The Shoulders of Bill Finney

By Pat Hickey

January 17, 2023

In the late 1970’s, when Waylon and Willie and the boys were all the rage, the time of the urban cowboy, a man from Michigan City, Indiana took his fiancé Jenny to the Holiday Star Theatre to see Waylon Jennings. The Vietnam veteran, who worked the blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel’s works in Portage, told Jenny that he had toured with Waylon as a bass player and sound man. The young lady thought, “sure you did.”  The man approached the Waylon Jennings tour bus, and a window flew open. A deep bass voice shouted out, “Is that you Old Hoss? Get your skinny ass up in this bus!”  The future husband of young Jenny had made his point and sealed the deal on an exceptionally long marriage bond. This man possessed two purple hearts, the Bronze Star and two Combat Infantryman Badges, and had been called Hoss by Waylon Jennings himself. That is some pedigree. 

Allow me a brief digression that should be a salubrious treatment for young people and too many people who should know better. 

We live in a culture that is round shouldered and stooped…people with carbon footprints trudging along pavement and dirt road peering at a device and rarely leveling the eyes upon earth, much less the people upon its surface. The other day, in the halls of a massive high school filled with the hope of the future, I had to dodge and weave like Calvin Murphy (Google him) to avoid collision with teens affixed to an I-phone and more than a few teachers to boot. 

Not in possession of such a distracting instrument, I was able to avoid bumping into the population during one of the seven class changes. Eye contact seems a thing of past, like saying “God Bless!”   I have an Old Guy flip phone and continue the rituals of the past.

I notice that too many young people have rounded shoulders and avoid eye contact as if it were a broom or shovel. My heart breaks for these young things in expensive jeans that went through a tree-shredder and who bear a bejeweled piercing in every organ and orifice. There are many recognizable human beings with broad shoulders and clear eyes, but they now are in the minority. 

Many blame the pandemic and others President Trump for this neo-nihilism. I blame accommodating adults. Kids are living without an understanding of the consequences of their words and their actions. Adults accommodate their actions by furnishing them with money to buy tattoos, piercings, or outlandish hair styles. These are kids aged thirteen to nineteen years of age. They know no better, nor have they been introduced to a better way with better people. 

If I could get their attention, I would say, “Youngsters, meet William ‘Wild Bill’ Finney. He was once very much like you.”   Pay attention. 

An Indiana lad with an industrious dad who took all of the overtime he could get in order to clothe, feed, and house his growing family, Bill Finney grew up off of Ohio Street. Bill Finney’s dad worked at the now defunct Pullman Railcar Works as a welder. That is tough, exacting and dangerous work. Mr. Finney made about $135 a week in the 1960s, while his son Bill went to Elston High School in Michigan City, Indiana. 

Mr. Finney had left his native Arkansas for work in the rust belt and brought his guitar with him. He taught young Bill Finney the chords and some of the great American songs. By the time Bill Finney was fifteen years old, he was playing at country and western bars and lounges in northwest Indiana and in Illinois. Young Bill Finney was making $200 a week at Spiros, in Calumet City, Illinois, as well as Mary’s Place, Linger Inn and The Rodeo in Indiana. How many fifteen-year-old boys or girls make more than their father’s weekly pay in 2022? This fifteen-year-old Red Devil from Elston High strapped a guitar on his shoulders and plunged into the music world. Wild Bill Finney swims in music’s cooling waters. He was given a gift by his dad, and he continues to treasure it. 

1n 1967, America was at war in Vietnam, but only some of America’s sons served in that conflict and far fewer actually carried  a weapon in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Bill Finney served with the famous Americal Division in Vietnam from 1968-1969 and again from 1971-1972. He shouldered a machine gun and behaved accordingly.

Bill Finney fought in every major engagement against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars (TET, Hill 532, Lo Gian) and was gravely wounded on two occasions. He was hit four times in the arms and again in the leg. He was also awarded the Bronze Star for dragging several of his comrades out of the path of bullets.

