Grandpa, I Never Knew You
I have a long list of historical figures that I would like to have met: Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Kennedy, Cleopatra, and Albert Einstein, to name a few. But topping my list is someone who is not so historical: I would like to have known my Grandfather. He died well before I came along. The only one of his grandchildren he ever met was my brother Sherm, and he was only four when Grandpa died in 1945.
My mom told me he lived a short, hard life, dying of pneumonia at the age of 47. The pictures I have taken shortly before his death seem to be of a man who is in his late sixties. He looks careworn, with deeply etched lines in his forehead and an aura of sadness even in his posture.
According to my mom, he was an easy man to love, except when he drank. When he was drinking, he would get ugly and violent and profane. I was raised to keep my language clean. Still, it always puzzled me that even as an adult when in a heated conversation with my Mom, and "doggonit" was just not going to do it, I'd curse and she would literally end the conversation. Her intense objection to profanity seemed kind of ridiculous to me. Recently, she told me that the only time her father ever swore was when he drank. When the language turned profane, something bad was going to happen, and it usually did. One Christmas in the depth of the Great Depression, my grandfather came home drunk and shot all the Christmas ornaments off the tree -- and there weren’t very many of them to begin with.
But when he was sober, he called her “Doe,” short for Dorothy and listened to classical music on the radio because he said it gave him peace. (Author's note: I never swear around my Mom anymore, never.)
Edward John Spencer was born in Ohio in January of 1898. As a young man, he made his way to tiny Grand Marais, Michigan on Lake Superior where he served in the Coast Guard. There, he met Jenni, who had emigrated with her family by boat from Finland in 1902. Passing into the United States via Ellis Island, Jenni’s last name had been changed from Turmela to Hermanson. Ed changed it to Spencer when they married in 1918.
They don’t call the stretch of coastline between White Fish Bay’s Point Iroquois to Grand Marais, Michigan the “Shipwreck Coast” for nothing. There are over 300 documented wreck sites in those 60 or so miles, including the famous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. How many undocumented wrecks occurred before people started keeping track of those things, nobody knows.
A Coast Guard Life Saving Station in Grand Marais had been authorized by Congress and built in 1882. Grandpa was a Coast Guard Lifesaver when on November 14, 1919 the ore carrier H.B. Runnels beached itself on the rocks on the east side of Grand Marais Harbor. The Runnels was attempting to make safe harbor during a wicked Nor’easter, but couldn’t. It was quickly being beaten apart by the wind and waves as the Nor’easter turned into a full-blown blizzard. There is nothing colder than Lake Superior in November, but the lifesavers, including my grandfather, didn’t hesitate. A lifeline was successfully shot out to the Runnels and the lifesavers made four trips to the ship, pulling themselves hand-over-hand along the lifeline. Two of them were washed over but saved from the frigid lake by the others. All seventeen crewmen on the Runnels were removed safely to shore before Lake Superior swallowed up what little was left of the H.B. Runnels .
On June 3, 1920, my Grandfather was one of nine Coast Guard Lifesavers to receive a gold lifesaving medal. My mom was born the following October. As a child she remembers holding the medal in her hand on special occasions. She also remembers her father holding it in his hand before selling it to a neighbor in order to feed his growing family. Most likely that medal was melted down during World War II. My Mom is the last living member of her family. I would give anything to be able to return that medal to her if it was out there somewhere.
They were always poor, but after the Wall Street crash of 1929, they were desperately poor. My mom remembers being sick with the flu and having only a rug to keep her warm. Grandpa did what he could to keep his family fed, but there were few jobs in tiny Grand Marais, Michigan. One of his jobs was as a postal deliveryman. His route was 30 miles long. He ran the mail from Grand Marais to Seney, Michigan. In the days of rough roads and unreliable automobiles, this was tough enough in the temperate months of spring, summer and early autumn. But winter was a real challenge. That area of the Upper Peninsula gets on average around 150 inches of snow each winter. His solution: build a better mousetrap. He eventually built two snowmobile prototypes. One of them had an airplane engine as its motor. When he crashed that one into a tree, he built another using a steam-based engine. (If only he had patented them, I could be living in Maui right now.)
In 1934, Grandpa operated a gas station which had the added benefit of housing for his family right above the grocery store. Late one March night, there was a knock on the door. When he answered, a man asked if he would be willing to fill his gas tank as it was nearly empty and he was in a hurry. Grandpa obliged the gentleman by filling his Ford Model A with gas and got a nice tip for his trouble. Four months later, John Dillinger was ambushed and killed in Chicago by the FBI. It had been Dillinger’s car that my grandfather had gassed up that night, while he was on his last flight from the law and J. Edgar Hoover named him Public Enemy Number 1. Grandpa was someone who managed to find adventure wherever he was, or it would find him.
In 1937, Ed moved his family west to the slightly larger town of Munising, Michigan. There were six children then, Dorothy, Lionel, Edward, Gloria, Susan and Robert.
By December 7, 1941, my Mom had married my Dad, Bob, and was feeding my oldest brother in his high chair when the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor came over the radio. Dad joined the Navy. And Ed’s sons, my uncles, Lionel and Edward joined the Air Force and Army to fight in World War II.
In April of 1945, Grandpa’s health went into steep decline. He was still drinking and he became sick with pneumonia. Finally, Grandma Jen took him to the hospital.
My mother visited him daily for a week. His breathing was labored and became worse with each visit. On her last visit to see her father, she was relieved to see he looked more comfortable, and was breathing easier. She said to the nurse who was attending him, “He’s getting better, isn’t he?” The nurse touched her hand gently and told her, “I’m sorry, my dear, he’s dying.” And he did.
I think of my grandfather a lot. I think of how sad he was and how miserable his alcoholism must have made him, and everyone who loved him. I think of how smart he was. I think of how brave he was. Can you love someone you never knew? I think you can.
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