Mistress of the Mix: The Wild Life of Buffalo Bill Ainsworth

$363.64. That’s what the invoice will list as the charge for my latest piece of writing. Only this time – for the first time in my writing history – I’ll be the one paying the invoice. That’s how this obituary thing works, and the newspaper I’m submitting it to charges by the column inch. Actually, my husband will probably be the one paying for it, because it’s the only thing he can do from afar to help the grieving family of his best friend.

William Ainsworth was more than a friend to my husband. Sixteen years older, he was more of a big brother, maybe even a father figure to Eddie. Bill was my husband’s next door neighbor when he was a kid (not to be confused with Eddie’s grandfather’s next door neighbor, who turned out to be Eddie’s biological father, according to the DNA test). But truth be told, Eddie and Bill look so much alike from their strawberry blonde complexions and strong biceps to the similarities in their outgoing and opinionated personalities, that it would be easy to mistake them for close blood relatives.

The two didn’t meet until the late 70’s, when Bill moved in next door to Eddie’s mom. He was in his late twenties, with an ex-wife and a new wife, and between the two of them there was a bunch of  young kids. Two of his, two of hers, and then they started making more of their own. When you added Eddie to the mix, they had enough family for a softball team.

Eddie was still a kid himself, but he was old enough to babysit the rambunctious squad of multiplying munchkins, and that’s how he became Uncle Eddie. He would take them on lengthy hikes in the forest to wear them out, and reinforced all the things that he and Bill both loved to do: hunt, fish and play sports. To this day every one of the seven kids that grew up in the Ainsworth household refers my husband as Uncle Eddie, and both Eddie and Bill referred to each other as a brother.

Eddie & most of the kids on one of their adventures

Later, when Eddie was on the cusp of manhood, he ended up getting into trouble with the law. On numerous occasions. One of those times, the law showed up to take Eddie away, and Bill took the lawman aside and said, “Let me take responsibility for him. I promise I’ll keep him out of trouble.”

And that’s how my future husband ended up in Alaska in 1989 – the very same year I moved to a fishing village in Southeast Alaska. But Eddie didn’t get much time on land. He was working alongside Bill on a gigantic floating seafood processor. Bill was the head cook, and Eddie was slamming pollock in the freezers. He kept Eddie out of trouble (for the most part) for seven years, and my husband is firmly of the belief that if it wasn’t for Bill Ainsworth, he might not have made it past his twenties.

Bill was a talented woodworker, who was known for crafting beautiful tables, bunk beds and surfboards. He passed on his love of working with wood to Eddie, who has also made lovely tables, ornate carvings, coat racks and walking canes. Bill even passed on his talent for wood working to one of his sons, who is now the wood shop teacher at his hometown high school.

But now Bill has also passed on.

It happened a few weekends ago, while we were visiting him in Coos Bay. We stopped by the house. He didn’t look so good, but his wife said he looked better than he had in awhile. I joked  that she was keeping him on a long leash, which was tethered to an oxygen machine in the living room.

Bill and Eddie also shared a love and talent for spinning tales that sound so incredible, that they couldn’t possibly be true…but they always are. Like the story of the day Bill reached into a shark and pulled out its heart for Eddie to eat in a Micronesian ceremony aboard the ship, and the story of the camping trip when Eddie convinced the entire family – even Bill – that Bigfoot existed (and at least one kid, now in his late 30’s, still holds on to that belief). And then there’s the time that Eddie was so exhausted that he took a nap on a conveyor belt in the fish sorting room. Bill got a couple of crew members together to prank Eddie, who woke up to find himself buried neck deep in fish.

That day, however, Bill didn’t really tell any exaggerated stories of their adventures. He just seemed happy to have our company, at peace with our presence. He was mellow, subdued and happy. Maybe he knew.

I told Bill that I was writing a novel about Eddie’s life, and that he would definitely play a big role in it. A great  writer himself, that made Bill happy, and he told me that he had so many more stories to tell me for my book. I was pulling up a chair to hear more, when Bill’s wife Mary asked us if we could move our car so she could get out of the driveway to take their teenage son to ref a volleyball game, and we decided it was probably time to go and let Bill get a little rest. Because there was always time later to come back for more stories. But there wasn’t, and that will always be my biggest regret regarding Bill Ainsworth. We should’ve stayed a little longer.

The next morning we were having breakfast when Mary texted that Bill had died in his sleep. We spent the rest of the morning with Bill’s family, red-eyed and laughing at the same time, honoring him already with some of his exaggerated stories. When it was time to leave, I hugged Mary and said the thing that everyone always says during moments like that, which was, “Please, if there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.”