In all of these engagements Bill Finney shouldered an M-60 machine gun. The weapon itself weighed 23.5 pounds and the gunner was loaded down with a belt holding two hundred rounds of 7.62 ammunition. Bill Finney has some shoulders. 

Gravely wounded, Bill recuperated on Okinawa and was mustered out of the service. In Bill’s words, “When I got home, I could not stand to be around people.” Finney served another hitch in Vietnam from 1971-1972. Like most combat veterans, Bill does not dwell on the horrors he faced, nor the wounds he endured. His eyes tell the story. By 1970, America was losing the Vietnam War and when Finney concluded his last tour in that quagmire of a country, some Americans turned on those who fought in their places. Buck Sergeant Bill Finney was told “you’re going home; grab your gear. Now!”  He boarded a chartered American civilian airplane with jungle mud on his pants and boots. The plane ride ended at LAX, and the soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors aboard were told to buy civilian clothing at the airport and ditch their combat rags. Wearing new Van Heusen shirts and Levi jeans and chinos, these weary heroes still smelled of the jungle and LZs from which they had been ordered away. Outside the gates of LAX were young Americans armed with bags of urine and signs calling the warriors Baby Killers. Welcome home, Bill. 

The witty man stated, “Now, people couldn’t stand to be around me!”  After weighing a few options, Finney joined the Merrillville, Indiana police department and picked up some extra money patrolling Gary streets on his days off. 

Soon, Bill strapped his guitar back on and returned to the job that filled his wallet and his soul. He played the country & western bars and venues again. Agents listened in these places in search of talent to provide opening sets for the more famous C/W stars. Bill Finney opened for Johnny Cash in 1975 and then played bass with Waylon Jennings.

The music industry is tough, and steady work with benefits is always attractive. Bill Finney spent his days at Bethlehem Steel working the blast furnace. Steel was made and the music of the steel guitar, bass, drums, and guitars pumped from the heart of the Vietnam veteran.

Finney played bass guitar and sang vocals with the Michigan City-rooted country band Old Habits. So good were these artists that in the late 1980s through the 1990s Old Habits ran a cable television access program. The band also opened for many of the top country stars who played the old Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville. Finney opened for David Allen Coe, Dottie West, Merle Haggard, the Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama. Steel by day and steel guitar by night.

“The only job that gave me joy was playing good, honest country music. Now, I love and appreciate the blues, rock and roll and jazz, but straightforward country is the music of people who never forget exactly who they are and where they came from,” said the man who shouldered a Fender as well as an M-60. “Two of the greatest people I ever met were Tex Ritter and General Creighton Abrams. I was stationed in Germany and played with a G.I. country band for the USO. Tex Ritter and his wife were the most generous and kindest of people. They knew we had all served in Vietnam and took an incredibly special interest in us. Those are people who know who they really are and didn’t give a good Goddam about it. In ‘Nam, after a horrible firefight, I was feeling horrible myself. Captains, majors, and colonels whisked past me for hours. I was sitting on some ammo cans and sandbags. All of a sudden someone put his arms around me and said, ‘It’ll be all right, son! It will be all right.’  That was General Creighton Abrams. The big he-boss of the Vietnam Theatre. All the other brass walked past me like I was nothing, but a Major General took the time to put his arms around the shoulders of a nobody, who had been in the shit.” 

“I try to treat people with respect. I don’t always translate that as I should, and I can be combative, but I always try to remember that the other person has a story, too. People can’t blame anyone but themselves for their lot in life. I went through some awful stuff and dished out a substantial portion of hurt on others. Take your punishment and hurt and don’t blame the government, or your folks, or your teachers, or your ex-girlfriends and wives. You are responsible! If you are responsible and take that blame or credit, then you can say you had an honest life. I have had a great life and played music with great people.”

In the last two years, Bill Finney had both of his arms removed and reattached in order to repair the damage done to his venerable shoulders. He is mending from his latest surgery and has some dull pain that should go away soon. Bill Finney is not complaining. He is just reporting. 

