By LESLIE CRISS / Daily Journal
A charcoal portrait of Harold Turner was done by a young Belgian artist who was dressing as a woman to evade the draft. Turner discovered him going through the garbage, so Turner started saving food for him. To show his appreciation for Turner’s friendship, he did this portrait of the young Mississippi soldier. It’s signed, “Belgian friend Louis Carmeleich.” The drawing survived the war and made it back to Okolona rolled up in Turner’s pack.
Turner said he knew nothing about cooking before he was put in charge of it in the service. “I learned by doing,” he said. He continues to cook a big breakfast every morning.
Harold Turner, by his own admission, was not the best of students as a kid.
He had other interests: his guitar, his saddle horse and girls.
But whatever he might have lacked as a student, he more than made up for serving his country in World War II and later, helping to turn his hometown’s Main Street into a bustling, busy spot.
He still drives the few blocks to and from work each day at Turner’s Flowers and Gifts in his two-tone Ford truck. But he stays off the highway, he said.
“I’m 96, you know,” said the snow-white haired Turner.
Truth is, when Turner commences to telling stories about his boyhood, his stent in the service and his time in retail on Okolona’s Main Street, the clarity of his memories belies his age.
And one of his prized possessions tends to debunk Turner’s low assessment of his scholastic abilities.
When he was 15 and in school in the Egypt community, Turner penned a 750-word essay about his experience as a 4-H Club member. The essay was entered in a contest held by George McLean and The Daily Journal.
“I had a pocket knife and a pencil,” Turner said. “But I didn’t have a watch.”
The prize for the essay winner was a gold pocket watch – which accompanied Turner to France, England and other spots during WWII.
“I still have it,” he said, smiling. “And it still works.”
Though he made no formal choice to become a businessman, it seemed to come naturally to Turner, one of eight children raised on a farm.
“We had a watermelon patch,” he said. “One summer when I was about 7 or 8, I wanted to load them up and take them to town, but my father said, ‘Son, you couldn’t give them things away.’ I took them to town anyway and set up under a hackberry tree.
“I got tired of sitting and waiting, so I took out my crabapple switch pocket knife and cut a watermelon and gave slices away. It was so sweet and people asked me what kind of watermelon it was. I didn’t know – I told them it was ice cream watermelon. I sold all that I had. That was my first experience selling anything.”
Turner was drafted into the Army just before he entered the 12th grade.
“I was barely old enough,” he said. “But my dad was a World War I vet and he encouraged me to get on some sort of special duty. I was a misfit in the Army of the worst kind.”
But a chat early on with an officer got Turner the special duty his father had told him about. He was told to report to the kitchen where he quickly proved he was not afraid of work.
Before heading overseas, Turner was sent to baking school for three months.
After basic, Turner – assigned to Battery D in the 445th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion – set sail for Liverpool, England, on the SS Pasteur. Again, he was assigned to the galley and given two civilians as assistants.
“The more I cooked, the easier it became,” he said “It got so I thought I was pretty good – I’d make 300 biscuits at one meal or I’d fix French toast for the men and plenty of creek bank coffee – strong as it could be. The officers started hearing about my cooking and they’d come over and eat too.”
Turner recalls Hurtgen Forrest, the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy and Omaha Beach; he remembers that three or four days after D-Day there were still bodies on the beach. He talks about it as if it were yesterday.
“We got off the boat and were sprayed with rifles and 50-caliber machine gun fire,” he said, clear blue/green eyes shining. “I waded in water up to my chin, bullets all around, boys getting wounded and hollering, ‘Mama.’ It was a terrible thing to hear.”
Ever the salesman
Turner continued to hone his salesman skills in the service.
“Every single time I’d go to the PX, I’d buy a bunch of candy bars and stuff them in my pack,” he said, laughing. “Anytime I’d have a break, I’d pull one out and take a bite. Everybody would want one so I’d sell them all and make four or five dollars.”
When his commanding officer asked Turner if he planned to reenlist, Turner told him he had a mother and a father, brothers and sisters – two he’d never seen – that needed him back home.
“I told him I thought more of my family than the extra money I might make staying in the service,” Turner said.
Back home, he farmed with his father a bit, then had several job offers – one in Egypt, the other on Okolona’s Main Street. He went to work as a clerk at Mr. E.E. Davis’ general store in Okolona making $50 a week. He stayed 13 years.
Turner’s next business venture was The Bargain Store, also on Main Street. His friend L.D. Hancock told Turner he needed to get his own name in the store, so The Bargain Store became Turner’s Discount Center.
“As part of that store, Dad had a Feed and Seed,” said daughter Harolyn Flynt. “He was, at one time, the largest Ralston Purina dealer in the state. He had a lady out back who cooked hamburgers, too. He did it all.”
He opened Turner’s Furniture while still operating the discount store. He later partnered with Jerry Rogers. Today, the Rogers family continues the furniture business with stores in several cities.
When Turner returned home after the war, he stayed busy but took time to enjoy some leisure. His attendance at a local ball game proved providential.
“I saw this girl,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “She struck my fancy. She had a pretty good figure, long hair. We started courting. After about two years, I said, ‘Let’s get this thing over with.’ So we went to see a marrying preacher in Wren and he tied us up.”
Turner and his bride, Lois, have been married 69 years. They’re the parents of two daughters, Joy Turner Brewer of Ridgeland and Harolyn Turner Flynt of Okolona. They have two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Turner’s Flowers came along as an empty nest project for Lois Turner in 1986.
“I was a senior in high school and my sister was in college,” Harolyn Turner said. “So, Dad encouraged our mother to open up a little hobby shop.”
Today, Turner’s Flowers and Gifts is run by daughter Harolyn, but her father is a daily presence in the store.
“I don’t do much of anything in the store,” Turner said.
But his daughter and employee Joanna Carter both beg to differ.
He finds things to do, but he also sometimes just visits with customers.
Most would agree a little down-time is well deserved for Turner, who’s been the keeper of the keys for many of his town’s Main Street businesses for 80 years. Still, he shows no signs of stopping.
“It’s just in our blood,” said Harolyn Turner. “We’ll just keep staying on Main Street a little longer.”
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