I usually have a good memory for details, and yet, I can't remember the man's name, or the name of his establishment.
It was 1976. I'd just graduated from Army flight school in Alabama. I was shocked when I learned that I'd secured my dream assignment after graduation: Fort Ord, California. Five hours from home.
My dad had been stationed at Fort Ord during the Korean War. He never saw overseas duty. In basic training, his company commander noted that he had talent as a boxer. So, after finishing basic, he was given an assignment as basic training cadre, and joined the base boxing team. He fought in several bouts, undefeated, until he faced a man by the name of Zora Folley. Folley knocked Dad down three times in the first round. (“I didn’t even see half of his punches coming,” Dad related.) His enthusiasm for boxing cooled after his encounter with Mr. Folley. (Folley went on to a rather lengthy professional career after leaving the Army, and had the distinction of being the last man to fight Muhammad Ali before Ali’s three-year ban from boxing commenced.) Leaving the boxing team meant orders for Korea. However, Dad contracted rheumatic fever before shipping out, and nearly died after having an allergic reaction to penicillin. The Army gave him two options after his recovery: he could get out of the Army with a medical discharge, or he could complete his stint in a non-strenuous job such as a clerk or a cook. Bitterly disappointed that he wouldn’t see action in Korea--he considered it a patriotic duty--he nevertheless chose to remain in the Army and become a cook.
I sat at the kitchen table with my dad, drinking coffee. Dad could be hard to read, but there was no mistaking the wistful look that came over his face. "There was a pizza place outside of the post, a couple of miles down from the town of Marina," he began. "It was the first place that I ever ate a pizza. The guy who owned it was old even then. He'd come from Italy to the U.S. in the twenties, and had a son serving the Army in Korea. Man, we sure had some good times out in his garden." He went on to tell me about some of his beer drinking buddies who would meet him at the pizza place. "Sometimes I'd go there when it was quiet, and talk to the old man. His kids didn't have much to do with him; I think he was kind of lonely."
A couple of weeks after arriving at Fort Ord, I decided to look for Dad's pizza place. I drove down a road bordering the military post, and sure enough, there was the place my dad had told me about, set back from the road a good bit. I drove up the driveway, and saw there were no other cars in the dirt parking lot. I walked in, and at first thought that perhaps the owner had forgotten to put up the "closed" sign. There was nobody there, or so it seemed. But then, I heard coughing from the back room, and an elderly man walked out to the counter and asked, "What can I do for you?" I ordered a pizza and a beer. When the man set the beer in front of me on the counter, I said, "You know, my dad came to your place during Korea. He said it was the first pizza he ever had." The man looked at me strangely. What was that expression? Sadness? Bitterness? Resentment? "I had to turn away customers in those days," he said. "The soldiers like your father loved to eat my pizza and drink beer in my garden. The soldiers don’t come any more. They like Shakey’s and Round Table.” He paused, and looked far away for a moment. Then he came back. “It’s for the best. My kids don’t want the place anyway."
I sipped my beer and skimmed a newspaper, hoping to talk to the man, but he didn’t seem open to conversation. When I saw him take my pizza out of the oven, I walked to the counter to pick it up, and he made eye contact. Sheepishly, I asked, “Do you remember my dad? He was a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. His name was Ken.” An expression came over his face, an expression I hoped was a measure of recognition. He opened his mouth to say something, but then his expression hardened, and he said, “I told you there were lots of soldiers that came here. My memory isn’t so good these days.” He turned from the counter, and toward his back room. He stopped. He turned back toward me, and looked as if he had something to say. Then he snorted, waved his hand dismissively, and retired to the back.
I felt a strong and surprising disappointment. But really, what did I expect to hear from the man?
I picked up my pizza, and began moving back to my table, but then I remembered the outside garden. I walked to a side door leading outside. It was stuck; I had to put down my pizza and shove against it to get it open. I stood there, mouth agape, looking at the hanging garden. It was so much like I’d envisioned it, based on my dad’s stories, that it was downright spooky. Unlike the rest of the establishment, it had been lovingly maintained. I retrieved my pizza and beer, had a seat at one of the picnic tables, and imagined my dad and his buddies, drinking beer and joking, my dad the center of attention. I could almost feel my dad’s presence.
The old man's voice startled me out of my reverie. “You need anything else? I don’t feel too good, gonna close early.” I told him no, drained the last of my beer, and picked up my half-eaten pizza. Perhaps it would make a better story I told you that I was amazed at how good the pizza had been. The truth was that I’d had better frozen pizzas from the supermarket. Come to think of it, my dad had told me that it was the first pizza he’d ever had. He’d never mentioned whether he liked it. He’d liked the Italian garden, though. Although my dad wasn't one to wear his heart on his sleeve, it was plain that the pizza place had been a special place for him.
I turned to leave, then stopped at the door. I looked back, and imagined my dad standing there, holding court and laughing. He looked so young and carefree, and so hopeful, as if he could conquer the world single-handedly. The pain of being raised with an unloving mother and abusive father was nowhere in evidence. He was the star of that night’s show.
“I love you Dad,” I whispered. I walked out, got in my car, and drove away.
I never went back to the old pizza place.
My dad died in 1991. I never actually said “I love you” to his face. We didn’t do that.
But that's okay. I tell him now.