Sparks was a radio operator on Great Lakes freighters in the 1930’s. He had been a radio operator and instructor in the Army, but was medically discharged in 1931, six years after he joined. The diagnosis was chronic ulcers, treated by adhering to a bland diet. He spent time in an army hospital bed, and developed special skills such as ear wiggling and eyebrow lifting, enormously useful to entertain his nieces and later his children.
The skinny young man worked his way north from Georgia to his sister’s home in Ohio. He didn’t eat much that year, he claimed, but it was later noted he did accumulate a trunk full of tools. His plan was to end up in Cleveland and find a job at a radio station. He did go to Cleveland, but he didn’t find a job at a radio station.
Sparks did get a job as a Great Lakes freighter radio operator. He stayed with the freighters on and off for the next nine years. Mostly on, except the year he spent at TriState College in Angola, Indiana. He had saved enough to spend a year at college and he got his money’s worth, completing two years courses in the year he spent there.
Out on the Great Lakes, Sparks’ freighter picked up wheat in Minnesota and generally took it to Chicago, through the great Soo Locks. Fall and winter crossings of Lake Superior were the most treacherous. Sparks walked ice covered decks and wrestled with ice covered hatch covers. Once he saw waves breaking totally over an island at the height of a winter storm.
Sparks office was the radio shack, a “shack” added to the superstructure of a ship to house the radio equipment. Sparks was the Radio Officer; he monitored ship to shore radio traffic to find a frequency he could use to send messages to shore, where they were relayed by phone to the shipping company. Sparks was the main figure in keeping the Captain of the ship in touch with land. If Sparks could not find a frequency or establish a connection, the Captain was on his own.
A ship could not sail without a Radio Officer. When Sparks was ashore he made it a point to be back aboard in good time. Sparks knew eccentric Radio Officers on other ships. Perhaps too many years of static, hissing and straining to hear the Morse code taps made them especial curmudgeons. One Radio Officer he knew needed wheedled, cajoled and even bribed to go back on ship, which could not sail without him. A moment of power.
Sparks saw one disastrous elevator explosion in his years on the Great Lakes. The ship was docked in Chicago, and it was a day like any other when something set off the explosion. The fire and sparks went up like the Fourth of July and went on for several days. Sparks didn’t know if some stray spark ignited the wheat dust, but he hoped it wasn’t “some damn fool who disobeyed all regulations and lit a cigarette.” Sparks ended the story there; he didn’t tell his audience how the affair ended.
Sparks was a loner, on the ships. He spent his day in the radio shack, monitoring, keeping logs, sending messages. He went down to the mess for coffee fairly often, and on a slow summer day might join seamen at the rail and watch some gull baiting. Sailors put a chunk of bacon on a line and tossed it out for gulls to squabble over. When one swallowed it, the bacon was reeled back up, to be tossed again.
Sparks was making his way down the deck one evening in a bad storm. He was holding the guide cable when it snapped and coiled out of his hand. The loose cable coiled about his ankle, simultaneously snapping the bone and hurling him overboard. He was rescued, of course, and put ashore as soon as practicable.
Sparks made his way back to Cleveland and recovered at the home of friends. The same who stood for him when he married two years later. Sometimes Sparks used a spoon on our dining room table to tell us things in Morse code.
Sparks in 1942, when he married Mom