Sunday, October 31, 1999

'The Greatest?' Try Billy Noddin, one of many

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three small, rectangular windows framed the top of the front door of the home in suburban Chicago. On that pretty Sunday morning in April 1968, the promise of a new spring peeked through the windows to cast a glowing reflection on the cozy front hall.

        Then, the doorbell rang. Upstairs, from the top of the steps, Lorraine Noddin could see nothing through those windows but a man's hat, perfectly pressed and creased. A military hat. Death had come home.

        On April 25, Lorraine's 20-year-old son, Billy, had been walking point on patrol near the South Vietnamese village of Long An when he was shot in the head and killed. A few days later, Lorraine Noddin would lean over Billy's glass-encased body and say, “That doesn't look like my son.” Billy had grown a beard in Vietnam. The funeral director broke the glass seal and shaved Billy Noddin before his wake.

        My friend Patti told me this story this week. Patti Weinstein is Lorraine's daughter. Billy was her brother. She was 10 when he died. Billy was 20.

        This comes up now because of Muhammad Ali. He is in the news again, as the millennium turns and we recognize those who graced and shaped the outgoing century. Ali was The Greatest, a self-proclamation that evolved into conventional wisdom.

        Great boxer, great humanitarian, symbol of international goodwill, lighter of the Olympic flame in 1996. Courageous in the face of Parkinson's Syndrome, an inspiration to millions.

        Yes, yes.

        But what about Billy Noddin?

        “He wanted to go to Vietnam,” Patti says. “He did.”

        Billy's dad is a World War II vet. He was a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. Dave Noddin flew in the same squadron as Joe Kennedy. He enlisted right after Pearl Harbor. He served more than three years. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.

        “Serving your country was the thing to do in our house,” Patti says. “It was a quiet thing. They brought us up patriotic. (Billy) never once complained or questioned it when he was drafted. It was his time to serve his country, so he went.”

        Muhammad Ali was on the cover of Newsweek last week. “The World Was His Canvas” was the headline. “His whole life has been one great fight,” the article began.

        Yes, yes.

        But what about Billy Noddin?

        He went to basic training in Missouri, then came home for Christmas for a month. He and his uncle Bill pooled all their cash and bought Dave a console color television. “I think he knew he wasn't coming back. He wanted us to have something special,” Patti says.

        Patti couldn't watch the news after her brother died. The nightly helping of misery and sadness and whirring helicopters was too much. “I started putting a pillow over my head,” she says.

        “Every time I heard an ambulance, it was almost like a panic. Please don't let it be anyone I know. I don't know if my parents can take it.”

        Muhammad Ali told Newsweek, “The greatest fight I had was the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier in 1975. But the Rumble in the Jungle (against George Foreman, a year earlier) was a fight that made the whole country more conscious.”

        Yes, yes.

        But what about Billy Noddin?

        He was just a guy. He wasn't a sports star, he wasn't a straight-A student. After high school, he went to work for Continental Airlines. He was in operations, one of those people with the flashlights, guiding airplanes into their gates.

        He'd been raised well, though, by parents who understood sacrifice and duty and the honor of serving their country when the need arose. Dave Noddin is 78 now. He has never missed a reunion of his old flying buddies.

        I wonder what he thinks of Muhammad Ali. I wonder what every veteran thinks. And every war widow and sobbing mother who ever looked out the windows above her front door on a beautiful spring morning and saw the top of a military hat. In their quiet moments between peace and sadness and memory and pain, I wonder what sisters who lost brothers in war think of Muhammad Ali.

        “The greatest thing I ever did was not going to Vietnam,” Ali told Newsweek.

        It was an immoral war that deserved to be questioned. This is the revisionist take. It has stood the test of time. Which is fine. If it keeps us from future Vietnams, you could argue the nation-wracking dissent was worth it.

        But what do we say to the Noddins?

        Billy came home to a 21-gun salute and an American flag, perfectly and tightly wound in a triangle. The Noddins kept the color console until a few years ago, when it absolutely could no longer be repaired. Billy is buried in Memorial Park in Skokie, Ill., in his uniform, with the future he never had.

        Who knows. Maybe Billy could have been The Greatest.

        Patti cringes when she sees Muhammad Ali, lighting a flame or gracing a magazine cover. She turned on the TV a few weeks ago, and there he was, helping to launch the new studio for Good Morning America.

        She says, “I don't want to offend anyone, and I respect his religious beliefs. But why is Ali a great American? What has he done?

        “I'm a huge sports fan, and I know he was a great fighter. But he got paid for fighting. When he was called upon to fight for a real purpose and not just for self-gratification, he didn't do it.”

        The Noddins have their photographs, their memories, their etchings from the great, granite wall in Washington that bears Billy's name. They don't have Billy, though. Not for 31 years.

        Meanwhile, Ali dances in the new, refracted light that bathes him in greatness.

        Yes, yes.

        After Billy died, Dave Noddin started taking his family on long vacations. He bought a boat. Patti and her husband have a boat now, too, which they use nearly every summer weekend with their two kids.

        Dave Noddin came upon the cherished notion of close-knit family later in life, after his son was killed serving his country. Maybe that's Billy's legacy. It's a great one, don't you think?

        Muhammad Ali lives on. We love him. He is The Greatest. Apparently.

        Paul Daugherty is an Enquirer sports columnist. Look for his lifestyle column in People on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.