A war only he can end

Times Staff Writer

There they are in the black-and-white snapshot, the deserter and his firstborn son: Big Al and Little Al Moreno, the man who ran from war and the Marine who is running to it.

In the photo, it’s October 1968. The son is graduating from boot camp, about to head to Vietnam. He’s 22, bolt-straight in his uniform. On one side, his mom squeezes against him. On the other, his father keeps his distance, wearing a trapped half-smile, his big workman’s hands hanging awkwardly at his sides. As his son stands tall, he seems to shrivel. He cannot bring himself to embrace his son, to touch his uniform.

The son keeps the photo in his living room, to remind him. He’s looking at it right now, on a sunny afternoon in May. Without that picture and all it represents, what he is about to do makes no sense at all. Moving briskly around his apartment, he gathers up his wallet and car keys. Under his arm, he tucks a manila folder containing his military records. He heads downstairs to his car, where he studies directions to the military recruiting station in Lakewood, not far from his home.

It doesn’t show, but he’s nervous. He doesn’t know how they will respond to a 60-year-old former Marine asking to be sent to Iraq. He wonders if they will snicker at him, finding his motives as quaintly unfathomable as everyone else. Not many men show up asking, nearly 40 years after surviving one war, to plunge into another. Not many come looking to atone for someone else’s crime, one that happened 62 years ago, and which everyone else -- the government, his siblings, everyone -- believes was paid for long ago.

Al Moreno is a Newport Beach private eye and a former Los Angeles police officer. He is divorced and lives alone. Since the day in his teens he learned of it, he has been tormented by his father’s desertion from the Navy on Feb. 14, 1944.

For almost two decades, Moreno has been trying, in any way he knows how, to close the gap between the bodies in that snapshot. He’s written to presidents, to congressmen, to the Justice Department, to anyone who might listen. What he wants is simple: a posthumous pardon for his father, who died destitute in 1977, nearly three decades after the Navy released him from the brig with a dishonorable discharge.

“He died a broken man both physically and mentally,” Moreno says. “He saw himself as a total failure.”

Though his father failed his country, Moreno has argued in letter after letter, he also worked tirelessly to raise 12 children. And three of them -- Al and his two oldest brothers, Artie and Tony -- volunteered for the military and shipped off to South Vietnam. “I don’t know how many families can actually say, ‘We sent three boys to war.’ ” In a man’s final ledger, shouldn’t that count for something?

“There is a historic tradition where a father’s sin can be cleansed, in his stead, by his sons,” Moreno wrote in a letter to the first President Bush.

Though some historic figures, such as Robert E. Lee, have received posthumous pardons, the Justice Department’s pardon attorney rebuffed Moreno, explaining that such pardons were not “established practice.”

Years went by, and he kept trying. Local politicians expressed sympathy but said there was little they could do. The staffs of President Clinton and the second President Bush sent polite brushoffs.

He has been waging the campaign for so long that many of his friends and much of his family think he’s delusional, a man chasing a mirage. “It doesn’t mean squat to anybody,” he says. “They look at you sort of cross-eyed.” He can’t seem to make people understand what he calls “the curse and the taint in the family blood” caused by his father’s desertion, a curse that no one else can see, but which feels as real to him as a scar might be across his face.

Even his brothers, the fellow Vietnam vets, support the general goal of a pardon but don’t quite understand what possesses Moreno. “If my brother thinks he can rectify history, that’s great,” says Artie, 59, an employee for Sequoia National Park. “But what is, is.”

Moreno’s oldest sister, Irene, who cares nothing for a pardon, recalls that her mother and some of her brothers, including Al, used the desertion against her father in family disputes. The term “yellow-belly” became a sure-fire argument-clincher, the ultimate cudgel. “It tortured my dad,” she says. “I think that’s one of the reasons he’s doing this -- to make up for his cruelty to Dad.”

Moreno acknowledges that his relationship with his father was a volatile, sometimes violent one -- they scuffled for years until Big Al found himself overmatched by his growing son -- but he insists he’s waging his campaign out of love and duty, not guilt.

If Moreno looks long enough at the enormous framed reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” he keeps on his living room wall, he sees a reflection of his father in the sea of writhing bodies. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he knows the hell-scape intimately. It is the day of reckoning, and the killers and traitors are thrashing about in darkness. To begin to grasp Moreno’s obsession, look through his eyes at the tormented figures on his wall. Hell has a place for cowards.

Right now he’s on the 605 Freeway, heading north to meet the Marines. It’s just before 2 p.m. and traffic is light, so the drive shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. He drives carefully, obeying the speed limit, a sensible sexagenarian. And yet here he is, racing toward war all over again, like he did when he was an angry kid from South-Central with a hundred street fights behind him.

He remains as puzzled now as then about why his dad ran the opposite way. He has chased answers his whole life, hunting down and collecting family anecdotes, a few brittle letters, old military records.

