Writer  |  Soldier  |  Pilot

Bill Styron

Demographically, the citizens of Roxbury could be divided into three groups.  There were the life-long residents, farmers whose ancestors arrived over 150 years ago.  Next were residents who lived there but were employed elsewhere (my father ran a bank in New York City, two ½ hours away).  The third group were celebrities: actors, writers, artists, TV personalities, sculptors, and poets, all nationally and internationally known.  For example, sculptor Alexander (Sandy) Calder moved there in 1933 (and immediately painted his house black), playwright Arthur Miller took residence in 1949 (I worked for his cousin, a construction contractor), joined by his wife, actress Marilyn Monroe in 1955 (I delivered her groceries), and author William Styron in 1954.  Over the years, Roxbury attracted dozens of famous people, all seeking the peace and quiet of this small New England community.

And these well-known folks were not reclusive but became part of the town and actively participated in making this town a wonderful place to live.  Writer Bill Styron was one of these residents.  My father, Elmer Worthington, was very much immersed in the town.  He served as a justice of the peace, town historian, and a behind-the-scenes participant in the Democratic Party at both the state and town levels.  Bill Styron shared similar interests such as Democrats and history.  So, his family and my family became close with shared town involvements.

Bill and his wife, Rose (an acclaimed poet) moved to Roxbury to escape New York City and enjoy a quiet life of domestic tranquility.  A resident of Roxbury until 2004 his three daughters and son were raised in Roxbury and the entire family spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard.  My two sisters babysat for the Styron kids.

William Clark Styron was born in 1925 and raised in VA.  He had enrolled in Davidson College and in ROTC but transferred to Duke as part of the WW II Navy-US Marine Corps V-12 program (a means of allowing young men to get a bachelor’s degree and complete basic training, leading to being commissioned).  Bill was placed on active duty in the Marines in October 1944 and commissioned in July 1945, trained to enter the attack on Japan when that country surrendered, so he was released from active duty.  Bill returned to Duke, obtaining his BA in English in 1947.

When the US became a part of the UN force to defend South Korea in mid-1950, the Marines were extremely short of men so recalled WW II Marines, one being Bill Styron.  He was assigned to Camp Lejeune in NC but was discharged in 1952 due to an eye disability.

From then on, he became an acclaimed author with both critical successes as well as financial.  He authored Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), Sophie’s Choice (the film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards), Darkness Visible, and several other books.  My connection to him was not as a writer but the Marines. 

I enlisted in the Marines in 1957 and was discharged as an NCO in 1959.  Twice I was stationed at Lejeune, before and after a combat tour in the Middle East in 1958.  Once on leave, in Roxbury, when the Styrons were visiting my parents, I was introduced to them and learned he was a Marine during two wars.  The rest of the evening we discussed our different tours in the Marines.

When recalled to active duty in 1950, he saw problems with Marine Reservists (like him) being activated and doing absurd things to prepare for war.  In 1956 he authored a book, The Long March, describing a 36-mile forced march by a Reserve lieutenant and captain. who had just endured several of their colleagues being killed by accidental mortar fire.  This book was written because of a forced march Bill participated in at Lejeune.  Over a period of 42 years, Bill also wrote five different short stories based on his own experiences as a Marine (some of them a prelude to books on the Marines he never finished).  Initially printed separately, combined they became the book, The Suicide Run, published in 2010, after his death.

When I met Bill, his book, The Longest March, recently had been published in paperback so he gave me an autographed copy.  Ten months before I joined the Marines, a Parris Island Drill Sergeant had marched a platoon of his into the swamps by Ribbon Creek where six drowned.  SSGT McKeon, the DI, became the controversy between tough (brutal?) training of Marines for combat because of Korea or a less ruthless form of training.  The decision was to limit the rough training and make it less inhuman.  I had been in both types of platoons during boot camp.

Bill and I discussed his experiences in the early 1950s compared to what I endured in the mid-1950s and the changes taking place.  During the next couple of decades, the Styrons were frequent visitors with my parents.  So, most times when I was visiting in Roxbury, I would meet Bill again, reminiscing about our military experiences, his two Marine tours and my Marine and Army experiences.  Most of the world visioned Bill as a famous award-winning author (“the voice of literature for the last half of the 20th century”) yet I saw him as a colleague-in-arms.  Quite a difference.