By Michelle Y, Green, winner of the 2022 500-word essay contest.
Tonight, I found my father’s dog tags.
I’d stolen a dusty keepsake box from my mother’s house. The tags lay tangled beneath yellowed newspaper clippings, forgotten tie-tacks, and a large-caliber bullet. What surprised me was that I did not cry.
Hewn from the coal mining mountains of Kentucky, Dad had boarded a bus to Tuskegee with $3 in his pocket to become a colored flyer.
“We had a job to do, so we did it. We called ourselves The 100 Percenters.”
Hollywood and presidents have extolled the deeds of these extraordinary men. But my memories are in the quiet things.
Dad shaved with a straight-edged razor from Daddy John, who, covered with coal dust, cut hair on the side. I loved to watch Dad lather his face, cut around the cleft of his chin, and then – the splash of Old Spice. Whistling, he dabbed the waxy polish from the Kiwi tin and spit-shined his shoes until he could see his face in his shoe tops. He complained that the seams on his socks hurt his toes yet pinned on his many-colored ribbons, adjusted his hat, and left for the day.
I did not cry when I found his dog tags, but I have cried many times since. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam took a toll on him, and on us. He smuggled his weapons home – a military-issued pistol and a dagger with a skull clenching a blood-soaked knife. He had a hair-trigger temper. A high school friend saved me from suicide.
In his last days, Dad put me behind the wheel of his Porsche and asked me to take him to Kentucky one final time. When I was 16, he had taught me to “slide into fifth” on Lackland’s flight line. For mere mortals, the trip to Jenkins would have been an eight-hour drive – especially through the winding mountain roads behind overloaded coal trucks. But when we got to 81 South, he told me to “sting the gun!” We smelled coal dust and whispering pines in six hours.
There was nothing left of Holler Number Five. The state had cleaved his mountain home to make a new highway. We were unaware that we would witness the ribbon cutting. As my father mourned, I looked high into the mountaintop to see a single tire, painted in white. It was Daddy John’s custom to paint white tires to decorate the mountainside behind their house.
Dad took the wheel and unburdened himself on the trip home. He knew I would write the truth when the time came – about the body snatches, the kill counts, the stalking Special Ops Groups, the comrades absent from the black marble wall back home.
It has taken me years of mining memories, combing through personal effects, running the gauntlet of government red tape, and tear-soaked pillows to feel ready.
I am writing his story. My deepest regret is that, although I hear his voice clearly, he will not be here to read it.
Michelle Y. Green is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Master of Arts in Writing program and author of A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.