In last months of father's life, sons try to find truth in oft-told story

Milton resident and retired physician Jim Beecham wrote this story about his late father and shared it with GateHouse Media newspapers in Northwest Florida for Father's Day.

It has been said that if you want to see a man cry, ask him to tell you about his father.

Several months before my father, Harry J., died, my two brothers and I were debating the veracity of a story Dad had repeated to us over the years. A story that as adults we tolerated but never believed.

The sad truth is that yes, Harry J. did, well, bend the truth at times during his 76 years. It would be no exaggeration nor disrespectful to admit that over the years my father did alienate some members of his own family. But that’s for another story.

Adding to the emotional distance was a difficult divorce from our mother after 30 years. Plus, by now I was a career military officer wandering the globe, which also added physical distance from my aging father.

While the three of us sons were visiting Dad in the Atlanta-area hospital in the few months running up to his death, for some unknown reason he once again pitched his tale.

For one of my brothers the retelling was emotionally too much. He thought, “Of all the things to talk about now, why would Dad trivialize this visit and the time he has left with us?” My brother decided on a reality check. He announced his plan to boldly challenge Dad head-on.

Harry J.’s story went something like this: At the beginning of World War II, he tried to enlist immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. That, my mother had confirmed. He was in fact turned down due to poor eyesight due to a birth defect. This was also true, as we knew that Dad had always physically exhibited a very visible, involuntary side-to-side movement of the eyes, known as congenital nystagmus.

Denied military service, he applied and began to work as a civilian carpenter at Huckins Yacht Corp. in Jacksonville, Florida, building PT boats for the Navy. “I built PT 109,” he would brag to us later.

Of course, he was referring to the same PT 109 made famous in the 1963 movie, the books, articles and even songs written about Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy, later to be a  U.S. president.

As many know, the future president rescued his injured crewmen after PT 109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer during night combat operations off the Solomon Islands during World War II. The retelling of the story was an American cultural phenomenon during the 1960s, as the young President Kennedy captured the hopes and imaginations of the American people.

Meanwhile. as we boys grew older, Harry J.’s story also grew. He said he not only had built PT 109, but, “I made friends with President Kennedy and his crew, and he took me out on sea trials to put the boat through a series of test runs.” Over the years this story faded into the background of other tales and perceived half-truths.

That's why it seemed so odd that Dad would pitch this story up again at the time of this particular hospital visit as the three of us boys — now adults — were standing around his bed. It seemed out of sync, considering the gravity of his health.

Following the hospital visit we returned to our respective homes in Hawaii, Indiana and Georgia. We then began to research Dad’s story. At the time, this took a bit more “shoe-leather” detective-style research, as Google, Wikipedia and other powerful search tools were not yet available at the click of a mouse. Nevertheless, we charged ahead.

My brother Gary discovered that only three U.S. companies had manufactured the majority of the 531 PT boats brought into active naval service during World War II. They were the Elco Electric Boat Company, Bayonne, New Jersey — later absorbed by General Dynamics; Higgins Industries, New Orleans — no longer in business; and Huckins Yacht Corp., Jacksonville, where Dad worked. Huckins remains in the boatbuilding business to this day.

Unfortunately for Dad, both company and Navy records indicated that PT Boat No. 109 was built at the Elco boatyard in New Jersey, not at Huckins. Gary faxed us copies of the documentation he had uncovered. Things were not looking good for Dad’s story.

I called the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston and spoke to a delightful gentleman, who said he would do some archival checking.

A few days later, he had uncovered a set of Navy military orders that assigned the young Lt. John Kennedy to Jacksonville for duty during the time frame that my father reported working at the shipyard.

The library researcher added that Kennedy was assigned to a military unit whose duties included the acceptance, testing and ferrying of PT boats from the contract shipyard into the Navy. I thought to myself, “Hmmmm, interesting ... .”

It was then I recalled that as a boy I had been told a number of men from my father’s church had also worked at the Huckins shipyard during the war. It took some time, but finally I tracked down “Uncle” Ernest Cory.

“Uncle” was a term of respectful male endearment used in my southern childhood days. Uncle Ernest was a carpenter and later a homebuilder. He was also a lay minister in the small church where I was raised. Uncle Ernest had been a supervisor of carpenters at the Huckins boatyard during the war.

From Hawaii, I tracked Uncle Ernest to a nursing home near Perry, Georgia, where the 80-something-year-old was recovering from a stroke. The phone conversation went something like this:

"Yes, Jimmy, I remember you. You’re Harry J.’s son,” he said. I then told him the purpose of my call.

He spoke slowly and clearly, but with some effort.

“They say I’ve had a small stroke, but I have my mind, and yes, Jimmy, I do remember Harry J. working at the shipyard with us. He was doing carpentry and I was his supervisor.

"He always kept after me to let him go out on one of the boats when the Navy did their check rides,” Ernest recalled. He spoke on softly, “One day we heard that Joe Kennedy’s son was going to test one of the PT boats and would be out on it all day in the St. Johns (River) and the Atlantic. Harry J. pestered me to let him go out this time. Well, he had asked me so many times I went to the construction supervisor to see if I could get Harry J. on the boat. I told him that Harry J. was a good apprentice, a hard worker and had asked to go out numerous times, and well, they let him go out.

“I remember warning him that he’d better get himself a hat and a jacket or something and cover up real good," Uncle Ernest said. "He had such light skin I knew he would get himself sun-cooked out there all day.”

To myself I silently recalled there was no sunscreen in 1942, and Dad, like me, was full-on Nordic fair and blond.

Chuckling to himself, Uncle Ernest continued, “And sure enough he didn’t. And sure enough, he came back burned red all over as a fresh boiled lobster!” I could see the smile of remembrance through the phone line.

It was as if it had happened yesterday. Here I was listening to this kindly old family friend in his own folksy way recall this story about my father, who at the time would have not been over 20 years old. I thought to myself, “This is priceless. You cannot make this stuff up.”

In his recollection of what had happened that day, Uncle Ernest had referred to the president of the United States as “Joe Kennedy’s son.” To him, the lad we later came to know as JFK was indeed at that time just one of scores of thousands of young men going off to fight a war.

But his father — Joseph Kennedy Sr. — was, well ... somebody! A semi-political figure known to all Americans at the time. One of the wealthiest Americans, ambassador to Great Britain and personal friend to then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I was now convinced that there was some truth to Dad’s story. I called both of my brothers and told them. They were each going to have to eat some massive crow!

Later, sometime around Father’s Day not long after our original hospital visit, the three of us gathered again around Dad’s hospital bed and we acknowledged the truth of what we had learned.

Dad smiled, looked at us from his pillow and said, “See, I told you so.”

Then he looked up at the ceiling and admitted, “Well, I guess I may have just threw in the PT 109 part somewhere along the way. But then again, I thought it was possible that we could have built No. 109. After all, we built many a PT boat during those days.”

Indeed, those young boatbuilders had built many a PT boat during those war days. We each looked at each other … and let it go at that.

Dad died later that summer. My brother Randy tracked down my wife and me in Indonesia and we flew to Atlanta for the funeral. I felt a small sense of peace that we had spent that time with Dad earlier that summer, and had validated his brief but personal connection with President Kennedy. In some way it was our last “gift” to him.

Author Barbara Kingsolver said that “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth but not its twin.”

So too, I suppose, our stories.