The elderly woman greeted me at her front door.
"You, sir, look quite lost", she smiled through the screen door.
I didn't want to tell her how dead on she was with her observation, both geographically and personally.
"Terribly sorry, " I offered, "I haven never driven out this far before. I guess I was getting a bit frantic looking for your place".
"If you had St. Christopher with you, you would not be late. The Saints preserve us.", she smiled even wider as she opened the door for me.
Elsbeth Mary Stow was born not far out of Sturbridge in a five room home her family had owned since her grandfather had come back from Georgia after the Civil War in 1866. He had stayed on longer than the rest of his division to assist with the repatriating of Union prisoners of war held by the confederates. After serving 4 long years in the Army, he came home a tired and withered man, but determined to make a living for himself and his family. The farm did wonderfully well over the years with acres of pasture land for raising his beef cattle, and crops.
On the land there was aver 150 acres of forest which most in town were welcome to use for hunting. There was more than enough game on the land for all since his parcel adjoined so many other larger forested patches of land from Sturbridge to Palmer, and north to Greenfield.
Four young men also grew up in the same area as Elsbeth. Harry DuPont, Edgar White, Samuel Flint, and Nate Campbell. These boys were together everyday of their lives from the time they could walk. They went to the same school house together in Fiskdale, worked the same horse farm in town, and when they grew older, often dated the same girls. They were as close as brothers could be without being joined by genes.
As teenagers they would often sit on the large rocks lining the Quinebaug River and talk about the world around them. The world was shown to them through the newspapers that were found in town, and by visitors traveling through. The war in Europe took on a special meaning to them. They each wanted to participate in it and to teach the Hun a lesson they would soon not forget, but they were young in 1915, and the war would have to wait. In the meantime, they lived a full life here, and one boy, Nate Campbell, became very attached to Miss Elsbeth Mary Stow.
Their relationship grew, as some teenage relationships do, and back then, it was usually something that would last a lifetime, but in the summer of 1917, Nate shared something with Elspeth that would put their relationship on hold.
In the summer of 1917 The 26th Infantry Division was formed, and was formally activated on August 22 of that year in Boston, Massachusetts. The Yankee Division, as it became known would ship out to France in the fall, and Nate, and his friends wanted to be part of the Expeditionary Forces that were going there to Halt the Hun. Elsbeth was stunned. She was all for Nate serving his country, but not now, not when their lives were coming together in a future she saw as bright and promising.
It did little good to argue the point Elsbeth soon found out, and she prepared herself for the goodbyes that would come in August. On that sad day, at the train station in Southbridge in the summer of 1917, they said their goodbyes. They kissed, and then Elsbeth took from her coat pocket a small box and gave it to Nate as he was boarding the train. "We will always be together, Nate. Come home to me", she whispered to him. "I will. I promise", Nate whispered back to her.
She told him that in the box was something to protect him when he got to France, and to remember who she was and where she lived for when he came home. She said the last part with a smile. Nate clutched the tiny box in his hand, blew her a kiss as the train pulled away, and all four boys waved goodbye until they were far from sight.
On their train ride to Boston, the boys swore that they would be there for each other no matter what happened and that they would all return home together. With that oath taken, they sat quietly for the remainder of the trip. Nate took the small box that Elsbeth had given him out of his coat pocket, and opened it. Inside was a large medal of St. George, the patron Saint of soldiers. On the front of the medal was a likeness of St. George with the words, "St. George Protect Me". Nate stared at the medal in his hand for sometime, and then turned it over. On the reverse side was the following,
May God Keep You Safe
In France, it took a bit of time for his unit to actually engage the enemy, but once they had, it was hell. The letters he sent home to Elsbeth were detailed, and as time went on they became more worrisome to her. His boyish patriotic enthusiasm had not so much waned, but rather been taken over over by the realities of what he was seeing each day. He had no regrets for enlisting, but saw little good he was doing since each day was a constant artillery barrage onto their trenches just outside of Verdun. When they were able to leave their earthworks, they would charge ahead, and gain fifty to one hundred yards only to loose it again the following day. This went on for sometime.
During their time in the trenches, the boys looked out for one another, and swore that they would all go home together.
