A small framed short, black man emerged from the front door of his house. It was the first time I’d seen him, and he seemed to be in his mid to late 50’s. Later I would find out through conversation he was a youthful 54.
I had only heard stories of him before this morning. Stories of how hard he worked, how hard he drank, and how hard he lived chasing women and highs.
At first, it was hard to understand him. We jumped from subject to subject on the ride to work, moving quickly through raising hogs to working on cars to a possible stash of old baseball cards somewhere in his falling down house with no electricity or running water.
He was soft-spoken, and until you figured out what words meant what, it was hard to know what he was saying.
Bull-do meant bulldozer. That came up when talking about needing to clear some land to add more pigs to his collection.
“I need someone who got a bull-do to clear some trees,” he said right before he took another drag off of his cigarette.
Somehow the conversation twisted to his midget daughter and how strong she was. During holiday family gatherings his brother, her uncle, felt the need to make fun of her. Most holidays were better known for turkey and dressing, gifts and giving, or a celebration of Christ rising from the dead, but in his household, headlocks from a midget woman were much more common occurrences.
“I see her during holidays. He wants to pick at her, but she won’t take it. She always puts him in a headlock,” he continued as he rambled about his entire life.
Back to work for a while, and at 54, he clearly outworked 90% of today’s youth. He doesn’t stop for breaks unless told to, he grabs a Coke every once in a while and stays moving and cleaning, unlike most construction workers.
During lunch, I asked him about the rest of his family. He wasn’t very receptive, as he didn’t have many positive things to say about most of them. They had used him for decades, and instead of trashing them while we ate chicken, he just changed the subject. A brother who worked him for years and paid him in scraps. A sister who disowned him when she married into money. Cousins that stole from him, nephews that waited around his house until he was dropped off after work just to bum a few smokes or some money for beer. Although he had enough, he wouldn’t speak ill of them. After all, they were still family to him.
While rambling from one subject to another, I blurted out “B-52 Stratofortress” as one flew in the distance. I wasn’t looking directly at it, and never saw it as it was behind a tree line, so he questioned my call.
“How you know what kind that is,” he quietly asked.
“I’ve been around planes since birth, growing up on Air Force bases and my oldest brother flew them for 20 plus years, so I can tell most planes by just the sound,” I answered as he acknowledged, a grin from ear to ear growing on his face.
“My daddy was a Tuskegee Airmen,” he replied with a little extra pep in his voice.
I could tell by his expression and body movement that he was proud of that. Chest bowed out for the first time since I met him, smile radiating. Not a care in the world it seemed as he began talking about his father.
Nothing specific, just some oddball stories about his days in the war. It didn’t matter though, as each story seemed to brighten his day even more. I listened in amazement, some of the time not able to keep up with him or understand what he was saying, but let him continue because the smile on his face and in his heart grew larger with every word.
We finished out the day hanging sheetrock together, and in between stories of women and drugs and booze and out of town work, he tossed in the occasional “Tuskegee” story.
I was intrigued, so I decided to do some research to find some more information on his father.
Digging through databases, rosters, websites, and anything else I could find, I couldn’t locate one bit of evidence of his father being involved with them.
As the days rolled on, he continued to talk about him. No other subject brought about such a positive change in his demeanor, his aura, than his father the Tuskegee Airman. His old chasing days stories brought about a quick smirk. Talk of strip club visits and bottles of Jack Daniels and lap dances produced a brief smile. But when he spoke of his father, you couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face if you tried.
I researched for nearly two weeks, running his name through every channel I knew, and still, nothing came up. He may have been in the war, in fact, I am certain he was, but every bit of evidence would lead you to believe he wasn’t involved in the Tuskegee Airmen project at all.
Yet in his mind, his father was, in fact, a part of one of the greatest outfits our nation’s military has ever seen. He became more sure with every story, with every breath. He was his hero. And the thoughts and memories of his father made him extremely proud, extremely happy. Completely content with life.
Who was I to tell him any different?
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