Father’s stories lost on inattentive son

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

I never listened to the stories he told.

Either “Speed Racer” was on or the new Fantastic Four was out or the Spinners were on the radio. Whatever. I never listened. Things were not good between us. He had a drinking problem, which meant he had a hitting problem. I tried to stay out of his way. But sometimes, when things were quiet and his mood contemplative, my father just wanted to talk, to tell me who he’d been and what he’d seen in the years before I came along, the years of worldwide war.

What did I care? “Speed Racer” was on. What did those days, those “olden” days, mean to me, child of the era of perpetual new?
I never listened.

“This was taken in Belgium,” he would say, pointing to some black-and-white picture of him as a 20-something soldier, his uniform crisp, his salute crisper. “Um hmm,” I would say, giving a cursory glance before moving back to more important things.

I never listened.

Years later, I would wish I had. Years later, when the military told me the records of his service were lost, burned in a fire, I’d wish I had paid attention. If I had, I might know more than the fact that at some point, he was in Belgium.

I do know that he was a driver on the Red Ball Express. I learned this because he told my cousin Nate, who told me. Nate was older than I. He had been in Vietnam. So he listened.

The Red Ball Express was 6,000 truck drivers, many of them black, who ferried supplies to the Allies as they advanced through occupied France. They were renowned for their speed, skill and daring. In the first 12 days of the operation, they delivered 89,000 tons of material to the combat troops. So my father was a hero, albeit in a service often overlooked by history.

And I realize now that this is what he was referring to when he used to boast that he could drive anything on wheels. “Can you drive a tank?” one of us would ask. And he would say yes, he could drive a tank.

“Can you drive an airplane?” I would ask.

He would point out that an airplane is not a ground vehicle. “But it has wheels,” I would say. Because I could be a pill when I wanted to, even at 10 years of age.

He died two days after Christmas in 1975. Cigarettes, throat cancer. At the funeral, two soldiers took the American flag that draped his casket, folded it into a tight, triangular wedge, and presented it to my mother. When she died, it passed down to me.

For years, I kept his flag on a shelf in my closet with her Bible. A few years back, the kids got into the closet and I found the flag unfolded, just lying there. I was furious. Tried to explain to them what this flag was, but you know how it is with kids. They don’t listen. I took the flag to a military recruiting station where two young soldiers refolded it for me. It sits in a frame on the mantel now.

Somewhere in northern California, there is, or was, a man whose name is the same as mine. He was a teacher and apparently a very good one, because not a month goes by that one of his former students doesn’t send me a note praising him and wondering if he was my father.

That teacher sounds like a wonderful man, but he wasn’t my father.

My father was Cpl. Leonard G. Pitts, United States Army and, later, United States Marines. He was not a perfect man, but he could drive anything with wheels.

He was a soldier.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com