This is a different than my normal writing here. There isn’t “10 steps to…” at the end. This is actually a piece of fiction. I sincerely hope this story sparks conversation. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope it ignites empathy for the undecorated veterans and the message they share.
I waited for my daddy on our front porch, eager to etch his face in my memory. He had only been back home for two months, yet still I felt a determined urgency to study his face and link the person whom I loved in the corners of my mind for the past two years with the person in front of me. My brothers, Curtis and John, who were too young to really remember a time with dad, sat on the stoop comparing matchbox cars and fighting over the best piece of sidewalk to race them.
My dad, Ernest L. Johnson served as a Corporal in the Army during Second World War. He was drafted into the army when I was 12 and served two years as an American soldier. Although I had an inkling of what he was leaving to do, the day he left I couldn’t contain my tears.
“Will we ever see him again momma?” I asked frozen, one hand by my side and one locked in hers as uninvited tears fell down my cheek.
“Yes, baby.” she whispered. “By the grace of God we will.”
In the next few years I helped my mom take care of my two younger brothers; Curtis was 5 and John was 4. We went to school while my mom worked in the factory while I ran the home. On the way home from school, I would scrounge up whatever food we could afford at the general store and prepare supper for my brothers and my mom. This was our duty to our country; while the men fought overseas, we supported our country at home. We were the backbone of America.
As soldiers began to return from the war, I knew my daddy wouldn’t be too far behind. My best friend Shelly and I would run from school to the main courthouse, where a parade of soldiers were greeted with cheers and confetti. We giggled with girlish glee and waited to see our dad’s come down the road decorated in honor. Surely the black battalion would follow this parade. Thirty minutes after the last military van came and went, Shelly and I sat on the curb expectant as the crowd thinned. They never did ride down that road. We left the parade aftermath in silence, completely disheartened and impatient.
“Maybe tomorrow. Maybe they’ll be here tomorrow,” I said trying to convince Shelly but mostly to comfort my own heart.
“Our daddy’s will be here tomorrow and there will be a big parade!” I exclaimed with my arms outstretched as far as they could reach. Shelly slowly lifter her head from its dejected position, looked at me from the corner of her eye with an impish grin and said,
“Race you home?”
“Go!” I shouted before she even had the chance to find her footing.
We dashed home, gleefully resolved to come back tomorrow to celebrate the new batch of soldiers come home.
“Tomorrow,” I assured myself each time my feet pounded the pavement.
Later that evening, a military van of about 12 black soldiers, unexpectedly thundered down our street. We all rushed to the porch to see what the commotion was about but Momma was the first to the door. In slow motion, watched as my dad jumped off the military van, gazed at my mother running towards him with tear strewn cheeks, and swooped her up in a loving kiss. I watched in shock and awe. My legs felt like lead weights as my mind willed them to move. “Just take one step Judy!” I urged myself. But I couldn’t.
I don’t remember much after that point. My dad hugged me and in the warmth of his arms melted my frozen state; I collapsed and wept in his arms.
“Where is the parade? Where are the patriots?” I stuttered.
“Oh baby, I don’t need no parade now. All I need is you,” dad replied.
We exchanged dozens of kisses and hugs, desperately trying to make up for lost time, and welcomed my dad back home. That night while lying in bed and replaying the last few moments of the day, I was filled with joy, relief, and a little something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Why wasn’t there a parade for my dad like the one I’d seen that afternoon? He was a veteran too. Slowly the silence of the cool fall night lulled me to sleep, forever burying that question in my heart.
As I sat on the porch waiting for my dad to begin storytime, I remembered that moment. Months had passed since our reunion and we slowly began to rebuild the life we once had. It wasn’t exactly the same; daddy wasn’t exactly the same. And neither was I.
“Go on upstairs Darlene. I’ll bring the kids up in a few minutes,” my dad’s deep baritone voice echoed as he walked down the hall. It was storytime, just like we used to, before the War. Mom looked through the screen door and locked eyes with me.
“Ok…” she answered hesitantly. “But don’t be too long now.”
She quietly dropped her gaze, pursed her lips as she nodded to my father in their secret code, and made her way up the dark oak stairs to her bedroom.
I heard the screen door creak as my father took his place with us on the porch in his rocking chair. Everyone knew that was dad’s chair and no one could sit in that chair unless you were lookin’ for a whooping. My brothers and I didn’t dare sit in it. Even momma avoided that seat when daddy left. Instead, she brought out an old wooden chair from the kitchen, placed it five inches away from daddy’s and told us stories. She tried to at least. It wasn’t the same. But the war in Germany changed everything and she was determined to keep our Sunday night story hour even if the tradition ran her into the ground. There were times, when momma thought I wasn’t looking, where I could see her rest her hand on the top rail rocking chair and just gaze at the seat, as if she could see daddy there, but only for a moment. I recognized that look. The deepening creases in the corner of her eyes gave her away. And I felt it too; life while my father served in World War 2 was hard and I missed him fiercely. We all wanted daddy safe, back home for storytime. That rocking chair became our hope.
But tonight, for the first time in many months, Daddy was home. He eased his 6’1 frame into the seat as the rocking chair swayed back to greet him.
“Boys,” dad said in a stern voice. “Imma need you to listen and behave like men for this story.”
My brothers immediately stopped in their tracks, sat up straight and locked eyes with the only male authority they had known.
“Judy, you need to hear this too.” he said as his voice softened and beckoned me to sit closer.
“There’s a few things I need to tell y’all…
well, I don’t really know…”
His voice trailed and his rocking slowed as he looked into the distance. That evening, and for many nights later, my dad began to unfold, in the best way he could, the reason why there was no parade that day.
I knew then that my dad risked his life to fight for the freedom of America. He, along with millions of other men and women, fought overseas with the Allies, against the Germans, for democracy. Now I’ve come to learn that my dad fought honorably in war for freedom and returned to a country where his freedom was compromised. He fought on foreign battlefield, where in a lot of ways, he experienced equality for the first time. Then he marched home to a country who dismissed his service and subjected him to a new kind of warfare, more nuanced and covert than the latter. My daddy was a veteran, a black veteran. Over the next several years he watched as some of his white war mates prospered in their new suburban homes, granted by the new GI Bill. They nailed a stake in the ground in celebration as their families jumped in delight. But my father received no such celebration. The promises of war were withheld from him. There was no new house. There were no groundbreaking ceremonies. There was no parade.
My dad lived another 42 years and passed away after his struggle with lung cancer. Throughout the years we shared countless stories. He spoke of his dreams to be a journalist, which he then passed on to me. And when my kids were old enough to understand, he shared his stories with them too. Most stories were just tall tales he’d make up just to see them laugh, but once in a while, he’d tell a story that brought me right back to 12 year old me the day he returned. That familiar feeling haunted me in the phrases of my dad’s stories, even after all these years. I was reminded of the the first words I asked him the day he returned. On the day my dad died, through heartbroken tears I spoke the last words I would ever speak to him.
“Daddy,” I barely whispered while choking back the growing lump in my throat.
“If you went and fought for democracy, then why didn’t democracy include us?”
“Why didn’t they include us?”
One of the most untold stories is the story of the black veteran. And in many ways the problems we see in society today with racism and micro-aggressions are the residual effects of a system that was created to make human beings subservient to the majority, even if it cost them their life. I hope this story makes you think. This story was inspired by Langston Hughes poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943.”
My hope is that this story would help shift paradigms.