21 April 2011

Eulogy of the Last Self-Made American (in the most authentic sense of the term).

I can only live up to the achievement my great grandfather, Melvin Williams, accomplished in his lifetime of 89 years. There is not a man more deserving of a lifetime achievement award than he, for he lived through the most exciting times of the 20th century. A time when the world was transforming—a time of reform, conflict, adventure, and progress—a time when the self-made man was rare and far between, and pastoral life was only found in Alvan Fisher paintings.

However, Melvin Lee Williams, was not only an entrepreneur, but he was a man who jumped at any opportunity and adventure to benefit himself, those he loved, and his country. His wit and charisma helped him achieve anything he put his mind too. Often people see stubbornness as a flaw, but Grandpa used it to accomplish things that most people can only dream to accomplish in a lifetime.

The first years of his life his family lived in an oil town in Texas, where his father bought and sold oil claims. It is to be assumed that his father, Charles Williams, did not make very much money doing this, because they often lived in tents, cabins, or small chipped-paint houses. He and his brother even would ride bareback to the schoolhouse.

When he was a teenager, he was sent to live with his grandparents, Moore and Oda Williams, on the old Williams homestead in Cleveland, Oklahoma. The 160 acre homestead was a full-working farm with a vineyard, orchards, berry field, vegetable plots, beehives, a team of horses, milk cows, chickens, and pigs.

Even though Oklahoma was a dry state, Moore Williams harvested much of his grapes and blackberries, to make wine and blackberry brandy. Every Friday and Saturday night, Moore would sit on the porch with the jars beside him and sell them to any cars that stopped. This was a major source of income for the Williams homestead. During Sunday “Socials,” the kids weren’t allowed in the yard, as neighbors and friends gathered to play card games and with a jug of wine in the center. The sheriff was a regular during these occasions. During one occasion they knew a raid was coming and spent two or three days hauling all the jars and jugs down in the woods below the barn. When the raid arrived, several men, including the Sheriff, arrested Moore and found one remaining barrel in the smokehouse. They were going to crack the head with an axe when one man stopped him, saying “Don’t ruin Moore’s good barrel!” They took him in, but had him back by milking time.

He spent his time trapping possums, skunks, and raccoons to sell the skins in town one season in a “get rich scheme.” Grandpa and his best friend, Jack, eventually bought a hunting dog, Lady, in order to better track and catch possums and coons. According to Grandpa, she was The World’s Best Hunting Dog. Whether with his friends, his grandfather, dad, or brothers, Grandpa Mel loved to hunt and fish.

At the age of 16, Grandpa Mel and his buddy Robert took on an adventure akin to Huckleberry Finn. They scrounged up a flat-bottom river boat, put up a tent in the middle, and decided to float down the Arkansas River to the Mississippi. They spent about two weeks afloat, only reaching Little Rock, Arkansas upon Robert getting sick.

After high school he attended Oklahoma A & M, studying taxonomy, agriculture, and civil engineering. While in school is worked at burger joints flipping burgers. His roommate was a campus bootlegger, who often borrowed Grandpa’s car to make runs, always bringing it back with a full tank of gas. He taught grandpa to run and sell liquor during football games and victory parties. He never did it again, after there was a raid at one after party located at an Oklahoma City dancehall.

He married Vonda Mae Blackburn in 1941. A little over a year later, Grandpa Mel and his father Charles, were contracted by U.S. Engineering Corps. as a survey crew on the Alaskan Highway. He and many other contracted surveyors and engineers replaced the U.S. Engineering Corps. during its construction.

Grandpa was drafted in to the army during the fall of 1943. By May they were shipped Algeria and trained to load and unload from landing ships. By June 4th, they were told to write to their families, and June 6th, Grandpa Mel and thousands of others landed on the beach of Normandy. Grandpa watched, although painfully remembered, as comrades fell. Grandpa made it over the embankments and dug in to hold out the assault.

By September he was made a corporal and he and his men were sent deeper into France, heading toward Germany. In Saarlautern, Grandpa spent the winter, mainly participating in city combat. I can only imagine after watching many World War II movies and modern war movies. Fighting in the confines of a city makes for brutal war.

Toward the end of the war, Grandpa, now a sergeant, participated in the invasion and takeover of Ruhr. They trapped several hundred German troops and bombarded the city.

He came home the day before Christmas Eve in 1945. When Grandma Vonda answered the door, she said “I will put on some coffee.”

After the war he received several engineering jobs in manufacturing businesses, including garment factory like Levi. He made a hobby of building guns and crafting wood gun cabinets. He continued his passion of fishing, hunting and camping.

Grandma Vonda died in 1962; however, soon after Grandpa remarried Mary Gomez. He and Grandma Mary traveled a lot together, as she became his accountant for Mel William Associates. Business prospered.

He had a partner in Nicaragua, which he visited from time to time. In 1972, Nicaragua was devastated with a large earthquake, devastating Managua. With the devastated city came the political unrest and Grandpa watched from his office as the Nicaraguan Revolution commenced. Eventually the conflict stopped all production and his partner took off with the shipment. Grandpa set up a stakeout at the airport, informing his company (stationed in Boston, Massachusetts) about the shipment, where it was soon seized in Miami. His partner abandoned the factories, which left Grandpa no other choice but to get out of Nicaragua on the soonest flight, as revolutionaries began attacks on the airport.

Grandpa continued his work in El Paso until his retirement. He followed his passions, continuing fishing and hunting until he could no longer. On my last visit Grandpa beat us all at Mexican Train, told us stories, shared family pictures, let me dig my nose in all his history books, made us laugh with his sharp wit, introduced me to the Apache tonic (which was Great Grandma Oda’s signature drink), and made a delicious guinea hen. I will never forget our many emails back and forth, discussing family ancestry, history, and our lives.

Grandpa, you will be missed, but thank you for sharing all these memories with us. I will continue to share and discover our family history so it is not forgotten. I hope I can one day beat my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren at Mexican Train, tell them funny stories, fill their head with history, and introduce them to the “cancer curing” Apache tonic.

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