I don’t know why it dogs me, why it feels so important to know who my father was before he was my father. He died 15 years ago. Shouldn’t I be over wanting to understand the man who came home from combat and married my mother? “Tell me about the war, Dad,” I asked him when I was a child, a teenager, a young adult and an old adult.
“No,” he said every time. “No.”
And then he died and left me breadcrumbs: a red, three-ring binder with 34 standard, white pages on which he taped and labeled small black-and-white pictures. They are of bombed-out buildings (WAR TORN GERMANY); and pretty girls (FRENCH GIRL, JEANNIE); and children (ORPHAN CHILDREN FROM THE WAR). And they are of soldiers (VINCE VELLUCCI, FROM BETH PAGE, NY; PHIL HAMPT, FROM NEW YORK CITY; UNKNOWN; UNKNOWN; UNKNOWN).
The pages are chronological, from 1941 to 1945. STATESIDE - 1941; NORTH AFRICA - 1943; ALGERIA - 1943; SAHARA DESERT - 1943; ISLAND OF SARDINIA - 1944; NICE - 1944; MANNHEIM -1944; FRANKFORT -1944; HAMBURG -1944, every word typed in bold capitals. So I would pay attention, I believe. So I would observe.
I thought I had. I pored over these pages right after my father died, stunned that in death he had finally answered me. But what I learned was that this red, three-ring binder was a dead end. A fire in St. Louis in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center had destroyed 80 percent of the Army records of everyone discharged from Nov. 1, 1912, to Jan. 1, 1960. Everything I would never know about my father went up in smoke.
End of chase.
Then, last month, I read a book published in 1943. Ernie Pyle’s “Here Is Your War.” I found it at a used book store in Maine. Ernie Pyle was a syndicated columnist who wrote not just about World War II, but about the young American men, most just boys, who were fighting the war. He wrote about their courage, their resilience, their ingenuity, about how they lived in ferocious heat and frigid cold, constantly under attack, how they survived and how they died. He wrote out the full names and hometowns of the soldiers whose stories he told: Lieutenant Grady H. Jones of Bremen, Georgia; Sergeant James Bernett, 1541 Cheyenne Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Corporal Lester Gray of 2443 Farwell Avenue, Chicago. I read page after page, believing I might see my father’s name because the places Pyle wrote from were the place my father had been. So I read the way I watch old newsreels in the hope that I might catch a glimpse of him.
I didn’t, though. And yet I saw my father in the stories of other men. When Pyle wrote about Captain Russel Wight, a company commander from Cambridge, Massachusetts, I imagined, because my father came from Cambridge, too, that they might have met.
And maybe they did.
In the red, three-ring binder, there are five pictures of Vince Vellucci, the most of anyone. When I was a child pestering my father for information about the war, my mother told me that everywhere my father went, Vince Vellucci went. I know they remained friends because we visited the family once in Bethpage, Long Island. We drove there in my father’s 1957 Chevy.
Maybe my father talked about the war during that visit. Maybe he sat at the kitchen table with my mother and Vince and Vince’s wife and they all talked. I don’t know. I was a child. I wasn’t at the table.
A few years ago, I bought a brick at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans to commemorate my father’s war service. “Pvt. Lawrence J. Curtin, Sacrificed Youth for Country” it says.
It’s one more thing that doesn’t say enough.
Last week I googled Vincent Vellucci. I found his obituary. He died in 2004, a year before my father. Google led me to his son, Vincent.
Vincent said he had two pages from a small journal his father had kept. Only two pages, but they chronicled the years his father spent in the Army, from the day he enlisted to the day he was discharged. He took two pictures and e-mailed them to me.
And here they are on my desk. I printed them. I study them. The writing is big and bold, not typed and not all capitals like my father’s, but they say pay attention, too.
And if what my mother told me is true, that Vince Vellucci and my father fought side by side? Then all these places are places my father was. Which means I now have a map and not just breadcrumbs to follow.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.