Once upon a time there was a phrase commonly understood. It was a “feat of arms.” For someone to have performed one meant that he had done something not just exceptionally brave (such as single-handedly rescuing his comrades), but specifically something triumphant, something involving pitting his weapons and spirit – preferably unsupported – against those of the enemy. And beating them. “Feats of arms” did not include defeats.
On this date in 1918 the U.S. got a feat of arms from the unlikeliest source. A fellow who’d made every run he could to be a conscientious objector, which it appears that he legitimately was. Oh sure, he’d been a hell-raiser as a youth and young man, drunker than Cooter Brown and always ready for a fight. And then he found God, or God found him; it all worked out to the same thing. He foreswore liquor and his wild ways, settled down and was on track to become a pillar of his community. His community, I would observe, still has every bit of two roads into it, on one of which you can’t get out of third gear for miles at a stretch, and the other of which this man caused to be built later (but I’m getting ahead of the story). On a cold day in February you can, as I did a number of years ago, stand at his grave and hear nothing but a gentle rustle of wind across naked branches, and the occasional snap or crackle that the flag above makes.
The U.S. Army wasn’t of a mind to accept any bunch of b.s. from some ol’ redneck that Jesus had meant that stuff about not killin’ one’s fellow-man. What would have become of him had he a different commanding officer than he did, we’ll never know. Another commander might well have sent him off to Leavenworth, Kansas, there to join other young men who couldn’t square making the world safe for democracy with what they read, heard, and preached on Sunday and throughout the week in the quiet, rural, self-contained lives they and their families lead. But his commander sent him home to “study on it,” as they say. Which he did, alone with his land, his God, and his conscience. And he came back to camp an infantryman.
On October 8, 1918, he – then a corporal – was detailed off with a squad into the bush to silence some German machine guns which had the Americans on that little corner of hell’s own half-acre pinned down. They took some casualties on the trip up (it’s how he ended up in charge), but eventually they worked their way into a position where if they could just get a clean shot, they might get some work done. And so this ol’ boy, who’d been renowned back home as a marksman, began to call to them. Not in German, of course you see, but turkey calls. And as each machine gunner would stick his head up to see whence the bird, Alvin Cullum York would “jes’ tetch him off.” He was firing from a sitting position, by the way, which is very difficult, especially with a weapon as heavy as the M-1, and he took them all out with single head-shots. They were, by the way, returning fire. The Germans sent a patrol out to correct the problem, and Alvin took them out too, starting with the last in line (another turkey hunting trick; shoot the first and the others will see him fall and they’ll spook; start at the back and the others will just keep marching right onto your sights). He ran out of rifle ammunition but, being a non-comm, had a 1911-model .45-cal., and so he took them out with that.
At which point the Germans figured, “Ach! Es hol’ der Teufel das alles!” or words of a less parlor-ready tenor, and raised the white flag. When they got back to American lines Alvin and his squad-mates had 132 Germans in tow, leaving Alvin’s 25 kills on the field behind them.
By the time he got back to New York in 1919, he was the most highly-decorated Allied soldier of the war. He was offered massive amounts of money for his story, for the movie rights, to endorse this-that-or-the-other, etc. He turned it all down. All of it. He went back to his home, in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River, and gratefully accepting the farm that the State of Tennessee bought him, taken to farming. He also taken to “advocating,” as we’d call it now, for his people and their condition. He raised quite a bit of money and eventually started a school which for many years was the only privately-funded county public school system in the state. He agitated to get that highway (U.S. Highway 127) built down into the valley. He helped raise (as in helped tote the boards and sink the nails with his own hands) the church which still stands, just down the road from his grave. He married Gracie, the girl he’d been making the running for when he’d been drafted.
Alvin finally consented to permit his story to be used in 1940, for Sergeant York, when the Army told him they needed it to help them recruit a new generation of American boys to go kick the snot out of another bunch of Germans who’d done jumped the traces again. He insisted, apparently, that the combat scenes be done as correctly as then-current cinematic technique permitted. He also initially objected to Gary Cooper playing him in the movie. Why? Not because Cooper wasn’t a good actor. No: Gary Cooper smoked.
Some years ago I stumbled across his home valley. We stopped in at his farm house for the tour. Our tour guide was his last surviving child. We went to see his grave. There’s a flag over it, and a little flush enclosure (gravel within) around it. His and his wife’s stones lie flat. Alvin’s of course recites the fact of his Medal of Honor, but is otherwise bereft of self-congratulation. If memory serves there’s a stone bench, and an upright cross. And it was deathly quiet, except for the wind, and the occasional motion of the flag. This man who performed one of the magnificent Feats of Arms of the Great War, who then spurned the advances of a jaded and sinful world, went back home to put his arms, his back, and his fame to work for those from whom he came. Here he lies among them, at peace in his land and in his Savior’s bosom.
So I’ve visited Alvin York. I know his story (and now you do too, dear reader). I’ve seen the community he sweated to build. After he “could have had it all.” And every time I see or hear of a Kardashian, or a Trump, or some tattoo-defaced, pierced, dyed-hair Gawd-help-us of a “professional” athlete . . . I want to throw up in my mouth, just a little. When I hear some perjured wretch like TurboTax Tim Geithner describe himself as “public servant,” I want to shout at him, “You lie (again)! I can show you a public servant; he’s buried over in Pall Mall and you couldn’t squeeze the sweat from his balls out of his jock strap if you stood on top of it with an arm-load of firewood!”
Let us praise famous men. Let us celebrate their feats of arms. And let us speak their names with gratitude, and humility.