Danville Express

Cover Story - August 24, 2007

Running man

Sparky George pursues his daily runs to help families of soldiers who gave their all

by Jordan M. Doronila

Trailer Trash. His mother went one way, his father went another - but they both abandoned "Sparky" George Cave and his siblings in a trailer 44 miles north of Danville some 50-plus years ago.

In spite of his hard childhood, Sparky, 58, now a Danville resident, managed to rise above the garbage through sweat, grit and a ferocious determination. And he continues to sweat, running through town every day, shirtless with his hairy chest bulging outward and his carved biceps swinging, while carrying a five-pound weight with an American flag that covers his buttocks.

"The American flag is for my brothers and sisters who are protecting my ass," he said.

His daily runs are for families of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are part of Hats Off America, which is Sparky's nonprofit foundation dedicated to raising money and awareness for these families. He believes they may feel alienated.

"I know what it feels like to be disenfranchised. These families didn't sign up. Americans should be taking care of Americans," Sparky said. "We could do more jointly."

"They pay the ultimate price," he added, about the soldiers. "They will not be forgotten."

Sparky's nonprofit group will host its eighth Hats Off America Red T-Shirt 10K Run and 5K Walk, rain or shine, on Saturday, Sept. 8, at Sycamore Valley Park on Camino Tassajara beginning at 10 a.m. The run is one of several fundraisers Hats Off conducts during the year. Casino nights, blood drives, comedy nights and car shows are other events held by his group. They will help provide financial support to families of soldiers who died.

The September event will have runners and walkers heading out in opposite directions on Camino Tassajara but ending back at the starting point. There will be a barbeque at the conclusion.

Hats Off has raised $15,000. The money goes into annuities, and families will be contacted when enough dollars have been made to contribute to them.

"It is a far cry from what we need," Sparky said. "It's stepping stones. One thing at a time,"

Diane Layfield, mother of Travis Layfield, who was killed in action on April 6, 2004, will be present at the September run, and San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson will start it off, Sparky said. He noted he has asked several politicians in Northern California to run. A representative from Contra Costa County Supervisor District 3 Mary N. Piepho's office will also participate.

Entry fee is $35 per person. All runners and volunteers will receive a red T-shirt and a barbecue lunch after the run. There is no entry fee for volunteers.

Sparky said his parents abandoned him and his brother and sister when they were little in a trailer in Vacaville. After police found them in three days, Sparky and his siblings went to foster parents and ended up living in Oakland.

Indeed, he did. He lived during the race riots in the 1960s when he attended Fremont High School. He recalled a blonde girl being thrown out of a building and the principal being hit by a brick. He also remembered police cars getting overturned. He had to fight his way to get into school.

"I fought," he said. "I was lucky. I wouldn't back down."

Upon graduating high school, he went to Laney College in Oakland. But he soon enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps when his draft notice arrived during the Vietnam War.

"I wasn't going to run away," he said. "It was my duty to serve my country."

He enlisted in 1970 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego and then in Japan. When he returned, he went back to college to get his associate's degree in auto shop and business. Soon he started his own auto business. He married and had two daughters, but then he and his wife divorced.

He got the name "Sparky" because two girls who he dated - separately - said his eyes sparked when he got excited.

He had an auto shop in Castro Valley while being a single dad.

"I was called a full-time single mommy," he said, recalling how he used to check his daughters' homework, fix them dinner and cook them breakfast. "It had to be done."

"It was the hardest thing when they left," he added.

When he married for the third time, he moved to Italy with his wife. But he felt the U.S. was his home and decided to move back.

"This was nice," Sparky said, about his move to Italy. "But I'm going home."

He sold his Hayward home and bought a home in Danville less than 15 years ago at an affordable price.

"Lucky me," he said.

He said he's been married four times and is open to being married again. "I'm a romanticist," he said.

Now, he owns and operates Classic Auto Restoration and Repairs in San Ramon. However, he is most widely known in the community as the almost-naked man who runs with just an American flag covering his rear. He is known as the Bear Flag Runner, because of the silver bear necklace he wears given to him by a shaman in Arizona, and due to his running "bare" regardless of weather.

In honor of service personnel being deployed in Iraq, he has been running six miles a night, five days a week with a five-pound weight, regardless of weather, since Sept. 15, 2002.

"People are honking when they see me," Sparky said.

He appreciates the encouragement.

"Honk loud and proud. Let me know that I'm not running alone."

Running for a cause

Hats Off America will host its eighth Hats Off America Red T-Shirt 10K Run and 5K Walk, rain or shine, at 10 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 8, at Sycamore Valley Park on Camino Tassajara.

Other fundraising events held each year include Casino Night, the Muscle Car, Hot Rod & Art Fair; and Red T-Shirt 10KRun/5K Walks in November, February and June.

Contact Sparky George at 855-1950 or e-mail thebearflagrunner@yahoo.com The site www.hatsoffamerica.us includes links to other organizations that support our troops. Hats Off America is a nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization.


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