Michael Packard is a Massachusetts lobsterman and deep-sea diver. Reports in the press now quote Packard’s extraordinary experience: He says he was swallowed by a humpback whale!
Packard kept his scuba gear intact as he was enveloped in the whale’s mouth. Now, all too typically in our distracted times, there is a controversy. Some Cape Cod coastal experts dispute Packard’s whale tale. But Packard’s fellow divers stand by him.
What most interested me in this latter-day Jonah story was Michael Packard’s thoughts as he faced death. “This is how I’m gonna die,” he said to himself. He thought of his beloved wife and sons. His boat—the Ja’n J—is named for them.
I know how Michael Packard felt. When I turned 40, I was stricken by viral meningitis. My wife gathered our toddlers Jim and Elizabeth together and took me to the emergency room at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Following my spinal tap, naval officers there wanted to send me to a local hospital. They said they had no room. But my good wife was a naval officer on staff at Bethesda. She knew there were beds somewhere. She held her ground and insisted that I be admitted.
Several days later, I awoke in the Neuro Step-Down Unit. I looked around and saw my fellow patients. It seemed to me they were dying. I concluded that, like Michael Packard: “This is how I’m gonna die.”
I wept. I did not weep for myself. Like Michael Packard, my thoughts went to my wife and our little Jimmy and Elizabeth. What would become of them when I died?
I soon lapsed into a deep sleep. When I awoke, I was in a different ward. Hovering over me was Kate and a klatch of other towering figures clad all in white.
I heard them tell her that I would survive viral meningitis. But my brain had suffered damage. She would find I had been impaired.
Their prognosis: “He’ll have short term memory loss. He’ll be irritable. And he’ll be emotional.”
Straight faced, Kate replied, “So, what difference am I supposed to notice?”
I burst out laughing. And I was soon on the mend.
Does fatherhood teach us to be unselfish? Does the joy and the responsibility of being a father mature us men as nothing else can quite do?
I found another example, like Michael Packard’s “last thoughts” in the mouth of his whale. Sir Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War is no dry recitation of maps and chaps. He offers innumerable revealing personal diaries and moving letters, sharing the thoughts and prayers of scores of people scarred by the Great War.
I was so struck by the last words of a German soldier wounded at Ypres and taken captive by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The man dying so young said only: “Ich habe drei kleine Kinder.” I have three little children. A father’s tears.
My father, Leslie Morrison, was torpedoed by a U-boat off South Africa and strafed in Naples harbor by the Luftwaffe in World War II.
His brother, Uncle Harold, had been torpedoed and sunk. He was rescued, then lost when the second merchant vessel was sent to the bottom.
We questioned him, “Pop, you don’t hate the Germans?”
It was war, he said simply. The German phrase for that is “Der Krieg ohne Hass.” War without hatred. Followers of the just war tradition should understand this sentiment.
Then, Pop would show us his plaque with the U-boat model on it. It was given to him by German POWs whom he later brought back to the United States.
They gave him the plaque to thank him for his humane treatment of them—and for the cartons of cigarettes he gave them. Lucky Strike cigarettes went to war, but non-smoker Les was happy to share his tobacco rations with these U-boat sailors.
Military historian Sir John Keegan authoritatively wrote in The Face of Battle that the best fate of any prisoner in World War II was to be a German taken captive by Americans. And those German POWs who experienced their own “Atlantic Crossing” with my father were blessed indeed.
My rescued father revered Lincoln. “With malice toward none but with charity for all” was Lincoln’s Farewell Address to us. Leslie Morrison lived out Father Abraham’s good words. On Father’s Day, and every day, we can so live, too.