ALISON STEWART, host:
Today is Father's Day, a perfect time for the generations to pause and share a memory or story about family history. And when your grandfather is World War II General George S. Patton and your dad is the decorated Korean and Vietnam War General George Patton, many of these stories are already well-known. However, there is another side - a more personal side to the Patton family. Documentarian Benjamin Patton revealed some of the lessons he learned from his father and grandfather in this month's issue of Smithsonian magazine. He joins us from our New York Bureau. Welcome to the show.
Mr. BENJAMIN PATTON (Documentarian): Thanks for having me.
STEWART: Ben, your article starts with a really tragic occurrence. All of your father's diaries were burned in a fire. And you mention a quote that reads: When a person dies, it is like a library burning down. My dad reversed the idea. The burning of his office extinguished something in him. Can you describe what he was like after that fire?
Mr. PATTON: Well, I mean he was really, I would say, crushed, because he had worked his whole career to not only develop a reputation for himself, but to do so apart from the rather overwhelming legend of my grandfather - and I think that was a challenge in itself. And then to have a lot of that material that he had so meticulously documented for decades just go up in flames, literally, was really tragic.
STEWART: You stepped in at this point and offered to help your dad record his memories. Was it difficult for him to get through the sadness to tell you the stories?
Mr. PATTON: I would say yes, in a certain sense. I often advise people, in fact, not to have a family member interview another family member - a son or a daughter to interview a father and uncle. But in the case of my father, he's very - he's a gifted orator, he's a colorful storyteller, and once I sort of broke through the surface of it, he really unleashed all kinds of stories that I hadn't heard, many of which I hadn't heard at all.
STEWART: What new thing did you learn about your dad?
Mr. PATTON: You know, I learned that he was not only very popular with his troops, he was also considered a great leader. And I think the one thing that I learned that I wasn't expecting is that my father was human - is that he made mistakes and the part that I think made him a great leader was that he was willing to own to up them and always come back to the table and say, you know what? I could've done this a different way. I could've done it better. Let's see if we can work it out. And I think that's really one of the lesser known, but more important aspects of leadership.
STEWART: Now, if I did my math right, and I majored in English, so my math may not be right, your grandfather died before you were born. Now, after speaking to your dad, did you learn anything new about your grandfather?
Mr. PATTON: I have to experience my grandfather through other people because he did - you're correct, your math is excellent for an English major - he died in 1945 in a tragic car accident, 20 years before I was born, and I think six years before my parents even met. So, you know, I learned two things - well, I learned many things - but one of them was that my father really admired my grandfather. And a lot of times when your father's right there it's tough to, sort of, to admire them or at least express that to them directly. And I think my father was someone who could step out of himself a little bit and realize really what a significant man my grandfather was.
And the other side of it is I learned that my grandfather was - that there was a warts-and-all side to him, you know. He wasn't the greatest and most attentive father or husband. He was rather self-absorbed, and maybe that was necessary in many ways for him to achieve what he did. But I think my father improved on many qualities of my grandfather's character. Not to criticize my grandfather, he was a great man, but in my eyes, my father was the titan.
STEWART: Most people have the image of your grandfather from the movie "Patton," quite honestly, as a sort of gruff and determined character that George C. Scott plays. Is that the same father that your father knew?
Mr. PATTON: You know, that's a good question. My first association with my grandfather was through the movie. It came out when I was five years old. So I've had to kind of reacquaint myself with who my grandfather actually was. I think deep down, I think my father's one wish of his relationship with his father would simply have been to spend more time with him. After he turned about 13 and went off to boarding school, my grandfather went on the road very quickly to getting very, very famous.
And you have to realize that my father only saw my grandfather twice from the beginning of World War II to the time he died. Once right before he went off to the secret Operation Torch, which is the very beginning of the movie - essentially the beginning of the movie "Patton," the North Africa campaign, and once just after the war for a few days. And so, I really sympathize with my father for not having had the opportunity to spend the time with his father that I had to spend with him.
STEWART: You've also made a family documentary complete with clips of home movies and parts of these audio tapes. I want you to tell me little bit about the tapes that your dad would send to your mom when he was stationed abroad.
Major General GEORGE S. PATTON (U.S. Army): For God sake, and the first thing, don't worry about me. I've got a feeling my number isn't up. And Pattons always know when their number's up. So don't worry about me, baby.
Mr. PATTON: Well, this was quite a discovery for me that I made maybe five, six, seven years ago and found about six or seven shoeboxes in one of the offices in our home. And it turns out that my father and mother corresponded first by reel to reel tape, and then by audiotape during his multiple tours in Vietnam. And it is fascinating stuff. It's sort of like the equivalent of snapshot, only audio wise, you know, that you just sort of - really, the immediacy of what was going on is very apparent in these things.
And so you'll hear my mother putting all of us on the microphone, you know, and meet - saying, I learned how to swim today and my sister said she learned a new word and so forth. And then my dad responds on the other side of the tape and he's saying, don't worry about me, everything's fine, I'm on a great adventure and, meanwhile, you hear the Hueys in the background, and the bombs, and the mortars and the B52s. And I haven't even had a chance to listen to all of them - there were over 100 hours of them. And it's quite something, really.
STEWART: You wrote about your father's distinguished military career as it relates to your grandfathers and you came up with some interesting conclusions about your dad. Tell us what you discovered.
Mr. PATTON: Well, it's difficult to say this without sounding as though I'm dissing my grandfather, but I'm not at all, but the fact is, my father actually spent more time in frontline combat than my grandfather, and he was just as highly decorated. And that doesn't say one was better than the other, but just to say that he deserves every bit the same amount of credit that my grandfather had.
STEWART: Given your family history, your father, in the military, a hero in Korea and Vietnam, your grandfather synonymous with World War II, your great great grandfather a Confederate colonel. Did you ever consider a military career?
Mr. PATTON: Well, to be honest, being quite an admirer of my own father and my - and our interesting family history over the years, I had my sight set on the Naval Academy pretty much from the time I was about 10 years old. But when push came to shove, when I actually got to it, there was just a little voice that told me, you know, maybe it's time to try something different. Maybe there are ways you can express your patriotism and not necessary follow in this tradition. After all, I felt like we'd maxed the course on that area. And I looked at the difficulty my dad had, sort of, trying to live up to the shadow of his father and I thought, you know what? Let's try and be the best in another category.
So, what's interesting is that now that I've come back in my early 40s to this area of personal biography with a real focus on military types in particular, it's kind of come full circle and that's quite rewarding. And although my father died four years ago - five years ago now, hopefully he's out there smiling and saying, all right, I get it.
STEWART: I understand we should congratulate you, that you're going to celebrate your first Father's Day this year.
Mr. PATTON: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. I'm a little sleep deprived, so I'm glad this radio and not television.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PATTON: But, yes, I did have a son born on the fifth of June, and he is a pistol, you know. I'm so thrilled to be able to be a dad and to bring what hopefully will someday be called wisdom to bear on my own opportunity to be a father.
STEWART: Ben Patton is a documentary filmmaker. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you, and happy Father's Day, Ben.
Mr. PATTON: Thanks so much.
STEWART: You could find more of that audio postcard Benjamin Patton's dad sent from Vietnam and photos of the Patton family at npr.org.