Why Willis Raised? My Grandpa! Willis Woodrow Wilson was Ivan’s rock. Born May 4, 1926 to an African American father and Native American mother, Willis was a good-natured man. A military man, he had served in the Navy during the Second World War and received an honorable discharge after suffering an injury related to the July 17, 1944, explosion of the Quinalt Victory battleship at Port Chicago, California.
Often, as a kid, he would tell Ivan of the events of that horrible day. The crane operators were inexperienced soldiers who learned on the job. Consequently, there were many incidents where the ordnance loaded onto the ships was carelessly handled. They were told that the bombs had been deactivated. So they were lead to believe there wasn’t anything to fear with regards to an explosion. This proved otherwise on that fatal day of July.
Grandpa would tell of how he and many other soldiers suspected the cause of the explosion was due to one of the crane operators accidentally dropping a warhead into the hull of the ship. At the time of the explosion he was a good distance away from the loading-dock. Yet, was sent flying twenty feet into the air from the impact of the explosion alone. When he hit the ground he landed on his “feet like a happy cat on a hot tin roof running and shouting ‘Them goddam Japs done bombed us again!’” Like many soldiers, he honestly believed they were under attack. That was just how significant the explosion was.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Grandpa would tell of having set eyes on the most gruesome sight of carnage he had ever seen. Some 300 soldiers were blown to pieces and their body parts were scattered about for miles. Notably, this incident has been recorded as the largest of military disasters in America.
Grandpa, being a military man, surprisingly wasn’t strict. The only rule Ivan had as a kid was he had to attend Sunday school. It was at church that Willis would encourage Ivan to become a junior deacon. He taught Ivan how to facilitate the services, orate and attempted to instill Christian values.
Years later Willis would co-found the St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Wewoka. This too was another one of those learning experiences he taught Ivan; how people could get together and build an institution to better the lives of others.
Grandpa also taught Ivan how to live off the land. He taught him how to butcher and process the livestock, hunt, fish, and grow gardens of corn, green beans, okra, and just about any fruit or vegetable that would germinate in the soil—even the marijuana seeds Ivan occasionally swiped from his Mom’s house.
Willis was an industrialist with a tool shed full of electrical saws, handsaws, wielders, hammers, and all kinds of wrenches from pipe wrenches to monkey wrenches. He would always encourage Ivan to build his own bikes, boats, go-carts, etc. You name it, Ivan built it.
He also had his own business—a small landscaping company. Most of his employees were his old drinking buddies. Of course they weren’t the most reliable bunch. So Ivan would pick up the slack and make a little pocket change. He was a hard hustla mostly because it made him proud to hear his Grandpa brag about how his grandson “got the job done and did a better job than them grown-ass men.”
Willis was a survivor of many obstacles in life, including the Jim Crow experience. He attended segregated schools, a segregated military, and the whole nine. Despite it all, he was the type of man who would give you the shirt off his back but wouldn’t take shit off nobody. After suffering several strokes and years of health related complications, he passed away April 3, 2008.