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Mike Tharp: War and love story

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

This started out as a war story.

It turned into a love story.

It was going to be words about a man who served his country in the Army in World War II. A man who won a Silver Star and Purple Heart as a tanker who rode with Patton.

Instead, the words turned into a portrait of a 91-year-old husband so in love with his 86-year-old wife that, after 62 years of marriage, they still kiss each other before every meal. They kiss each other goodnight.

The martial became the marital.

This column was going to raise the curtain on Veterans Day next week.

Now it's putting two people on stage who celebrate Valentine's Day every day of their lives.

Lloyd Sparks. A war hero from Kansas. And Helen (Smith) Sparks. A first-place government test-taker from Iowa.

They met in Modesto, after the war to end all wars.

Today, they live and thrive and love here in Merced.

That is, when they're not visiting all 50 states or renewing their passports to travel, arm in arm, wherever their journey together for six decades takes them.

Lloyd is the nonagenarian medal-wearing veteran who'll be honored as a grand marshal at Merced's annual Veterans Day parade Tuesday. Helen will be the trim, smiling woman somewhere on the sidewalk downtown, proud as punch of her husband who is also, to her, an "old phooey."

Someone once wrote there are only two main themes for poems and novels: love and war.

This couple has woven both into a strand, a rope, a hawser that binds them forever.

Here's how he got his Silver Star near St. Suzanne, France, in August 1944:

"The tank which Technician Fourth Grade Sparks was driving was set ablaze by a hostile bazooka round." He put out the fire, removed a wounded comrade from the smoking turret, carried him through "intense machine gun fire" 500 yards to an aid station.

He repeated the dangerous drill and saved another wounded crew member. Then he went back again and found the hostile machine gun position so the infantry could take it out. The man, drafted at age 23 in Modesto, won the nation's third-highest award for valor with his "gallantry."

Like most vets who've seen contact with the enemy, Sparks doesn't bring it up in conversation. Never has, says Helen. "When we were first married, I don't recall him talking about it much," she says. "Whether he wanted to keep it to himself or not wanting to bother me, I don't know."

"You saw so much you didn't want to say anything about," he says as soon as his wife is finished speaking. They do that a lot -- not finish each other's sentences exactly, but respond immediately to what the other says.

They pay attention to each other.

The tank crew member prefers to talk about the time he and his buddies, just before Christmas, learned they weren't going to be supplied with the usual holiday fare. So they grabbed their rifles and walked to the nearest town. They came back with seven chickens, four geese, one turkey and a 5-gallon baked-enamel jerry can full of liberated cognac. It was strictly for medicinal purposes, he insists: "From then on, we were sick."

The Sparkses have attended numerous military reunions over the decades, each year with fewer men. At first it was just his old B Company. Then the battalion. Then the 90th Infantry Division. "This is the last year," he says. "Every year was special."

For all the awards and reunions and parades, Sparks views war -- and his war -- through the eyes of a man who lived through a long, hard one. "I didn't want to go," he says about being drafted right after Pearl Harbor. "I was 23 and single. If they'd given me a choice, I'd never have gone. But I knew everybody who was able-bodied had to go."

Of the four major wars America has fought since then -- Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and now in Iraq/Afghanistan, the old vet says: "I think some of them were uncalled for, not for the right purpose. I don't think this fella in there now (President Bush) found what he thought would be there."

Helen nods. Her three brothers came home safe from World War II (as did Lloyd's three brothers), but she's also against the war in Iraq: "Nowadays, it's up to the boys themselves if they want to go to the service. If they want to serve their country, OK."

Shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder -- the three terms for psychological wounds across generations of warriors. "I don't think I was a whole lot different," he says. "I dreamed about it for quite some time. I had a few fits at night -- but not constantly or too much. I had a job."

Helen looks kindly from her chair near the organ in their living room. When they rent a war movie to watch, "he dreams about it."

"I saw a lot of devastation," he allows. "You get hit five times [his tanks were shot out from under him] and live through it."

After his discharge in October 1945, Lloyd returned to the Modesto wholesaler where he'd been working before the war. He still had a job. Helen was working in the office. "I met her in a wholesale house, and I wouldn't pay retail," he laughs. "That was the luckiest day of your life," she laughs back.

They moved to Merced in 1962 where they both worked for what later became Caltrans. Helen finished first among those taking the stenography test for the transportation agency. He retired in 1980, and according to a published account by Don Thomas, he "later became deeply involved in helping to raise part of the funds needed to get a new Merced Senior Center built."

How have they remained so sharp and fit? "Just keep going," Helen suggests. Lloyd takes one blood pressure pill a day, and his BP was 127/62 earlier this week. They walk together every day, and he weighs the same as he did in high school back in Abilene. His handshake feels like a vise. "They just gave me five more years on my driver's license," he says.

The 62-year newlyweds are riding a bus the next day to Chukchansi casino. "Between us, we won $500 at another one," Lloyd whispers. "We're going to give it back to the Indians," Helen adds.

Whether they win or lose, we know one thing to be true:

They are lucky.

Reach Executive Editor Mike Tharp at (209) 385-2427 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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