Sons want fathers who are heroes.

My daddy came home for good in 1968, when he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.

I was seven years old.

My daddy retired as a staff sergeant after spending as much time fighting America’s wars as Nelson Mandela spent in South African’s prisons.

Pops was always the man in my life.

When Daddy finally came home for good, he opened up his black foot-locker and its interior  filled our tiny home with the smells of Brasso and shining silver coins.

My daddy’s smile was brighter than the medals and ribbons pinned to his chest.

We three children laughed, watching Daddy and our mother dancing in the middle of the living-room floor to Archie Bells and The Drells doing the tighten up.

We thought we would be so rich forever.

After my daddy helped make the world safe for freedom and democracy, he bought a three-bedroom brick house for his family.

He copped a job sweeping floors and buffing hallways as long as cotton rows at the community college.

We watched my daddy fight private battles with the bottle, and in between rows with my mother, he grew the sweetest red peppers and biggest collard plants in town.

My daddy taught me how to mow and rake the lawn, and the meaning of the word “musty.”

Late at night, I would lay in bed, enchanted, as he walked along the dirt path leading up to our back door, whistling his blues, a smooth trilling that wafted like mint over the cool night air.

The music of my daddy’s soul is the reason I love a John Coltrane ballad.

And I would rest secure, a little boy knowing his daddy had come home, again.

Sons need fathers who are heroes.

My daddy was born in a place called Wolfpit, near the Great Pee Dee River, not far from the North and South Carolina line.

My momma told me, “Boy, your daddy used to be the meanest man in town.”

I looked at his name, Charlie Everett—and in my mind’s eye?

He became Ezzard Charles, a smart, cagey, swivel-hipped fighter.

A stylish contender, that daddy of mine.

My daddy; with his thin necktie carelessly knotted, sitting in some segregated bar, drinking bourbon in a faded black and white photo that my momma never lost.

Grown sons raised by their fathers know about heroes.

Twenty-seven years after my daddy came home for good we did not expect him to live past the coming spring.

I looked at that gray, wizened man already lying as still as death on that hospital bed: in this place where so many fathers had died before.

My daddy was a king man, often mistaken for a pawn.

He was a giant who built a home and family with his bare heart.

The man paid a pound in flesh, sweating out many a drunk while sending his children off to school, and one to heaven.

My daddy?

I knew he wasn’t going to go out like that.

When the security guard at the hospital dozed off, my daddy pulled the plug from the machine we mistakenly thought was keeping him alive.

He escaped out of the hospital and into a cold, muddy night.

He ran across the street to my sister’s job at the rest home three hundred yards away.

I imagine syringe needles and IV tubes puncturing him like shrapnel. Imagine a  whirring noise in the head of this quiet warrior struggling down the road with his life in the balance. 

My daddy took on the world again, and won.

Sons never stop looking for their fathers’ glory.

My daddy lived on for two more years.

One day we were watching a baseball game on TV and I asked him, “Daddy, didja ever play baseball?”

“Yeah,” he gruffly answered, his face softened by a smile.

Maybe he was caught up in a boyhood memory of circling the base paths along some patch of ground in that Wolfpit township where he grew up.

But in my mind’s eye?

My daddy was a hard-charging second baseman with the Kansas City Monarchs.

At the height of the Negro National League, playing with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Poppa Bell.

I imagined him hobnobbing with the Piedmont bluesmen Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red at the game’s end, and living out of a plain, clapboard suitcase in segregated hotels all over the colored country.

I really didn’t talk that much to my daddy. He didn’t say a whole lot to me either. But there were lessons he passed on to me, about the secret lives of Black men, and the importance of a daddy’s presence in a little boy’s life.

In a cigarette and bourbon-seasoned voice he would grumble in disgust, “Damn generic cigarettes burn up before you even light them.”

We would sit and smoke vintage Second World War Pall Malls.

We would sip the hot and sweet instant coffee.

We would watch the baseball game on TV, with the volume turned up to:


Can you hear me?

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