But the poem that Crabtree, 79, of Perryville held on a recent January morning, “My Wife — My Life,” described the more recent past.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to write it,” he said, looking at the photograph above his words — Betty Jane in a white gown with a young soldier in uniform.
The couple shared their lives for 57 years before she died in November. But Crabtree remembers the first time he saw Betty like it was yesterday.
He was picking up his sister from her shift at James B. Haggin Memorial Hospital in Harrodsburg, while wearing his University of Kentucky ROTC uniform.
“This beautiful young lady come walking through, and she said she thought ‘I wonder whose husband that is,’” Crabtree said.
But when his sister introduced the pair, Betty discovered the soldier was single.
So, after Crabtree graduated from basic training in 1952, he promptly began asking Betty on dates.
He wasted no time expressing the depth of his feelings after discovering his first military assignment would send him to Okinawa, Japan, for nearly two years.
“I said, ‘How about you and me getting married?’” he recalled. “She said, ‘If we’re going to get married, we’re going to do it now. We’re not waiting no 19 months.’’
The couple wed in October of 1953.
Throughout their marriage, the Crabtrees traveled the world, living in Japan and Thailand with their daughters, Billie Jo and Susan.
Crabtree describes these years in “My Wife — My Life.”
Billie Jo said her parents set the example of an ideal marriage, centered on Christian values and unyielding devotion to family.
“They showed us that you stick together through thick and thin,” she said.
The family demonstrated this in the late ‘60s when it moved to Thailand while Crabtree served in Vietnam.
A warrant officer in the Army Air Cavalry, Crabtree was stationed near Dragon Mountain in Pleiku, overseeing helicopter operations. The stories he tells about his year in Vietnam are nearly all positive tales of brotherhood and courage, but he sums up his inspiration for that first poem, “Stay in Hell,” with one sentence.
“I’ve seen death,” he said.
But it was Betty’s letters from home that inspired Crabtree’s favorite poem to date.
Billie Jo remembers her mother explaining that her daddy was in Vietnam, to which Billie Jo always promptly responded, “Why Vietnam?” which became the title of the poem.
Crabtree said it expresses his feelings about the conflict, reading “It was a war that none of us could win/ And I'm afraid that it will come again.”
The Crabtrees came back to the states in the early ‘70s, returned to Kentucky in 1978 and moved to Perryville in the ‘90s, after Crabtree became the sexton at Harrodsburg cemetery. For a while, his wife ran a gift shop on Merchants Row where Billie Jo made dresses and Civil War gowns.
“That’s the reason I always liked Merchants Row,” Crabtree said.
As his daughters began moving away and having children of their own, Crabtree wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren and nearly every one of his great-grandchildren.
He also reflected on the power of passing time and pondered death, too, penning a poem for his mother and father when they passed away.
But, Crabtee was not prepared to write about losing his life-long love in November.
“She kept trying to let me know, but I didn't see it,“ he said about his wife’s worsening chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I refused to see it.”
Currently, Crabtree lives alone in the house he shared with Betty, but a Coldwell Banker sign in the front yard reveals his plans to move away.
Longtime friend and neighbor Jimmie Cocanougher said he’s sad to see Crabtree leave but understands his decision.
“I’m not used to being by myself, and I know it’s got to be hard on him,” Cocanougher said. “Bill’s a people person.”
Crabtree said he’s excited to move to North Carolina to be with Billie Jo and his grandchildren, none of which live in Perryville. He said home just isn’t the same without Betty.
“I'm going to miss her forever,“ he said. “Everyday that I live is one day closer I get to seeing her again.”
His poem for Betty talks about life in a place where time does not exist:
“Together on Heaven’s shore/ We will know time no more.”
It is a signed like a letter from Vietnam,