One of the joys of my life involved the time I spent with my late father-in-law, Julius Cole. He grew up in the southern half of Lonoke County, Arkansas—farm country near the western limits of the great flood of 1927. He referred to the northern half of the county as “hill country” because there one can discern slight undulations in the land if one looks carefully. His land was flat and fertile, some of the most productive on the planet.
He was a gentle man who would talk to a stranger as readily as he would talk to his best friend. Reared on a farm, by the age of nine he was putting in a full day behind a plow. He never stopped moving until the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease rendered him helpless in 1999.
But what a man he was in his time.
On his 21st birthday, in 1944, he was inducted into the United States Army. After boot camp and advanced infantry training, he joined the 79th Infantry Division and moved with that unit, praised as a “fighting division” through France, Belgium and Germany.
Of those times he would recall thinking “Just let me live one more second, just one more second.” Most of us will never know.
Upon Germany’s surrender, the 79th was disbanded and the Army transferred him to the First Division, the “Big Red One.” This meant that he would have likely been in the first wave of any invasion of Japan.
But the war ended and he went home and never fired a weapon again as far as I know, nor did he ever mistreat another living thing.
He didn’t want to return to farming, but he found that his family had used the money he sent home while in the army to buy more land, and that established his future. So farming it was, along with marriage to a “hill country” girl a couple of years later and a daughter—my Brenda—a few years after that.
This isn’t the story of Julius Cole the farmer, soldier, husband, and father. It is the story of millions of ordinary men who were called to do extraordinary things after living through the worst economic times this country has ever known. We owe much to them.
The 79th Division held annual reunions until recently but he never attended. After his death in the year 2000, Brenda signed up for the next one, hoping against hope that she might find someone who know her dad amongst the battalions, regiments, companies, platoons, and squads still represented in those days. Miraculously, on her first day there, she met a man, Jim O’Neil who had served in the 79th since it landed at Normandy on D-Day plus six.
“I knew your dad,” he said. “Not only that, I have a Nazi flag that we all signed after we captured it. Come back next year and I’ll bring it and show it to you.”
She did. She brought her mom and they continued to attend the reunions until death and advanced age left too few veterans. To this day, Brenda remains friends, via the internet, with Jim’s widow Dorothy who lives in Northern California.
It is a small and wonderful world if we choose it to be.