Christmas Day, December 25, 1941, Forest Hill, Louisiana
I arose before sunrise, sitting by the fireplace, drinking coffee, as alone as the morning star.…
Today is the first time ever I’ve seen a white Christmas, and my entire family is here. I’d seen it snow in Forest Hill, but not on Christmas Day. As everyone awoke we watched the storm bringing heavier snow, which seems to be driven by a blue norther. Icicles hang from the trees behind our home that line the banks of Barber Creek. The creek has the coldest water in the summer there is—anywhere—at least anywhere I’ve been. I wasn’t about to find out just how cold it was today.
My eldest son Howard cut the top out of a cedar for our Christmas tree. His wife Zora baked her famous buttermilk pie and brought canned vegetables from her garden she had preserved in mason jars. I swear she is best cook I’ve ever known, well that is, next to my wife.
Each family member has brought a decoration for our tree—it’s our family tradition. There are strings of popcorn, wooden figures, sugared fruit, gingerbread, and my grandson, Donnie, even brought a bird’s nest. Today’s Donnie’s fourth birthday, too boot. I bought him a new game, Shoot the Moon and a wooden jigsaw carton puzzle. I also bought his little brother Ray a stick horse—I told him to keep him at a trot.
At the top of the tree is the star of Bethlehem that our son Herman carved from a piece of hickory that came from an old tree. The Christmas stocking’s are stuffed with nuts, candy, and fruit hung on every available nail. There are books, tablets, pencils, wooden soldiers, and even a rockin’ horse. My grandchildren’s faces seem to glow in the light of the fireplace.
Christmas Day started with a few flurries. Everyone ran outside as the sunrise colors glisten in the snow. Who can paint like the Lord of creation? Donnie grabbed a shovel from the barn to use as a sled. My youngest son Julian made sure the horses and mules were all doing fine in the barn. I swear he loves horses more than people. He’s gentle with horses but as tough as rawhide with some people. My beautiful bride, of twenty seven years, Lillie, made ice cream in a pewter pot with the snow, milk, cream, butter, and eggs. She also made my favorite, dewberry pie, and Community dark roast coffee, and enough food to feed our entire clan. Lillie is a woman of virtue—always giving a cup of kindness. She requested I play her favorite Christmas carol, O Holy Night, on my fiddle. My Daddy bought the fiddle for me, on a cattle drive from East Texas when I was just twelve.
Our home is filled with a sweet joy. But this joy and our family traditions are now threatened. Don’t get wrong, Christmas could not get any better than this, but would it be the last for our sons? No two snowflakes are said to be alike, nor are our three sons. The cares of life have drifted into my mind. Will today be the last time we all gather at our home—our beloved Ole Willis Home Place?
The snow has now drifted against the windows, begging entrance into our lives much like the events of the last three weeks. There’s nothing quite as peaceful as seeing Louisiana longleaf pines covered in a fresh sheet of snow. If only our world was that way, but it is not to be since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
We got word yesterday that my brother’s son and namesake, Robert Kenneth, we call him Bobby, was a confirmed causality of this dastardly deed. We had held out hope, but our hopes have now vanished, like a shadow when the light disappears. Rapides Parish Sheriff, U. T. Downs, along with Bobby’s pastor from First Baptist Church in Pineville, delivered the dreaded Western Union telegram from the Navy Department, to my brother. They told him that it had finally been confirmed that Bobby was entombed in the USS Arizona at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Sheriff Downs also confirmed that he was the first causality from Rapides Parish.
I had no words for my brother—at least none that could ease his pain. We are all heart-broken, disillusioned, and angry. It feels like a dark cloud has loomed over our family and our nation.
But in the midst of all of this a light has begun to dispel the darkness today like the Star of Bethlehem did so long ago. It has drawn our family closer like the beckoning candle on my wife’s supper table.
Julian enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and Herman in the Regular Army after hearing President Roosevelt’s words on the radio. I wrote part of his speech down, “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 tried to enlist, but a head injury caused by a split rim truck wheel when it exploded while he was airing up a tire in Glenmora, prevented that. The cap he wore could hide the scar in his forehead from the recruitment officer.
As we gathered around the fireplace I decided to share my hopes—my dreams—my journey. What has shocked me most about life is the brevity of it. Pearl Harbor and the loss of three siblings much too young has etched that into my mind. Will my boys fate be like Bobby’s?
It is now more important than ever that our family’s history be written down for future generations. I’ve handed a stack of Big Chief writing tablets to my sons with strict instructions that they don’t miss a single detail.
My name is Randall Lee Willis. My friends call me Ran. This is the story our family.
✯ ✯ ✯
“Now sons, it is my hope—your mother’s and my prayer, that this gives you strength and wisdom in the days to come.
A good place to begin is when I first dreamed of being a cowboy…!”
✯ ✯ ✯
“Cowards never lasted long enough to become real cowboys” ~ Charlie Goodnight
✯ ✯ ✯
An unedited excerpt from Beckoning Candle, a novel by Randy Willis. To learn more about my books and the characters in them go to my website at www.ThreeWindsBlowing.com
A note from the author: Beckoning Candle is my new book that will be released in 2017. It hasn’t been sent to my editors yet. It is based upon my father Julian “Jake” Willis’s life and my namesake, my grandfather, Randall “Ran” Willis’s life. It is a nonfiction novel (i.e.: the story of actual people and actual events told with the dramatic techniques of a novel). Truman Capote claimed to have invented this genre with his book “In Cold Blood” (which I read many years ago). I will keep you updated with the release date.
Amazon author’s page: