Of Alvin York and Armistice Day

Come this Nov. 11, the Stars and Stripes will fly at our house in grate­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Amer­ica’s vet­er­ans of all wars.

The Covington News - - Opinion - Nat Har­well Colum­nist Nat Har­well is a long­time res­i­dent of Newton County. His col­umns ap­pear reg­u­larly on Sun­days.

One of the most un­for­get­table peo­ple I ever en­coun­tered was my eighth grade Amer­i­can his­tory teacher. In 1964, Greens­boro was so tiny that all grades were housed on the same cam­pus, so he was fa­mil­iar to ev­ery­one. But not un­til I was 13, and in his class, did I get to know a Ten­nessean with some In­dian blood in him, Mr. G. M. Charles.

Now, the whole town knew Mr. Charles as as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal and foot­ball coach. But he was star­tling in ap­pear­ance to young peo­ple, as his In­dian fea­tures were ex­ag­ger­ated by the ef­fects of an au­to­mo­bile wreck which caused his mouth to droop at one corner, elon­gat­ing his face a bit. The crash had left him with a limp.

He brooked no fool­ish­ness. In a day and age when ev­ery teacher swung a pad­dle, stu­dents ex­hib­ited re­spect­ful be­hav­ior in his classes. He had a wry sense of hu­mor, which dis­com­bob­u­lated his stu­dents. At times we’d want to laugh out loud, but on the other hand didn’t know if we should. Quite the co­nun­drum. Any­way, it was 1964. Nov. 11 rolled around, and Mr. Charles taught us a lit­tle les­son about Armistice Day. Ten years ear­lier, Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower had changed the name of the Fed­eral hol­i­day to Vet­er­ans Day. Our par­ents had grown up af­ter World War I and most had fought in World War II, so to them, and to Mr. Charles, Nov. 11 was still Armistice Day, the day World War I, “the war to end all wars,” came to an end.

Mr. Charles ex­plained that the armistice was signed “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” World lead­ers were con­vinced at the time that no nation would ever con­tem­plate fo­ment­ing an­other war, so hor­rific had been the cost.

In 1919, Pres­i­dent Wil­son es­tab­lished the first Armistice Day, and it re­mained so un­til the 1954 change was made to honor Amer­ica’s vet­er­ans of all wars, not just World War I.

“His­tory books will be changed at some point in the fu­ture,” I re­mem­ber Mr. Charles telling us. “So I want you boys and girls to re­mem­ber, long as you live, that Nov. 11 was once called ‘Armistice Day.’ Re­mem­ber why it was so, and pass that on to your chil­dren so that it will never be for­got­ten.”

And then Mr. Charles told us the story of a fel­low Ten­nessee moun­tain boy, Alvin York. Alvin was raised in a church which for­bade mem­bers from tak­ing up arms. Mr. Charles went on to tell us how young Alvin was a sharp­shooter who would walk some­times for days to turkey shoot­ing con­tests and bring back the only food the fam­ily might have at all.

Amer­ica got in­volved in World War I, and the call was is­sued for young men to en­list. As the great­est sharp­shooter known in those parts, pres­sure was put upon Alvin York to do the right thing, to en­list and serve his nation by killing Ger­mans.

York ini­tially reg­is­tered in­stead as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor by virtue of his re­li­gious be­liefs. But an Army chap­lain con­vinced the young­ster that tak­ing up arms against the forces of evil for the cause of right was jus­ti­fied.

York’s ac­com­plish­ments are well known to stu­dents of his­tory. On Oct. 18, 1918, his unit was or­dered to cap­ture a hill held by Ger­mans com­mand­ing the field of bat­tle. York sin­gle-hand­edly killed 28 Ger­mans, de­stroyed 32 ma­chine gun nests, and cap­tured 132 ene- my sol­diers. For his ex­ploits, York re­ceived the Medal of Honor.

Mr. G. M. Charles was par­tic­u­larly proud of his fel­low Ten­nessean, and he shared a pas­sage from a speech Alvin York made at the 1939 World’s Fair:

“We in Ten­nessee are de­scen­dants of the pi­o­neer long hunters of the moun­tains. The spir­i­tual en­vi­ron­ment and our re­li­gious life have made our spirit wholly Amer­i­can, and that true pi­o­neer Amer­i­can spirit still ex­ists in the Ten­nessee moun­tains. Even to­day, with all the clamor of the world and its evil at­trac­tions, you still find in the hum­ble log cabins that old-fash­ioned fam­ily al­tar of prayer — the same that they used to have in grandma’s and grandpa’s day — which is the true spirit of the long hunters. We in the Ten­nessee moun­tains are not trans­planted Euro­peans; ev­ery fiber in our body and ev­ery emo­tion in our hearts is Amer­i­can.”

Alvin York will not be for­got­ten. Come this Nov. 11, the Stars and Stripes will fly at our house in grate­ful ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Amer­ica’s vet­er­ans of all wars. And it’ll also wave in me­mory of Armistice Day, and a grand old man from Ten­nessee, Mr. G. M. Charles.

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