William Walter Wilson was born November 21, 1929, less than a month after Black Tuesday, and the beginning of The Great Depression in America. Although he never really harped on how difficult life was during the depression, I now wish that he had and that I had paid attention. Oh, there were bits and pieces here and there of conversational sidebars during family supper, but nothing to be construed as lecturing.
As if growing up during the depression didn’t come with enough sacrifice and stress, America joined World War II on December 7, 1941, not long after Daddy’s 12th birthday. In spite of hard times, he always looked happy to me in his childhood photos. I guess if you grow up during the depression, you’re none the wiser and have the advantage of not knowing a better time of plenty.
Having a house situated on two lots and a wooden “barn” across the back of the property, I think the “Owsley-Wilson” household fared better than some of their neighbors. The back yard was big enough for a vegetable garden, which I presume was a Victory Garden. There was a cow for milk, a plum tree, and hens laying eggs in the barn. One story I recall Daddy telling us when we were little was about his finding a stray puppy and taking him home. He was allowed to keep the puppy, but he was only allowed to feed it scraps from the table. So, Daddy called him Scrappy, and it was very fitting.
When Daddy was just 13, his father passed away, and he became the man of the house. His first job was selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions at a time when folks barely had two extra pennies to rub together. Like I said, I wish I had listened more closely, because I know he had other odd jobs to help his mother support him and his two siblings, as well as his maternal grandmother, who also lived with them. In spite of his odd jobs, he managed to stay in school and graduated in May of 1945 at the ripe age of 16.
With America’s part in World War II ending in August that same year, and the economy recovering from the war, what young man thinks about going to college after finishing high school? Turns out, a very astute one does just that, because the year before he graduated, the GI Bill was passed, opening the door for millions of veterans to return from war and attend college rather than glut the job market. This was big stuff, because previously, college educations were for the affluent and well-to-do.
Once my father heard that he could get his college education paid for by serving in the armed forces for a couple of years (in a time of non war), there was just no stopping him. He and a cousin decided they would enlist and take advantage of the GI Bill. Only problem was, you had to be 17 to enlist and he wouldn’t turn 17 for several more months. Insisting on joining the marines ASAP, he somehow convinced his godly mother to sign a document saying he was 17 so that he could enlist, and it worked.
Off to the marines he went, barely years after that photo above of a little boy in overalls was taken. Having raised five sons of my own in a very different era, my father’s actions seem exceptional–maybe not exceptional for those times, but certainly exceptional in today’s privileged and entitled society.
After two years in the U.S. Marine Corps and reaching the rank of Corporal, it was time to come back to Louisiana and go to college. He attended LSU-Baton Rouge for a semester, but it was way too big for a small-city boy, so he transferred to Louisiana Polytechnic Institute in Ruston, LA, which suited him much better, and it was closer to home back in Bossier City.
To this day, I don’t really know what happened that prevented Daddy from finishing his bachelor’s degree at Tech, so there’s a gap in the story at this point. I just never thought to ask, but the next thing I recall is that he went to work for an oilfield service company logging wells on land rigs. The job took him to Michigan. At a cafe` he and his co-workers frequented, he met Donna June Hacket, a beautiful Danish woman, whom he later brought south to meet his family. She loved him AND the warm climate, and basically never looked back.
Married February 20, 1954 in the house in which he had grown up, they honeymooned in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I remember Mother talking about how the hem of her skirt was burned by embers from the burning torch of a flambeaux carrier. (Oddly enough, Mardi Gras was never a part of our lives growing up, and only became part of mine after I moved to south Louisiana in 1978.)
I was born the following year, 1955, and it seemed Daddy always worked for Arkla Gas Company, working his way up from draftsman to the Engineering Department by the time he retired around 1985. During those years, while supporting Mother and five kids, he completed his Bachelors Degree in Math at Centenary College, and then went to work on his Masters in Industrial Engineering, which he finally earned in 1973 (my senior year of high school). He earned both degrees by attending night classes.
You know, it’s odd how, now that I see my own mortality setting on the last rays of my life, I find myself reaching deep into my mind, latching onto and eking out even the minutest memories about my family. Because my parents both died in their mid-sixties, I find myself having so many unanswered questions, the truth of which then turns my thoughts to my own children and their memories. Will they have gaps that need filling when I’m gone? Will they have paid close enough attention to really know who I was beyond just being their mother? And even if I took the time to fill in all the (boring) gaps for my children, can they appreciate the possible pearls that I place before them since they are still at the age where they think I will be here forever?
While reaching into the recesses of my memory, I find there’s still an abundance of images from my dad’s old homeplace lurking there. There’s an image of the remnants of rows where the Victory Garden once flourished in their backyard. There’s the memory of discovering the boxes for the laying hens in the old shed out back. I recall finding old garden implements in that same shed–not appreciating how important that garden was in keeping them fed during the depression. I remember eating sour plums from the old, disfigured branches of that same plum tree.
Now when I think about all those family gatherings, meals shared, and holidays celebrated in the house that my great grandfather built many, many years ago–the one in which my father grew up–I realize now what an amazing gift that was. With today’s mobile society and social media that focuses on self, it’s no wonder teens are missing the grounding that comes from connecting with family.
I’m sure all of you thought about your father today, or your grandfather. I never knew any of my grandfathers, so my father is really on my mind. He was a man’s man–a man of honor. He never cheated on his taxes. He tended to the widows at church. He let Mother stay at home and raise us, never once complaining that there wasn’t enough money to go around. He always treated her with utmost respect and disciplined us if we even thought about being disrespectful toward her. He grew roses on the back fence, making sure there was a bush with reds and a bush with whites. You know why? Because on Mother’s Day, we wore a red rose pinned to our dresses or shirt, because our mother was alive; and Daddy wore a white rose pinned to his lapel, because his mother was dead. She, too, died in her mid-sixties.
He made us watch black and white horror shows at the drive in and let us sleep in a tent in the back yard so he could sneak up and scare the heck out of us during the night. He planted a little box garden in the backyard and once grafted a pecan tree, from which my children picked up pecans when they were little. He talked sternly to any boy brave enough to take me on a date, and secretly told me to call him if I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. He took us on long car trips to Michigan and to Six Flags and made us ride the biggest roller coasters and scariest ghost rides. He took us hunting and fishing and fried fish for us and grilled squirrel on the first-ever gas grill. He sang loudly in church and took us every time the doors were open. He told us we were going to college, and there was never any question about that. He never met a stranger and treated everyone with respect, as he expected to be treated.
Now, I’m happy to say, that my children are on their way here to boil crawfish for their daddy. This post isn’t edited or polished as I would like it to be, but I have to get things ready for their arrival and hope that we make a day worth remembering.
As always, I want to hear your fatherly memories that this post prompted!
Happy Father’s Day,