Excerpt: Steve SparksPosted: March 4, 2014
As a tribute to my mother on her 95th birthday, following is an excerpt from my book, Reconciliation: A Son’s Story, revisiting some of the happiest times in her life back around 1940 when mom & dad were first married in Long Beach, California…
Laura planned a few outings for just mother and daughter to bond. One special day happened to be Mother’s birthday. She took Mother to Shore Line Village in Long Beach for a special lunch. The Lighthouse was a favorite. They serve some of the best seafood and it is right on the water.
Mother is very sentimental about Long Beach. She and Dad were married in Long Beach where they spent Dad’s 6 weeks of shore leave until he shipped out to Pearl Harbor on the USS West Virginia. The following is Laura’s recollection of what Mother shared with her that day while reminiscing the early days of marriage in Long Beach.
“It was 1939 or 1940, in St. Paul Minn. Mother was about 19 or 20 years old, attending a girl’s finishing school in St. Paul when she met Juneth Sparks who was also attending the same school. They soon became good friends, even though Juneth was 2 years younger. They found a lot of common interests and ran in the same social circles.
Europe was at war and Japan was becoming very hostile in the Pacific. Surely the US would be joining soon. It was the beginning of another World War. Young able bodied men were enlisting in the United States military, and were almost immediately shipped out to various parts of Europe and the Pacific. It was expected and thought to be most honorable to serve our country. Eligible young men of dating age were becoming scarce in St. Paul. Short courtships and quick marriages were the norm. Men and women were anxious to tie the knot and even start a family before shipping out to far off destinations that were kept secret. If the men were lucky to come home alive, they knew it could be many months and even years before they would see our shores again. They wished to have a loved one waiting and writing to them.
Since Mother was ending an unsuccessful relationship with a young man, her friend Juneth suggested that she meet her older brother, Vernon. Vernon would be coming home for a short leave from sea duty in the Navy at that time. Dad had been in the Navy since 1936 and out at sea most of the time. Juneth encouraged her friend Marcella, and was sure she would be impressed with this tall, handsome and charming sailor.
Juneth set up a meeting between her friend Marcella Schaub and her brother Vernon Sparks, which was the beginning of a new Sparks’s generation before and after WWII. Following a whirlwind of dating and romance Marcella fell in love with Vernon, a tall, blond, handsome, romantic and adventurous sailor. On that short three week leave, she spent as much time as possible with her new man, Vernon. During that time she met the rest of Sparks’ family as well as introducing Vernon to the Schaub clan. Mother’s parents, especially her Dad, approved of this handsome, strong and capable sailor. Mother was most happy to receive her “Pa’s” approval.
The day for Vernon to ship out came too soon, much too soon to a destination he could not reveal. Marcella saw him off on a train headed towards the west coast of California, a distant seaport called Long Beach. Both of them promised to write each other as much as possible.
Mother and Vernon wrote letters to each other for 5 months. Vernon’s letters were full of news about the possible war in the Pacific, uncertain where he was going, and how much he missed Mother and hoped that they would soon see each other. His letters were full of humor in sharing his numerous adventures aboard ship and his feelings of love began to emerge more with each letter. Soon, Mother and Vernon began to speak about a possible life together, promises turning to commitments to each other as it became apparent they longed to be together.
One day Mother received the letter she had been hoping for from Vernon. The letter contained a yellow gold diamond engagement ring and a one way train ticket from St. Paul to Los Angeles, California. Vernon explained he needed an answer as soon as possible because he would be shipping out soon. The US Navy Fleet was destined for Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. Vernon expressed his love to Marcella and his hope of starting a family with her before he shipped out. For most military men, losing their life was ever present causing a natural tendency to start a family before heading off to combat. He promised housing for Mother in Bell, California, with some friends of his after he shipped out. This was clearly a romantic and adventurous notion for Marcella to contemplate during this time, but also scary in terms of leaving her comfort zone in St. Paul, Minnesota and being married to a man who may not come home.
The prospect of moving away was romantic and exciting to Marcella and fearful as well. She had never seen the Atlantic Coast let alone the far away Pacific Coast. Mother had never in her life been outside of Minnesota. Long Beach was very close to Hollywood and she dreamed of seeing some of her favorite exotic movie stars. Her favorite pass time for Saturdays was viewing the latest movie releases at the local theatre. Mother was somewhat anxious about being married by a Judge in California. Marcella came from a very strict Catholic family, and so she hoped the marriage would be blessed by the Catholic Church sometime in the future. Vernon, being Lutheran, agreed that he would practice the Catholic beliefs with her and the children they hoped to have.
With the blessings of her family and much anticipation Marcella boarded the train. Vernon promised to be at the Los Angeles train station in a few days to meet her when she arrived.
Mother’s trip across the country was full of sites, landscapes and interesting things she had only read about in books newspapers and magazines or heard about on the radio. After some research I was able to conclude that Mother must have traveled on the Union Pacific from Minnesota. The passenger train traveled along the Mississippi River and then headed west across the country close to the old highway “Route 66” to the Pacific Coast, arriving in downtown Los Angeles.
When the train arrived at last to the Pacific Coast the beauty was breathtaking, just as Vernon had promised. The exotic palm trees, blue clear sky and the warm weather were wonderful. Just as Vernon promised, he was waiting at the train station with open arms. He brought along some friends with a vehicle from Bell. They were married on March 18, 1940 in Bell, California, by the justice of peace, with a promise from Vernon that they would someday be married by a Catholic priest.
They spent a blissful honeymoon in Long Beach, which was most fun and exciting to Mother. The beaches were beautiful where they spent a lot of time sunbathing while getting to know each other in the pleasant and romantic salty sea breeze. Long Beach was a fun city during those years. The city was like a huge carnival. Long Beach was a major port for the US Navy. There was an abundance of entertainment catering to sailors on shore leave. Vernon romanced mother with her first shrimp cocktail, and exotic tropical fruit drinks with tiny umbrellas. Marcella was amazed at all the fresh produce sold at outdoor farmers markets. She enjoyed avocados for the first time, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and many other treats. She would have never known there were so many different kinds of lettuce. Fresh salads became a lifetime habit for Mother.
Long Beach had many street markets where Japanese Americans would bring produce and other goods to sell from their farms that prospered on Terminal Island. Mother told me with much sadness and regret, she had a close friendship with a young Japanese American woman, one of those vendors. The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mother went in search of her friend for comfort. Everything was gone. Mother’s friend and the other Japanese American vender’s had just disappeared as if they were never there. This was a very sad time for Japanese Americans who became victims of WWII. Most were sent off to camps for the duration of the war.
Finally it was time for Vernon to ship out on a short training cruise to make sure the USS West Virginia was ready for the rigors of sea duty and possible combat. Marcella stayed with Vernon’s friends in Bell temporarily. When Vernon took his last leave, he moved mother into an apartment on Lime Street in Long Beach. She became lifelong friends with an older couple living in the same apartments. The older couple was childless at the time, and treated Mother as a daughter. Many of Vernon’s shipmate’s wives were settled in the same area of Long Beach, which provided her with a good support group and new friends.
On September 11, 1941, at the old Saint Mary’s by the Sea Hospital, Marcella gave birth to Gerald Vernon Sparks the first son of Vernon. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Naval Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor by complete surprise. War was declared on Japan by the President of the United States within days of this terrible historical event that changed America forever.