I discover the truth about my father's service

Apparently my father couldn't steer a 300-foot ship very well. That's the impression I get from reading his World War II military service records. Nice guy, good leader, good organizer, but don't let him drive the ship.

From as far back as I can remember, until his death when I was 17, my father told wonderful stories of his service in the United States Coast Guard. Most of that time was as a junior officer - one of thousands rushed through the Coast Guard's training program in four months instead of four years - on an immense, clumsy vessel called a Landing Ship Tank. (The LST is one of those big boxes you see on the beach in every photo of D-Day.) Later, he commanded a search-and-rescue vessel, an old converted subchaser, out of Charleston, S.C.

Some stories he told were humorous - the account of replacing the table in the wardroom with a green-felt card table so the ship's poker game could be conducted in style. Some were full of anger - the drunken captain who, with an entire beach on which to land, managed to crash their LST into the stern of another ship. Some were also full of sadness - the account of a training exercise gone horribly wrong in which a squad of soldiers were drowned in deep water where the charts showed there should have been a shallow sandbar.

Like most teenagers, I didn't have much patience with my father. He was, to my teenage eyes, old fashioned, conservative, doctrinaire. I struggled to reconcile my uncharitable opinion of my father with his stories of moral clarity and simple competence during the war. How could my father, who could not even recognize decent music, have commanded a ship that went from Charleston to Iceland? How could this old man, who routinely scraped the curb when he parallel parked a car, have once known how to park a 328-foot ship at a pier?

Twenty years after my father's death, a cynical thought started to nag at me. What if those stories of maritime exploits weren't true? What if they were just stories invented to entertain his only surviving son? What if he had spent the war in some basement office reviewing procurement documents? What if, even as a young man, he had always been that old man who couldn't parallel park?

I decided to order copies of my father's military service records from the Coast Guard.

My first order, with no social security number and only guesses as to the city in which my father had been born and the exact years of his service, went off to the records office. A month or so later, I received a formal half-page reply: We have no record of this guy, but we'll send your request on to another archive.

My heart sank. Maybe my fears were right. Maybe my father, in addition to not being good at parallel parking, was also a liar.

A few months later, a thick envelope arrived from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

The forms were typed in the fussy typeface of a government-issue Underwood. They were terse, full of abbreviations. But they fitted the general outline of the stories he'd told. There was the LST, the subchaser, and the air-sea rescue unit. There were the 16 weeks at the Coast Guard Academy, There was Europe and the Mediterranean. I even recognized some of the names of commanding officers from his stories and remembered the profane variations on those names he'd told me decades ago.

The forms went well beyond a history of my father's assignments. They included a series of fitness reports by his commanding officers. Here were reports on my father from his early 20s, written with chilling clarity. Parts of the forms demanded that the commander rank the employee relative to all others under his command. Other parts demanded numerical ratings, and each one concluded with a narrative.

Dad seemed to grow into his job. By the time he was ready to return to civilian life, he was scoring in the top 10 percent, and his commanders were asking him to stay and make a career of the Coast Guard. The early years were a bit sketchier. The checked boxes were all in the "fair" column, and a delightfully obtuse comment suggested my father was "trying, shows much improvement and ... will soon be good at ship handling."

Anyone who's ever written an employee evaluation will recognize the style. It's what you say about a nice employee who is kind of a mess. "Trying ... improving ... will be good." It's one of those comments that leaves so much unsaid. Such as: "Maybe he'll catch on, but I sure hope he gets reassigned somewhere else soon." Or, "Whose dumb idea was it to try to turn a philosophy teacher into a ship's officer?" Or "It's not all his fault, but I sure wish he hadn't crashed the ship into that fuel dock quite so hard."

Good show, Dad. Your stories were true after all, and I feel bad for doubting you. And it looks as though you were once a young guy, way over your head in a new job, who managed to get enough of it figured out that the boss wanted you to stick around. And, even though, when I knew you, you couldn't parallel park a 15-foot car, you really did steer ships across the ocean.

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