Ronald C. Sparks was my grandfather. He passed away last Thursday. Born in Portsmouth, Ohio on October 14, 1925, he was 86-years-old. These are the words I wrote, and spoke, today at his funeral service. I worked on this with my brother and sister, and I am honored to have given his eulogy. My sister and I also wrote his obituary, and you can read it here.
I called him grandpa
He was one of the most influential people in my life. That’s not a claim I make lightly. If you think about it, we all know hundreds of people. We meet thousands of people every year. Some are people you bump into at the grocery store and never see again. Some become fast friends. Some are family. If you’re on Facebook you probably even have friends you’ve never met. It’s safe to say that I have met tens of thousands of people in my lifetime and my grandpa tops the list of people who have molded me into the man I am today. I’d like to spend a few moments talking about my grandpa – giving you a glimpse of how I saw him.
Each of you knows my grandpa. Many of you know him in ways I can never know or understand. If I’m lucky, some of you will share your stories about grandpa with me this afternoon.
So where do I start? My earliest memories are on my grandparents farm in Southern Indiana. My memories of that time were when I was just a child much younger than my three teenaged children here today. Grandpa’s great-grandchildren.
Learning to Shoot a Rifle
I could tell you about how grandpa taught me how to fire a rifle. On that farm we had two barns. We had one that was the “regular barn” and we had one we called the Tobacco barn. Between the two were one of the fields where we planted crops. Sometimes nuisance groundhogs would plague the field and threaten the crop.
Before I continue let me tell you about the Tobacco barn. The tobacco barn was a mess. It was dilapidated, dingy, and falling apart. Grandpa warned me several times to never go into the Tobacco barn. It was dangerous. I believed him. I never thought to question or doubt. It was a scary barn, just to look at.
I don’t like to be a tattletale, but I just found out yesterday, though, that my sister Rhonda regularly disobeyed the command to steer clear of the tobacco barn and went climbing through it all the time.
So anyway, between the tobacco barn and the regular barn were fields where we planted crops and groundhogs were a nuisance. They could dig holes so deep that a tractor would literally tip over if it hit the hole. Shooting the groundhogs was a necessity – for safety reasons and to save the crop.
I remember my grandfather handing me the rifle. He spent time showing me how to operate the gun, the safety rules of handling the gun, how to aim, and how to slowly pull, not jerk, the trigger. I grabbed the rifle from grandpa, sighted down the barrel, and I fired that rifle downfield at the groundhogs. I missed, of course, and the recoil from the rifle knocked me backwards and hurt my shoulder. The sound of the shot being fired startled and scared me. Grandpa chuckled, and handed the rifle back to me, even though I was suddenly afraid of it. Because that’s what he did; he taught without teaching. He led by example. He knew I was afraid, but he just handed the rifle back to me and let me make the choice to try again.
Grandpa taught me my love and respect for firearms. And he also passed it on to my children. A few weeks before this last Christmas, I took grandpa and my oldest son Matthew to the gun range. At 86 years of age, shooting from a partially blind eye, grandpa managed to hit his target every single time with a spread no larger than my hand.
One of my favorite stories about my grandpa is the story about iced tea. Every day, for 45 years, grandma would serve grandpa a glass of iced tea with dinner. Every day, without ever saying a word, grandpa would drink that glass of iced tea.
One day, though, after 45 years, he asked my grandmother why she always served him iced tea. Her reply? “Because you like it.” He told her he had never liked iced tea. For 45 years, without complaint, he drank what his wife provided him. A child of the depression, grandpa learned to be thankful for what he had.
I think about that a lot. About how spoiled I am. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been hungry. If my waitress at the restaurant brings me the wrong drink I get offended and send it back with much todo. And my grandpa never complained about being served a beverage he didn’t like. For 45 years. I don’t know anyone else like that.
License to Drive
Grandpa taught me how to drive. He taught my sister and brother, Rhonda and Russell, as well. His exact words were he “wanted to make sure we did it right.” He spent decades behind the wheel of a truck and cars and the road were a major defining part of his life. He owned dozens of cars throughout the years. I think he bought new cars more often than he bought new pants.
When I was 16-years-old he spent a week looking for, and finally paying for half, of my first car. A lime green 1974 Mercury Comet. He taught me how to change the oil, tune it up, change the tires, and keep it road-worthy. Most of his lessons stuck, but I did have one incident.
I had been driving only a couple of months when my friend and I decided to drive to Cocoa Beach. You all know the route, SR 50 to 520 and all the way to the beach. This was before 520 was widened and it was a 2-lane road all the way to the beach. On the way back from the beach, I got a flat tire.
I wasn’t worried. My grandpa had taught me how to change a tire and I had not one, not two, but three spare tires in the car. I couldn’t tell you why I had that many spares. I just did. I jacked the car up, changed the tire, and we were on our way home in less than ten minutes.
We got a mile down the road when the same tire went flat again. So I changed the tire again. And got a mile down the road when the same tire went flat again. I was down to my last spare.
