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11TH November 2012

Family and Friends - Legends and tales

On Vet’s Day: Is it heroism when you save yourself? Is poor geography a crime?


This is a popular post from my prior blog, revived for Miles to Go…I originally called it Herbert Sharpless Spencer and the 1,400 mile crawl across France. It’s true testament to the family traditions of gritty determination, hyperbolic story-telling, and wandering around aimlessly in the French countryside.

Legends die hard in the Spencer family, especially when they are based oceans away and told by grandparents that are beyond questioning. A trip through the French countryside with my father clarified a lot, and embarrassed no-one.

don't mess with my legends...Herbert Sharpless Spencer grew up in a coal mine in central Pennsylvania, as this was all that was left by our forebears. By the time he was of an age he could lie about his age, he volunteered for what appeared to be a much cushier job: rifleman in the US Army’s Big Red One commanded by General Pershing. His proficiency hitting squirrels (for dinner!) at 50 yards with a .22 rifle qualified him for the job, no doubt. Compared to the strip mine, it must have seemed like a nice trade. Obviously never out of the county- let alone the country- Herbert arrived in St. Malo, France in 1918 and was promptly sent to the Argonne Forest to an area called St. Mihiel, where the Germans had been terrifying the French by their proximity to Paris. (Actually, :30 by car for us, but we were flying.) It was warfare at its worst, stagnant lines of barbed wire and trench lasting for tens if not scores of miles uninterrupted.

So Herbert is in France for not longer than a week, stationed in St. Mihiel for not much longer than a few days. He hears the all clear, rises out of the trench, and promptly takes four bullets in the legs, losing one completely and seriously maiming the other. He is given up for dead. But, of course, he isn’t. By his telling, despite what must have been excruciating pain, he bound his (last) leg with his shirt, fashioned two crutches out of fence posts and started walking as best he could.

He finds a stream, drinks profusely from the collapsible army issue cup (now a Spencer talisman) and somehow finds the will and strength to save himself. Powerful force, that self-preservation. Downstream, he happened upon a farm house, and mustered the nerve to knock on the door. It opened, and he came to a tough realization: he spoke no French. True to form, the woman spoke no English, and shut him out. I’ve been treated rudely and felt out of place in some far away places in my life, but nothing like that. And no, the French aren’t usually that bad. But Herbert kept walking to a monastery he called St. Michel and somehow pulled through.

I had been to St. Michel a few times, on the Normandy coast a few hours drive outside Paris. I had shared those experiences with my Dad, and was able to bring him there recently with my publicist Greg and his Dad Paul. The place is glorious, as I imagine has been for 1,000 years. It’s also too far for a recently maimed rifleman to crawl to if he starts from the Argonne forest, even if he did start in 1918. My dad came to this conclusion on his own. “Perhaps there’s another St. Michel”, I suggested. this musta been the place

We spent the next week looking, with stops at the beaches of Normandy and the streets of Paris, just the four of us finding precious experiences together and generally enjoying ourselves immensely. (view short film). The culmination was our journey was the Argonne Forest and a field outside a town called St. Mihiel where 86 years prior my grandfather was shown no great respect by a German machine gunner. After a picnic (Dad is now a pate aficionado) on the banks of the Meuse where Herbert may well have dipped for drink we made our way into town to inquire about. It was a sleepy place, not to much changed from back in the day, I imagine. We were directed toward the old town, where amongst classic French row houses and walled gardens, we discover a monastery. Apparently, it was the Army hospital during the war, and was adjacent to a wonderful church. The name, of course: St. Michel.

Herbert Spencer had crawled across town, not across France. But his wounds were real, as was his valor. I was moved to see his son and my father piece it all together. It was magic.

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