This post is abstracted from the Preface of my as of yet unpublished book Uncommon Valor. I have used information from an unpublished autobiography of Marshall Harris and a biographical sketch written by Roy Harris.
My father, Roy David Taylor Harris, was born in Pindall, Arkansas, on August 25, 1911, 100 years ago. His two middle names honored his paternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher from southern Illinois. He was the oldest of two sons and one daughter born to William and Julia Harris.
When William Harris found steady employment with the Great Northern Railroad, his small family lived in a boxcar while he worked as an expert cement finisher on a bridge construction crew. The boxcar was fitted out as living quarters that had to be packed up tightly whenever it relocated to a new job site up or down the tracks from Illinois to North Dakota. In spite of how well Julia packed the cabinets, inevitably some dishes flew out of the cupboards and crashed onto the floor. Roy recalled playing alongside and inside the railroad tracks as a toddler. In fact, this was his earliest memory. The boxcar home became more crowded when Marshall Fields Harris was born in 1913. A sister, Emily Ruth, was born in 1924, after the family had settled down to farming.
Once Roy and Marshall were school age, William and Julia realized that their gypsy lifestyle had to end. After renting several small farms in southern Illinois, they bought their own farm in Dorchester, Illinois, near the state’s border with Missouri. This farm was surrounded by six acres of rich, fertile soil. William loved gardening, so he established a large garden that provided vegetables, berries and peanuts. They had a cow for milk and dairy products, chickens for their eggs and fried chicken dinners, and hogs for meat and sausage. William also raised bees and Julia raised parakeets. To subsidize the farm’s income, William returned to work for the Great Northern, this time laboring in their coalmines. Once the brothers were old enough, they also helped on the farm and hired themselves out to work for other farmers. Although the Harris family had little disposable income, and only a small savings account, their farm kept them well fed, even during the Great Depression.
Recalling his childhood, Roy remembered camping trips with his family. In those days cars were unreliable and cranky, so trips on undeveloped and dangerous roads included several unexpected stops along the way to fix the car. Nevertheless, Roy spoke fondly and humorously about these adventures, as well as the campfires and the stories told under the stars.
He also recounted tales of the mischief the two brothers dreamed up. One of those stories involved catching unwary drivers in a hole the two of them enlarged in the road after a rainstorm. The boys would hide, waiting for someone driving too fast or not paying attention, to become stuck in the hole. The boys would conveniently appear, offering to help free the frustrated driver. Invariably, the grateful victim would give them a few cents as a reward for helping. As soon as the car was out of the way, they would hide again, awaiting the next unlucky automobile. A day spent as “Good Samaritans” could net some candy money at least! Eventually word traveled into town about the “helpful boys” and the hole in the road. Their Dad immediately ended this profitable enterprise. In addition to adventures and misadventures, the horses, geese, cows, barn cats and dogs provided tales of a pleasant and loving rural Illinois farm life.
With a large extended family in and around Dorchester, Shipman and Bunker Hill, as well as an active church life, relatives and friends socialized a lot. Cousins became best friends, and there were several good neighbors on the nearby farms. Roy knew a number of immigrant families during his childhood in the southern Illinois. Many of them were not new immigrants, but they still spoke their native languages at home. He remembered that the local Methodist church offered German language services while he was a child. A search of the census records reveals surnames from Italy, Bohemia and Scandinavia. Besides the Methodist church, there was a busy Catholic church as well.
Roy and Marshall began school together due to the years spent in the boxcar. Despite their 23-month age difference, they remained in the same class throughout their public school days. Since they attended a small country school with several grades mixed together, wide age differences were not uncommon.
Julia and William recognized that a good education would broaden their opportunities, so they provided some financial help to their sons when they enrolled at McKendree College, a small Methodist school in Lebanon, Illinois. It took them over six years to graduate from college because they had to take time off in order to earn additional money for their books, room and board. Gerald Harris, their cousin and the assistant pastor of a St. Louis Methodist church, was also the administrator of Goodwill Industries in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Besides helping Gerald set up the church for services, teaching Sunday school and providing janitorial services, the Harris brothers worked as solicitors for Goodwill. This required traveling to other states in the summer to arrange for and collect donations.
After college graduation, Roy and Marshall headed to St. Louis. While Marshall started work in a bank, Roy followed his interest in electronics and machinery. He found a job as a motor tester with Emerson Electrics until the factory had a labor cutback and he was laid off. During visits back home, several people approached Roy about becoming a teacher and principal of a small two-room school in a nearby town. He accepted the job, attending Southern Illinois University in the summers to obtain necessary teaching credentials.
In 1940 Marshall Harris married and joined the Navy, moving to San Diego. In 1941, after a few years of teaching, Roy decided that he would not renew his contract when it ended. The world was changing. Hitler was marching unimpeded throughout Europe while draft notices were arriving in young American men’s mailboxes. Expecting a draft notice, Roy
a choice about his branch of service. After investigating the training possibilities, he chose the Army Air Corps because they assured him he would be assigned to Scott Field in Illinois. They also promised him training in radio communication, one of his great interests. Rumors of a girl friend in his hometown may have influenced his desire to stay nearby. However, the promise of remaining in Illinois proved to be untrue, as did the radio training, when he was notified just a few days after signing his enlistment papers, that he would be sent to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado. Roy’s disappointment with his reassignment faded as he first viewed the Rocky Mountain backdrop from the train window. The sudden appearance of the mountain range rising up from the plains captured his heart and never let go.
