In 1986, the year I turned 21, my father accidentally set fire to our basement. Until then he could often be found down there, in the office he'd carved out for himself in a far corner, smoking a cigar and working on his diaries. He'd been keeping them—dozens of identical volumes bound in red canvas—for most of his adult life.
From This Story
In the span of a few hours, the flames that rose from the smoldering butt he'd tossed in the wastebasket destroyed two rooms. My father suffered second-degree burns trying to rescue his journals, but nearly all of them were reduced to ash.
A year later, a conservator handed us what was left of them, suggesting to Dad that he could review these scraps for an autobiography and start anew. Instead, my father—the namesake and only son of the World War II general George S. Patton Jr., and a decorated general and famously tough warrior in his own right—choked up. "I'm sorry, I just can't," he said. And he never did.
Someone once told me that when a person dies, it's like a library burning down. My dad reversed the idea: the burning of his office extinguished something in him.
History had always formed a huge part of our family life; the fact that my grandfather had kept thousands of pages of his own letters and diaries—later published as The Patton Papers—was no fluke. As kids, my four siblings and I were fed a steady diet of biographies. Wherever we lived—Kentucky, Alabama, Texas, Germany—we spent a lot of time trudging through battlefields and other historical sites. After the basement fire, assorted family relics dating back to the Civil War era were restored, cataloged and donated to museums. The oil portrait of my grandfather that was represented in the film Patton now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Other keepsakes went to West Point and the Patton Museum in Kentucky, and each has a story. For just one example, there's a gold coin that my great-great-grandfather, Confederate Col. George Patton, carried in his vest pocket during the Civil War. When a Yankee Minié ball struck him during the Battle of Giles Court House in 1862, the coin deflected the bullet just enough to prevent it from penetrating his gut and likely killing him.
A year or so after the fire, I offered to interview my father on audiotape. I wanted to do it partly for our family and partly for him. The loss of his journals had caused him even more sorrow than his retirement from the military six years earlier. I wanted him to be able to share his stories with someone who cared—and who found them inherently valuable.
I was the right age to listen. My father had left for the second of his three tours in Vietnam about the time I was a year old, and my first memory of him is when we flew to Hawaii on R & R to meet him when I was about 3. My mother still teases me about my tugging on her dress at the airport and asking, "What did you say his name was? Daddy?"
As a child, my father had been quite close to his own father: they rode horses, read poetry and even built a 22-foot motorboat together in the garage. But after my dad left for boarding school at 13, they communicated mainly through letters, most of which were a formal, man-to-man mix of advice and strategy. A 1944 letter written from Europe to my dad, who had just flunked math, captures the tenor of their new relationship: "Get as high a stand in math as you can before you hit the stuff you flunked on. In that way, you have further to retreat. It's just like war: in a delaying action, meet the enemy as far out as possible."
During college, my father saw his father only twice—once before then-Maj. Gen. Patton left for North Africa as part of the secret Operation Torch invasion force in 1942 and again briefly just after the war, when my grandfather returned to the States for a War Bond tour featuring victory parades in Boston and Los Angeles. Then he returned to Germany, where he died December 21, 1945, at age 60, after breaking his neck in an automobile accident.
My father turned 22 just days later, and the pressure to live up to his father's legend was already building. When he graduated from West Point the following June, an old veteran shook his hand and said, "Well, George, you'll never be the man your father was, but congratulations."