In October 0f 1918 there was a a horrible barrage of artillery from the enemy. It seemed to go on for hours. Finally, when there was a lull, a whistle was heard, and the troops that had been leaning into the side of the earthworks for most of the day for cover stood up, and went over the top towards the German trenches on the other side of the grey, black turned up earth. They were half way across the moonscape of craters and charred earth when the German artillery began again, and this time it was landing in their midst. The boys ran with all their might toward the German lines, through the smoke, and air filled with flying dirt and mud, and over the countless bodies along the way. It was then that Private Nathaniel Campbell disappeared into a cloud of dirt and broken trees leaving behind only a hole in the saturated ground.
Nate was gone.
They never found Nates remains that day, or in the weeks that followed. The Armistice was signed just three weeks after the barrage, and the boys searched the battlefield until they were ordered to return home.
That morning the friends told Elsbeth what had happened that day in France, and when they were done, Sam extended his hand and placed the medal she had given Nate into her hand. She clutched it tightly, and then dropped her head and cried.
A few months ago, Elsbeth told me, the medal was no longer around her neck. She became frantic, and thought the clasp must have broken and the medal fallen off during her travels during the day. The loss of her remembrance had definitely left it's mark on her. According to friends, and family, she was no longer the spirited woman she had always been, instead, she had become quiet, almost subdued. Elsbeth had always held out hope that the medal would be found and returned to her. Everyone in town knew the medal very well, and the story behind it.
As Elsbeth spoke to me about her lost love, the lost medal, and her life since that day, I felt as if it was a cathartic for her. She was releasing so much emotion that she had held deep inside for almost her entire life, that she seemed to be speaking more freely, and with a certain brightness as she came to the end of her story. I was honored that she chose to share her life with me, but could not help but think there was more to her story.
And, there was.
"Two things happened this week that I wanted to share with you", and with that Elsbeth stood up from the wing back she had occupied since my arrival, went to the kitchen, and made two more cups of tea leaving me alone in her living room wondering what more she had to tell me. She returned in a few minutes and sat down again.
"I received a visitor this week", she told me as she poured our tea, " A visitor from the Army."
"Yes, a Captain Walton, and his assistant, Sergeant Masters came by the day before yesterday. I wasn't expecting visitors at all, so I was quite surprised to find the two soldiers standing at my door."
"Why were they here, Miss Stow?"
She sipped her tea, and as she pulled the cup from her lips she said, "They found Nate."
I felt a tingle go up my spine to my neck, and a chill came over me almost simultaneously. "They found Nate? Where? How?". I was almost stammering as I asked her.
"Have you ever heard of 'The Diggers?'", she asked.
"The Diggers were Australian troops on the western Front during the War, right?"
"True, but I am talking about the modern day Diggers. They are amateur battlefield archaeologists. they are from France, Germany, Belgium, England, all the countries involved in the Great War, and they use maps, and shovels to find the remains of battlefields. They also find the remains of those that died there. Once they find the remains of a soldier, they notify the authorities, and a team comes out from Brussels, or Paris, and help identify those remains."
"Are you saying Nate was found by these diggers in France?"
"Yes, but there was little to identify any of the remains they found that day. Leather boots, buttons, and metal insignia of the unit they were with was all that was left for the most part. One set of remains was identified by the contents of a leather wallet inside a rusted mess kit."
"But what about Nate? How did they identify him? How did they know for sure the remains were his?
"The Diggers had mapped out the battlefield and marked on the map where each unit was on each day of the war. They also took into account the men that were missing from each unit, and the most probable location each soldier was when they died. Nate's friends had been very specific in their report about the location. Today, the battle field is a green field, with scattered concrete pillboxes still remaining. The Diggers knew they had the right place, but to make a positive identification they needed more."
"Dog tags?", I asked.
"They were there, but the cord that joined them together had long since rotted away, and the small, round tags were scattered in the dirt amongst all of the remains so it was impossible to identify which remains were Nates. No, they didn't use the dog tags. They used the one thing that was actually around the remains. They used this."
And with that, Elsbeth took from a pocket on the front of her dress an object and placed it into my hand.
It was her lost medal!
I am not sure if I dropped the medal, or it simply fell from my hand onto the table, but as it lay there on the table cloth, and I read,
May God Keep You Safe
Nate had kept his promise, he had come home.
The day of the funereal I walked back to my car parked in one of the little lanes in the cemetery. As I sat inside and glanced up at my rear view mirror, I almost stopped breathing. Hanging from the mirror on a long chain was a St. Christopher medal.
Saints preserve us.