Monday, February 6, 2012

Family History Writing Challenge: Getting to Know my Father

I had just turned seven years old when my father, Arden Packard, died in 1954.  Pneumonia took him off.  I never really knew him, save for a few stories my mother told me and some very sketchy memories.

A few years ago, I finally got around to ordering his service record from the National Personnel Records Center.  One of the surprising things I found out is that my father spoke Spanish.  It makes sense, I suppose, since he was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised there.  Has that anything to do with my own affinity with the language, to the point that I am about to receive a bachelor's degree in Spanish and history from the University of North Florida, and am studying a Spanish colonial period of Florida?  Who can say?

In the service record there is a document titled Acceptance and Oath of Office.  This is the document recording his promotion to Lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Navy, dated 11 August 1937.  His signature is on it, and I can see how similar my brother's signature was to our father's.  The document also touches history a little bit, as it is signed by the then Captain W. F. Halsey, who as Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, was one of the chief naval commanders of World War II. 

Unfortunately, my father had a delicate digestive system.  My aunt has told me how grandmother Packard would cook his meals in a special cooker called a "water cooker."  He learned to "Fletcherize," which meant that he chewed his food forty times before swallowing it.  My mother may have been exaggerating when she told me that he chewed Jell-O and milk, but possibly not by much.  Mom also told me that dad would look at us kids and tell us never to do what he was having to do.  I have to say that I have taken his advice much to heart!

These problems led to surgery in 1939, and he was then medically retired. This was a blow to him, because all he had wanted to do was join the Navy and fly.  He had taken flight training at Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air Station, and that is where he met my mother.  The telling thing about this is that he was called back to active duty in October of 1941.  Someone knew something was about to happen, if the Navy was calling back broken-down old pilots!

Kept from flying in combat, he became a flight instructor.  He would much rather have been in the air; however, he saw and did his duty readily.  On a fitness report dated 31 March 1944, Admiral A. C. McFall, his commanding officer, said:  "Lieutenant Commander Packard performs his duties of ground training officer in a most satisfactory manner.  He is a constructive thinker, which with his initiative, energy, and general ability, makes him an excellent man in his present assignment.  Packard is a man of excellent character.  He is fully qualified for promotion and is so recommended."

In his service record I also found an answer to a family story.  My mother told me that my father had, during World War II, been sent to England.  She said it was during the Blitz, the concentrated bombing attacks Germany made on England, hoping to break the spirit of the English people.  The Blitz took place between September of 1940 and May of 1941.  It turns out my father was not there during the Blitz. He went to England in 1944.  His assignment was to attend the Empire Central Flying School, outside of London at a location called Hullavington.  He was there to be instructed in the tactics the British had developed against the Germans in air combat, and bring that knowledge home to his students at the Jacksonville (Florida) Naval Air Station.

I know what he would have thought of my brother having joined the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school.  Mom and Dad had a dog whose registered name was Ceiling Zero (an aviator's term for being socked in with fog), but her day-to-day name was Smokey, which had been my father's nickname at the Naval Academy.  He would prepare two identical bowls of dog food, and set them down on the floor.  He would point to one of them and say, "Marine chow," and to the other and say, "Navy chow."  Smokey went for the "Navy chow" every time.  Dad also taught Smokey a trick.  "What would you rather be, a dead dog or a Marine?" he would ask the dog.  Smokey would roll over on her back, with all four legs in the air.

I have to wonder what he would have thought of me, however, when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard.  First, there would have been all the jokes about my height (5'4") and being a "shallow-water sailor."  In his day, women did not do such things as join the military -- until World War II broke out, then women did all sorts of jobs they had been "unsuited for" just a few months before.  I also think he would have been proud of me for having worn the uniform of our country.

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