- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

According to my Dad’s military records, he left school in eighth grade. As you might expect, he had a hard life.

It was a good life, though. He was born into the Great Depression. He knew nothing of the dismal science of economics but learned its cruel realities on the Alabama farms.

His father died young, and Dad and his brothers were sent to an orphanage. Later, they were reunited with their mother. Dad went to work to support the family. He sold vegetables at roadside stands to hurried low-wage customers on their way from jobs at textile mills.

At Christmas, Dad’s boss drove to Atlanta and bought truckloads of Christmas trees, which they also sold roadside to mill workers. I asked Dad once if his customers tipped him well. He just laughed, “Mill workers don’t know what a tip is.”

He made little money, but somehow it was enough to get the family by until they found better jobs. Those were hard days he never liked to recall.

When Dad was old enough to enlist, he went to Korea. He worked in the mess hall and was proud of his commendations for keeping his fellow troops happily fed. He saw combat, but he would see worse later in life. Dad got no medals for Korea.

After I was born at Fort Belvoir, at Mom’s insistence, Dad left military service to return to Alabama and work in the textile mill. In the early 1960s, Dad joined the Army National Guard.

Montgomery Baptist preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and blacks all over the state marched and demanded civil and voting rights. History and service were not over for Dad. His all-white Guard unit, called Dixie, was federalized to protect the marchers. Alabama’s governor had said he couldn’t order the Alabama state troopers to provide for the marchers’ safety. So the president called up Dad’s Guard unit to do it.

The 1960s were a tense time in Alabama. We never knew what violence to expect in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Fortunately, we lived through it. Dad later said his Guard duty at civil rights marches was as dangerous as combat in Korea.

I’ve met several retired generals at various events here in Washington, D.C. I have told them what Dad said about Guard duty in Alabama during the civil rights era. They’ve all agreed with Dad: Alabama was as dangerous as Korea.

Dad never got any medals for seeing civil rights “combat” duty in Alabama, either. He wouldn’t want any. He served well and with honor. Other whites in our town didn’t appreciate Dad for protecting the “lawbreaking coloreds.” That’s all in the past. All those hard, hard times are in the past.

I mostly got Dad handkerchiefs for Father’s Day. He never wore a tie, not even at church. He was a simple man, just a textile mill laborer. I guess you could say he had an uneventful life. But that would be wrong.

My Dad was a hero to me. He had courage. He lived through family tragedy, the Great Depression, Korea, and the bloody civil rights struggle in Alabama.

When Dad died in 2003, Congress paused to recognize him as a “model citizen who loved the military” and as “an active proponent of civil rights.” He would have liked that. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

JAMES PATTERSON

Mr. Patterson is an award-winning D.C.-based writer.


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