John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Memories flood during trip to bury  beloved Uncle Bill

We made a family trip to Birmingham Friday, my mother, brother, sister-in-law, son and I, to bury Uncle Bill.

He was my dad’s brother — William Kay Howell — the only sibling of my mother or father, and that, among many other reasons, made him special. His three children’s ages corresponded with the ages of my brother, sister and me, so a trip to see the “Birmingham Howells” — or a visit from them — was always looked forward to with great anticipation.

Our dad and Uncle Bill had grown up in Birmingham during the Depression among much loving family but minus their dad who had died during the lowest ebb of those difficult economic times. They parted company when Dad came to Mississippi after high school to help build Sardis and Arkabutla Dams.

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Our dad was drafted in 1941 and sent to Camp Stewart, Georgia where someone discovered his clerical skills and gave him a job that led to his assuming the duties of office manager of the induction center through which draftees from all over the southeast were being funneled to meet the American war effort’s insatiable appetite for manpower.

Through that office passed many of his old Birmingham friends and eventually, his brother. Our mother tells about the stern admonishment Dad gave his brother on the night before an aptitude test given to determine draftees’ best uses.

“This may be the most important test you’ll ever take,” she recalled Dad telling Uncle Bill.

He tested so well, the family story goes, that they put him in the Army Air Corps to work on the then-top-secret Norden Bombsight. Uncle Bill ended up serving in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. He must have also travelled extensively in the U. S. because there was scarcely a city that, when someone asked if he had ever been there, he failed to reply, “I’ve been through there on a troop train.”

Uncle Bill made the transition when the Army Air Corps became the Air Force, joining the Alabama Air National Guard and serving until his retirement after 30 years. Several times he was mobilized for duty during the Cold War, the most memorable in 1961 for the Berlin Crisis. He was gone then for most of 18 months.

Of course, all of this was in addition to having married our lovely Aunt Ann, raising a family, and leading a civilian life that included leaving a job that was there waiting for him when he returned.

And the best memories come from those nights when were visiting in their Birmingham home. Before bedtime when all of us kids were gathered in the living room, Uncle Bill would recall the places he had been, tell stories from his travels and pull out souvenirs he had picked up along the way. They included a Ghurka knife and a British Webley service revolver from his service in India, a finely crafted clock from his service in Wiesbaden, Germany. It was a ritual that we came to expect every visit for years and enjoyed more with each retelling.

I don’t recall ever hearing Uncle Bill’s voice raised. He was soft-spoken, gentle and interested in everything us kids wanted to know about. And he smiled a lot. The minister at his funeral mentioned that, and the photographs posted around the place bore further witness.

All these thoughts flooded my memory as his remains were interred at the Alabama VA National Cemetery at Montevallo. The new national cemetery there is part of the largest cemetery expansion in this country since the Civil War as with ever increasing frequency this country lays to rest its greatest generation.

Our beloved Uncle Bill was among them.