had a little problem. I had a funny feeling that he might die on me, but he didn’t and he is still around today at that camp in Big Cypress where Suzie Jim Billie used to live. You can see him at Big Cypress Hot Meals.
So, from that point on, when I saw people who had little physical problems like he did, I never had a problem going up there and chatting with them. I learned that when I meet someone who is a little different – they may be autistic or somehow different – I always try to find a little niche, something that makes the person happy, and I start my conversation that way.
Pilot Billie is still here today and he looks good. He looks healthy. I just wanted to remember and honor him. The reason why I was remembering him is I just turned 70 on March 20 and, lying around just thinking about different people, I remembered special times when I was a little kid. And a lot of those times, Pilot was there with me.
Hear that woodpecker (Chunh-cha-kee)? He is warning me that I am going to have a visitor or visitors. When I was a kid about 3, 4, 5, 6 years old, whenever I heard the woodpecker sing like that I would run down the canal bank and look up the road and … no visitors. So one day I got aggravated with that, so I went and asked my grandmother: “Hey Grandma, that woodpecker’s singin’ again and there’s no visitors.” My grandmother looked at me: “Well, you know he’s warning you about a visitor. But he didn’t say it was going to be a human being. It might be a snake, or spiders or a big ol’ bear!”
James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.