A Colum­bus fam­ily’s lives changed while on a drive meant to test out a new Packard.

As fam­ily was test­ing out new Packard their world changed

Ledger-Enquirer - - Front page - BY JACK MAY Spe­cial to the Ledger-Enquirer

A stray Tabasco ray of win­ter morn­ing sun fil­tered through the win­dow. It did not stop on my up­drawn bed­sheet but zinged on through to my face. I knew it must be time to wake up, but the only reveille sound was the muted bur­bling of my mom’s cof­fee per­co­lat­ing on the one-burner hot plate. The aroma was pleas­ing. On my cot next to the win­dow, I stretched, wig­gled my toes, and opened my eyes. In a sleepy voice, I asked, “Mommy, is any­body up yet?”

If our land­lady had not yet got­ten the news­pa­per off the front porch, we were wel­come to read it first. It was Sun­day, and I wanted to see the funny pa­per, par­tic­u­larly the “Katzen­jam­mer Kids,” a car­toon about the trou­bles of two fun­nytalk­ing lit­tle boys. It was unimag­in­able that this was to be their fi­nal episode.

We three, my par­ents and I, were ten­ants in the con­verted one-room side porch of Mrs. Cal­la­han’s pleas­ant white frame house in the St. Elmo sec­tion of Colum­bus. We were al­lowed to use what had been the maid’s bath­room, out and across the back porch. Our cook­ing and eat­ing were con­fined to the spa­cious kitchen in the main house, where we took turns. Mrs. Cal­la­han, a nice gray­haired widow who shared the house with her old-maid sis­ter, had rented us the room, not from fi­nan­cial ne­ces­sity but a sense of pa­tri­otic duty.

Colum­bus and Fort Ben­ning were boom towns, over­flow­ing with peo­ple. New troops were added daily as the Army ex­panded as rapidly as pos­si­ble. The gov­ern­ment had nei­ther the time nor money to make pro­vi­sions for fam­i­lies. Wives and chil­dren were on their own or best left back at home or on the farm. As a small boy, I knew that our lit­tle fam­ily had moved into the mid­dle of all this ac­tiv­ity be­cause of some ter­ri­ble peo­ple called Hitler, Tojo and Mus­solini. Their evil car­i­ca­tures were com­mon­place in widely cir­cu­lated pro­pa­ganda. I was well aware that the swastika was the em­blem of this evil.

This was to be a spe­cial Sun­day. Be­sides our cus­tom­ary at­ten­dance at the First Bap­tist Church, we were to test drive a new car. My fa­ther, par­tic­u­larly, had shown his en­thu­si­asm for the pro­posed new ac­qui­si­tion. A fel­low church mem­ber, the Packard dealer, had sug­gested that my folks swap their old bot­tle-green Buick after the ser­vice and test drive the new Packard Eight. “Ask the man who owns one,” my Army daddy quoted from the sales brochure. “Wind­stream styling,” he ranted on. “Packards are in great de­mand. Some peo­ple say pro­duc­tion might stop any day now that the com­pany is also mak­ing en­gines for war planes and PT boats.” A new car like this cer­tainly sounded ex­otic and de­sir­able to a kinder­gart­ner.

Be­tween my ex­cite­ment over see­ing the new auto and my Sun­day-go-to-meet­ing starched col­lar, I was nearly ex­hausted by the end of the preach­ing. My im­pa­tience was soon re­warded. Out­side the stately white-columned church just across the red brick street was parked the brand-new Packard. It shone in the noon Ge­or­gia sun like a mir­ror. The sleek, two-door coupe was painted a soft, twotone gray. Sud­denly, as we cir­cled this beau­ti­ful car, my at­ten­tion was riv­eted by a stun­ning hood or­na­ment. A supine, long­haired, gauze-clad nymph pointed out­stretched arms for­ward into an imag­i­nary gale. Look­ing suit­ably windswept, she held a diminu­tive au­to­mo­bile wheel. The sculp­ture was el­e­gant, all in spot­less chromium and al­most su­per­nat­u­ral.

