I hadn’t thought about our family friends Illene and O.W. Williams for years, but their faces popped back into focus as today — Pearl Harbor Day — approached. Contemporaries of my parents, this couple attended the same church we did. Illene taught the junior high Sunday school class. And if O.W. was awake, he was smiling. For all I knew, he smiled while he was sleeping, too.
It wasn’t a smile that merely turned the corners of his mouth up a bit. It was a smile that was so broad it puffed out his cheeks and extended upward to cover his entire face, forcing his eyes to squint and his forehead to wrinkle.
Everyone called them Illene and O.W., even the kids. Because of the way they were always doing things with the church’s young people, they seemed like our aunt and uncle. They had no children of their own, and sadly that must not have been a choice they made themselves. They would have been great parents.
When I was in the hospital, they brought me a small cross that still hangs in my old bedroom in my mother’s home. Illene collected “stones” — not “rocks” — and she tried in vain to interest me in the hobby.
But the young teens in their Sunday school class couldn’t be around them all the time. So, they raised dogs. Beautiful dogs. And they treated them as well as parents should treat their children. It wasn’t my mother’s idea of proper Southern housekeeping, but who’s going to tell their kids they aren’t welcome in their own home?
Illene and O.W. didn’t live in the city. But they really didn’t live in the country, either. They had a few acres of North Carolina real estate on the oppositie side of the city where we lived — a place we might describe as a ranchette today. In the summer, Illene and O.W. would often invite me to spend the day with them. I think O.W. must have been retired. His health was poor, and Aileen’s was even worse, but it didn’t stop them from doing the things they wanted to do.
Members of the baby-boomer generation grew up with war heroes all around them, but we didn’t know it. Very few veterans seemed interested in talking about their World War II experiences. It was a part of their lives that they had wrapped in a cocoon and set aside when the war ended, and they returned home to resume civilian life — to get married, earn a living and perhaps raise a family. My own father served in the Navy during World War II, and beyond one or two humorous stories he told me that happened while he was training in Indianapolis, of all places, my knowledge of his military service is spotty.
Occasionally, a piece of information would slip out. We would be watching a television show on the war, and a certain ship would be shown. “I was on that ship,” Dad would say. “We crossed the equator and they threw us overboard.” On another show, a battle situation would be described, and Dad would nod in agreement and say, “That’s exactly how it was.”
But O.W. was an exception. He didn’t mind sharing his experiences. He was full of war stories. I’m sure he omitted some of the more gruesome details from his accounts, but he spoke openly about the things he had seen, the difficulties he and his buddies had endured and the horror that is war. Some of his most somber reflections came when he talked about his company’s advance into Japan after two atomic bombs were dropped in 1945. Within weeks, he was among the American troops who occupied Nagasaki, the site of the second bombing.
To illustrate the power of the explosion, O.W. showed me a clay tile from a destroyed building he had brought home with him. The portion that had been covered by an overlapping tile was light gray. The half that had been exposed to the blast was almost black.
O.W. gave me that tile, saying something like he hoped my generation would remember what that weapon can do and why we need to avoid putting the world into a position where we have to consider doing something like that again.
On a recent trip to North Carolina, I attempted to find their house, even though they both passed away years ago. I gave up. If I did the triangulation correctly, there’s a shopping center on the property where they once lived. That’s what we call progress.
I just hope the lessons learned and the lessons taught by people like Illene and O.W. Williams are never paved over by the passage of time. That would really be progress.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.