Why do some people make the best of an adverse situation while others struggle, irreparably impacted for life? In the modern age of Post-Traumatic Stress as a DSM diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Society, mainstream Americans readily acknowledge the potentially damaging effects of witnessing conflict, death and ravages on the battlefield and in terrorism, but in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was customary to keep silent and tuck one’s feelings away.
The resilience and attitude of an individual is influenced by one’s reactions to life events. Humans seem arbitrary in their reactions…one individual can endure abuse, neglect and hardship and still thrive in life with viewpoints of forgiveness and caring. Another can emerge from a life of privilege, education and culture and become hardened and cold. Psychologists, religious leaders, philosophers, teachers and even mothers have been observing and studying what shapes a human being for eons. Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel, who themselves became world-renowned philosophers because of their own recorded Concentration Camp imprisonment and observations during World War II by Adolph Hitler’s regime, have garnered accolades in the academic and philosophical worlds. As a result of war, some flourish and evolve; others withdrawal and give up and yet others change their approach to life and realize the value of living each day to the fullest and with GUSTO! Navy Radioman Petty Officer, 2nd Class Orval Otis Sparks (Bud) honed what was to be a lifelong attitude of life in World War II.
To be with Bud Sparks, was to laugh and feel giddy joy! He loved people and interacting with folks. My wife’s Great Aunt and Uncle and their daughter and son-in-law semi-retired to Florida in the decade of the 1970’s and moved into a retirement place a few miles from our home in central Florida. My wife spoke highly of her relatives, Aunt Mary and Uncle Warren, and their 60ish daughter, Glendora and her husband, Bud Sparks. The Sparks in turn, had four children who were about the same age as we were in the twenty-something age-range, and we saw them periodically when they visited. Our generation had emerged from the sixties’ hippy era as kids who were starting careers and families. I found the Sparkes were all great folks and first and foremost, family; but I came to see the unique, enviable traits of Bud Sparks as I grew to know him better.
Orval Ottis Sparks was known to everyone as Bud! He passed away in 1999, and was a patriotic citizen, who revered his three daughters and one son and their handsome brood of grandkids. They in turn, adored him. To be with Bud Sparks, was an experience.
He didn’t make the mistake of taking life or himself too seriously--he truly loved everyday happenings. Those he shared his time with felt truly blessed. A consummate joke-teller and a person who got the zest out of life, Bud had the unique ability to permeate laughter without belittling or joking at a bystander’s expense. He planned elaborate pranks that were enjoyed by even the person being pranked. He pushed the limits of convention—(never completely outside of community standards) right up to the edge of conformity, with a twinkle in his eye. For example, his daughter Darlene related that Bud and his two Navy brothers met up at Pearl Harbor at one point during World War II. She said, when Dad’s brother Bob arrived to visit him on the U.S.S. Savannah, he was directed to the sleeping quarters, looked around, and said, ‘Where is Bud Sparks?’ At that point, Dad rolled over and said, ‘Here,’ as if reporting to roll call.” She said that was so like Dad to enjoy surprising someone! Granddaughter Megan Sparks added that she missed her grandpa. She said when she accompanied him on the drive into the nearby town of Kokomo, as a kid, he would always wave to the wooden statue of a woman as if he was greeting her. She said she asked, ‘Grandpa, why are you waving?’ and he replied back, ‘that mean old lady never waves back,’ and then chuckled. Megan said, ‘he just always loved to make people laugh.’
On rare occasions, Bud shared a vignette about his World War II Navy experience. Those years were obviously his impressionable years…he was a teenager who was getting a hands-on education. Stories were about R & R at various ports-of-call, the things he witnessed on a large naval ship, the workings and regimentation of the ship, and little anecdotes about his buddies there and the way they filled their days in the U.S. Navy.
As I got to know him, I began to uncover where his signature GUSTO was cultivated.
