While making an appearance at Litchfield Books in South Carolina, I had the opportunity to interview a World War II veteran. Powell was parachute infantryman during World War II. A job he volunteered for, after volunteering for the Army.
Like an elder Jimmy Fallon, the handsome Powell is quick to laugh and does so often. He delights in making the unexpected wise-crack. But when he speaks of his days as an infantryman, Powell’s fingers move slowly back-and-forth over the chair-arm, over his lean thighs. A nervous gesture of calm in the midst of despair. Remembering is both hard and easy for the tender-hearted. “Do I remember my first-jump?” he replies. “You got be kidding me! Of course I remember!”
Who could ever forget such a thing?
Powell was working off up yonder in Lexington, Ky., near Yankee territory, when the war broke out. The J.C. Penny company told the young Alabama native that if he wanted to volunteer they’d hold his job for him until he got out, and they did. Held his job for him even though he was gone off overseas for nearly two years.
The first job Powell had as a boy was picking cotton. The ten-year old lasted a day before announcing to his momma that nobody ought to be doing that wretched work. She didn’t make him go back. Instead, he began selling boiled peanuts for 5 cents a bag and ended up making more money in a day than his daddy did working for the WPA. People will do without a lot but not without their boiled peanuts.
The first wrong he remembers righting was those carrots his momma fed him. Powell did not like carrots when he was a boy, although, he’ll eat them now if they are cooked soft and firm, not mushy like sweet potatoes. To keep from having to eat anymore of the depression-era staple, the youngster went to the garden, pulled up all the carrots and cut them into itty-bitty pieces. When his momma discovered what her wayward son had done, she whooped him. It was a correction that has lasted a lifetime. Not that Powell is sorry, mind you. He was sick of carrots.
It was his high school buddies who suggested to Powell that they ought to join the Army together. They foolishly believed, as did thousands of others, that if they went and volunteered together they would get to go to basic together, then they would be stationed together. They thought the military might be like church camp. Only instead of exploring the woods, they would get to explore the world together.
Turns out the only time they spent together was at the recruiter’s office. Powell headed off to Fort Rucker, Alabama for basic and then to Arizona for desert training. It was while he was in Arizona that the Sergeant asked if anybody wanted to volunteer for parachute infantry training. Powell stepped forward.
He’d been in little bitty planes before. The kind you’d find at the county fair back in those days, and pay a $1 for a ride.
He didn’t know much about what it meant to be a parachute infantryman. “The only thing I knew was you got into an airplane, hooked up and jumped out.”
Just the thought of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane scared Powell to death.
He says God has guided him all the days of his life, but that day in the Arizona desert God was definitely guiding him. Some months later, long after his jump training in Fort Benning and at Fort Bragg, the new recruit was sitting at a cafe in the South of France when a fellow he’d recognized from his days in Arizona walked up. Powell learned that the company he had trained with had been wiped out in Sicily. Had he not stepped out that day, he would have been with them in Sicily, instead of with me and his daughters in Pawleys, South Carolina, talking about his memories as a parachute infantryman.
Powell has never visited the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s hard on a fellow, remembering all that was lost.
Zebulon Hurd, a character in MOTHER OF RAIN, was a parachute infantryman with the 505th during the invasion at Normandy. Zeb didn’t always see the hand of God at work in his own life. Still, like Powell, he kept his pocket bible with him and relied on that and his prayers to give him courage when he needed it most.
Have their been times in your own life when your stepping out has helped you avoid some unforeseen disaster? Or a particular verse or prayer that has given you courage when you needed it most?