This past Feast of the Assumption was a seminal date for me. It was my birthday, as it is every year, of course, but this particular birthday was noteworthy and sobering. I am now the age my father was when he died, prematurely in an accident, after a life of self-denial and heroic sacrifice that I could not describe adequately even if I were to write a ten-volume opus. His own opus was to live a simple life, one responsible for bringing a lot of Catholic progeny into the world.
When I think of my father, I recall a phrase often attributed to Chesterton: “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” In a way, there was nothing extraordinary about either of my parents, and certainly not about us children. And my childhood was far from idyllic. But every year that passes deepens my understanding of this celebrated quote and my admiration for the difficult, complex but untroubled man I called “Dad.”
The oldest of three children in an Episcopalian family, he grew up mostly in Oklahoma, a devout and serious lad from his earliest days. His mother, a cold and remote woman, shipped him off to a distant military academy when he was but eleven years old. I cannot imagine the loneliness and disorientation he must have felt, which would have broken many a child. But he lived in an era when one’s parents were not blamed for every perceived stumble in life. He determined to be the best cadet in the school, which he was indeed, becoming Cadet Adjutant by high school graduation.
He told me later that his “path to Rome” began at the Missouri Military Academy, as he watched the Catholic students, mostly from upper-class Mexican families, marching off to early Mass every Sunday and holy day. He learned a lot from their devotion to the Blessed Virgin, even though their friendship did not help him earn anything higher than a “C” in Spanish class.
He excelled at every other subject. When I inherited his library and papers, I found an essay written in 1946, his junior year of high school, entitled “The Real Peace,” wherein my father outlined the steps that would have been required to revive a pacified Europe on a Christian foundation (which he concluded would be unlikely). No college student I have ever taught would have been capable of producing such a work of penetrating analysis and scintillating prose.
By the time my father entered college, he was no longer satisfied with the halfway answers he was getting from Episcopal priests, and he started frequenting a Catholic Newman Center. He had even thought briefly about becoming a priest himself, but then he met my mother, who was likewise exiting a generic Christian church through catechism lessons, and something about meeting her changed his mind. (I think it was more biology than theology. Miss Spillman, later Mrs. Williams and now known as Sr. Jane-Frances, was a beauty pageant winner in 1949.)
How did this young, newly Catholic couple spend the next twenty-five years? Working a variety of jobs with barely adequate salaries, and supplemented by service in the Army Reserve, living in a modest home, raising ten children, and owning one car, a black and white television that was almost never turned on, a house full of books, and a piano to accompany my mother’s operatic soprano. There was also a very active parish life, and an astounding charity drawn from the most meager resources. And above all, never, ever a single word of complaint. Not about the government, not about the Mass, not about a Church in increasing chaos, and not about bigoted neighbors. Oh, and of course, there was a war at the outset of it all…
As a child, I was frequently disappointed by my father’s answers to my eager questions. He steadfastly refused to tell me any war stories of gore or heroism. His general response to my rather bloodthirsty queries was: “I am pretty sure I never killed anyone, and I am very grateful for that.” Not exactly the type of chanson de geste a ten-year-old wants to hear. It was not until my own very modest military service that it became possible for me to understand his relief and reticence.
Sometimes, he would pull out an old photo album and show me pictures of a Catholic orphanage in Hokkaido, with my father and his jeep driver (a sergeant and fellow Catholic) delivering rice and supplies purchased with money donated by G.I.s. There was Lt. Williams, smiling and playing with war-orphans, while radiant Japanese nuns looked on. Other photos show him handing out candy, or food, or just plain clean water to bedraggled Korean children with destroyed and smoldering villages in the background.
There were no pictures of weapons or warfare in any of his albums. Nothing in those dusty folders could explain to me why my father had returned from overseas with an impressive array of military medals. Only late in life, a couple of years before his death, did he ever relate to me even the most ordinary tales from Korea. One of his stories was anything but ordinary, as it exemplified the courage and initiative that has always made the American Army officer the best leader in the world.
At some point in the war, my father—then barely 22 years old—had learned of the North Korean and Chinese fear of Turkish soldiers. Apparently, our Muslim NATO allies were famous for their savagery in combat, ignoring the Geneva Convention by rarely taking prisoners. It was just a tale, and not one he had ever witnessed—maybe it was even nothing but a rumor. But he filed it away in his memory somewhere. Little did he know, at the time, that his recollection of that piece of information would end up saving the lives of twenty-five Americans…
He was commanding a depleted platoon of soldiers who were believed to be on a secure route back from the front. One night, however, they found themselves suddenly under attack by a much superior unit of communist troops who had infiltrated past the front lines. Poorly supplied, the Americans ran out of ammunition within an hour. The situation quickly became desperate, and Lt. Williams ordered his men to fix bayonets for what he expected would be a hopeless last stand. Then he remembered the story about the Turks, and he improvised.
Just that day, his platoon had taken charge of two North Korean prisoners. He ordered the prisoners to be brought out front, and had his Korean interpreter tell them they were being released for humanitarian reasons, since “Turkish reinforcements” were on their way forward, and he feared the Turks might insist on killing the prisoners. Sure enough, the release of these two haggard POWs had the desired effect. They must have related the Turks’ impending arrival—entirely fictitious, of course—to the officers of the attacking North Koreans, and that was enough to make the communists break and run. That night, an American unit was saved by a piece of disinformation from a Benedictine-trained student of history and philosophy.
To this day, I carry in my wallet a scrap of paper—now laminated—that my father had with him from the Korean War to the day he died. It might seem a curious prayer to be carried by a soldier, who became the director of the Tulsa Red Cross, then a small-business lobbyist and an Army Reserve colonel. It is the well-known “Student’s Prayer” by St. Thomas Aquinas. My father had always wanted to go back to school someday, to become a history professor. With ever-growing family responsibilities, he could never afford it. It was heart-breaking to hear from him that he considered himself something of a failure in life. Well, he had ten children, thirty grandchildren, and who knows how many great-grandchildren, including homemakers, nurses, a rancher, soldiers, musicians, technicians, engineers, professors, two religious, and (hopefully) two priests-in-the-making. Hardly a life spent badly, Dad. Not bad at all…