I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what. I put the last spare on, crossed my fingers, and started for home again. And got another flat tire.
This was way before cell phones, so my buddy and I had to hitchhike to a station and call his mom to come get us. Grandpa had taught me how to change a tire, but he didn’t think he needed to explain the obvious to me. Keep the tire valve on the outside when you change the tire.
When I told him what I had done – much later I might add – he just shook his head, called me a fool, and walked away.
The Bad Guys
Grandpa’s years behind the wheel of a truck gave him the strongest forearms of anyone I have ever met. He was driving for years before these trucks were equipped with power steering. He fought the truck every day, and won.
I didn’t understand as a child where that strength came from, I only knew that he was just about the strongest man I could imagine.
He played a game with us grandkids. He called it “the bag guys.” He would trap our wrists between two fingers and squeeze. Using only a fraction of the strength in his hands and arms, he would send me and my brother to the floor, writhing in pain and begging for release. And we always went back for more.
The worst, though, was when he sat next to me in church. When no one was looking he would get me with the bad guys and squeeze once, quickly, and let go. The sudden shock and pain always caused me to jump straight up like I’d sat on a pin and cry out.
Of course, I always got in trouble for disturbing church. And he sat there, never said a word, and winked at me when no one else was looking.
Just a few short weeks ago he got me in the bad guys again. At 86 years of age, they still hurt.
Grandpa and his Stories
Grandpa had a story for everything. I think he was perhaps the most interesting man in the world. He only recently started sharing some of his stories from the War, and we were all shocked and amazed by what he had to say. Everything from his trip by boat to and from Europe to his wounding, subsequent capture and status as a POW, and his liberation and return home. Stories about how the allies strafed the train he was on taking him to the prison camp, not knowing that it was filled with American POWs. Stories about how he was forced to dig his own grave in Stalag 9b when a prisoner killed a guard for a scrap of food. How he somehow kept on his person through the entire ordeal was a small New Testament given to him before he left for war.
Those stories horrify us even now, more than half a century later. The things he saw. The things he endured. Unimaginable to those of us from softer times.
My favorite stories, though, are his stories about being on the road. He could, literally, regale you with hours of stories from being on the road.
One of my favorites of all time, of the hundreds he told, was the story regarding the truck stop with outhouses instead of modern plumbing. This was in the early 1950s, I believe. The guys at the truck stop had run a speaker from the diner into the outhouse – into the, ahhh, toilet part of the outhouse. They would wait for ladies to enter the outhouse, give them time to start their business, and then turn on the microphone and holler through the speaker, “HEY LADY! WE’RE WORKING DOWN HERE!” Grandpa couldn’t tell the story without chuckling and describing how the ladies would run out of the outhouse in a complete panic.
Grandpa and His Love for Grandma
Grandpa loved grandma. He was so proud to have her at his side. Recently, one of his favorite stories was how, just a couple of years ago, the regulars at McDonalds were flirting with grandma. He thought she was so beautiful. You could always see it in how he looked at her. Through the good times, the bad and everything in between, his love for her, his dedication, responsibility, and commitment never wavered.
Grandma and grandpa had a love that lasted over 67 years. It might surprise some of you to know that they had met, fell in love, and eloped in a span of time only a few weeks before he shipped out to war.
As his health began to deteriorate he stressed to my father, me, and my sister and brother that we had to take care of grandma when he was gone. He would tell me “don’t worry about me; you just make sure your grandma is ok.” His greatest treasure was my grandma.
Being a Great-Great-Grandpa
Grandpa lived to see five generations spawned from the love him and grandma shared. He was very proud of this, and he loved and adored little Savannah. Savannah would sit in front of grandpa on the living room floor, babbling at him for hours. And he would look at her, nod, and say, over and over again in response to her, “I know.” “I know.” “I know.”
And Savannah’s first sentence was “I know.”
And apparently she does know. From what I hear, you can’t tell her anything. She knows it all – her great-great-grandpa told her so.
The witticism of Grandpa
Grandpa always had something snappy to say. Over the years some of his more colorful quips have become almost institutionalized in the family.
He would often jest with my grandmother when they had a minor disagreement. He would glare at her and say “woman, don’t make me mad.” I liked that so much that I use it now, in jest, with my wife Carey all the time.
The last few years grandpa has been fond of saying, when asked how he was feeling, “I could run down a rabbit, if I shoot it first.”
He would often look at grandma and jest, saying either “I’m gonna trade her in for a younger model,” or “that’s the last time I go out with an older woman.” Grandma is only a month older than him.
When imparting wisdom to me, he would stress often, “never bring a knife to a gunfight.”
And of course, one of my favorites was how he constantly teased my, my siblings, and his great grandkids, calling is “rotten kids” every time he saw us.
I miss my grandpa. He was a great man. An American hero, a dedicated husband, an honest man. He was hard, but fair. I loved him deeply, as I know all of you did. He is my role model and I will continue to walk in his footsteps and, if Im lucky, I’ll be half the man he was.