By JIM ATWELL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
You know me. A synapse sparks inside my skull, and I’ve shot back 1,000 years to grab a good story. Sorry, but it’s an old habit. And after four-score years, I’m unlikely to break it.
And, besides, in this instance, this one’s not a 1,000-year leap, but only 954. That takes us back to 1066 AD, a date that’s been stuck to the inside of your skull since fifth grade.
In 1066, your teacher said, King William of Normandy controlled much of eastern France. On a clear day from the coastline there, he could gaze across only 20 miles of water at something very tempting to him: England.
William was sure he remembered a former English king, now dead, had made him a vague promise that William could succeed him on the English throne. But when that old boy died, nobody called William to tell him to pack his bags and paddle right across the Channel.
Instead, word came that they’d crowned somebody named Harold, not a kingly name at all. Further, according to William’s wholly objective spies, Harold was a ninny. He was too indecisive to run a village shop, much less a kingdom.
“Indecisive” had no place in William’s vocabulary. And so, absent invitation, he did pack his bags, plus 7,000 soldiers and lots of horses. Then he waited, but not for long.
For in late September 1066, the prevailing Channel winds swung westward. That’s when William stood on his lead ship’s quarterdeck and shouted, “Anchors aweigh!” which is to say, “Hoist anchors!”
Even so, his stalwarts couldn’t respond by singing “Anchors Aweigh,” (since it wouldn’t be composed till 1904 and first be sung at an Army-Navy game, where it inspired the Midshipmen to a 10-0 victory over the Cadets.)
But William’s seadogs could each reach up and tug their forelocks (origin of the military salute), and then bellow out, “Aye, my lord!” Then they began cranking up anchors by the hundreds.
The westerly winds held steady, and in just a few hours, William’s own ship, first of his invasionary force, plowed into the shore to “quench its speed in the slushy sand.” (Somebody else wrote that phrase much later – and with steamy overtones that shocked Victorians. If you don’t believe me, look it up yourself.)
OK, I’m pausing just a moment, wondering if I’ve dropped the reins of free association, and the horses have run away with me. Well, tough taffy! I’m having too much fun to rein them in. . .
“Now,” as good old Paul Harvey used to say, “for the rest of the story.” Anxious to be the first ashore, William swung one armored foot over his landing boat’s side and planted it firmly in the sandy slush. (Sorry.) But then, alas and alack!
When he swung down the second foot, he must have caught his boot’s toe on an oarlock. And so what next plunged into the mud were his royal head and face, neck and shoulders, hands and forearms.
Horrified gasps from everybody clambering out of nearby boats. Sancta Maria! The king on his hands and knees in the muddy water! If this is an omen, it’s a hell of a one for starting an invasion.
But wait! Just watch this how this canny guy saves that disastrous moment and spins it into a triumph!
William rears back on his knees and pauses, water squirting from every crack in his armor, eyes closed seemingly in prayer. (They are really stinging something fierce from grit and salt water.)
Then he slowly stands, but not before grabbing up two fistfuls of mud. He holds these up in triumph. and he shouts. “See how I grasp this land as God has destined!”
In that one boffo instant, brilliant Will turns falling face-down in the mud into something solemn, God-intended: He’s kissed the coastline, then knelt in prayer, and then triumphantly raised up those symbolic clumps of mud. What a guy! No wonder they started calling him “The Conqueror”!
As you might imagine, I’ve always held that moment in William’s life as the very symbol for anybody’s rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s quick thinking that does the trick.
And for my many years as academic administrator, it worked for me more times than not. But not always, and not on my very first day as a dean when, in terms of appropriate dignity, I might as well have plunged headfirst into plashy mud.
No room to tell you about that in this column.
So now I’ll add only this: There’s a guy living in Hastings right now, in 2020, who’s profiting greatly by association with William, even though the latter’s been a-mouldering underground for nine hundred plus years.
This contemporary of ours is making a great living by constructing sidewalks all over East Sussex.
His ads all call him, “William the Concretor.”