Bud enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and served through 1945. His two brothers, Barney V. and Robert L. Sparks, were also in the Navy. They were three farm boys who got caught up in the patriotic fervor of the 1940’s and wanted to see the world and serve their country. This was before the ‘Sole Survivor’ ruling of 1948 which was put into effect to protect families from losing their entire offspring in a war situation. (The five Sullivan brothers were killed on the USS Juneau in World War II, and civic outcry called for the protection of a family from losing their entire brood of sons which might very well have occurred to the Sparks family; later the act was amended to include both sons and daughters and now each branch of the military has policies for separating immediate members of the families.)
Bud was stationed on the U.S.S. Savannah. He was known as Sparky by his shipmates, not surprising when one’s name was Sparks. Bud theorized that he was given his work assignment on the ship because of his name. Sometimes things were just done to garner some humor, he said. They took to analyzing a guy’s name and assigned him to that particular occupation. I wondered if it was a way to remember the sailor’s name? Bud said John Morris was assigned to Morris Code; Tom Baker was put in the kitchen, and so on. In the case of Bud Sparks, he was assigned to communications where the sparks would fly when making connections.
For the most part, Bud felt that communications was a good fit. It was literally the place where ships conferred with command and consulted one another. Bud explained that tough guidelines were followed in the communications station of the ship which was positioned near the tallest part of the ship, in order to send the signals. The area was protected and the protocol for maintaining the equipment was tedious. For example, no flammable substances were allowed. Cigarettes, matches, metal utensils or non-work related objects were prohibited. Measures were consistently in place to keep the space functional and shield equipment from fire, electrical outages or water. It was a lifeline of the ship and its passengers.
Days were grueling on the ship and monotony and regimentation made the need for some outlets important. Bud told a particularly lively story about one such interval, breaking out in laughter as he began.
“We had been out on the sea for weeks, and most of our food was from powdered, canned and preserved substances. Fresh food was a real treat—rare commodity. Just after a re-fueling port stop, the incident occurred. Having eaten powdered eggs for months for breakfast, my good pal, Charley, one of the mess workers, snuck about half a dozen fresh eggs to me. My coworker in the communications area and I were savoring those eggs. You know the way your mouth waters when you haven’t eaten for a while. . For me I thought of gathering eggs back on the farm and mom cooking eggs and bacon for most every breakfast. We could just taste them. Well, we conjured up a plan to cook the eggs in the Communications Center. It was well-protected and highly guarded and nobody would ever discover. Besides we figured we would smuggle the hot plate in, cook the eggs, enjoy the feast and clean up without a trace…and nobody would be the wiser. The eggs of course, were procured at port and were destined for the officers only, but with the few slabs that they had brought on, Charley figured nobody would notice a few missing. So the next day, with the deed was planned, we began our maneuver…it started out pretty smoothly. I put all in place, and had the eggs just about at sunny-side up, when the door to the communications opened, and Captain walked in. Boy, did my heart sink. I knew I would be in the brig for weeks for this action.
There wasn’t anything to do, but give it an old Navy try…I retorted in my best Navy voice… ‘Sir, how would you like your eggs prepared, Sir?’ The Captain turned and looked me in the eye for about five seconds (the longest of my life) and then the left side of his lips turned up and the slightest of grins emerged. He responded, Sparky—I like them easy over. Well, I whipped into action and the Cap sat down with and ate our eggs.”
We were anticipating at any moment after the incident that the door would open and we would be escorted to the brig which would be our new home for weeks. We worried about it for several days after, but we heard nothing. In fact, that particular incident was never spoken of again…not any of the guys in the communication section nor the Captain ever spoke of it again. I was not reassigned nor sent to the brig. Things of the unusual happened during wartime and the egg-cooking in the communications area was one of those!
Bud loved to have passes in the various ports-of-call, and was a partier who wanted to enjoy what the locations had to offer. I learned from the family that his fun-loving Navy reputation preceded him even after he came home. He had to work diligently to convince his soon-to-be father-in-law that he was an upstanding guy in order to obtain the hand in marriage of his future wife, Glendora.