He knows this much. His father, a high school dropout who grew up to Mexican-born parents in the San Fernando Valley, was working for an optical company in Bell when he decided to enlist as an apprentice seaman in November 1943. He was 24 years old. He promised the Navy two years.

On Valentine’s Day in 1944, just eight weeks after joining the service, he failed to return from a brief period of leave to his post at the U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego. The Navy posted a straggler’s reward and sold off his effects.

As the war roiled, Big Al drove a cab in Tijuana, sneaking back now and then to Los Angeles, where his wife, Trinidad, was living with her parents and receiving support from the American Red Cross.

On March 4, 1947, apparently tired of running, he surrendered at the naval base at Terminal Island. He and his wife already had a daughter, Irene. They also had Al, who was a year old and called by his nickname, Corky. In the brig awaiting his fate, Big Al wrote a letter to his wife.

Sweets,

I just got a letter from you. That makes 3 this week boy it’s sure swell hearing from you often.... Honey give my regards to your folks for me and kiss the kids for me and tell Irene her father loves her. Of course you can tell Corky the same thing only he doesn’t understand.... As for you well I don’t have to tell you Honey. Boy I sure wish I were home with you and the kids. Someday maybe eh honey?

I love you sweets and a million kisses to you.

Six days after writing the letter, Big Al was court-martialed. For desertion, the Navy sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment, though he would serve only 2 1/2 . They let him go home in September 1949, a 30-year-old man with a dishonorable discharge and $25 in his pocket.

Little Al was 3 years old, watching a strikingly handsome man with thick forearms lug an olive-drab duffel bag through the door. Years later, he would remember the sweetness in his father’s face, remember thinking, “Wow, that’s my daddy.” How could anyone say blood was an abstraction, a figment of the imagination, considering the raptures of love he felt that day?

Big Al got work hauling furniture, and he was strong enough to hoist huge appliances single-handed onto a dolly, lug a sofa bed up a flight of stairs, twirl a couple of kids on each arm. He worked sick or well, rattling across the Southland in his bobtail truck. “Of anything he could salvage to show his manly worth, it was his work,” Moreno says. “He worked like three men. That’s the kind of soldier he would have been.”

Mostly, he managed to keep the lights and water on in their little house in South-Central, where they lived on flour tortillas and 50-pound bags of rice and pinto beans. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative, an admirer of Richard Nixon and John Wayne, Big Al smoked a couple of packs of Pall Mall a day and spent weeknights drinking East Side or Brew 102. Weekends, he drank scotch, unbuckled his belt and started lashing.

It would be a mistake to forget how tender Big Al could be -- a man who made a place at the family table for local children even poorer than the Morenos, who sang show tunes to his girls, who scavenged golf clubs from a thrift shop and made a backyard putting course for his family out of tin cans. His youngest daughter, Cristina, remembers him simply as “an angel here on Earth.”

But when Moreno thinks of his father, he remembers his rage, his drinking, how often he hit him and his brothers. It was the obliterating fury, as he sees it, of a man raised in a Chicano culture of machismo who could neither face himself in the mirror nor put his anguish into words.

“If you look at the core of his personality, he was a very proud man. His spirit was destroyed and there was no way to go back and rectify it,” Moreno says. “That’s the cruelest part about it.”

When his boss sacked him in the late 1960s, Big Al tried to make it as an independent driver, buying a crumbling flatbed truck that his older boys helped him start in the morning. He had little education or business sense. Those were the years the Morenos ate string beans and tomato sauce. At the market, his daughter Teresa remembers, Big Al’s pride prevented him from bringing the family food stamps to the cashier. She would do it while he waited in the car, hiding.

As he pulls off the freeway, cutting west down Del Amo Boulevard, just a few blocks away from the recruiter’s station, Moreno wonders how he’s going to tell it. He hasn’t made an appointment. He’ll have to make his pitch succinct and try not to seem crazy. All they’ll care about is whether a 60-year-old can hack the modern-day Corps.

He’s sure they’ll see that he’s different the minute he walks through the door. They’ll see a lean, flat-bellied man who still runs 30 miles a week and attacks the weight stacks at Gold’s Gym. They’ll see the hard posture and muscle-coiled arms. To be on the safe side, he’s bringing a photo of himself, shirtless and ripped after a rock climbing workout, for the recruiter to pass on to his superiors.

He’s not some cockeyed cub, innocent of war save through the movies. He was that kid once, growing up in the wake of World War II, playing in foxholes, thrilling to “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Guadalcanal Diary.”

Naturally, he wondered why every other kid’s dad seemed to have war medals, but not his. In their big extended family, no one ever said a word about what Big Al did during the war.

Moreno was in junior high when he finally thought to ask his mom. She cried and said, “He left.” It felt like a sledgehammer between the eyes.

