Like many young men, William Savage struggled to find his role in life. He took a few half-hearted stabs at college. He came to Raleigh in 2011 “to get himself together,” his father recalled, working for a time at the front desk of the Velvet Cloak Inn and as a bouncer at Mosaic Wine Lounge.
But however adrift he might have seemed, he fixated on one thing: the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Syria. He read about them to the point of obsession. He often talked of going overseas to help, and his father told him, “There’s plenty of persecution you can fight right here.”
Then William would hold up a picture of children lying dead in rows and ask, “Persecution like this?”
And so William went, joining a Kurdish guerrilla group in 2015 – an American volunteer with zero military experience. From Raleigh, his father would hear accounts of William tossing grenades at ISIS fighters down a stairwell, or carrying a wounded woman across a street through a barrage of bullets, and finally in August, dying under artillery fire at age 27, trying to evacuate civilians from the city of Manbij.
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After five days in bed, floored by the news, Reginald Savage, 66, rose to tributes from across the ocean, calling his son heroic and great. And he vowed to fight tears, knowing William had found his place.
“William wanted to be a righteous person,” he said. “I think of William and what he became, and it’s a tremendous amount of joy about it. For him to achieve that righteousness blows my mind. For him to become what he became is nothing to be sad about.”
This story is personal for me because I have known Reginald Savage since age 18. He taught philosophy at my college in Maryland, St. Mary’s, and we played together in the jazz band. “Reggie” would wander the campus with his saxophone and haunt the basement of Montgomery Hall, analyzing Charlie Parker solos as though they were mathematical theorem. William’s mother, Nancy Paige Smith, taught political science, and William was born into that bucolic bubble of Plato and Frisbee golf.
“He was the baddest-assed, most difficult child in the world,” said Reginald, who recalled swatting William on the leg only once. “He was so insulted by it. ‘What are you hitting me for? I’m just being a bad 2-year-old kid?’ And he was right.”
His parents divorced when William was young, and Reginald took a new professor’s position at N.C. State, later opening his own gourmet chocolate company, Azurelise. Father and son saw each other on holidays and in the summers, and to hear his father tell it, William developed both a soft heart and coarse way of speaking. Reginald recalled driving one day while William talked on the phone from the passenger seat, and as they went over a bump his son hollered into the receiver, “What the (heck) my dad just ran over a squirrel! How could you do that? That’s wrong!”
I think of William and what he became, and it’s a tremendous amount of joy about it.
He wanted to serve in the military, Reginald said, but he’d had a seizure at age 5 and the Marines would not take him. William then tried unsuccessfully to join the French Foreign Legion. Finally, last year, William told his father that he was traveling to Greece for a study-abroad program. Reginald doubted this, and when he called St. Mary’s College in Maryland, he learned that no such program exists. When he checked credit card records, he saw that William had flown to Dubai and then Baghdad.
“He didn’t want me to worry,” his father said.
William had joined the People’s Protection Units, the main Kurdish guerrilla force fighting ISIS in Syria. “They asked if he had any military experience, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m a four-star general,’” Reginald said. “He thought he was being devious.”
For months, Reginald received only terse messages describing little of his son’s movements. When he wanted to get William’s attention, he would type a single word into an email: “WILLIAM.” And William would type back: “Reginald” or “Go to sleep.”
But pictures traveled from Syria of William patting a puppy on the street and playing what appears to have been a game of tag. “They say he was like totally relaxed. Telling jokes. Totally at ease. The fear was gone. He became (the biblical) David. Not anybody hating or vicious. Just a warrior out of love.”
The situation in Syria is as complex as it is violent, divided by factions and proxy governments’ interests. But in the days after William’s death, news outlets were flooded with pictures of Manbij residents celebrating their liberation from ISIS. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, issued this statement, according to Voice of America News: “Despite all differences, William believed in building a common and peaceful life.” And his memory “will stay alive in the hearts and souls of all his friends.”
In the final message to his father in late July, William typed, “You’re not old yet” into the subject line, and then, cryptically, “Thanks.” With his son gone, Reginald has spent many hours turning over the meaning, wondering if it is coded.
“He’s going to have me thinking about it until I can’t think about it anymore,” he said.
But Reginald persists. After a month, his son’s body is finally coming to North Carolina. As this moment arrives, he thinks about the definition of eternity and imagines William offering a simple answer: Love.
“I don’t know what death is,” he said. “It’s like William is just slapping me on the head saying, ‘Why are you crying if you’re saying you don’t know what death is?’ If I’m thinking about William, how is it possible that there’s no William? And that’s the philosopher in me.”
In his front yard not long ago, watering his flowers, Reginald spoke to his son: “OK, show me something,” he called out into eternity.
And a few days later, in a pot full of dead flowers, a tall red daisy grew. Call it a coincidence, said Reginald, no believer in hocus-pocus. But it’s a great coincidence.