Our family was forever changed on this day. This is that true story.
December 25, 1941
The Ole Willis Place on Barber Creek. Longleaf, Louisiana
Ran Willis arises before sunrise, nestles next to the fireplace, with hot coffee—as alone as the morning star.
The wind whistles through the dogtrot and awakens Julian. He struggles upright, half asleep, and rubs his eyes as he pours a cup of coffee.
“It’s our first white Christmas! Grab some firewood—please. And check on the horses, mules, and the dogs too.”
“Yes, sir, Daddy. Merry Christmas!” Julian shivers as he chips through the frozen water trough with a horseshoe. He gathers the firewood, now covered in two foot of snow. Icicles adorn the trees overhanging Barber Creek. It is cold and rather barren, but it has the loveliness of a Christmas card. And, like a Christmas card, it will hold that image in Julian’s mind for years to come.
Ran’s eldest son, Howard, driving his International Harvester truck, can be heard a mile away as it plows through the snow on the red dirt road. The family knows there will be no snowfall that will prevent Howard from delivering a Christmas tree to the homestead—a real tree, and not one of those artificial, awkwardly bent imitation trees that have no texture, no fragrance, no fullness.
“That’s a big cedar. Let me help.” Julian drags the Christmas tree out of the truck bed.
Howard’s wife Zora cries out, “I need help, too.” Ran clasps her. “Ah-ha! All my favorites: freshly baked pies, peach preserves, and okra in mason jars. Oh, my, and even your famous buttermilk pie.”
Ran’s wife Lillie collects each family member’s handcrafted decoration for the tree. “Let’s hang them.” The aroma of cedar, sugared fruit, and gingerbread brings back memories of Christmases past.
Today is Ran and Lillie’s grandson Donnie’s fourth birthday, to boot. “Can I play with my birthday gifts, Grandpa?”
“Yep, but keep the stick horse at a trot. Let him get used to this colder weather, eh? See what else Santa left you. The new game Shoot the Moon and a wooden jigsaw carton puzzle.”
Good, long-time neighbors, John and Ruth Duke, along with their two kids, Johnnie Ruth and Jerry, arrive with a pumpkin pie and two fruitcakes.
Miss Ruth always spikes her fruitcakes with a little rum. “It’s no different from using cooking sherry and, therefore, is not an affront to the Lord,” Ruth says. “It provides moisture and helps preserve the cake.”
Ran fidgets. “The better part of valor is not to mention that to Lillie. Her definition of what constitutes a mortal sin may be different from ours. Let me taste-test the cake for moisture.” He pinches off a nibble and smacks his lips in approval. “Now, indeed, that’s the moistest cake ever! I may have another slice or two later.”
Johnnie Ruth and Donnie sit on the floor. Donnie prefers Conflict, a military board game—Johnnie Ruth, paper dolls.
Howard reaches and hangs the star of Bethlehem on the tree.
“It almost touches the ceiling.” His brother Herman carved it from a piece of hickory. Christmas stockings, stuffed with nuts, candy, and fruit, hang on every available nail. Earlier, Lillie had placed books, tablets, pencils, wooden soldiers, and even a-rockin’ horse under the tree.
The children’s faces glow from the fireplace. Herman stokes the fire with a piece of pine-kindling.
The sunrise colors glisten in the snow. “Who can paint like the Lord of creation?” Lillie proclaims.
Donnie and Johnnie Ruth grab a shovel, off to go sledding from the barn. They slide down the hill to the banks of Barber Creek.
“You kids get back up here,” Lillie yells. “That’s too dangerous. Ten more feet and you’d both be frozen lollypops!”
Julian blows in his horse’s nose to calm him. It’s not the first time the animal has experienced snow, but it has been a long time, and any sudden change in the weather makes horses skittish, until they get reassurance from their masters that all is well and everything is still just fine. “The Comanche use to do this in Texas. Helps you bond with the horse.”
“I’m going to churn ice cream in my new pewter pot,” Lillie promises. She stirs snow, milk, cream, butter, and eggs. She also prepares Ran’s favorites, especially dewberry pie, along with a cup of kindness known as Community dark roast coffee.
Ran grins. “I hung some mistletoe.”
Lillie looks him in the eyes and kisses him on the cheek. “The kids.”
“We have enough to feed Camp Claiborne’s 34th Red Bull Infantry,” Ran says. The nearby U.S. Army military camp accommodates 30,000 men but does not give Lillie a sense of safety. A world war is still raging, and every American is on alert.
Lillie’s eyes sparkle. “Please play my favorite Christmas carol—O Holy Night?” Ran’s father bought him a fiddle on a cattle drive from East Texas when he was barely twelve. He spent his evenings teaching himself the fingering and bowing techniques.
“How can I refuse a woman of such virtue—and one so beautiful? Our home overflows with your sweet joy.”
Lillie hugs him. “Will it be our last Christmas with our sons?”
The snow drifts against the windows and doors, begging entrance into their lives like the events of the previous three weeks.
“There’s nothing as peaceful as Louisiana Longleaf pines covered in a fresh layer of snow,” Ran muses. “Ah, if only our world were that way.”
Ran’s eighteen-year-old nephew, Robert Willis, Jr., enlisted July 31, 1940, and reported aboard the battleship USS Arizona, on October 8, 1940, at Pearl Harbor. A surprise military strike by the Japanese Navy Air Service on the morning of December 7, 1941, detonated a bomb in a powder magazine. The battleship exploded and sank. Hundreds of marines and sailors were trapped as the ship went down.
The family held out hope, but those hopes had been vanquished a week ago, like a shadow darkening all elements of light. Rapides Parish Sheriff, U. T. Downs, along with Robert’s pastor from First Baptist Church, Pineville, delivered a Western Union telegram to Robert’s father.
