There used to be, in broadcasting, a particular way that announcers employed to break into what was called their “regularly scheduled programming.” (I have no idea what would qualify an on-air segment as “irregularly-scheduled programming”—but I digress.) With the package that arrived late yesterday afternoon in the mail, I received sufficient cause to do, here, just that: interrupt our conversation about the Flannigan family of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
For, you see, someone promised us via a telephone call on Monday morning, a week ago, that by the end of this week, we would have a particular package we had been seeking. Yes, that package: a copy of the entire personnel file from two branches of the United States military—the Navy, and what eventually became the Air Force—for one specific person. That particular person was Francis Xavier Stevens, whose World War II letters home to his folks in Chicago have been shared here in a series spanning the last few months of 2011.
Since it was about his father, my husband did the honors of engaging his Swiss Army knife in slicing open the folder and carefully extracting the cover letter from our contact person at the National Personnel Records Center and removing two tidy bundles—one for each branch in which Frank had served.
Though these were merely photocopied sheets of personnel records, many full of unintelligible codes or redundant facts, I felt an inexplicable awe in handling each page—inspecting each and, one by one, flipping them over in order until the whole packet was reviewed. Perhaps it was the milieu in which I sat turning the pages: in the light of the setting sun, comfortable on the couch as my daughter’s evocative Skyrim sound track gently coaxed my mood. I sensed a metamorphosis transpiring as each page, each bit of data, reassembled an aspect of the life of the person who meant much to his family.
Everything we had already gleaned from Frank’s letters was all there. We found the specific dates for his work in Saudi Arabia. We discovered he even did a stint at the American University in Beirut. Of course, his assignment in England was documented, although it included some other details I knew nothing about.
Some of the places were now verified in these pages where I had just guessed about his assignments when I was writing about them—for instance, the family’s stop in South Carolina was indeed at Donaldson Air Force Base. On some of the places I knew little about—like Frank’s assignment in Japan—I still haven’t uncovered the specifics. I’ll have to come up with a way to decode the hospital facility number in the “Far East” where he served in the late 1950s.
Of course, I’m already devising a system that will allow me to glean the pertinent facts from these pages and lay them out in an orderly fashion—construct a time line, perhaps, or some way to let my mind grapple with all those intangible codes, acronyms, dates and places. In some ways, this raw data is still a puzzle and needs some manipulation before it assumes the organized fashion that will allow me to call it completed. To be able to have gone every step of the way with this veteran of World War II would have been impossible for me, but now that we’ve completed this leg of our research “journey” at least we are better equipped to recognize him for what he went through, what he did, and its impact on others.