When I was nine years old, my father took me deep into the Maine woods to see an old prisoner of war camp. My mom had just announced she was leaving him, this time for good. In a few weeks, she said, the two of us were chucking this sorry, redneck life and moving in with her sister down in Portland. The road trip to the wild country around Spencer Lake was my dad’s idea. I guess he saw it as his last chance to win me over to his way of thinking. God knows he didn’t really want custody of me. I’d just get in the way of his whiskey and his women. But it mattered to him that I saw his side of things.
And so, one rainy morning, we drove off into the mountains in search of the past.
It was a grueling drive. The logging road was muddy and deeply rutted from the heavy trucks carrying timber out of the clear cuts, and it was all my dad’s tired old Ford could do to climb Bear Hill. Pausing at the top, we looked out across the Moose River valley to the forested mountains that marked the border with Canada. I’d lived my entire life in rural Maine,but this was the wildest place I’d ever been. Soon I would be leaving it — and him. Like most small boys I’d always viewed my father as the strongest, bravest man in the world. Now I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t fighting to keep us all together.
My dad was silent for the first hour of the trip — he was hung-over, chain-smoking — but as we drove deeper into the woods he finally started to talk. Not about my leaving, though. Instead he told me how, during World War II, thousands of captured German POWs were brought to the most remote parts of Maine to work in the logging camps. He said the prisoners at Hobbstown Plantation,where we were going, had belonged to Field Marshall Rommel’s Afrika Korps.They’d driven Panzer tanks through Sahara sandstorms and fought desert battles at Tunisia and El Alamein. The foreign names stirred my imagination, and despite the sadness that was my perpetual condition back then, I found myself leaning forward against the dash.
“Don’t expect too much,” he warned. These days, he said, all that was left of the guard towers, barracks, and fences that once made up the Hobbstown POW camp were a few log cabins, hidden among the pines.Trappers sometimes holed up in these old buildings in the wintertime. Otherwise they were just a bunch of ruins rotting into the earth.
Actually, they were less than that. My dad drove by the clearing before he realized it was the place we were looking for. He climbed out of the truck and stood there in disbelief. No cabins were to be seen. There were just a couple of blackened cellar holes covered by tangles of wet raspberry bushes.
I stood beside him in the rain. “This is it?”
“I guess someone must’ve burned the cabins down.”
“It’s just some holes in the ground.”
“It’s still history,” he argued.
Afterwards, we drove down to Spencer Lake and parked at the shore, looking down the length of the lake, towards the mist-shrouded Bigelow Mountains.He turned off the engine and lit a cigarette and then, with the rain beating onthe roof, he told me a story that has haunted me ever since.
He said that, during the winter of 1944, two Germans escaped from the prison camp. The guards located one right away by following his tracks in the snow. But the other, somehow, eluded capture. Game wardens and state police troopers joined in the search. Guards were put on high alertat the Kennebec River dam in case the Nazi saboteur tried to blow it up. And people in Flagstaff and Jackman slept with loaded shotguns under their beds. It was the biggest manhunt in Maine history — and they never found him. The prisoner just vanished into the wild and was never seen again, alive or dead.
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