And then I realized how ridiculous that was, because I understood how lost she was in that moment, still in shock over losing her husband, the stubborn strength of the family, the one who took care of everything. I realized that she would never know what to ask me for, nor what I might be able to provide for her to help her deal with her loss and grief from hours away.

Still holding on to her, I realized that there was one thing I could actually do that could help the family, and so I offered to write Bill’s obituary, hoping to accurately capture his essence and honor his memory.

William V. Ainsworth, Jr

The world lost a warrior when Bill Ainsworth, 69, passed away on November 10, 2019 in Coos Bay, 5 days shy of his 70th birthday. He was a slayer of fish, a hell of a cook, an incredible craftsman who could build anything, but if you asked Bill, he’d tell you his most proud accomplishment was being a father to all his children.

William Virgil Ainsworth Jr was born November 15th, 1949 in Torrence, CA to Margaret Sylvester and William Ainsworth Sr,  the first of two boys born to the couple. He was an avid Redondo Beach surfer who lived, played and worked on the water most of his life. Bill followed his mother to Oregon – settling first in Charleston – where he became a fisherman, although he also dabbled in broadcasting and selling shoes and cars. Bill’s fondness for the galley led him to a career cooking on tugboats for the Sause Brothers Company. He then took on the greater challenge of Head Chef cooking for hundreds aboard giant floating processor ships in Alaska and international waters. While working for Ocean Trawl, Bill gained the nickname Buffalo, and an international reputation for his enchiladas and pot roasts.

A career on the water and the long absences that come with the job can test even the tightest marriage, and the Ainsworth family was not left untouched. Bill was married and divorced twice – with two boys born into the first union, and two girls born into the second – before his wild heart was finally tamed by his marriage to Mary Ainsworth, who stayed by his side until his passing, and gave birth to one more son.

Bill decided to find a new career that would allow him to spend more time in Coos Bay with his family, which led him to woodworking and home construction. Bill’s beautifully crafted tables can be found all around Coos Bay, and at the Little Italy Restaurant. As a licensed contractor, Bill built many steel-framed homes in the city, taking the time to pass on his trade to his son Jesse, who now passes on that talent to Marshfield High School students as their woodshop teacher.

Bill Ainsworth was a splendid writer and gregarious conversationalist. He was also an expert at spinning lengthy tales of his life adventures that some might think were exaggerated, but witnesses will tell you that Bill simply lived an incredible life filled with fantastic moments that were written down and told over and over again at family gatherings; stories that would make your jaw drop.  Bill loved tromping through the forest for mushrooms and fishing, swimming, kayaking and walking the beaches of Southern Oregon. One of his greatest pleasures was watching his children and grandchildren play sports, and passing on his knowledge of the game.

Even though Bill’s flame has been extinguished, he had a fire in his soul that will live forever through his children and grandchildren. He is survived by his wife Mary Staible Ainsworth and youngest son Hobie, sons Justin (and wife Tiffany) of Palmer, Alaska and Jesse (and wife Carli) Ainsworth, of Coos Bay, and daughters Chyanne (and husband Devon) Asher of Central Point, OR and Chandler (and partner Brad Marcott) Ainsworth of Coos Bay. He is also survived by grandchildren Jason, Mason, Ava, Morgan, Parker, Dallas, Bostyn, Max, Camdyn, Cayslea, Jackson, Lincoln and Myles. Other people that always had a special place in Bill’s heart include stepchildren Jennifer and Thayer Hillis and his brother from another mother, Eddie Tompkins. Bill was preceded in death by his parents and his only sibling, Jimmy.

Death had its work cut out trying to take the life of Bill Ainsworth. Bill was a stubborn fighter, who would not be silenced by throat cancer. He won that battle before his breath was finally taken away by a lung ailment. Instead, Bill Ainsworth passed peacefully in his sleep on the morning of November 10th after one last day spent with friends and watching football with his teenage son Hobie. A celebration of life will follow in the summer, but anyone who is missing Bill can visit him at the Port Side Restaurant in Charleston, where a photograph of him working on the water still graces the wall.

Today’s streaming playlist Brother Bill is all about the brotherly bond between my husband and Buffalo Bill, but it also contains songs by brothers and some of the songs that Bill loved the best. Feel free to share your favorite brother songs, and – what Bill would’ve really loved – your favorite stories that sound exaggerated or too crazy to believe – but every bit is true.

Valerie Ing

Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.

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