After I got to know Bud better, he explained that his life ‘turned on a dime,’ so to speak, the day that his ship was bombed. The Bible contains the much printed phrase, “Eat, Drink and Be Merry…for tomorrow you shall die,” in Ecclesiastes 8:15. For Bud his variation on this was, in my opinion… ‘Live each day to the fullest because tomorrow is not guaranteed.’
Bud was on the USS Savannah when it was bombed, September 11, 1943. They were on a support mission when Nazi bombers at high altitude dropped their bombs. The bombs penetrated the top of the number three turret and continued down three decks, exploding in the lower ammunition handling area, ripping a hole in the keel and part of the port side. Sailors in the magazines were killed and many in the turrets died from lethal gas caused by the exploding powder. When they got the turret opened, no one was left, only charred remains. The Savannah had a thirty foot hole in the side of the hull and they did not know the extent of the damage to the keel until they limped into Malta where they were told the bow was gone and they had a 25 foot split in the side of the hull. Devastatingly, 197 sailors were killed and 15 injured on that day on September 11!
Bud explained that the soldiers on the ship were the ones who retrieved the bodies or parts of the bodies that were in the hull of the ship. The sights, smells and feelings were surreal. The blood, body fluids, and tissues had to be cleaned—literally scraped from every inch of the impacted area of the ship. The remnants of the bomb attack left a horrid stench of suspended explosive, smoke and burned flesh. Numerous sailors were treated for burns and injuries. Retrieving the bodies was traumatic enough, but these were our shipmates and friends and the horror was magnified by the loss we felt. The sailors would go down and work as long as they could and then were replaced by others in an endless cyclical process of recovery.
I had been a hardworking farm boy with a family-instilled belief that ‘you work hard, believe in God and country and just keep trekking, but on September 11, 1943, I decided that life could turn in a moment. After all I had witnessed it. It took a while to figure it out for myself, but I decided that I was going to live each moment to its fullest and enjoy life.
Indeed Bud did live life to the fullest. He always had a joke to tell. He would come by and visit our kids who adored him. As they grew, he became one of their favorite people. For our son, Jervis, who lost his own grandfather (a friend of Bud’s, at age four) Bud took him on outings, shared stories of life and girls, and found the time to show our son how a loving grandfather figure could enrich one’s life. Bud didn’t dwell on world events, Stock Market issues or political configurations but appreciated pleasure and joy from day-to-day happenings. He was certainly a hardworking father and provider, who was well informed and fondly respected in his community. Anyone asked in his little home town of Camden, to describe Bud Sparks, would first smile in recollection of him. He simply didn’t waste moments like so many people. He knew the gravity of not using each moment to the fullest.
Bud and his wife regularly attended the reunions of the U.S.S. Savannah. He kept in touch with fellow sailors. No doubt they spoke of the tragedies they witnessed and the losses of comrades. In the depths of his psyche, he undoubtedly recalled the life-changing events. Bud however chose to reframe his philosophy of life to “getting the gusto” and sharing joy with those around him.
Bud instinctively knew how to see humor in life, and distract you for a few seconds from the seriousness of life. I wonder, could that be because he had witnessed first-hand what Hell looked like after the bombing of the U.S.S. Savannah? Survivor guilt is attached to those who made it through a modern 9-11 in 2001, a devastating fire or auto accident, and those who struggle with this talk of having a responsibility to those they lost. Bud didn’t articulate survivor guilt…he personified survivor philosophy in his attitude of life.
Bud’s daughter Darlene said, “Many onboard that fateful ship on that September day in 1943 lost their lives. Others had their lives changed forever by surviving…mass burials at sea and limping a damaged ship into safe waters. Freedom was and is not free.”
The legacy of Bud parallels the legacy of the Savannah. After protecting American waters for the remainder of the war, it was appropriately fitting for the honorable U.S. S. Savannah to have the honor of sailing in the escort of President Franklin Roosevelt on his way to the Mediterranean for the famous Yalta Peace Conference with Winston Churchill. You can bet that famous peace settlement was begun with some humor to set the stage for world leaders to confer on decisions that would shape the modern world.