Celebrating Democracy with Steve Sparks… USS Tennessee BB43, San Diego 1937

I imagine my father, Vernon, following bootcamp 1937, standing next to the big guns of the USS Tennessee Battleship. The young Seaman Sparks was preparing for his 1st sea duty. The Tennessee would sail off in March 1937 to the Philippines with a stop at Pearl Harbor. This would be the beginning of Vernon’s Naval career and WWII on the horizon, unbeknownst to him in that moment.

Seaman is a military rank used in many navies around the world. It is considered a junior enlisted rank and, depending on the navy, it may be a single rank on its own or a name shared by several similarly-junior ranks.”

Vernon was a rugged teen in St Paul. At 17 he was more than ready to get the hell out of the “shit hole” neighborhood where he grew up.

Vernon dreamed of “joining the Navy to see the world.” He thought of freedom. Freedom from being poor and hungry everyday. Freedom from hate and anger. Freedom from fighting to survive as a kid.

Vernon was tired of feeling trapped in a family preoccupied with so much emotional pain that there was little time for love at home. “Walking into his home was like stepping into a mine field,” he imagined.

America was in a deep depression. It was a very tough time. But for Vernon, he was a fighter, a warrior. Vernon found his calling. He would serve America!

There were no hugs or a welcome voice to be found. Only sadness and anger. Usually his sisters and mother were were yelling and complaining about his fathe. Al was all too often drunk in bar after his daily job painting some where near by in town.

Al didn’t know from one day to the next if he could work to put food on the table after spending much of his pay at the local bar. Sometimes he wouldn’t get home for a couple of days.

Vernon’s last Christmas at home in December 1936 was a “fuckin’ disaster!,” he mused with a little sadness, but with excitement about his future as as a Seaman aboard the USS Tennessee. Vernon was a Navy man now. He loved it from the get go.

“Why would I ever go back to St Paul,” he told his buddy Striker, as they downed a few beers and shooters at a popular water front bar, “The Sailor’s Hole,” where sailors and marines hung out. It was near the Tennessee and other war ships. They wouldn’t dare miss curfew!

After all, San Diego was beautiful in March. On this afternoon it was 70 degrees and sunny. The sail boats were out in the bay. The ladies of San Diego wore shorts and tops in the warm balmy weather.

Vernon and Striker could only gaze and dream of Hawaii and the Philippines.

Later in the evening before liberty curfew, at 12 midnight, Vernon and Striker walked up nthe bridge and asked, “permission to come aboard sir,” and Sparks and Sricker salauted at attention, so proudly, and walked aboard.

Both men would make America and the world proud, so proud forever… Honor and duty so important to both as they served America.

The USS Tennessee BB43 sailed away early that morning. Destination Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. They would cross the equator en route. This was a special Navy ritual, a right of passage.

Vernon never looked back. He and Striker would learn to be the best of the best Seaman and hardened warriors at sea when America needed them the most.


Crossing the Equator

It was a way for sailors to be tested for their seaworthiness. When a ship crosses the equator, King Neptune comes aboard to exercise authority over his domain and to judge charges brought against Pollywogs that they are only posing as sailors and haven’t paid proper homage to the god of the sea.

Happy Thanksgiving! Sarah, Judy and Steve

Celebrating Democracy with Steve Sparks… Marcella Sparks, the train north to San Francisco fall 1942

While little Jerry slept in her arms, Marcella was transfixed on the beauty of southern California. She so enjoyed traveling the country on a train. Marcella remembered the fun ‘caboose’ stories as a kid growing up in St Paul.

Ohhh! “The orange groves,” she thought while smiling. Marcella loved fresh fruit…

Marcella always had strong faith and hope for her new family. “Vernon was coming home,” she screamed with tears of joy, but silently as her little precious boy was asleep. 

Jerry was smiling as he was held close and lovingly by his mom. He knew he was safe and secure. Little Jerry knew he was loved.

“After all,” Marcella thought. “I can’t imagine Vernon going back to war after Pearl Harbor!”

Little did she know that Vernon was already assigned to the newly commissioned USS Bellegrove LSD2. The Bellegrove would be commissioned in Feb1943. 

Vernon would be promoted to BMC in April 1943. A secret mission to Pacific was already in the making, and for many months starting right after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

Vernon could not share any of this with Marcella. And she knew it.

It didn’t take Marcella long to refocus back then and stand on her own. She’s a mom, a military mom and spouse. She had a WWII mission too… Keeping the home fires burning.

Marcella beleived she served too. Her family served. And grandparents served in WWI. She and Vernon toughed it out during the Greatest Depression as poor families.

Marcella looked out the window. She looked up and observed the tallest mountain peaks near Fresno, Ca.

