Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Nick and Betsy and Diamond Head

Three years ago veterans of the USS Nicholas -- "the Nick," they call it -- a World War II era Fletcher-class destroyer on which my father served, created an online discussion forum. Since I was already on the mailing list of their reunion association, I got an invitation to join.

I promptly posted a message asking to hear from personnel who had served aboard the Nicholas during the same time as my father, and of course I was particularly interested to hear from anyone who actually knew my father. Since any such individual would have to be on the high side of seventy, I had low expectations. But to my surprise I heard from someone almost immediately. Though I gather he had only a nodding acquaintance with my father, he had a clear recollection of the part of the ship where my father worked. Moreover, he had compiled a database of info on Nicholas personnel and could tell me more or less the exact dates of my father's service on the vessel.

That sent me poking around boxes of old photos to see what images might exist of Dad's service on the Nicholas. I found a few from his days in basic training at San Diego, but nothing Nicholas-specific save for a yellowed clipping from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporting the ship's arrival at Pearl Harbor. The story included a photo of the Nicholas and two sister ships in her destroyer squadron.

I knew for sure that Dad had slides of his days on the Nicholas, so I tracked them down in a storage box and went through them, using I checked out a 35mm slide projector from my university. I don't think I'd seen the images in thirty years. Quite a few slides had been ruined in a basement flood back in the 1970s. But I still found about two hundred from his time in the Navy and about fifty that dealt specifically with the Nicholas. The best of them I scanned using a transparency adapter and uploaded to the forum site.

It was very odd to go through all those slides. Since most of the boxes weren't labeled, I viewed quite a few that proved to be of our family in the 1960s and early 70s. Many of these had not been completely destroyed by the flood but still had damage from too much humidity. Bleeding and discoloration in the dye had made them like something from an opium dream. Others were in perfect condition but had people in them -- friends or extended relatives of my parents -- whose names are now forever lost.

Those of my father's days in the Navy showed him having the time of his life. Many slides depicted his friends at parties, holidays, or excursions in California and Hawaii. A surprising number were of "Betsy," his first car, a 1950 Ford sedan purchased in March 1956 for $478.80 (he kept the bill of sale). And whenever my father appeared he had a cocky stance and a flashy grin, displaying the trademark gap between two upper incisors that gave the grin an infectious, boyish charm.

Of those involving the Nicholas, comparatively few depicted life at sea. But he was a sucker for sunsets, particularly if a companion ship were silhouetted against the red horizon. He also liked ports of call: Hong Kong, Yokohama, Nagoya, and so on. And whenever Nicholas returned to Pearl Harbor, he could never resist a shot of Diamond Head. (Decades later, when he and my mother took lessons in oil painting, he would try his hand at capturing a sunburst falling on Diamond Head after a storm.)

In short, between the images of him and the images he took, my father seemed jaunty, happy, alive -- striding into the wider world, making new friends, his whole life ahead of him. This was the man I still dimly remember from my earliest childhood, the man I rarely saw thereafter. Who could know, looking at that grinning face, the rage that lay beneath?

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