Alongside 29 other men, Robert Sparcie boarded a train in June 1951 in the midst of the Korean War. The train departed from the Ambridge Railroad Station and set off for Ft. Meade, Maryland, where the men would be sworn in as soldiers in the United States Army. Like Sparcie, the other men aboard were Ambridge natives. As former classmates and acquaintances, they were familiar to one another, and many had never left their small Beaver County community. Sparcie collected his uniform in Maryland, then headed to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky for basic training.
His time in Kentucky was intense and decidedly unfamilar. Sparcie endured obstacle courses where live ammunition whizzed over his head. He met soldiers who could not read or write, and who often went barefoot because they owned no shoes. It was then that Sparcie realized “everyone is not the same.” With this realization and an open mind, he prepared to travel outside of the United States for the first time.
“You don’t know anyone from a cake of soap,” Sparcie says as he describes his arrival to Camp Fuji in Japan. Certainly, there were language barriers, cultural differences and homesickness to overcome. But through his warm heart and willingness to embrace the unknown, Sparcie bonded with fellow soldiers from New Jersey and Alabama, and he formed a close friendship with platoon-mate George from Michigan. Sparcie shared his time and living quarters with men of Polish, Italian and Serbian descent, and they spent downtime learning each other’s languages and traditions.
Sparcie quickly learned that music was a common interest. “Music was universal,” he explains. His chief commander realized the importance of uniting his troops and lifting their spirits, so he purchased a record player. Sparcie’s father shipped records to Japan: Serbian music, hymnals, symphonies, Italian arias. The men gathered around the record player and shared the music and the stories that made each of them unique, yet so similar. Thousands of miles from home, these soldiers celebrated their differences and came together as comrades, servicemen and Americans.
Sparcie’s time in the military ended just prior to Memorial Day 1953, but his patriotism and desire to embrace differences hold true today. He notes that “it’s easy to be kind and a good neighbor.” With his collection of USA t-shirts proudly displayed to the world, he takes time each day to salute the flag and greet passersby with a warm “hello.” Though the greeting is simple, it is the same small gesture that inspired friendships, bravery and greatness so many decades ago.