Tag Archives: navy

On This Veterans Day

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Dad (21 years old)

In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.

I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.

My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.

Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.

Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.

Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.

Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.

Superhero

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My attachment to the Super Bowl began forty years ago in the same year that I declared my love for the Dallas Cowboys. I was seven, an ideal age for declaring eternal love, and my newfound infatuation was rewarded with a dominant Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos.

Super Bowl XII was played in New Orleans, only a few hundred miles from my house but in a magical alternate universe as far as I could tell. It was the first “primetime” Super Bowl, so since my dad did not go to church with us he kept a close eye on the game until I made it home from church for the second half.

Those awesome late 1970s names take me back. Golden Richards. Too Tall Jones. Hollywood Henderson. Jethro Pugh. Billie Joe DuPree. Tony Dorsett. Haven Moses. Otis Armstrong. Riley Odoms. Lyle Alzado. But my hero, hands down, was Roger Staubach. Roger the Dodger.

It is clear in retrospect how deeply I was influenced by my environment. As a white American church-going boy, of course my hero was Roger Staubach. Clean cut. Patriotic. Captain America. He was a Navy man, just like my dad.  And a quarterback, just like my dad.  #12 was my first sports hero.

Just before the following Christmas, eight-year-old me had the idea to write my hero a letter. With a new knowledge of cursive handwriting, which was easily my worst subject in school, I labored over the perfect letter to express to “Mr.  Staubach” the depths of my love for him—and to request an autographed picture. We somehow tracked down the address to the Dallas Cowboys, so my dad wrote a check for three dollars addressed to Roger Staubach and mailed it and my letter off to the great unknown.

Never in my life will a piece of mail replicate the joy in my heart on the day the manila envelope with the royal blue Dallas Cowboys sticker arrived. I floated by day and slept with the envelope at night and on show-and-tell day became the most popular kid in the third grade. We learned that an 8×10 photograph cost one dollar that year, so I received an autographed picture inscribed, “To Al Sturgeon, Merry Christmas, Roger Staubach,” AND an 8×10 team photo of the 1978 Dallas Cowboys. (We concluded that the other dollar must have been used for shipping and handling.)  This piece of mail was instantly my greatest material possession.  I would like to know how many hours I spent memorizing the names of the players in the team photo.  I would like to know because I still know almost every one forty years later.

Some will remember this, but in the old world of checking accounts all personal checks were returned by mail each month so that you could properly balance your checkbook.  My parents soon realized that Roger Staubach had endorsed my dad’s three-dollar check, so when it arrived at our house I had yet another autograph from my hero!  For free!

I have followed the forty Super Bowls that have occurred since Super Bowl XII.  A sportswriter ranked Super Bowl XII as the worst game of the first fifty.  You will never convince me.  In all honesty, I had zero interest in the Eagles-Patriots matchup yesterday.  I was not allowed to cheerfully support the Eagles as a Cowboys fan, and although I used to root for the Pats in honor of my dear friend, Scott, their recent dominance of the game removed any desire to support them either.  But I followed along because of the memories this annual American tradition brings.  Memories of a little boy and heroes, a dad and a check, and a letter that seemed to appear from heaven.

It’s funny, but I saved that canceled check and surprise autograph for many years, and it was long after my dad died that it dawned on me that it contained another surprise autograph: My dad’s.  Right there on the front.

My sweet wife framed that check for me in a special frame where you can see the signatures on both sides of the check.  I always display it where you can see my dad’s autograph.  It turns out that he was my first and greatest hero all along.