I smiled at him and said hello.
He said, “Miss, can you tell me how to get to Frank Pollifrone’s eighth-grade social studies classroom?”
“Let me just show you,” I said.
I walked around to the passenger side and slid in. I had a fleeting thought that I was disregarding all safety precautions but “cute old man” and “WWII veteran” are my top two criteria for falling in love with a person immediately, so I was confident all would be fine.
If you’ve ever been to Waynesville Middle, you know it’s a bear to navigate. While the man appeared more spry than most 30-year-olds , I wasn’t sure I could explain how to get to the other side of campus, park, enter the correct building, stay on the first floor and find Mr. Pollifrone’s room.
As I sat in the car, I had to move a stack of thin paperback books and the war memorabilia. I noticed that he was wearing combat boots. I wondered if they were the same pair he wore long ago.
“What’s your name?” He asked me.
“Yes. Wow, how did you know?”
“I read your column in The Smoky Mountain News,” he said.
“You do? Thank you. That means so much to me. It really does. What’s your name?”
“Paul Willis. I’m a writer too.”
I looked at the stack of books and read the cover. Reflections of a World War II Veteran: Poems about War and Life, by Paul J. Willis
From our two-minute car ride and conversation, I was utterly intrigued with this man. He informed me that he was 96 and while he felt great mentally, “this ol’ emphysema had taken hold” of him about three years ago and it prevented him from “walking too far.”
I directed him to a secret parking spot right outside Mr. Pollifrone’s room and walked him in. He was visiting to speak to a group of eighth-graders about his time at war. He asked me if I would stay and listen. Of course I would.
As he spoke with Mr. Pollifrone and unpacked his things, I sat at a student desk and opened a copy of Mr. Willis’s book.
To my fellow beings old or young
Afflicted with the sins and misfortunes
Of life, struggling against the trials and
Temptations of the world;
Inspired by the motives, purposes
And hopes of time and eternity-
This book is dedicated.
— Paul J. Willis
I felt the goosebumps on my arms. I looked up. As I watched Mr. Willis pull a Nazi flag out of his bag, I noticed how proudly he still wore his uniform, possibly thinking of helping to take down Hitler’s regime.
His mind was in a different land.
Over the next hour, Mr. Willis told us his story. Born in 1920 in Hope, Arkansas, Willis was one of six children in a farming family. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Canton, where he would live for the remainder of his life. In 1943, Willis married Evelyn Blythe, his bride for 72 years. Also in 1943, he was drafted and after basic training, was assigned to Company G, 329th Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. Platoon Sgt. Willis went on to fight in the hedgerows of Normandy, the Rhine River, Battle of the Bulge, and battles in Brittany, Luxembourg and the Hurtgen Forest. He was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, he resumed his work at the paper mill within a couple of days. He and Evelyn raised their two sons in Canton.
His talks was straightforward, but in his writing you could feel the torment, anguish, pride, honor and regret.
Mr. Willis asked some of us to read several of his poems aloud. He said it was hard for him to read his writing because of his breathing, but I wondered if it’s hard because of the memories.
After finishing the poem he asked me to read, I looked over at him and could see him fighting the tears.
The pain that our veterans feel is so real, so raw. While many of us think about their battles sparingly, only on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, the veterans carry the burden always.
I only work at Waynesville Middle part time, so how lucky I feel to have crossed paths with such an individual.
For Paul Willis, 73 years have not dimmed recollections of his time overseas. And for me, a serendipitous meeting and time spent reading poetry written by an old hand with a sharp mind opened my heart in a new way.
Thank you, Mr. Willis, and to all the other soldiers, living and gone, for your sacrifices and bravery.
Silence at Arlington
By Paul Willis
Surrounded by the graves at Arlington,
The sentry about-faces.
There before the unknown soldier’s tomb he
Paces: for a moment the music of
Far off bugles sounds.
A vision of waving flags above
Each risen mound. Down through
The corridor of time the ages flow.
The muted breeze moves across
Each silent row.
Then the bugle blows, the haunting
Air above each marble stone.
Still the sentinel walks his twenty-one
As music in the nighttime gives its
Now across this sacred ground