There was another benefit of this new training field–Roy discovered how interesting armaments could be. The classes involved both manual and hands-on learning with generators, bomb racks, propellers and machine guns. Roy was very successful during the training and graduated at the top of his class. He also demonstrated leadership skills and was asked to become an instructor of the power turrets class. Because power turrets were a new invention, Roy and the other instructors had to design the course of study and test questions from manuals and their own experiences during training. The intellectual challenge was stimulating, and the opportunity to work with new machinery and technology exciting, so Roy was pleased with this new adventure.
There were many advantages to becoming an instructor. He liked the teaching, he was now a sergeant with a technical degree and his pay was better than what he had been making as a civilian. Additionally, he was not subject to bed checks, K.P. or any other duties—and he had Sundays off! On his first free Sunday, he headed right to the place where he felt most at home, the nearest Methodist Church.
Within a few weeks, Roy met Betty Rockfield, an elementary school teacher and the woman who would become his wife. Their “official” introduction occurred at a special Halloween party Betty planned for military men and other young adults attending Warren Methodist Church. Before the night was over, Roy asked her out on a bowling date. By St. Valentine’s Day they were engaged. They were married in a hurry-up formal wedding on 9 May 1942, just before Roy was shipped off to Officer Candidates’ School in Miami Beach.
Betty followed Roy to Miami Beach when the school year ended in June. The officer candidates’ wives were billeted in luxury hotels along the beach and were able to see their husbands on weekends. Betty spent her time getting to know the wives and exchanging recipes with them, playing bridge and ironing Roy’s shirts. By early September 1942 she was back home and teaching again.
Roy and his fellow officers shipped out to England, then Scotland and on to North Africa. Roy spent World War II serving in the Mediterranean Theater as an armament officer for a light bombardment group. He moved from North Africa to Sicily, Corsica and Italy. He also spent time in France and Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Roy and Betty did not see each other again until July 1945.
Roy and Betty had two daughters, Mary Julia and Elizabeth Ann, born fourteen months apart (1947 and 1948). The family lived in Denver, Colorado. Betty was a teacher and school administrator. Roy searched a while before settling on a career as purchasing agent for American Smelting & Refining Company. In 1964 he was offered a job as head of purchasing for the entire company, requiring a move to New York City, but turned it down. The war had drained Roy of his early ambitions. He wanted a dependable family life, regular hours and a routine. His Denver ASARCO job suited his post-war lifestyle choices and his orderly nature.
Besides his work, Roy enjoyed a routine in his private life. He played volleyball every Tuesday night and exercised at a local gym two nights a week. He loved following his favorite baseball teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and a local AAA minor league team) and football teams (the Denver Broncos and the University of Colorado) on radio and television, sometimes using both media at the same time! His interests also included keeping up with the latest technological advancements in radio, television and phonograph equipment. He loved cars, keeping the family automobiles in tip-top condition. Whenever he traded in a car, the dealership never had to clean it or tune it up. In quieter moments, when the lawn had been cared for, household repairs made and other duties accomplished, my father would sit down with the daily newspaper, which he read cover to cover, or the most recent The Reader’s Digest. He loved jokes, comics, word puzzles and sports stories. He also solved the daily crossword puzzle.
Roy’s steady habits were a good antidote to Betty’s frenetic pace. His structured days, neat habits and bookkeeping skills continued into his retirement and the years after Betty’s 1990 death. On a personal level, I found his apartment a sanctuary from my harried days of work, children and a difficult second marriage. We drank Diet Seven-Up from glasses filled with ice, placed on neatly folded napkins and arranged on snack trays. Around his reading lamp, with soft drinks in hand, we often discussed my mother.
All the time that he seemed to be neutral in our lives, Daddy was lending moral and emotional support to his beloved Betty. I found evidence of his devotion in little notes and cards my mother saved throughout the years. After she was gone, he would say, “Poor Betty, she always put making her mother proud before anything else. She was never really happy.” By that time I had also decided that my mother’s lifelong pattern of preoccupation with tasks outside of her domestic life had driven her into a corner from which she couldn’t escape.
During these special times with my father, politics, religion, television programs, my teenage daughters and my disintegrating marriage were also discussed and dissected. It was then that he paid me a high compliment after my second divorce. “Mary Julia, there is no man smart enough or good enough for you.” I still cherish that assessment, although I did eventually find someone who met these criteria. By the time I met and married Dave, my father had slipped into dementia. When he died in December 1997 at the age of 86, I became a 50-year-old orphan.
I feel privileged to have spent quality time with my dad during the seven years between my mother’s and his death. When she was alive, he seemed to sit apart from my sister and me. Once she was gone, he established special relationships with his two daughters. I treasure the discoveries I made about my father–his kindness, keen insights and the similarities of our values, politics and personalities. My husband, who never knew my mother, told me that I looked much more like my dad than my mom. While searching for pictures to scan, I could see this clearly. My sister has his wide smile.
I’m grateful for those few precious years and all that I learned about my modest, sweet and caring dad. Finally my father stepped out of the shadows so we could become friends as well as father and daughter.