by Jude Southerland Kessler
“Ca c’est bon!” he growled in Jimmy Durante fashion. And lifting a judicious finger, he said it once again: “Ca c’est bon!” This French equivalent of “That’s fantastic!” was liberally applied to anything: a well-broiled Leroy’s steak, a home-grilled hamburger under the stars, a thick portion of his wife Catherine’s famous baked beans, a lazy afternoon beside shady Indian Creek, or a neck-and-neck game of football.
Adolph L. Wilson (fondly known to all and sundry as “Al”) was happy in general. All the time. Al grew up in pre-World War II Boyce, Louisiana where he lived with his grandparents. After high school, he attended Louisiana State Normal in Natchitoches, where he became the younger fraternity brother (“the dog,” in campus slang) of my father, Tom Paul Southerland. In those idyllic years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the two boys were inseparable, and the almost unbelievable stories of their adventures were myriad. But after the events of December 7, 1941, a harsh reality separated the two friends. My father attended Naval Officer Training School in New York City and was chosen to captain a sub chaser in the Atlantic and later, YP 239 in the Pacific. Al joined the Marines and was shipped out to the Pacific Theater … ultimately, Iwo Jima.
Life wasn’t easy for either of the young men. In fact, life was very dark for a long time. My father weathered the historic and traumatic Pacific Typhoon of December 1944 that swept the majority of his crew overboard and grounded his ship for weeks, along with so many others.
Al, meanwhile, endured innumerable dangers, including life in a foxhole for 36 days. Thirty-six days of bullets whizzing past his jaw. Thirty-six days of aching hunger. Thirty-six days without a shower or shave. Thirty-six days of “bathroom facilities,” completely in the open. Thirty-six days of pure exhaustion that finally engendered a ragged, tormented sleep. Thirty-six days, as buddy after buddy fell lifeless in the narrow American trench. But in February 1945, after the longest month of Al’s life, the United States Marines captured Iwo Jima and emerged victorious, and in the photo that accompanies this article, you can see Al Wilson cheering with his surviving comrades, celebrating life with a zest he’d never felt before. From that moment on, he often told me, he considered each day a gift. He thanked God for the opportunity to be here. And he set out to live his life in appreciation.
Both Tom and Al returned from the war, eager to see their respective wives, Maxine and Catherine. Both men returned forever altered and unsure about their futures. My father wanted to go to dental school but took a temporary job selling insurance before deciding on a career in education. Al worked here and there, looking for something that would fulfill his newfound desire to help others. And as the hand of God would have it, Al’s desires were answered.
My father had heard that the Veterans Administration Hospital in the CenLa region was looking for a man to run social events for the soldiers, a man who sincerely cared about wounded veterans and their needs, a man who could offer hope to those coping with serious injuries and lifelong disabilities. A man who could lift the spirits of those whom the war had changed, deep in their hearts. Al applied for the job. He was interviewed and considered. He was hired. And for the next 25 years, Al Wilson worked at the V.A. hospital north of Alexandria-Pineville, touching the lives of others in a way that no one else could.
As my father became principal of Cherokee Elementary and later, the first principal of Alexandria Junior High, he and Al remained close friends. They golfed together and with their families, spent holidays together. And in 1967 (“The Summer of Love,” although Al and Tom had no clue about that historic event), they took their two families on a two-week-long vacation to Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, culminating in San Francisco with a guided tour of Haight-Ashbury … where a band called “The Grateful Dead” was rockin’ the hippie-laden park! It was an added bonus in a spectacular cross-country trek that the two friends shared together.
Al and Tom were also charter members of Horseshoe Drive Methodist Church. They worked together as referees for local high school football games. And they spent one memorable Fourth of July with their families in a ritzy, poolside “cabana” at the brand-new Fleur De Lis Motel on MacArthur Drive. On Friday nights, the two families “dined” at the exciting new “fast-food” establishment called McDonald’s. Once in a while, they splurged and enjoyed fried chicken on the weekends at Effie’s or burgers with curly fries at Fuzzy’s. And when the circus came to Alexandria, both families were there. Together.
But as close as these two men were, their philosophies of life were vastly different. My father told me, over and over, the story of the foolish grasshopper who whiled the day away and the wise, industrious ant who worked before winter. He preached to me that “A Job worth doing is worth doing well.” And he reminded me daily that “A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.” From my dad, I learned to work hard and long … and I learned to press ahead, never ever giving up.
Al taught me something a bit different. He taught me to swing higher than I thought possible. He told me I could climb the mimosa tree a little bit higher than I thought was practical or safe. He sang all of the time, and I never hear “King of the Road” or “Old Mill Stream” without thinking of him. And he told me that “having fun and making memories with your family and friends is just as important as working for a goal.” He said that time spent apart from those you love can never be replaced. He had learned that lesson the hard way.
You see, on 22 November 1962, one year to the day before President Kennedy was shot, Al and Catherine lost their 16-year-old son Ronnie in a bizarre hunting accident. And that loss, for a time, silenced the songs and put a damper on Al Wilson’s smiles. For a while, I thought that life had finally beaten the man who always seemed to emerge joyous. But gradually, Al began to tell me stories of that post-war vacation in the Ozarks when he and my dad had decided to coast their cumbrous Buick down a mountainside road. Gradually, he began to watch Guy Lombardo again and hum along. He began to talk a bit, now and then, about the chances of LSU football. And by the time that The Beatles made the scene in December of 1963, he’d learned all about them and had purchased a Swan copy of their “Love Me Do” 45-rpm for his daughter. Al was back in the game (albeit the very difficult game) of life.
I have such happy memories of this exuberant, good, kind man who never complained and who never let work interfere with joy. And although I modeled myself after my father’s teachings, I always cherished any chance to spend time with Al where I could glimpse the gentler, easier side of life. In the last year of Al’s time here on earth (he was 97), my husband and I were blessed to enjoy several trips to Lea’s in Lecompte with him … to enjoy a lunch of fried chicken and of course, pie! Once he suggested we all visit a new restaurant called Walk-Ons where we could get great burgers and watch football, but we quickly discovered that it was the good-looking waitresses who held currency for our friend, not the cuisine alone. Al made friends with everyone, but being a gorgeous female didn’t hurt your chances. Al appreciated beauty.
Because of Al, my life was blessed with a good many extras that I might never have discovered without his wonderful influence. Living out the words of his favorite hymn, “This Little Light of Mine,” he demonstrated the joy of a good book, the value of a cold cup of eggnog, the thrill of the Matterhorn at Disneyland, and the rich, foamy pleasure in a frosty mug of root beer at Reed and Bell. He taught me that life wasn’t entirely about industry; it also needed an equal portion of enjoyment. He taught me that almost any situation in life had a bright side, and that looking for that bright side was the only way to survive. One of the songs he always crooned was the classic “Side by Side,” and every time I sing, “Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money, Maybe we’re ragged and funny … But we travel the road, sharin’ the load, Side By Side,” I think of Al Wilson. And every time, I miss him.
Al at the Iwo Jima victory celebration. If you see the man whose head appears to be touching the flagpole, then the man under him with a wide grin, go down one more row and you’ll see the man with the smirk, tipping his helmet to the side … his hand touching the helmet. That’s Al!
A. L. “Al” Wilson and my father, Dr. Tom Paul Southerland, enjoying a round of golf at a local course.