Today would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday. Harry Allen Prettyman was born on October 4, 1914 in rural Delaware County, Oklahoma. He was born just 7 years after Oklahoma statehood in what had been the Delaware District of the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. The family lived along the Elk River near the small settlements of Cayuga and Turkey Ford, but they moved around a lot. My great-grandfather was a livestock trader, and they traveled on foot to Arkansas and eventually Kansas, settling in Mulberry, not far from the borders of Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. I don’t remember many of Grandpa’s stories about his early life, other than him saying he never wore shoes and that his job was to tend the livestock. I remember him saying they often camped under railroad bridges over creeks for shelter and water for the livestock as they were moving between states. He only had an 8th grade education, but was one of the smartest people I knew. He would read encyclopedias for fun, and was a whiz at math.
He had an interesting life in his late teens and twenties. He hopped a freight train and road the rails as a hobo, going all over the country from east to west and north to south. He got into some hairy situations with his best friend Bill, who was a union labor organizer in the days when unions were often violently threatened by industry. From his tales, it sounds like Harry and Bill gave the industry a little trouble themselves. He hinted that he and Bill may have been involved in an incident involving a few sticks of dynamite and an anti-union bar being blown up in Detroit. He worked in the coal mines of southeast Kansas, as did most of his family, and remained a lifelong supporter of the United Mine Workers.
Grandpa married Mildred Lavon Junior in 1942, just before he shipped off to war. They wouldn’t see each other again for three years, as he island hopped around the Pacific theater as a combat engineer in the Army. Grandma’s two brothers were also serving; her brother Leo Junior in the Army in Europe helping liberate his father’s homeland of France, and her brother Elmer Junior as an aviation machinist’s mate in the US Navy before dying in a training flight crash in Texas. Grandma herself worked as a “Rosie the Riveter”, contributing to the war effort. The war touched everyone’s lives.
Grandpa never talked much about the war, and when he did it was only happy stories about his friends. He trained at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He said he cut his foot very badly on a piece of sharp coral playing football on a beach. From his tales, you would think he had been on a vacation in a tropical paradise. But I’m sure he saw unspeakable horrors that must have haunted him. The Pacific was home to some of the most intense and bloodiest fighting of the war, and he was in the thick of it, on every island that was the site of a major battle. From Tarawa to Saipan and Guam to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, he was there. But as men of his generation did, when the war was over he put it behind him and never spoke of it again.
Grandpa was one of the most decent and honorable men I’ve ever known, working hard every day of his life to support his wife and five children. He brimmed with integrity and honesty and a proud sense of justice, and he was famously stubborn. There’s an anecdote about someone who had wronged him many years earlier seeing him sitting on his porch one day and coming over to say hello. Surprised at the coldness of Grandpa’s greeting, he asked, “are you still upset about that thing that happened all those years ago?” to which Grandpa merely replied, “I ain’t dead yet.”
When my sister and I were small, our grandparents took us to Branson, Missouri. Grandpa loved the Ozarks of his childhood, and he loved bluegrass and country music. Most of all, he loved driving really fast on the curvy and hilly mountain roads. He was nearly deaf, and his hearing aid didn’t work well, but my sister and I could plainly hear the screeching of the tires going around corners as we sat terrified in the back seat. Grandma sat quietly in her seat, she had endured such driving for forty years.
I believe this was Grandpa’s favorite song, and I can picture him tapping his toe and slapping his knee with a huge grin on his face as he listens along, saying “now listen to this part right here.”
We lost Grandpa to a heart attack in 1994, much too soon. Only after he was gone did I realize how little I knew about his life, and how much I wanted to ask him.
Today I remember my grandfather, a man who influenced me enormously. I can only hope that some small piece of his integrity lives within me. Happy birthday, Grandpa.