Bill Castle joined the Air Force in 1950 and served 23 years as an aircraft weapons maintainer. As a retired Air Force master sergeant, he became a resident at the Washington, D.C. Armed Forces Retirement Home in the late ’90s and has lived there for more than 15 years so he can live near his wife, who’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Air Force video/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
Time is a memory’s worst companion. It can turn even our most cherished moments into a hazy blur until the point they cease to exist, like when the hands of an antique clock tick their last tock and time is no longer kept.
There are moments, though, when we’re able to recall these cherished memories. Sometimes they strike when we least expect them, but other times, a trigger sends them vividly rushing into our minds, where we relive them like they just happened.
For Bill Castle, all he needs is to run his fingers across his wife’s headstone upon the columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery for a thousand memories to return just as bright as ever. One day, it could be when he met Mary 40 years ago in a laundry mat in a small Virginia town. Or perhaps it’s the time he’d simply watch her garden in their front yard barefooted. His favorites, though, are when his mind recalls their camping trips to Florida where they spent so much time exploring and adventuring.
When he thinks back on his life and the time he had with his wife, he can’t believe how quickly it rushed by. He’d give anything to have another moment with her, another opportunity to make a memory. But she’s gone, and all he has now is time – it’s one thing the third-generation watchmaker knows all too well.
“It only feels like a couple months, but we were married for about 23 years,” he said. “When I stop and think about it, I say, ‘My God, has it been that long?’”
Castle didn’t meet Mary until his Air Force career was over after serving 23 years as aircraft weapons maintainer, but it was the family’s watch repair business that paved the way for the two to meet.
Before he enlisted in the Air Force in 1950, he worked with his father in the family’s watch repair shop in New York.
“When I was in high school, after school, I’d go down and I’d clean a couple clocks, and he’d pay me for every one I did,” Castle said. “Come Friday night, when it was time to go out and have some fun, I was about the only one who had some money in their pocket.”
Wanting to see the world and travel, he joined the service and got his wish as he deployed to Vietnam and Thailand multiple times. He also continued to apply the family trade wherever he was, and his fellow Airmen always knew where to go when their watches stopped ticking.
“If I had the tools to repair it, I’d take it home and do it,” Castle said. “I wouldn’t charge them anything for it either.”
After retiring from the Air Force as a master sergeant, Castle rejoined his father repairing watches, and in 1975, the two moved the family business to Virginia, where he soon met his future wife.
“She was my next door neighbor, and we both happened to be in the laundry room at the same time,” he said. “I actually got to chatting with her little daughter, and I mentioned something about a pot of chili I made that night, and she said, ‘Oh, we like chili.’ And I said I’d bring some over when we get home. That started it all, a pot of chili, I guess.”
As their relationship grew, they agreed to take things slowly. After a year of dating and while eating lunch at a local diner, they decided to get married that very same day.
“She was a good old country girl. She was handy with a needle and thread, she could sew, and she could do everything,” he said. “We did everything together. I knew what she was going to do, and she knew what I was doing. It was just a nice life.”
Their travels eventually led them to settle in Florida, where he also relocated the family’s watch repair business one more time. About 20 years into their marriage, she began experiencing abdominal pain, and after Bill’s many requests, she finally went to see a doctor.
“The doctor thought it was ulcers or something like that, and he called in the surgeon that was in the same office and told him about her,” Castle said. “He said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
Soon after, the surgeon performed exploratory surgery and confirmed his fears. “He got in there and found that she was full of ovarian cancer. He said there was no hope, and we had about three years. She didn’t believe it, but she was a fighter, and she fought it all the way too,” Castle said.
As her doctor predicted, three years later, her health began to worsen yet her spirit remained high even as she was in and out of the hospital several times. During those visits, her doctor would ask if she wanted the medical staff to attempt to resuscitate her in case her health began to fail, and in those first few visits, Bill said she told him yes.
However, during her third stay in the hospital, when the doctor asked her the same question, she didn’t reply with the same resounding confirmation. Instead, she tiredly whispered that she’d rather them not, and it wasn’t long after that she was admitted into the isolation ward and never left the hospital again.
“I was with her all the time except when I was walking the puppy dog,” Bill said. “The dog loved her. We couldn’t let the dog in there with all the apparatus on her, but he’d get through every once in a while and just lay down near her. He just wanted to be near her. That’s how everyone was towards her.”
Castle said after she passed, he was at a loss what to do with his life, so about a year later, he rejoined the armed forces, except this time it was as a resident at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington D.C.
“I’m fully relaxed and at peace; I love it here. Everything is easy, and you can come and go as you please,” he said. “I recommend it to anyone who’s eligible.”
But the biggest perk is he lives only a few short minutes away from Arlington National Cemetery. In the 15 years he’s lived there, his visits used to be like clockwork, where he’d enter the cemetery’s gates at exactly 8 a.m. every Sunday morning to visit his wife.
“People used to ask me why I go out there so often,” he said “I got sick of them asking me so much that I just told them I go to make sure there are no dates under my name.”
As the years ticked by, his health worsened and slowed the aging veteran.
“Now, I’m not walking that well, and loading that walker in and out of the car is a pain. I just haven’t been going [to visit] lately.”
During the weeks between his visits, he tries to keep himself occupied by talking with his friends or watching game shows on TV to keep his mind sharp. But as the years pass by, his aging friends continue to join their brothers in arms to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Near the retirement home’s cafeteria, a display case honors those residents who recently passed away. Castle makes it a point to walk by as often as possible.
“It’s kinda hard to take, but I think sometimes, ‘Geez, how soon am I going to be up there?’” he said. “Most of them that are up there we were pretty good friends, but I know they’re better off now than they were before.”
Eventually, throughout his day, he makes his way to his room where he takes a seat in his recliner and stares at the picture of his wife hanging on the wall.
It’s those times when he daydreams about when his time will finally come to an end, and he can finally meet and embrace his wife once again.
“That’s all I’m waiting for. That’s my big future.”
Until then, Castle will keep himself busy, where he still occasionally repairs a friend’s broken watch – free of charge, of course.