“Is she still in here?!” bellows Billy Keyes as he enters a man-cave he jokingly calls the “Slave Quarters.” Protruding from under a couch are a pair of statuesque women’s legs, suggesting the aftermath of foul-play. “I love doing that to people,” he says and plops into a worn chair that is positioned in the center of a vast collection of artifacts that make up a legendary life. The legs are plastic. Clearly, Mr. Keyes is not distracted by political correctness. Nor is he beyond shocking people.
William S. Keyes, a 48-year resident of Anne Arundel County (Arundel on the Bay) and 98-year-old DC and Maryland citizen, is many things to many people. His titles could include teacher, mentor, soldier, artist and, most likely his favorite, Hell-raiser. Often, he can be seen at the MacDonald’s on Forest Drive, where, inevitably, many locals will offer to buy his breakfast. After barking that he doesn’t want anyone to buy him s***, he will then, “…go around and say hello to everyone in the restaurant. That guy knows everyone in town,” says William “Hammy” Oldfield, author and long-time Anne Arundel neighbor. Billy Keyes is a reluctant legend, but an Anne Arundel original for sure.
What most are curious about is his time in the army during WWII and being a member of one of the few all African-American tank outfits. Like most combat vests, he is disinclined to discuss certain aspects of his time under fire, much less how he acquired the Nazi flash that resides in the man cave. When asked about the most dangerous part of his service, he yells that merely, “being in the f****** tank was dangerous!” And thus, the topic is closed. There’s not a chance of hearing about the Nazi flag he and his fellow black soldiers appropriated from an unnamed town.
Similarly, discussion of his personal life is tricky navigation as well. The basics will be that he married a German woman after the war and had a couple of kids and, well, what else is there to know? Next topic, please. Yet, there is intoxicating intrigue that comes when seeing a photo of him standing with his wife as he wears lederhosen. Yes, actual lederhosen.
Perhaps what Mr. Keyes would want people to know more than anything else is how blessed he feels to have so many friends. From Nan Henry, a middle school teacher, and long-time hangout buddy, to Sharon Littig, a high school teacher for whom Mr. Keyes will substitute teach at South River High School it is easy to see why so many people want to buy him breakfast. “She [Littig] is…” according to Mr. Keyes, “one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen.” This is a compliment she returns to him as the students all love and respect his old-school temperament in addition to his talent as an artist.
Equally admirable to Billy, is the Johnny Monet Band for which he claims to be the “number-one fan” who, on the First Sunday Arts Festival in downtown Annapolis, rip through Chuck Berry-style hits as well as pop originals. Billy sits on a chair in the shade enjoying the music as more and more Annapolitans come to say their hellos and express how much they admire him. Blessed, indeed.
As the late sun shines through the window of the Slave Quarters, lighting up like museum pieces, are the autographed baseball bat from the Negro leagues, the paintings and photos of Buffalo Soldiers, original works of art and accommodations and laurels from the likes of Martin O’Malley, Billy sits ready to answer any final questions. When none arrive, he says, “You want to know the name of my next book?” Uh, sure. “Fifty Shades of William S. Keyes!” he erupts and throws his head back in a mighty laugh. Given all his accomplishments, adventures and friends, fifty might be a few shades short.
Comments? Please see our Facebook post.
Jimmy Monack is a teacher, photographer, filmmaker and writer. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland and teaches English at Indian Creek Upper School in Crownsville, Maryland. www.jimmymonack.com