Next to Smithtown Town Hall is a water fountain with a plaque in memory of James Woods, a 19-year old infantryman killed in Vietnam in 1969.
“All who are thirsty come and drink freely,” it reads. Except nobody can: The water fountain is dry. How long it has been so was not clear, though a reporter found it dry last summer and again last week.
“We’re going to fix it,” said Councilman Tom Lohmann, the town council’s Parks Department liaison. “I literally have Parks Department getting a price evaluation.”
Lohmann said a resident had alerted him to the problem two weeks ago.
The small memorial for Woods bears the inscription “in loving memory from his mother Billie Jeanne James.” She lived in Smithtown for at least three decades starting in the 1970s after the death of Woods, her firstborn child. The town council accepted her donation of the fountain and plaque in 1985, Lohmann said.
Attempts to reach the family were unsuccessful.
But an online memorial for Woods and decades-old Newsday clips about James’ efforts to honor her son provide a sketch of their lives.
Woods was raised in New Milford, New Jersey, a lover of old cars and manager of the first McDonald’s in River Edge, New Jersey, according to an online page of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial based in part on information his family supplied. He enlisted in the Army in January 1968 and was mortally wounded that August, shot in the neck while serving as a helicopter gunner. While wounded, he saw a smoke grenade ignite in the pilot’s compartment and threw it out of the helicopter, an action that earned him an Air Medal.
His father, James Woods Sr., flew to Vietnam to sit at his bedside before he died.
Billie Jeanne took her dead son’s first name as her last and renamed another son after him. “I cannot separate his death from my life,” she once told Newsday. “It goes on and on. As long as I live, these memories will go on.”
She started a letter-writing campaign to persuade governments to recognize his birthday — June 5 — as Peace Day. On Peace Day in 1970, 150 women joined her at her son’s grave at Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn. Smithtown, Huntington and Nassau and Suffolk counties observed the day, at least for a time.
By the early 2000s, when Bill Baum of Port Jefferson Station and John LaGrandier of Ronkonkoma met her, Billie Jeanne James needed help. She was living with little or no heat and a bad roof. She hoarded plastic bags and bottles, the men recalled. She wrote poetry and tended grand ideas: “She had this thing, she was going to get the government to give her a lighthouse, and she was going to make a museum for her son,” LaGrandier said last week.
Baum, a retired mail carrier, and LaGrandier, a former correction officer and contractor, were Vietnam veterans and volunteers with Rebuilding Together, a housing nonprofit. They spent days fixing James’ house and spoke affectionately of her. “It really touched me, that she thought so much of her son,” Baum said.
But the three did not stay friends. LaGrandier said that one day when he was fixing a bathroom in her house Billie Jeanne James told him to leave. Baum said he and James also fell out.
The men are in their early 70s now, a little older than James Woods would be had he lived. They met one afternoon last week at the water fountain and didn’t like what they saw.
“I understand it’s one guy, but on the other hand it is one guy, it is one life,” LaGrandier said. “It should mean something, and right now you can see it doesn’t.”