Wild Bill’s Bakery By Daniel Miller

Will BillWilliam Andrew Morris, 78, of White Butte died Thursday night Nov. 8, 2009.

Graveside services to be held Saturday Nov. 11 at 2pm in Cliffside Cemetery.

Known to friends as “Wild Bill”, William was born August 16, 1931 in Clarksville, VA. Parents, William Jackson Morris and Betty Claire Ringwald, owned a small bakery where William worked as a youth and gained a love for the family trade. From 1949 to 1953 William served in the Army where he met Linda Whitfield. The two married in 1953 before moving to White Butte. William and Linda opened Wild Bill’s Bakery in 1954 where he served as head baker and Linda kept the accounting. Into retirement William continued to work part-time at his Bakery.

Survivors include daughter, Janette Mitchell; and two grandchildren, Samuel and Jeremy.

Sam Harrison read the obituary on Friday November 9th. Sam’s mother was hesitant about letting her son read the short script, preferring he stick to more uplifting material. “Wouldn’t you rather read the funnies, Sam? How did you even find out what an obit is anyway?” She asked him. Sam knew what an obituary was. He had stumbled across the two-page section of the White Butte Democrat one day about a year earlier in the leafy pile of pages his father had discarded in his search for the classified and sports sections. Sam enjoyed reading the “funnies” on Sunday morning when they were in color, but the weekday paper’s stale gray and white failed to pique his attention. The pictures of old people in the obituary section, however, fascinated him. He rarely read the actual pieces, preferring simply to imagine their lives in his head. He had read them at first, but found their sterile facts and summaries of life uninspiring – much like the gray and white funnies. In his imagination he filled in the details of those gray-white faces or even made up entirely new lives for them: valiant soldiers, movie stars, or even ancient wizards and knights on his more fanciful days.

On the afternoon of Friday November 9th, after a disappointing bike ride home from school, Sam consoled himself with the old pictures. He had half invented a clever story about an astronaut who had flown the first manned mission to Mars before he realized he was staring at Wild Bill’s picture. Perhaps it was the name in bold print below the image that had thrown him: William Andrew Morris. Sam, along with most of the town, had always just called him Wild Bill. Sam had first met Wild Bill the Friday before his 12th birthday. Sam and his mother had stopped by Wild Bill’s Bakery on their way home from school to pick up a cake for Sam’s birthday party on Saturday. The only other places in town where one could purchase a specialty birthday cake were the B&S ValueMart on 5th street or Miss Piggy’s Bake Shop on the corner of Philmore and Broad St. Sam’s mother commented that the ValueMart cakes were all too generic for her only son’s 12th birthday and Miss Piggy’s was known more for red velvet wedding cakes in the shape of armadillos than kids’ birthday cakes. The name alone, Miss Piggy’s, immediately eliminated the Bake Shop in Sam’s mind. That left Wild Bill’s.

When they entered the bakery, Sam’s nose caught the sugary scents of fresh cookies and cupcakes pilled obscenely high with icing. “Agh, it’s too sweet in here,” Sam’s mother muttered. “The air is making my cavity ache. Sam, remind me to make an appointment for us next week with Dr. Shuman.” Hands and face plastered to the glass of the viewing counter that protected six éclairs, Sam heard neither his mother’s complaint nor her apology to the teenage girl at the register for forgetting her coupon for Sam’s cake. Before the transaction was completed, Wild Bill appeared around the half-wall separating the reception area from the bakery. On his face, he wore his trademark smile, instantly recognizable and emotively feel-good as the Coca-cola Santa or a Dunkin’ donut. Eclipsed only slightly by the smile, Sam starred at the worn chef’s hat sitting on top of Wild Bill’s head. It had an odd fitting ten-gallon brim sewn to its base. After a robust “Howdy Pardner!”, he asked Sam how old he was going to be and how he had imagined such a creative cake design. Adults had a way of asking such questions that seemed patronizing to Sam, but when Wild Bill asked them it made Sam feel like an adult.

“Ah, I see yer eyein’ my hat. Ya’ know I had this custom made in Paris, France by a Cherokee Indian,” Wild Bill boasted and then gave a quick wink to Sam’s mother. Wild Bill’s wife came around the corner carrying a cake box and handed it to Sam’s mother.

“Is he tellin’ that Paris Indian story agin? I don’t know what I was thinkin’ agreeing to sew that mismatched thing together. I keep tellin’ ‘im it looks ridiculous – the two shades of white don’t even match.” Sam looked at Mrs. Wild Bill with a question that made his forehead wrinkle. She sure didn’t look like a French Indian.

After his party, Sam began stopping at Wild Bill’s Bakery on his bike ride home from school. It was two blocks out of the way from the path his mother had told him to take from Horace Mann Junior High to their house on Timber Creek Rd. The first time he’d ridden his bike home she had following behind him in her car the evening before to make sure he knew the route. Sam rarely had enough leftover lunch money to buy anything at Wild Bill’s Bakery, but it was Wild Bill more than the Bakery that Sam wanted to see. Wild Bill always greeted Sam in a way that Sam liked and made him laugh.

