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Displaced: They Call Me Willie

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“They call me Willie,” he said as he got into my truck. Beard to his chest; long hair once red, turned blonde, turned white; red bandana headband—there is no question as to how 76-year-old Wallace Thompson earned this nickname. But Wallace’s connection to outlaw country musician Willie Nelson extends beyond his physical appearance: murder, prison, lost love. Some of his stories are likely apocryphal, some all too real, but Wallace’s narrative sounds like a song on Willie Nelson’s 1975 concept album, Red Headed Stranger.

Willie’s earliest memories are of living in an orphanage in Knoxville, Tennessee. He says his parents were unable to take care of him as a young child due to his father’s active military service, so they took him to live with his aunt. “My momma had a sister that worked at an orphanage home in Knoxville,” Willie explains. “[Momma] took us there to take care of us, because the military didn’t do the stuff they do now—taking care of families. She took us there, and my aunt was a drunk. As soon as we got there, she went on to another place.”

Willie stayed in the orphanage. One of the favorite pastimes of the kids in the orphanage was imagining that passing cars belonged to the family that was coming to adopt them. “We’d watch cars come and go under a trestle,” Willie explains. “Especially the people that didn’t have a family, and some sharp car would come through, and we’d say, ‘Well, I got to go, that’s my daddy coming’—nobody knowing who it really was.” Willie says he eventually got into trouble in the orphanage and was transferred to a juvenile correctional facility in Nashville, Tennessee. When Willie was released, he returned to live with his parents in Macon and to attend Dudley Hughes Vocational School. Willie says he stayed in school only until he was old enough to drop out and began working as a brick mason.

I ask Willie if he has ever been married. “I had one gal,” he explains. “I started dating her when I was about 16, probably the only girl I would have ever married. She had a motorcycle.  I could wake her up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Let’s go to Miami,’ and we were gone [on our motorcycles].” Willie says his girlfriend was killed while riding her motorcycle one night. “Guy run a red light,” he explains.

Willie has been in and out of prison most of his life. In fact, he says that he is currently on parole (it is unclear if Willie is actually on parole or probation; he uses the terms interchangeably), lifting his pant leg to show me his ankle monitor. “I’ll wear this for the rest of my life,” he says.   The most significant time he has served in prison was for his involvement in two shootings. The first happened at Grant’s Lounge in Macon. Willie says that while he and his friend Randall were there drinking one night, a drunken patron, passing by Willie several times, repeatedly bumped into him. “He just about knocked me out of my chair,” Willie says. “The next time he runs into me, I’m going to do something to him,” Willie recounts saying to his friend Randall. “He bumped into me again,” Will continues, “and I cut him with a hawkbill knife in the stomach.” After Willie cut the man, he and Randall tried to leave Grant’s Lounge, but the bouncer stopped them. “The bouncer jumps up and tells us, ‘Y’all ain’t going nowhere, the police are coming.’” “Randall said to the bouncer, ‘You better get out of the way.’ [The bouncer] said, ‘I ain’t worried about a gun,’ and showed us where he’d been shot once. Randall said, ‘You don’t have to worry about one no more either,’ shoots and kills him.” Willie says he and Randall fled but were soon in police custody.

The second shooting once again involved Randall and an incident in which Willie himself had been shot one year earlier. Willie says he was in a pool hall with Randall the previous year, and a man who had intended to shoot Randall in an act of revenge accidently shot Willie. “He just come in [to the pool hall], and he was shooting at that table because that’s where Randall was sitting.” Willie took a bullet in the chest and lost a lung. Fast forward one year: Willie was in a pool hall formerly located on Broadway near Poplar, and he sees the man who had shot him the previous year. Willie left the pool hall, and the man who had shot him came after him with a knife. “I went out the door and started to my car,” Willie says, “He’s running across [the parking lot] with a knife in his hand. I reached under the seat and got my gun and shot him 5 times through the door.” I ask Willie why the guy was chasing him with a knife. “Because he’s the one who had shot me,” Willie explains. “He figured I was coming after him.”

After shooting the man 5 times, Willie says he went on the run and ended up in Tyler, Texas, working on a ranch there. He stayed in Texas for 6 years until he received word that his mother was in poor health. “My momma had a heart attack,” Willie explains, “My sister got in touch with me, said I got to come back to Georgia, and that’s when I got busted. I don’t know exactly how they found out I was there. They come in there in the middle of the night, got me up in Lizella.” Willie does not remember how old he was when he was caught but estimates that he was incarcerated for about 20 years.

Because of his skills as a brick mason, Willie was transferred to various prisons throughout Georgia to work: Reidsville, Waycross, and Alto among others. I ask Willie if anything memorable happened to him while he was prison. He tells me about meeting Burt Reynolds. “Remember that old Burt Reynolds movie, The Longest Yard? He came down to Reidsville [to film the movie], and he had prisoners sit out in the stands in free-world clothes, like it wasn’t a prison. Burt Reynolds was a trip.”

I ask him what he had done to get the ankle monitor on his leg. “I don’t even remember now, I’ve had it on for so long,” he says. “At night, I put this thing on [the ankle monitor], and it keeps it charged. I don’t even pay it no attention.” Willie lives in a transitional house with several other men. Before living in the house, Willie slept outdoors in his truck for many years.  “I could have lived in a house,” he says, “but I just didn’t want to. For a long time, I was in that truck, and I had a good camper on it.” Ultimately, however, his living situation interfered with the terms of his parole, and he was moved into the transitional house where he now resides.

I ask Willie if he has any goals or dreams. “I’d like to get out from [the transitional house], but I can’t,” he says. “When I get to the house [in the evenings], I sit on the porch about half the night. I just sit there. I’d like to have a house with some woman, but I can forget about that. I’m on parole for the rest of my life.”

      After our interview, I give Willie a ride back to his transitional house. On the way there, we stop at a parking lot on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. He believes the pool hall where he shot the man was once located there. We get out of the truck and I take his photo. I take photos of his tattoos, which have become blurry and faded through the years. Tattooed on his right arm, a pair of dice and the name Betty in quotation marks; an eight-ball on his right hand. Tattooed on his left arm, the word Georgia. Below that, a cartoon-like hypodermic needle that Willie says was tied to his years of drug use. Because of his poor memory and the lack of details, I could corroborate few of the stories Willie shared with me. In a way, however, Willie’s tattoos corroborate his story. They speak of prison, drugs, pool halls, bad choices, and the love of a woman. Like his memories, time has altered them, and they have faded. Now, barely visible, I also notice Willie’s knuckle tattoos. The letters are so faded that it is not readily apparent what they spell. I ask Willie, but he does not remember now. He holds his hands up, fist next to fist, and TRUE LOVE appears, however faintly.

Daybreak is a day center in Macon, Georgia where men and women living in homelessness can escape the streets to a place that offers a warm welcome and the services they need to move toward lives of stability and dignity. Services offered include hygiene, education, employment, and healthcare. To learn more about Daybreak and how you can support it as a donor or volunteer visit: us.depaulcharity.org or call Gaye Martel at 478-955-4519.

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