As we approach another Veteran’s day, I remember my Grandfather Herbert Sharpless Spencer and what he fought for; which was not much.
But he was tough AF.
Herbert was the 23rd of 24 kids born to my namesake, Miles Sharpless Spencer. At the age of four, he lost both parents (Miles was 76 by then; we’re not sure what happened to Callie) and was homeless with his twin brother Byrd. So he went to work in his uncle’s Robert’s coal mine just a few miles down the dirt road in Barkeyville, PA.
At four. In a coal mine.
By his early teens, he could shoot a .22 caliber rifle well enough to hit squirrels. Squirrel being mostly what was for dinner. Shot in the head so as not to ruin the meat. For a stew. Squirrel stew. Imagine how long that has to cook to be edible. It was the original Whole Foods.
So when war broke out in Europe, and the Kaiser was declared the devil, he signed up to sniper Germans on the frontlines for the American Expeditionary Forces. Must have seemed better than being buried in a strip mine for 14 hours a day. I saw where he fought, and it was still eerie. They were to lose 15% of their buddies in two years: 320,000 casualties: 53,402 battle deaths, 63,114 noncombat deaths and 204,000 wounded. Two million deaths in all and the Allies had the first big victory of the century. My grandfather contributed his right leg to the cause, but he lived thanks to the Hospital in St. Mihiel and a nurse in Fort Lee named Sidonia Zahner (she was Swiss, but Grandpa called her a ‘kraut when he was mad).
All this was quickly given away to politics at a hunting lodge called Versailles.
What had been billed as the war to end all wars had, in effect, set the stage for all the wars to follow. France had lost the most men (many were shot in the backs while running away) so they laid claim to the most outrageous of spoils. America was a diplomatic schoolboy at the table, not asking enough for the leverage they had earned. Britain was more like France. And so, the Paris Peace Conference set up a ridiculously contrived future, where Germans were supposed to be stripped and humbled, Arabs were supposed to have their capital in Damascus, Jews were supposed to have their homeland in Palestine, and France and Britain were supposed to be benevolent fathers of all. How’d that all work out?
In this case, father knows best may not apply.
My Grandfather could have easily claimed his and his colleagues’ blood was wasted by the diplomats, which it was, but he never did. He considered it part of life, a good trade up from coal mining, a European sojourn with certain dangers (live rounds, mustard gas). It was also the way he got to meet my Grandmother and have ten offspring including my Dad Arthur.
He used to call me in and tell me stories when he lived with us. Many ended like this: kid, life is like a game of cards. You get your hand dealt each day, and you play it your best. Don’t bitch at the dealer, play the cards in your hand. You’ll have new cards tomorrow.
Such is life, according to a brave man named Herbert.