This fierce and friendly gentleman has honored me with his company over the last three years. We talk about the joys of playing music in public and discuss the evolution of genres in country and popular music…outlaw country in particular. I have his respect and his ear but know that a gulf exists between us, because I have never felt the sting and tear from ballistics sent my way by my nation’s enemies and Waylon Jennings never called me Hoss.

Bill Finney is in my pantheon of citizen warriors who endured the horrors of combat and the idiotic political abuse upon their return home. God bless them all.

Young people need to look up from their I-phones and experience the many people who brighten our world with their talent, their courage, their contributions to our lives and their constant dignity. Wild Bill Finney and his kind will not be found on Tik Tok. 

Finney is retired from the steel mills and can no longer manage the physical demands of playing guitar. He is a member of the Michigan City FOP, American Legion Post 451, Disabled American Veterans, and the VFW. He and his wife Jenny are active with their children and many grandchildren. America is blessed with Bill Finney. We, in turn, would all be blessed to have shoulders like his.


Born November 8, 1952 in Englewood Hospital, Chicago Illinois, Pat Hickey attended Chicago Catholic grammar and high schools, received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Loyola University in 1974, began teaching English and coaching sports at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, IL in 1975, married Mary Cleary in 1983, received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Loyola in 1987, taught at La Lumiere School in Indiana from 1988-1994, took a position as Director of Development with Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, IN and then Leo High School in Chicago in 1996.  His wife Mary died in 1998 and Hickey returned with his three children to Chicago’s south side. From 1998 until 2019, it became obvious that Illinois and Chicago turned like Stilton cheese on a humid countertop. In that time, he wrote a couple of books and many columns for Irish American News. When the kids became independent and vital adults, he moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he job coaches Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens in LaPorte County.  He walks to the Michigan City Lighthouse every chance he gets.

Comments 50

  1. You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the articles you read…
    Thank you for your service Bill…
    Thank you for filling in Pat.

  2. Loved this and the work you are doing! I have family in LaPorte and I live in Valpo and can often be found in MC. Please forward our thoughts and prayers to John.

  3. Real men of real character like Mr. Finney are rare, now. Sadly, it wasn’t always thus.

    He, and every man like him is, in my book, a true hero (not the fictional super “heroes” trash that Marvel, and DC Comics serve to this nation’s kids), but a genuine hero. In serving his country, he simply what needed to be done – only because it was right.

    Thank you, for reminding us of our debt to men like Mr. Finney.

  4. Pat-Spot on! Our country could use more youngsters with the DNA traits that Bill Finney possesses. It seems that kids are being taught pronouns, identity gender, and wokeism is more important than hard work, family first, and pride in our country. I thank Bill for his service and hope he does not think his time in the shit was for naught. He is a Hoosier Hero. I pray for a brighter future and listen to Aaron Tippin sing ‘Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly’ to get a patriotic boost.

  5. Great story. There are many Bill Finney’s around us, who came back from Vietnam and other war engagements. They worked hard, raised Families and contributed to our society. God Bless Bill Finney and all who have served and continue to serve our country.

  6. Excellent column!
    I could not agree with you more on your take of the youth of today.
    Mr. Finney is a remarkable man. He did his service, lived his life and acted accordingly. No fuss no fanfare. Traits that today are looked down upon by the youth of today. Mr. Finney should be the influencer that the youth look to and not the likes of the Kardashians or other similar celebrities.

  7. Very interesting story. What a deep intense life he lived. I have had some great conversations with kids though. Don’t underestimate them.
    I’m also wondering how John is doing.

  8. I am a retiree and have always said, I don’t think I would have survived Vietnam. I did two tours in Afghanistan, but I can say what I saw can’t hold a candle to what Mr. Finney saw.
    I loved the article, and I can promise you I am going to make an effort to go to Michigan to simply shake this man’s hand and thank him for his sacrifice and service.
    God Bless him and his family.

    Thanks for writing about this hero.

  9. Great Article. I’m sure we didn’t appreciate the characters in the generation before us, but we should have. The era when you could be unique and be remembered and appreciated for it are all but gone. Life was so much better without everybody trying to be the same. Sad.