“There he is, my ol’ Pardner, Sam Harrison! What’s the news from the trail, Cowboy?” or “Snakebite Sam, come to do a little window shopping?”

“No, Wild Bill, I just came to look at the snicker doodles.”

***

“How’d you do that?” Sam asked one day.

“Do what, Pardner?”

“Make your cakes so tall and soft? My mom always makes ‘em short and too chewy. And when the bottoms get burned, she says words I would get in trouble for,” Sam explained. Wild Bill let out a booming laugh that rumbled the glass in the viewing counter.

“Sammy, do you remember when you told me about that science fair experiment yer lil’ friend . . . what’s ‘is name? Ernie, Amy . . . ?”

“Emilio,” Sam corrected.

“Oh yes, Emilio. How he played music fer his lil’ plant to make ‘im grow bigger?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, a cake’s a lot like that plant. Ya’ can’t jest bake a cake, you have to love a cake.”

Now it was Sam’s turn to laugh. He pictured Wild Bill strumming on an old guitar singing honky tonk to his cakes.

“Don’t laugh Sammy, I’m tellin’ ya’ the God’s honest truth. If yer mother allows, I’ll show ya’ tomorrow. I’ve got a special Wild West Chocolate Cake on order.”

Sam came back the next day carrying a note from his mother with an emergency contact number scribbled on it. “Looks like everything’s in order,” Wild Bill said looking at the note. Sam dropped his backpack behind the register and followed Wild Bill behind the half-wall to where the scents of sugar and dough first began their delicate dance and where the counters were all dusted with flour. “I don’t have a extra chef’s hat like mine fer ya’. This here’s an original, custom made in Paris, France by a Cherokee Indian,” Wild Bill exclaimed with pride as he patted his ten-gallon chef’s hat. His fingers left slight flour prints on the brim. “But here’s a official Wild Bill’s Bakery cap,” Wild Bill said, elongating the “o” in official. He plopped a faded red cap with the Bakery’s name embroidered in a High Noon style font on Sam’s head. “Now that yer official, let’s git started! Hand me some eggs outta that carton in the fridge. Five should do fine.” Sam opened the refrigerator door and started picking eggs out of a cardboard carton that looked like it had carried far more eggs than it currently contained. “Sam, you know Mrs. Burk? Got a mess o’ good Reds that lay the best eggs you ever saw fer bakin’. She give me them eggs this mornin’. Fresh outta the chickens’ butt!” Wild Bill laughed slapping his knee.

Sam’s eyes widened and his mouth squirmed in disgust. He nearly dropped the eggs. Then, catching Wild Bill’s big smile, he laughed too and said, “One poop, two poop, three poop, . . .” as he handed the eggs to Wild Bill. This made the old man laugh even harder. Sam watched as Wild Bill tossed in ingredients, mixed them together, and poured the think liquid batter into a cake pan. He let Sam push the button on the big electric mixer and add two pinches of chili powder to the mix. Chili powder, Wild Bill whispered to Sam with a wink, was the secret ingredient that made it a Wild West Chocolate Cake. Sam even hummed along to whatever old country song Wild Bill unconsciously sang pieces of as they worked. Sam had to leave after they put the cake into the oven, but made his mother take him back after dinner to see the finished product. The cake was tall and soft as promised. Sam begged his mother to buy the ingredients to try the cake at home.

“I don’t understand my boy’s sudden interest in cooking. Lord knows I’m no chef at the house, but at least it’ll keep him away from the video games,” Sam’s mother said to Wild Bill as he pulled out a half-dozen of Mrs. Burk’s eggs from the back and called out a list of instructions that Sam hastily scribbled down on the back on an old receipt. The next Saturday morning, Sam forwent his Batman comic and studied the wrinkled receipt instead. The recipe looked easy enough and Sam had watched Wild Bill make it.

2 c flour

2 c cane sugar

1 c unsweet cocoa powder

¾ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

1 c evaporated milk

½ c buttermilk

5 eggs

1 c butter

¼ c water

2 tsp vanilla

2-3 pinches chili powder.

Preheat oven to 350. Grease pan. In saucepan, over medium heat, combine evaporated milk, cocoa and chili powder. Heat until dissolved.

In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, …

Yet, for some reason this lump of mud colored batter Sam had created did not look like the fluffy cakes he’d seen in Wild Bill’s Bakery. All the essential facts were there, but somehow the Wild West Chocolate Cake was not. What had he missed? Sam had copied the recipe exactly as Wild Bill had told him, but this was not the same cake. Wild Bill’s was closed on Sundays, so the following Monday after school, Sam rode his bike to the bakery. Wild Bill was chatting with a customer when the bell attached to the top of the bakery door announced Sam’s arrival.