Downs struggled to speak with tears in his eyes. “It has been confirmed that Robert’s entombed in the USS Arizona at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. I just can’t tell you how grieved I am to have to bring this news to you, and especially so soon after Thanksgiving. This is the part of my job that I dread the most. If there’s anything I can do for you folks, just say the word.”
Howard and Zora took Donnie to the Pringle Picture Show in Glenmora to see How Green Was My Valley. “We need to seem as if nothing has changed for Donnie’s sake,” Zora insists. “I fear that we will be one of many, many families who will receive telegrams before this war is over. Our hearts are broken, but we must carry on.”
Julian now works with the horses and mules—plenty of grain, hay, and water for them. He grooms their coats of hair and checks to see if they are sound and well-shod. He’s gentle with horses, the elderly, and children, but as tough as rawhide on men who are no-account. “I wish I could ride you guys into battle, but an airplane will have to do.”
Two stray goats, covered with ice, nudge their way into the barn. Julian jumps up to shoo them back outside. “Get out of here. You’re going to break Daddy’s deer horn hat rack I made. It’s his Christmas gift.” The goats resist but then yield when Julian gives each a swat.
Herman, quiet and soft-spoken, takes off, without saying a word—impeccably dressed, as always.
Howard and Julian help their father with the firewood. “It’s best you two find him—now! Take my Ford,” Ran insists.
They pump ten gallons of gas into Ran’s ’40 Ford Coupe at Bob Johnson’s Grocery Store at Shady Nook. “Where do you think he’s at?” Howard asks.
“Charlie’s Cafe in Glenmora is the closest—let’s try there first.”
“He just left, but not until he whipped two men for making fun of his khaki pants,” the owner tells them when they arrive.
“Did he say anything?” Julian asks.
“He mentioned, he would not be back, ever, and he preferred Boom Town’s honky-tonks. Not sure which one, but they’re all outside Camp Claiborne’s main gate. As long as that base keeps bringing in new boys who are wet behind the ears and willing to waste their pay during a weekend pass, those places will thrive. Check ‘em one by one.”
This time one man lay on the floor in need of medical attention.
“Let’s check the Wigwam, in Forest Hill,” Julian says, “before someone kills him or, God forbid, wrinkles his pants.”
The sounds from the beer joint known for live music and its jukebox shakes the windows as they drive into the parking lot. Chicken wire fencing wraps around the bandstand to keep the band from getting hit with beer bottles.
As they enter, the bartender yells. “Break ’em up before they destroy the place!” Three men are holding Herman while two others are landing repeated punches and kicks. The jukebox blares Jimmie Davis’s hit—I Hung My Head and Cried.
Herman, bleeding like a stuck pig, calls out, “Are y’all going to help me or just stand there, whistlin’ Dixie?”
“I’ll take the three holding him, you the other two. Use that chair, Howard.”
After a melee of about ten minutes, they settle with the barkeeper for fifty bucks in damages and haul Herman outside to his truck. His lip is busted, his nose is bleeding, and one eye is starting to seal shut. He refuses to show any sign of weakness or pain, although he wheezes when drawing in a breath between bruised ribs.
They arrive home in time for a delayed supper. Ran examines Herman’s cuts and bruises. “Save all that anger for the Japs and Hitler.”
Lillie brings clean towels. “My three sons fighting in the Devil’s playground and on Christmas Day! May the Good Lord find mercy to forgive you for such behavior!”
Ran smiles. “At least they didn’t go to the Duck Inn…it provides more than liquor.” She does not find the humor in his observation, as her grimace reveals.
Lillie pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face and walks outside into the biting wind. “I need to gather more snow for the ice cream.”
She returns—but with no snow. “It’s suppertime.” Her words are all that is needed for family and guests to gather around the candle-lit table.
As Ran says grace, a light dispels the darkness in their hearts just as the Star of Bethlehem did long ago. The reflection in Lillie’s face, from the beckoning candle, contradicts the devastating news from Hawaii.
Ran bows his head as everyone joins hands. “Lord, we know the world will still turn, the songbirds will again make their joyful sounds, and this too will pass. Keep our sons in the hollow of Your hand. Bless this food—and bless our nation. In the name above all names—Jesus.”
American men from coast to coast step forward to retaliate against the attack on U.S. soil. In the days shortly after Thanksgiving, Julian had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and Herman in the ground forces Army after hearing President Roosevelt’s words on the radio: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
Howard went with his brothers and did his best also to enlist. However, the recruiter didn’t even need to wait for the results of a physical to see that Howard had a deformity that would make him 4-F. Howard had a serious head injury, caused by a blow from a split rim truck wheel. It had exploded while Howard was filling a tire with air in Glenmora. He tried to disguise the injury by pulling a cap down over his hair and forehead, but the recruiter—who was not new to his job—pulled off the cap, surveyed the scar, and motioned a thumb over his shoulder, indicating Howard was “out” of the running. Ran tried to assure Howard he could still be of service to the nation in other ways. For a scrapper and brawler like Howard, those words brought little appeasement.
Now, as they continue to enjoy what will probably be the last Christmas as a united family for perhaps years to come, Howard stokes the flames in the fireplace with a kindling-stick from a busted chiffarobe. Ran raises his fiddle. “Join me, in the family key.” Everyone joins in.
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
As the long day ends, Ran leafs through his great-grandfather Joseph Willis’s six-inch thick leather-bound journal written long ago.
“What would he do?”
✯ ✯ ✯
An excerpt from Destiny, a nonfiction novel by Randy Willis
Release date February 14, 2019
Published by American Writers Publishing, LLC