Sports venues provide an excellent place to observe and honor heroes. Not athletes. Real heroes.
People like Altoona's own Kenneth McCracken Sr., 87, who served his country during World War II and now serves as the epitome of the sacrifices our nation's military men and women have made for 235 years.
"Back when we were flying out of England, bombing Germany, we never expected to live long enough to ever come home," McCracken, a tail gunner in the Air Force, said Monday night after being honored prior to the Curve's Fourth of July game at Blair County Ballpark.
Air Force veteran Kenneth McCracken Sr., shown with his granddaughter, Christine Lestochi, was honored prior to Monday night's Curve game.
McCracken almost didn't make it home from the war. Shot down over the Baltic Sea on May 29, 1944, he was taken prisoner by the German Army and endured harrowing experiences, such as:
"We were taken out and put in front of the firing squad. We thought surely they were going to shoot us. They put us up against a wall with a firing squad group and an officer with his Luger. We thought that was it.
"It started to rain, and it just poured all afternoon. They just let us stand out there in the rain all afternoon, and then they put us back in the cell. We thought for sure we were dead."
McCracken's flight crew had been returning from a mission when the plane passed near Peenemunde, Germany.
"It was a secret V-2 rocket base, but of course, we didn't know that," he said.
McCracken doesn't miss a beat when describing the details, nor has he forgotten why he survived the attack. He gives all the credit to the pilot, Rufus Stephens of Georgia, saying, "He really saved us" by controlling the plane long enough for six people to escape by parachute. Stephens, however, perished when the plane crashed.
McCracken, a staff sergeant, found himself floating in the Baltic Sea for about an hour and noted he "barely" survived that ordeal. A German patrol boat found the Americans, and McCracken, barely conscious and near hypothermia, remembers hoping it was a Swedish vessel.
"In perfect English, the German officer said, 'Are you armed?' I thought I was dreaming," McCracken said. "I said, 'No.'"
He was taken aboard and treated well on the boat, but he and the other prisoners also were warned things would be very different when they reached land and were turned over to the German SS.
"They put us in solitary confinement and gave us bread and water for weeks," he said. "Every day they took us out and interrogated us and roughed us up a bit. They never really hit us a lot, but they roughed us up."
McCracken was sent to a POW camp in Poland from June of 1944 until February of 1945, at which time the Germans told about 300 prisoners they would have to march for three days to a new location.
The march wound up lasting three months, and about 100 of the POWs died.
"They just were keeping us away from the allied forces," McCracken said of the march to nowhere.
"We had been on the road for three months, and we were skin and bone. We didn't have any uniforms. We were covered with body lice, had all kind of diseases, we amputated fingers and toes from frostbite. We were just in terrible shape."
But on the morning of May 2, 1945, a group of POWs didn't see any guards and fled a barn where they were being held captive. They made their way to a road and saw a jeep approaching with a star on the side, representing allied forces.
"They swung their guns on us and said, 'Get off the road you damn thugs,'" McCracken said. "We said, 'We're Americans. Where the hell did you come from?'"
Four Canadian soldiers in that jeep liberated the POWs and probably saved McCracken's life.
They also enabled him to have a healthy and happy life that eventually included a wife, two children and a granddaughter.
"He went through a lot in his lifetime at a young age," McCracken's son, Ken Jr., said. "He spent his 21st birthday in a prisoner of war camp. Most of us are having our first beer at that time, and he spent it in a German POW camp."
McCracken was discharged from the Air Force in November of 1945 and married his wife, Joyce, in 1949. The Lewistown native earned a degree in engineering and, after working in various places, moved to Altoona in 1966. He worked as a supervisor of industrial engineering at F.L. Smithe Machine Co. in Duncansville until retiring in 1990.
It took some coaxing for the younger McCracken to convince his father to agree to make an appearance at Monday's Curve game. The family has endured heartache for two months since the passing of McCracken's beloved wife of 61 years.
"Mom passed away on May 10, and we thought this would help the healing process," Ken Jr. said of the ballpark outing. "It's been tough on all of us, but this was a great thing for him. He might not admit it, but he enjoyed himself immensely tonight."
Curve fans also enjoyed seeing McCracken and expressing their gratitude for his service. The crowd of nearly 8,000 gave him a lengthy ovation when he took the mound for a ceremonial first pitch and heard his touching war story from PA announcer Rich DeLeo.
"I didn't expect anything like that," McCracken said of the great, patriotic reception.
He had warmed up his pitching arm earlier in the day with his son and delivered a strike, drawing more cheers.
"I haven't thrown balls very often over the years," McCracken said, "but I thought I did all right for 87."
The whole scene made for one of the most touching moments in years at Blair County Ballpark.
"It means a lot to our family," McCracken's son said of the crowd's reaction. "I'm proud of my father."
We all are, sir.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.