By Willie M. Calhoun, MSG, USAR, Ret.
On the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice, my memory of veterans of that war comes to my mind. Growing up just north of Gum Springs in Winn Parish, I didn’t hear many veteran stories, but the few I heard became imbedded in my memory. They still inspire me and should inspire others.
Upon returning home from combat zones in faraway places, most veterans have dreams and aspirations. Some live to see their dreams become a reality with relative ease. Still others are tasked with overcoming hardships and disabilities before their post war dreams come true. Also worth noting is that the World War I veterans didn’t get help with PTSD. In those days, combat suffered mental trauma weren’t considered as an injury. Of the many veteran stories I’ve heard since childhood, this one of adapting to and overcoming difficult situations still impresses me even as a retired military person and Vietnam veteran myself.
This World War I veteran story is of my grandfather, Ambus Riser (also spelled Rizer). He was born and raised in the Hill (Lone Hill) community of eastern Winn Parish. After volunteering to serve in the US Army during World War I, he was stationed in France. Like most veterans of that war, he learned to speak a little French, though he was semi-literate. He compensated for his lack of a formal education by applying common sense and best practiced solutions to many problems that occurred during his life. Also, by being an apt listener, he would seek counsel and accept advice if he believed it to be in his family’s best interest. His negotiating and bargaining skills earned him respect from area farmers as did his astute sense of fairness. I’ve been told he accepted and practiced the depression era idea of contour plowing, which probably added to his crops’ yield. Above all, he attributed his survival of hard times to his management skills and prayer.
Ambus returned to the Lone Hill community in 1918 from France after World War I. He was proud to have served his country, but wasn’t allowed to return home in his uniform due to racial tensions and violence. The Louisiana he returned to in that era had imposed some of the most racially restrictive Jim Crow laws of any southern state. Despite the odds of him becoming a sharecropper, he remained steadfast in his ambition of buying land and working for himself.
With money saved from his army pay, he and my grandmother, Vadie (Nevada) McCarty, purchased 120 acres near flat creek from his brother-in-law in 1922. Their determination to farm this tract, raise nine children, and remain their own boss, would be tested many times.
Unknown to them, they would be confronted with two disasters-one manmade and the other God made. The first disaster was the Great Depression of 1929. Shortly after many area farmers adjusted to severe money shortages, a second disaster struck in the form of the drought of 1931.
Faced with less money and less water, many farmers either quit or farmed only as a second job. Ambus continued farming as his primary occupation. I’ve heard him say they grew anything that would grow. His crops included but wasn’t limited to corn, cotton, and sugar cane. From the latter, he made and sold syrup. Near the end of farming season, he and his sons sold ties to the railroad company. I’m told he also worked handyman jobs for community members. He also supported the Lone Hill church elementary school and helped get land for the church cemetery.
In retirement, he shocked his neighbors by reluctantly signing up for electricity and even buying a 1957 Chevy sedan in 1958. Debt free and having ample leisure time, he and my grandmother could be seen riding around the Winnfield and Sikes area in their chauffeured driven car. He had answered his country’s call to serve, returned home and became self –employed, raised a family, weathered hard times, earned respect of both black and white neighbors, and was considered a model citizen. The obstacles he overcame had failed to make him a bitter man. My most vivid memory is of him sitting on his screened-in front porch and welcoming visitors with the phrase, “‘y’ all git out and come in.”