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The first time I had him “teach” was for my freshman Algebra class. He didn’t mention math. Instead, he gave us a play-by-play of Dec. 7, 1941. Mr. Williams had enlisted in the US Navy before the war and was stationed at Pearl Harbor.
He saw Japanese Zeros fly into view and corrected his fellow sailors when they said the planes were friendlies. He found an unmanned anti-aircraft gun and took down one of them by shooting off a wing. He needed to evacuate a wounded friend but the only vehicle near him had a blown-out tire. So, he ripped a big wooden circle off a cable spool and mounted it where the tire should be to get it moving. “That’s why, to this day,” Mr. Williams said, “Navy jeeps always keep a wooden wheel in back.”
None of us knew how old he was. To us teens, he might as well have been 100. Yet over the next few years, Mr. Williams substituted for my Social Studies teacher, History teacher, and Drafting teacher. (Remember drafting?) To the stories above, he would weave in extra details, drama, and feats of derring-do.
We knew these were tall tales, at least in part. But we also knew the old fella was actually on the ground that day watching the world around him dissolve into fire and smoke. All the faculty gave him great deference as he walked the halls wearing a purple heart pinned to his shabby coat. Who cares if he’s a bit of a storyteller? He earned it.
I often thought about Mr. Williams’s stories when I was a Navy NCO walking around Pearl Harbor. I tried to match the vivid images he painted with various locations on base. I even asked Shore Patrol if they kept a wooden wheel in their vehicles. They looked at me like I was crazy.
Too bad for them, I thought. They should have learned algebra from Mr. Williams.Published in