from: Thomas L. Wheeler
© 1997

Everyone in Altamont, Tennessee (a town of 250 nestled in the Cumberland Mountains of middle Tennessee) knew H.B. and Willie Mae Williams. He was a little gray-haired man with glasses who ran the 150-year-old general store in town. Its interior, as late as the 1960s, was cluttered with hooks where sides of meat had hung in decades long gone; with 'hoops' for cheeses, mostly empty by then; with empty pickle barrels; with a long low case for holding cold sodas, and an even longer glass case on the countertop for holding candy and pastry and so on.

I and all other children in town loved William's store, and especially during summers spent large amounts of time in its cool shade deciding where to spend our ten cents. It wasn't just the candy that drew us, it was the kindness and attention the Williamses bestowed on everyone who visited. We enjoyed the time provided for our visits by the slowness of traffic through the store, and didn't know the store was failing, nor why: didn't know that during the long years of the Depression Mr. Williams had extended credit to everyone who had asked or needed, knowing that much of it would never be paid back again. His was the only store in the area at that time, and he gave life to the town through a hard spell. Whatever the cost to him, he looked back on it as a duty gladly borne. In my time no one brought it up to him, any more than the murder of his mother in his infancy, in his presence, that had made him, briefly in the early years of the century, the celebrity of the mountain top The slow times in his store gave Mr. Williams time for forgetfulness, time sitting in the shaft of light that lanced onto his store-counter from the single large high window in the back, to learn to read Scripture in the Greek and Hebrew in which they were written; to teach us town kids the names of all the states and their capitols and key points of U.S. history, and the geography of faraway places using the large globe perched for some reason on a high wooden desk at the back of his store; and to spend time with his own two sons. Miss Willie Mae doted on him, and them; in my memory her face is always wreathed in gray hair, and always smiling, and her hand stroking one of them in affection or turned-to in the kitchen making something for them. Jimmy, five years younger than the crowd I was part of, was to us a ragtail nobody. But Reuben was something else again. Twelve years older than his brother, he was like a young god for us, a standout student and athlete and actor at the high school, a help to his aging parents in all things, and yet miraculously a 'regular guy' around us younger children. Joy followed him. A smile was in his eyes, and when his parents saw him coming their tired, strained faces would break into answering smiles --- this, at least, at least, had gone well in their lives. At least, they would be able to look forward to his presence and comfort in the coming years of their old age. And then the war came. A place so far away from the hills of middle Tennessee that for a long time most people couldn't even say the names of the countries and places and people correctly. Reuben went, of course, and his parents' heartbreak and the terror that something would happen to their son were almost swallowed by their solemn pride. Although there were hopes in the town that Reuben might stay Stateside, or at least out of harm's way, no one would have dared suggest to Mr. or Mrs. Williams that they try to do anything to make it so. People from the mountain had a tendency, rather, to 're-up'; to finish what they had started, to see it through. In due course we heard that Reuben had shipped to VietNam, and the whole town held its breath. Day after day we would finger the maps, touch the globes that showed us where he was, and try to imagine what his life was like there; we watched the TV newscasts, and prayed, and waited. In early September 1967 we heard that Reuben had been killed, a hero. The memory still makes the small hairs on my arms rise: his mother's anguish like a flood, though silent, silent - her son, her first-born son, Reuben; his father's eyes darkened, the pace slowed -- there was nothing to say that could be said; his brother, we all, wild with grief and fury, too young to really understand -- who understands? -- but determined from that moment to go, to do OUR duty, somehow to level the scale, to come home again, as though it could bring him back too. I wish that I could say that ensuing years were kinder to the Williams family, and that time assuaged their sorrow, but it was not so. Mr. Williams' finely tuned mind wandered, whether because of Alzheimer's or a broken heart someone else will have to say. The burden of caring for him and her younger son, even with what help she would accept from others, broke Miss Willie Mae's health and she died untimely. Time and circumstance have carried both me and Jimmy, many of us from those days, far away from Altamont. The old general store is gone now, and the weeds have grown up around even its memory. But for some of us the memories and the lessons will never die: of courage in the face of adversity, however fearsome; of duty gladly borne and well performed; of love that lives beyond the years. God knows we have tried to live up, as well as we could, to the teachings and the examples of the Williamses and so many more. In our minds, still, Reuben and Mr. and Mrs. and Jimmy abide in grace, the golden sun still falling through dust-motes onto the store counter with its Moon Pies and the soda case full of iced-down Dr. Pepper, the smell of cornbread coming from the back room and the Bible somehow open on the old desk beside the letter that came and the flag and the medal that followed, as Reuben flings back the front-door with a grin on his face, starting a story about something he's seen up the road.

And in our minds and hearts, imperishable forever, and multiplied by thousands and by tens of thousands, a tribute to the sacrifice of this 'ordinary' American family.  


Official Information:
2LT - O1 - Marine Corps - Regular
23 year old Single, Caucasian, Male
Born on Aug 12, 1944
Casualty was on Aug 30, 1967
Body was recovered
Panel 25E - - Line 73

Floyd Peter Skaggs, CPL, USA Logo
Comments to Don Poss
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