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Published July 25. 2014 04:00PM

A Christmas gift given to me when I was in the second grade, "Maverick" was one of the first hardcover books I ever owned.

Our television channel choices back then were limited to the Big Three Networks, so everyone knew Maverick as the popular TV western hero.

In true comic book style, the cover of the book had splashy colors to catch the eye of an impressionable kid hungering for role models. The scene showed a confident James Garner, six shooter at his hip, confidently striding to confront some tough outlaws in the Wild West.

For the baby boomer generation of the late 1950s, good guy actors like Garner or professional ballplayers were our larger-than-life heroes.

After reading the accounts of Garner's life after his death six days ago at the age of 86, I was impressed by the stability he managed to maintain despite a life of hardship growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl and Depression years.

Much of Garner's steadfast nature came from his mother, who was half Cherokee, but she died when he was only 4. His father soon abandoned the family, leaving Jim and his two bothers in the care of relatives. After the father remarried a few years later, the home life became even more traumatic due to a stepmother who was physically and verbally abusive to her stepsons.

Garner dropped out of school at age 16 and after lying about his age, joined the Merchant Marines and saw action in the last year of World War II. That early military gave Garner the order and stability that had been missing in his life. In 1950, Garner became the first Oklahoman drafted into the Army during the Korean War.

Battlefield injuries earned him two Purple Hearts. Three decades after he was shot in the backside while diving headfirst into a foxhole, Garner received his battlefield Purple Heart. The Army presented him with the medal after hearing him tell in a TV interview how he received the wound.

As an actor, Garner's military experiences helped him perfect his roles. In the 1958 movie, Darby's Rangers," he played a starring role as the leader of the 1st Ranger Battalion during World War II. He played alongside Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape," a 1963 American film about an escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German POW camp.

Despite having such a public career, Garner managed to avoid the glare of Hollywood lights. Having been married to the same woman for 58 years, he once told an interviewer he considered himself no one special, just a common man with common thoughts.

"There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten," he said, "but in one respect I have succeeded as gloriously as anyone who has ever lived. I've loved another with all my heart and soul and for me that has always been enough."

When asked if he had fond memories of his real-life experiences in the military, he said he understands how one could have good memories reminiscing with old buddies. But he described his wartime service in Korea as a "cold and hard" time in his life.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said.

We feel we were the lucky ones to have known him, even if it was in the pages of a western novel or through the lens of a movie camera.

By Jim Zbick

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