Soon after, his father approached him in the backyard. It was a beautiful day, and their peach tree was full of blossoms. The effort it took his father to speak looked excruciating. He did not volunteer details or explanations.

Moreno would not remember the words they exchanged. But years later he can remember the expression on his father’s face, his eyes saying, The punishment goes on and on. Saying, Don’t become me.

It should have brought them closer, that meeting, but it did something else. His secret exposed, his oldest son’s admiration for him capsized in an instant, Big Al retreated further into booze and work and silence.

Things were different for Moreno too, his father’s blood in his veins feeling less like a gift and more like a disease.

He was not like his brothers, who joined the Army for the usual reasons poor boys sign up. Artie was drinking too much and going nowhere and wanted to get out of Dodge. Tony didn’t want to go to college and figured he’d be drafted anyway. They both came home with Purple Hearts.

When Al Moreno Jr. joined the Marines in 1968, he had his own reasons. Now and then, huddled with his buddies in a jungle tent, he would speak of the secret his family never breathed. Explain why he strapped on two 200-round bandoleers instead of one, six grenades instead of two. Explain why, despite a congenital hip condition that supplied a ready-made excuse to stay home, he had fought to get here, exactly where no one else wanted to be. Explain that he longed to do something insanely courageous, to win the Medal of Honor.

In early 1969, Moreno shot and killed three Vietnamese soldiers in the Son Ga mountains. Soon after, when he complained of hip pain, X-rays revealed a bone deformity, and the Marines sent him home. His failure to finish his tour haunted him, but he could never speak of it to his father. Nor could he tell him what he saw in Vietnam, about “screaming, yelling, pain, blood like you didn’t know a person had that much blood.”

Back home, after repeated medical rejections, the LAPD gave him a uniform. In March 1977, he was on patrol in Hollywood when he was ordered to head to Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital. His 58-year-old father had arrived there a few hours earlier, suffering a heart attack, and was dead by the time Moreno arrived.

There had been no final words, no deathbed reconciliation. The gulf between them, preserved in that black-and-white snapshot at Moreno’s boot camp graduation, now looked as if it might yawn forever.

As a policeman, for a time, Moreno thrived. He led the gang unit in recovering guns. But in 1982, the LAPD stripped him of his badge for an off-duty fight and for roughing up a murder suspect.

He came to understand his father’s sense of shame and failure in a new way. More than once, he put his gun in his mouth. He saw his own face in “Last Judgment” -- in the demon-clawed figure whose eyes glimpse no reprieve from despair.

He began working as a private investigator, a profession that has proved lean or lucrative, depending on the year, though rarely as exciting as he’d like.

At this particular moment he’s pulling off Del Amo Boulevard into the Lakewood Center Mall, scanning for the recruiter’s station. There it is, right across from the Arby’s.

As he walks up, he’s wearing creased khakis and a tight-fitting short-sleeve shirt emblazoned with a Marines emblem. He has prevailed before when a more reasonable man would have relented. Fighting his nerves, he opens the door.

For years, Moreno has tried to put himself inside his dad’s head during those years underground, as war filled every inch of the nation’s air. Though it all, Moreno was convinced of this much: “By no stretch of the imagination did Dad desert because he thought he was gonna be wounded or killed.”

Once, Moreno remembers, he was riding with his father when a truck cut them off, sending Little Al’s head into the gearshift. A husky hillbilly climbed out with a wrench. Dad knocked him cold with a left hook and took his boy for a malt. That was not the behavior of a gutless man.

Mijo, your dad is not a coward,” an aunt told him once. “He was just afraid his mom was gonna die of a heart attack from the stress of going to war.”

That was the best explanation the family could give him: that Big Al’s mother had him in some kind of sick guilt vise. That was the only story, however incomplete and unsatisfactory, that made sense.

One recent day, a reporter to whom he told his story decided to hunt down the one public record Al Moreno had never thought to look for: his dad’s court-martial transcript. He was not prepared for what it said.

The court-martial convened at 11:18 a.m. Wednesday, April 23, 1947, at the naval base in San Diego.

“Not guilty, sir,” Al Moreno Sr. pleaded to the desertion charge.

When his lawyer asked him about his physical condition during his recruit training, he replied: “Well, I got a bad back and I kept going over to the sick bay every day, but the doctors wouldn’t listen to me.” He continued: “Any kind of work I do, or exercise, I just can’t stand it, and I can’t sleep at night. My legs hurt me.”

His back pain resulted from an old car crash, he said, and while he was on leave in February 1944 he decided he couldn’t take any more.

“And what did you do?”

“Well, I just didn’t come back.”

He didn’t work for about a year and a half, hiding. Then he started driving the cab in Tijuana, pulling in $60 to $70 a week and sending most back to his wife.

