I don't call too many men "sir." Not because I don't want to, but because I rarely have to. Today, though, even though I didn't have to call someone "sir," I did. To do it, I made two trips. One on my bike, the other back through a little more than half a century in time.
My journey began with an ending, in late May, in 1958. My time as a student at Clover Avenue Elementary School, in West Los Angeles, was coming to an end, in the 5th grade. During the summer, my family would move ten miles north, and I would attend a new school.
My teacher that semester, as he had also been when I was in the 3rd grade, was Mr. Sparti. A young teacher, and the only male teacher, with thick dark hair atop his Italian-American face, he had the ability to form a strong bond with his students, both boys and girls. He was, for many of us, our favorite teacher.
Mr. Sparti used to tell us about his adventures in the Philippines during World War Two, and would pull out his violin and play it for us during the music period.
In addition to moving, there were all those kids who were my neighbors and friends to whom I had to say goodbye. Joel Axelrod, Tim Johnson, Paul Reinhour, Billy Boggs, Steve Polivka. I would miss them all.
I lost track of Mr. Sparti. Over the long years, I wondered what had happened to him. With the advent of the Internet, I tried to find him. Four years ago, the school held a 50th anniversary celebration. I couldn't attend, but I did donate some of my photographs.
In my photo album, I have some pictures made at Clover Avenue dating to 1955, when I was in the 2nd grade. It was the year the school opened. And I had a couple of photographs of Mr. Sparti. When I went on line to view pictures of the anniversary party, there was Mr. Sparti. I contacted the school in hopes of making contact with my teacher, but no one seemed to know where he could be found. Over the next couple of years there were promises to help me find him, but nothing happened.
Flash forward to late September, 2009. A parent with kids at the school called me. She asked if some of the old school photos I'd posted online could go on the school's website. I gave my permission, but also asked her to try to find Mr. Sparti for me. And she did. She sent me an address where she thought he might be, if he was still alive. She had no phone number.
This Friday afternoon, after completing some work, I climbed onto my road bike and headed west, riding almost to the Pacific Ocean, to find Mr. Sparti. I could and perhaps should have written him first, but I decided to just knock on the door and see who, if anyone, answered. If no one was home, or if Mr. Sparti was no longer above ground, I would have still had a pleasant ride.
This was a beautiful autumn day. The temperature was probably close to 80 degrees. I rode briskly through quiet residential neighborhoods and along busy boulevards. Part of the ride took me through the Veterans Administration, which includes a fair amount of park-like open space. A cool breeze pushed against me as I neared my goal.
After twelve miles, I slowed to a halt, climbed off my bike, and, with my helmet still on my head, I rang the bell on the door of a lovely, tree-shaded home. Then I knocked. No one answered, so I turned back toward my bike, which I'd laid on the grass just inside the fence that encircled the house. I'd taken a couple of steps when I heard someone say, "Can I help you?"
"Are you by chance Mr. Sparti, who taught at Clover Avenue Elementary School?" I asked. It was indeed Mr. Sparti, peering at me out of the little open window in the front door. Soon enough, 50 years melted away, as a surprised Mr. Sparti brought me back into his life, and I brought him into mine.
Mr. Sparti's mind in his early 80s is sharp, and he in excellent physical condition. Over the next 30 minutes we shared some memories as Mr. Sparti showed me around his home. He's been in the same house with his wife for 41 years. He took me outside and into his studio, too, where we viewed a collection of his paintings.
"Perhaps I should have been a painter," he mused.
"You are one now," I answered.
Later, he told me he rarely answers the door. "I don't want to deal with Jehovah's Witnesses or salespeople," he explained. "But when I saw you with your helmet, I had to know who you were."
He was surprised I had traveled so many miles by bike to find him. In my mind, it made my discovery that much sweeter. "When you reach your 80s," Mr. Sparti warned me, "you slow down quite a bit." Apparently I have a few good years left.
At some point, I pulled out my iPhone, showed Mr. Sparti a few of the Clover Ave. school pictures I have online, and made a photograph of him. "That's an amazing device," Mr. Spart averred. "I'm computer illiterate, and I intend to stay that way."
I wanted to know about Mr. Sparti's life, both before and after I knew him. He sketched the outlines of his life for me. "I was a child of the depression," he said. His parents moved his family across the country. "My mom really held the family together," Mr. Sparti related. After the war, he attended UCLA, where a chance conversation with a friend led him into teaching.
It was there he met his wife, another teacher. And because husband-wife teams were forbidden to teach at the same school - no longer the rule - he left the Clover Avenue school, eventually serving for a few decades as an assistant vice-principal.
In his studio, he pulled out a ten-year old newspaper clipping with a story about the students in his first class, in 1999, throwing a reunion party for their beloved teacher. "I'm still in contact with some of them," Mr. Sparti said. I'm not surprised. I'm only sorry that I didn't find Mr. Sparti sooner. There was, for me, something cathartic in sketching out the way my own life turned to someone who had a hand in helping me set my course.
We parted, with a promise from me to take Mr. and Mrs. Sparti to dinner, perhaps at my home, or anywhere they would like to dine out. It was time to ride the dozen miles back to my home, to ride fifty years into the future on my bike, my time machine.
As I mounted my bike, I called out to my teacher, "Goodbye, sir."