January in Iowa–sunny and 52 degrees? This made my husband, who has classic car with veteran license plates, itch for a road trip.
We’d never been to see the Madison County Freedom Rock, so we zoomed down Interstate 35 from the Des Moines area to see it.
Iowa’s original Freedom Rock was painted several times by Ray “Bubba” Sorensen, always to honor America’s veterans. At some point, other areas wanted one of their own, so Bubba’s goal is to do one in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Set among benches, walkways, and flagpoles, Winterset’s boulder is large enough to be able to convey some Madison County history–as well as connections to the military. John Wayne wasn’t a veteran, but he played military roles several times. He was born in Winterset, so one side is dedicated to him.
George Stout shares the south side of the slab with Glenn Martin. Martin, born in Macksburg, Iowa, became an aviation pioneer. The WWII story of George Stout has been preserved in the movie “The Monuments Men.”
The west side features four POWs. One of them is Larry Spencer from Earlham.
Lt. Comdr. Larry Spencer was a navy radar intercept officer on a Phantom F-4 when it was shot down over North Vietnam in early 1966. I was a senior in college then but was a high school classmate of Larry’s younger brother, Lee. Larry was held prisoner for seven years at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”
POW bracelets were first created in 1970. By then my husband had become an Air Force Vietnam veteran. When POW bracelets were available for Larry, I bought one to wear, to remember and pray for him until he returned to America.
Larry Spencer was freed and came home in early 1973.
The day after our visit to Winterset, The Des Moines Sunday Register featured Sara Maniscalo Robinson’s “war story” from The Des Moines Storytellers Project. Sara is a first sergeant in the Iowa National Guard, and also a wife and a mother. She became involved with creating videos of Iowa survivors of POW camps, including Larry Spencer.
In fact, Larry’s story stood out for her and became part of her own story. She said their conversation taught her perspective, that every veteran has a story.
Several years later, she has founded a nonprofit–The Iowa Veterans’ Perspective–in order to preserve history through the eyes and stories of our veterans.
I located Sara on Facebook and sent a message, letting her know how touched I was by her story, and told her that I’d worn a POW bracelet for Larry Spencer while he was in captivity. I asked whether she had one. No.
Lump in throat. My keepsake bracelet from the Vietnam era now belongs to Sara. She parked it next to her computer monitor, reminding her of Larry Spencer and–as she says–”to dig deep and keep working.”
It’s been a blessing for both Sara and me to find a good home for part of the important history of one Iowa veteran.
Four-minute video taken by the Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge, Iowa, Veterans Day 2020. Larry Spenser is the man on the left.