Someone a couple of seats up yelled with excitement, “Yosemite National Park is up there.”

It was at that moment, Marcella, looked down at little Jerry, and said softly but firmly, “we can do this son!” We can do this!” As the tears flowed down her face. 

Marcella could cry back then… But that would change once there were no more tears to share…or shed.

From this moment of reflection, Marcella knew she was heading into fighting a war herself. 

Marcella would come to know hard combat as a warrior spouse.  The war would come home to the kitchen table every night for dinner. Vernon would be at war with himself. 

But she had no awareness or training on what she heard as “Battle Fatigue.” Vernon was diagnosed with this condition we didn’t understand back then. 

Battle Fatigue sounded like, she thought, “Vernon would need lots of rest before going back to sea.

Maybe the Navy Command would keep her husband home for awhile. Little Jerry needed to know his Daddy.

Marcella again tried to put those worries aside. She had to think about caring for her husband and young son.

Marcella knew Vernon would come home a different man. “Will I even know him?” She thought.

Marcella returned to more hopeful and positive thoughts. She dreamed of getting their new larger 2 bedroom apartment on Scott Street ready near the Marine District in San Francisco.

Marcella would wait for Vernon’s arrival. She dreamed of Christmas with her new family. It would be a beautiful time of love, and prayers. “Maybe we could go to midnight mass.” as she smiled.

When Jerry saw any sailor in uniform, he would yell out a sweat version of “daddy, daddy” to every sailor he saw while on errands with his mom.

Jerry would not get to know his father on this time. That would come much later. In fact, it would not be until June 1945, the very end of WWII. 

It was just like that for 10s of 1000s of men and woman who fought around the world for our freedoms. Vernon’s story repeats itself for 1000s of military families all over the globe who’s loved ones served years in hard combat. 

How can the human mind survive this kind of torture? We know more now but not then. 

I believe America won WWII because we fought together as one community of people. We fought for all of us, not just some of us.

Jerry, Marcella, Vernon and Stephen in mom’s arms summer 1946

Celebrating Democracy with Steve Sparks… Christmas 1935 Sparks Family, St Paul Mn

It was Christmas eve 1935 in St Paul, Mn. My dad, Vernon, and his pop, Al Sparks, just returned home after an afternoon visiting his Pop’s favorite bars in the neighborhood.

Grandpa was already “3 sheets to the wind” as his family would observe when he staggered in and flopped in his favorite chair in the small living room off the kitchen.

Vernon came strolling in after his pop. Vernon often went with him to make sure he got home safely. After all it was Christmas eve and the family was gathering for dinner. 

Grandpa Sparks at times didn’t make it home after being out and about the neighborhood drinking with friends at the local bars and pubs. He would get drunk and fall asleep somewhere, who knows. 

Grandma was busy making chicken dumplings with her daughters Juneth and Dolly. Ronnie, Dad’s younger bro was just a toddler at the time. 

Grandpa liked to hide whiskey in several hiding places at home. My dad knew the places. He changed these places so as to keep his daughter Juneth from finding the bottle and dumping it down the sink while Grandpa watched with horror and trepidation.

The kids hated holidays because the mood went quickly from joy and favorite Christmas songs to violence that looked like a brawl in a local bar.

Aunt Juneth knew there was a bottle of whiskey somewhere and went looking for it while Grandpa took a short nap.

Aunt Dolly joined her sister while they hunted for the booze. Vernon tried to stop them, pleading not to touch it. “Grandpa would go into a violent rage,” Vernon would yell out. Vernon was very loud, indeed. I am my father’s son…

Aunt Juneth found the bottle in the backyard hidden under a small wooden box disguised as a flower stand. Junith, a 13 year old teen, couldn’t wait to dump the booze down the kitchen sink slowly while Grandpa threatened to kill her.

He would say to my auntie Junith with hate in his eyes, “I told your mother we should have stuffed you in a gunny sack when you were born and tossed you into the Mississippi River!”

So, as it was for every holiday, including my own childhood, that most Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays ended up with drunkenness, violent outbursts, broken furniture, bruises, and chaos. It was dangerous. No child should ever be in a home like this.

It’s no wonder that I come from a very sick and traumatized family dynamic. It’s disgusting and horrible for kids to live in a dangerous home like that.

What is sad is in the this year 2020, families in every community live in a home growing up with violence. My home was this way during the holidays. At least 2 weeks dug in a fox hole. It was survival of the fittest. Down and dirty…

What happened at home stayed at home. But this wasn’t Las Vegas. It was St. Paul MN, 2 blocks from St Paul Cathedral in 1935 on Christmas Eve…

You ask why some folks say they hate Christmas? “Now you know the rest of the story.

Steve Sparks, Author, US Navy vet