The rolling hills of south Ge­or­gia seemed to smooth out be­neath this rak­ish set of wheels. We could not have been any more cheer­ful if we had a magic fly­ing car­pet. By the time we en­tered the val­ley of the Chat­ta­hoochee River, the high­way was de­serted, with only the oc­ca­sional punc­tu­a­tion of a white­washed farm­house or a sun-bleached barn. At a wide place in the road, we pulled the Packard over and got out to ad­mire it once more from afar.

We were in no rush to re­turn home be­cause on Sun­day we were last in the kitchen and would have to wait any­how be­fore Mother could fry our tra­di­tional chicken and make mashed pota­toes. “Earl, Jack, look!” ex­claimed my mother, point­ing just above where the wind­shield was di­vided by a chrome strip. A shiny an­tenna ex­tended back across the roof, laid back sort of like ears on a run­ning dog. “A ra­dio!” Ra­dios in cars were the ex­cep­tion in those days, so this was an un­ex­pected and un­ex­pe­ri­enced lux­ury. With a new rea­son to be ex­cited, I was loaded into the mid­dle of the taupe wool front seats. Out­side, my sol­dier fa­ther took my mom in his arms. Her blonde hair looked shiny like the chrome. After a kiss, he said, “Cissy-P, I’m go­ing to buy this Packard for you.” We all cheered and soon were home­ward bound with the newly found ra­dio loudly en­ter­tain­ing us. We spun the dial and en­joyed a few min­utes on each sta­tion we could tune in.

Sud­denly the mu­sic stopped. An an­nouncer started talk­ing in a deep voice as se­ri­ous and grave as the preacher at church. “Sur­prise at­tack . . . Pearl Har­bor . . . Japs” were the words I will never for­get. After the long an­nounce­ment was over, we turned the ra­dio off. Our ex­hil­a­ra­tion was gone, our smiles erased. My par­ents ex­changed some con­ver­sa­tion. I par­tic­u­larly re­mem­ber my mother ex- claim­ing some­thing like “suck­egg-mule,” which I guessed was a naughty word, the only one I had ever heard her say. I knew some­thing very, very bad had hap­pened. I crawled over into the back of the new Packard. On my knees, I stared out the side win­dow. The kudzu green and Ge­or­gia red clay seemed duller than be­fore. Dusty pine trees whizzed by, but I was no longer in­ter­ested in search­ing for a small one with a Christ­mas shape. We were silent as we drove into the out­skirts of Colum­bus on the way to our rented room. My ap­petite for the fried chicken drum­sticks (or han­dle bones as I called them) of af­ter­church Sun­day din­ner was gone. The ma­jes­tic new Packard was parked com­fort­ably at the curb of our white, wooden home.

My dad opened the door to let us out. He was in his army uni­form, as al­ways in those days. It was a hand­some out­fit called “pinks and greens,” al­though the fab­ric was nei­ther pink nor green. At the waist was a wide, highly pol­ished, brown leather belt with a strap over one shoul­der. On his chest, I can still see the ex­pert marks­man badge with ri­fle, pis­tol and car­bine tabs hinged on his col­lar, the gold and sil­ver in­signias sparkling in the sun­light. His el­e­gant brown shoes were pol­ished like mir­rors on the toes. This young new cap­tain from Ken­tucky smiled and walked ahead to open the door to our lit­tle room. He was a good daddy, and I loved him.

It was cold that un­for­get­table sunny Sun­day win­ter af­ter­noon in 1941. Sun flick­ered down through the few re­main­ing red and yel­low leaves in the big trees, speck­ling the un­raked front yard with pools of shad­ows and light. I grasped my mother’s hand and con­sciously had to re­sist the urge to suck my thumb. Five is too old for that, I knew. I was a big boy. With a tremor in my voice, I asked, “Mommy, will Daddy have to go away?” For a mo­ment, she just stood there, silent, squeez­ing my hand. Then she looked down at me with a mother’s look. With a note of sad­ness, she said, “Yes, son, Daddy will have to go away.”

Jack May is a 1958 grad­u­ate of the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point and served in the 82nd Air­borne as a para­trooper for three years.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

A fam­ily drive in Colum­bus for a fam­ily whose Army fa­ther was sta­tioned at Fort Ben­ning was meant to test out a new Packard. But while lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio, their leives changed as Pearl Har­bor was at­tacked.

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