“Well, there he is, the boy who’s gonna put me outta business! I’ve been teachin’ this young ‘un to make my Wild West cake,” Wild Bill said to the customer. To Sam, “You didn’t go spillin’ my secret recipe to anyone did ya’?” But Sam was not in a mood for laughing. His cake had been a complete failure. Even his mother could not hide the sense of pity with which she had tasted it.

“You’re certainly your mother’s son,” She had told him after it came out short and slanty from the oven.

Sam sat down in one of the chairs lining the wall with a thud, crossed his arms, and waited for Wild Bill to finish talking. After the customer left, Wild Bill walked over to Sam. “What’s wrong, Pardner? Rough day in school?”

“Rough day in the kitchen,” Sam replied.

Slightly embarrassed, Sam recounted his culinary frustrations. He couldn’t understand why his cake had failed. He had followed the instructions perfectly, had meticulously measured out each ingredient. Wild Bill just laughed and planted a reassuring hand on Sam’s shoulder.

“Why don’t we giver ‘er another try, eh?”

Sam pulled out a carton of eggs from the refrigerator, no chicken butt jokes this time. “Cheer up Sammy. Ya’ can’t bake and frown at the same time – physically impossible!” Wild Bill put on a frown and clowned an inability to stir the milk and cocoa mixture. Sam tried to hold back a smile, but lost. He strutted up to Wild Bill and took the wooden spoon from the old man’s wobbling hand.

“Let me show you how it’s done.”

Wild Bill watched and hummed his old tunes as Sam stirred and poured in the flour and sugar. “Now yer gettin’ it, Pardner. The magic’s not all in the recipe. That’s jest the summry. There’s a heck of a lot more to bakin’ a good cake than what ya’ see on that paper.”

“You can’t just bake a cake, Wild Bill. You have to love a cake,” Sam laughed and handed the heavy bowl to Wild Bill to put under the big electric mixer. Sam then poured the liquefied ingredients into a pan. The bowl was heavy and he accidentally sloshed some over the edge. He grimaced and looked around for a paper towel. His mother always made him clean up such messes immediately.

“Whatcha lookin’ fer, Parder? I got a towel right here.” Wild Bill held up his empty hand. He scooped spilled batter off the counter with his large index finger and deposited it in his mouth “That’s what we in the chef business call a lil’ pre-tasting.” Sam’s frown faded and he hesitantly sampled the spilled batter. Rich chocolate sweetness with a hint of chili spice met his tongue. He eagerly scooped up more.

“Whoa, slow down there, ya’ look like a baby coyote that hasn’t seen his mama in three days,” Wild Bill chuckled. “We need to get this ‘ere cake in the oven. Come back tomorra mornin’ before school and we’ll ice it.”

The next morning, as soon as the sun broke, Sam pulled on his heavy coat and gloves, had his mother wrap his scarf around his neck, and hurried out the garage door on his bike. When he arrived at Wild Bill’s Bakery, he pushed at the door, slamming his wind frozen face against the glass when it refused to open. Sam stumbled back and for the first time noticed that the bakery’s windows were dark and the sign had been flipped over from the inside of the glass door. “Closed.” Sam huddled down against the brick wall and waited. When his family visited his grandparents, Sam’s grandpa was always up with a cup of coffee before sunlight, so Sam didn’t understand why Wild Bill wasn’t already stirring the pail of icing in preparation for their meeting. Sam pulled his scarf over his red nose as he continued to wait. At 7:45 he got on his bike and rode slowly to school. At 3:35 that afternoon, he pulled up again to the bakery door. Dark windows. “Closed.”

On Friday November 9th Sam Harrison read the obituary of William Andrew Morris. Could he really be reading about Wild Bill? Sam ran into the next room where his mother was dusting their wooden TV cabinet. “Was Mrs. Wild Bill really called Linda? Was he really in the Army?’’ Sam asked.

“Linda? Yes, that sounds right. And he did seem interested in what branch your father served last time we were in there, so yes, I suppose he might’ve been in the Army. Of course your father’s Navy. Oh, Sam, how did your cake turn out? You flew outta here this morning so fast you forgot to rinse your oatmeal bowl in the sink.”

Sam was back in the kitchen looking over the newspaper page before his mother had finished. Yes, the facts all seemed to be there. But there was so much not there. Where was Wild Bill’s laugh? His big smile? His ten-gallon chef’s hat? Where was the way he made Sam smile and talked to him like an adult rather than a kid? Those few black and white words may have told the story of William Andrew Morris, but they couldn’t have been about Wild Bill. “Just a summary,” thought Sam. “There’s a heck of a lot more to Wild Bill than what ya’ see on that paper.”

***

About the Author

Daniel Miller is a science teacher in Amarillo, TX.  He holds advanced degrees from Duke University and the University of Edinburgh.

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