Willy Harris was the strongest man I ever knew

Published 7:25 am Tuesday, July 15, 2003

By By Lloyd Albritton
There was a picket fence around the cleanly-swept dirt yard. The yard was colored with rows of flowers lining the path from the fence gate to the front door of the house. Bright flowers also circled each tree and bush in the yard, as well as the borders of the house itself. A family reunion was in progress. The eating had all been finished and cleaned up and the remaining attendees were now gathered into three distinct groups: the men out front underneath a big oak tree, the women in the house, and the children frolicking in the yard.
Several men stood around an old car parked just outside the gate. They took turns trying to loosen the rusted lugs on the right front tire. Each man strained until his face looked about to pop. A couple of the men even braced their backs and put both feet against the lug wrench to push harder, but the lug nut would not bulge. A little man sauntered over with a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
"Lemme gi'dat fu'ye fellers," the squat little man with the sloping shoulders offered.
The men all looked around at Willy Harris and backed away without protest. Willy squatted down beside the tire, took the wrench in both hands and twisted the nut off without missing a puff on his crinkled cigarette. The knotty brown muscles of his neck and arms bulged with the power of a miniature Samson.
Willy Harris was the strongest man I ever knew. Willy was a laboring man. He mostly dipped turpentine for a living. When I was a boy, I often encountered him in the piney wood forests surrounding my home in Nokomis. Willy never wore a shirt when he worked and his weathered skin had the appearance of a well-worn leather jacket. He waddled hastily from tree to tree in a toed-in gait that, from a distance, looked very much like a small gorilla.
The turpentine sap was scraped, or "dipped," from an aluminum drip cup on each tree into a barrel. The barrel, when filled with sap, was loaded onto a wagon or truck bed. Typically, these heavy barrels were rolled onto the wagon using two staves, but Willy disdained such unwieldy props. He preferred to hoist the barrels onto his shoulder and set them on the wagon bed straightaway. It was faster that way. And Willy was a fast worker.
My father once hired Willy Harris to roof our house. I watched as Willy climbed atop the house time after time with a heavy sheath of shingles underneath his arm. He did not use a ladder or a lift of any kind. He just jumped up and grabbed a low beam with his free hand, then swung his body upward, grabbing a hold with his foot, then climbed up with his load. He did this all day long in the hot summer sun without a shirt. When I hear of the mammoth feats of strength and ruggedness performed by some of the early pioneers, I think of men like Willy Harris.
I once saw Willy pick up a horse! He and his brother Leo got drunk one Sunday afternoon and the challenge arose. Leo was very strong too, but he never got all four of the horse's feet off the ground. Willy, however, stooped down underneath the horse, put his shoulder right behind the horse's front legs, wrapped his arms around the horse's body, and stood up straight. Granted, the old horse, which Willy used to pull his turpentine wagon, was somewhat gaunt from too much work and too little feed, but he would still have weighed more than 800 pounds.
Willy was in his late 30s before he acquired his own horse and wagon, then later an old car to drive. Prior to that he walked everywhere he went. Willy thought nothing of walking 15-20 miles to get to a job and he would regularly be seen walking down the road on his way to one place or another. His fast-paced waddle was easy to recognize from a distance. My father often picked him up and gave him a lift to his destination. Willy was always courteous and appreciative.
Willy eventually married and negotiated the use of a plot of land in the woods down behind our house on which to build a dwelling. Rather than build a wood house, however, Willy acquired a huge canvas troop tent from the Army-Navy surplus store. He located a big pine tree and climbed up it with a handsaw, clipping all the limbs, then cut it off at the top for a center tent post. He then tied the tent to his waist and shinnied back up the tree to the top, dragging the heavy tent behind him. Single-handedly, Willy managed to pull the tent over the top of the tree to get it pitched, a job that would have undoubtedly taken 10 big Marines on a good day. In this dwelling, Willy made his home with a big woman named Lillian and about 25 scrawny, flea-bitten hound dogs. Lillian was a romantic woman. Filled with pride over her new home and the accouterments of domesticity, she began calling her husband "William." Willy seemed to like that and switched from his hand-rolled cigarettes to a pipe.
My father bought a little unbroken yearling stallion from a man who lived near Atmore when I was about 10 or12 years old. We did not have a truck to haul the horse, so Willy offered to walk with me to Atmore in the pouring rain to catch the horse up and lead him home. The colt jumped and pulled the entire trip of about five miles, but Willy's calm voice and strong, steady hand soothed him along. Willy Harris was a gentle man who always stood ready to help his neighbors.
Some years ago I saw Willy in the lobby of a local doctor's office. He was bent at the waist and grimacing in his chair across the room, apparently from severe back pain. He did not recognize me and I did not go over and speak, for he did not seem in the mood for conversation. Someone mentioned recently in passing that Willy Harris died several years ago. I heard that Lillian also was found dead underneath a house soon afterward, homeless and malnourished. Perhaps her happiest years were spent in that big tent with Willy and all those dogs. Who can know?
Willy Harris was locally renowned for his great strength and endurance. I have seen many men with bigger muscles and greater stature than Willy, but I have not since seen a man who could pick up a horse, roof a house without a ladder, or pitch a troop tent all by himself. Willy Harris was the strongest man I ever knew. And, on top of that, Willy was a real nice man.
Lloyd Albritton is an independent columnist for the Atmore Advance. He invites your comments by e-mail at LloydAlbritton@aol.com or by telephone at (850)995-1194.

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