  10. Thank you for reminding us about true heroes! This should be required history reading in all elhi and high schools today so kids can maybe appreciate how dear our freedoms are, and who stood against those who would try to stifle them!!

  11. My wife had an aortic valve replacement a few years ago and my brother in law had quintuple bypass surgery a couple of years ago. Both are doing well now. I’m convinced that women have a higher tolerance for pain, my wife was off opiates and using just Tylenol within 3 days of her surgery. But she didn’t feel like using even an iPhone for about three weeks and it was nearly two months before she was cleared to return to work, so it may be a little while before we hear from John, hopefully he’ll be up to finishing the December Moutza column soon. But serious surgery has an impact on one’s brain, and creativity takes a long time to rebound. Chemo brain is even worse, but that’s a different story.

  12. Great column. I was fortunate to know a career Army man who served in the jungles of Viet Nam, on the Iron Curtain, the DMZ in Korea, the White House and more. He took care of our country and threw a good fly rod too.
    The kids and their tattoos and piercings . . . the need to be edgy and a replacement for cigarettes.
    Their noses in electronics . . . there’s an upside – my kids are closer to their distant cousins and friends than our generation.

  13. A great story about a great guy! Well done. Let’s hope there are some Bill Kinneys among today’s cell phone addicts. I have a feeling we’re going to need them.

  14. Pat, loved your story of Bill Kinney. I am a Mighty Mac in your age range living in 46360, married to a 1968 Leo Lion. Gainfully retired, I have time on my hands outside of golf season. Is there a way I can be of help to you in your work with Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens? Reply to Thanks.

  15. Excellent article. You are a wonderful writer. God bless you for sharing your talent and the history of a gentleman, Bill Finney. Thankful for your style of wordsmith.

  16. You are a great writer Pat. Your students were fortunate to have you as a teacher. It’s a shame that someone like you cannot still be in the classroom even on a part time basis as a half day schedule would perfect for an older teacher and students who really want to learn would benefit so much.

    Mr. Finney sounds like a great guy and you describe him so well and pay tribute to the salt of the earth types that built this nation and the Midwest.

    I know we’re going in the wrong direction as a society, but I still have hope for the young people. I think the pendulum will swing back and our youth will adapt out of necessity. They will have to put the phones down out of necessity eventually, and they will look up and not like what they see.

    Thanks Pat

  17. Waylon Jennings called Mr. Finney ‘Hoss’. That is awesome enough. As a lifelong musician, I can understand his love of playing and performing. I can never completely understand or repay the debt we owe to men like him. Men of big shoulders. Men of steel and the steel highway.

    Thank you, Mr. Finney.

    And, yes, thank you Pat. A wonderful read.

  18. I would have renamed this column “Dam kids! Get off my lawn!!” Every generation looks side glance with disdain at the one coming up behind it, nothing new. Go back in time to the late 1940’s, parents were horrified their kids were reading comic books with intense horror themes, so horrified that congress held hearings with the intention of ‘protecting our youth’ from these sick themes and force them to refocus on more ‘wholesome’ themes. The gentleman you reference here likely had a disdain for ‘hippies’ who were younger and opposed the war. You wrote: “If I could get their attention, I would say, “Youngsters, meet William ‘Wild Bill’ Finney. He was once very much like you.” Have you tried? You should. Instead of making sweeping cranky old man statements about ‘young people’, try talking with one. You just might find the world they inhabit is far more challenging than the one you grew up in…

  19. Stooped shoulders, morbid obesity, and a corresponding bloated sense of entitlement all surfaced in the 34 years I spent in public education…ultimately the legislature, the lawyers, and the court system saw to that.

    1. Ward, I witnessed the same. Though blessed with 46 years of teaching in Catholic schools, jupon my retirement and work public schools broke my heart to witness this obscene metamorphosis. Young people are largely unrecognizable from the focused and happy youngsters of the decades before the turn of the century. This is the millennium of “Stay in Your Lane.”Too bad. Let’s pray for a radical change. 60% of today’s kids come from broken homes, or are raised by one parent. Too many are being raised by grandparents. Worse more depend upon social media for any direction at all.

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