He crossed the border into California once or twice a week, and occasionally supplied a border patrolman with tips on drug dealers.

Asked why he didn’t return sooner, he said: “I always did want to, but I don’t know what got into me.”

He added: “It was always on my conscience. It was driving me crazy all the time.” His wife and his mom urged him to return to the Navy, he said, but he “just couldn’t pick up enough nerve.”

Moreno had no valid reason for leaving the Navy, the prosecutor concluded, arguing that he had “fooled around a year and a half” before deciding to flee to Tijuana. He turned himself in, the lawyer said, only “to get it over with.”

Reading the transcript nearly 60 years later, Moreno felt physically sick, then apoplectic with fury. He had never heard his father say anything about back problems -- nor, he learned when he called her, had his sister Irene. Back problems? From a man who hauled heavy furniture uncomplainingly for decades?

Moreno didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. As he saw it, instead of owning up, instead of asking the court to throw the book at him, his father had tried to duck responsibility with his “not guilty” plea.

“For a year and a half before the war ended, every single day, 24 hours a day, he was a new coward. Every day he had a chance to turn it around,” he says. “And I’m talking about my dad, who I love.”

He began to reconsider the wisdom of his decades-long campaign. It suddenly seemed so pointless. Did his dad even deserve a pardon? “I’ve learned that anger can chew you up,” Moreno says. “It just takes too much juice out of you. Probably I do put too much energy into this whole thing. It has affected my life.”

He concluded that his father had lied about having a bad back -- not because he was afraid of war, but because of that demented maternal spell. It was still the only explanation that made sense.

When his fury abated, he decided he should persevere in trying to win a pardon for his father. Because even if the old man didn’t deserve it, the family did.

The Armed Forces Career Center is mostly empty. Staff Sgt. Matthew Klepsa, the youngish recruiter who greets him with a firm handshake, hasn’t had a walk-in all day. Moreno notices a pull-up bar and asks Klepsa how many he can do.

“Fifteen, sir.”

“I can do twice what you can.”

Good-naturedly, the recruiter replies: “I believe you, sir.”

Moreno feels the impulse to jump on that bar right now and pump out a few. But he knows it would be unseemly, that he must take pains not to seem unhinged. He gives Klepsa his military records and tells him he has an unusual request.

“I want to get back in the Corps,” he says. “I work out seven days a week.”

“I can see that, sir.”

“I just turned 60 in November.”

“You don’t look 60, sir.”

“I am willing to sign any kind of waiver. I am willing to take any kind of physical agility test. My blood pressure is 119 over 78.”

From his folder, Moreno takes out the pumped-up muscle shot of himself. “This is a little cheesy, a little distasteful,” he says, extending the photo. “I want you to take this.” He adds, “It would be a very positive thing for the Corps.”

Now the tricky part. Moreno’s voice goes quieter, and he says, “There’s one last very personal part of this.” He explains that he’s here because his dad ran away from World War II.

“He shamed the blood of our family,” Moreno says. “Dad had a year and nine months to go. And I want to make up the year and nine months for my pop.”

The recruiter nods somberly.

“It’s a very profound emotional disgrace to my family,” Moreno says.

The recruiter nods again. He explains that the matter is above his head.

Moreno begs him to kick it up a pay grade, to give him a chance.

“I can pass it up,” the recruiter says. “It’s definitely not something we see every day.”

“It’s just a win-win situation,” Moreno says. “Go the extra yard for me, man.”

Moreno leaves feeling giddy. He feels as if he got through to the recruiter, who at least didn’t laugh at him.

“Today may be the day that changes my life,” he says. “This is my last shot.”

A few days later, Moreno gets a call from a gunnery sergeant. It’s not that they don’t believe he can pull his weight, the sergeant says. The trouble is the precedent they would set by allowing a 60-year-old to join up.

Moreno argues back, pressing the point that his presence would be a PR bonanza for the Marines. He invokes his 30 miles of running a week, his hundreds of sit-ups a day. The sergeant patiently explains that men his age are more prone to injury, which makes them liabilities.

Moreno hangs up the phone. He doesn’t know how to argue with that logic.

“I’m just gonna live with it,” he says finally. “You’ve got to live with the pain. It’s not gonna go away. That’s just the way it is.”

A few months pass. He goes on with his life, a bachelor entering his seventh decade in a one-bedroom apartment hung with Marine emblems. He does private eye work. He takes daredevil rock climbing trips. He watches war documentaries, studies news from the Iraq war, thinks of all the Americans who went and the one who didn’t.

Near him, always, a black-and-white snapshot stares. A father. A son.

Sitting at his desk one afternoon, he finds himself opening a folder. Fishing out the recruiter’s business card. Grabbing the phone.

“This is Al Moreno,” he says to the voice on the other end, asking if they might reconsider.

christopher.goffard@

latimes.com