Recently, in a bar in Bangkok, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Sergeant Alvin York. That led me to consider York’s life in the context of our era’s politics. Much of the following is an adaptation of a post I have written that appears in my blog “Trenz Pruca’s Journal.” That post contained a number of photographs about Sergeant York, some of them not available publically anywhere else. I have not included them here because Daily Kos mechanism for posting photographs is beyond my technical capabilities. For those interested in viewing those photographs, please click on the link.
During our exchange of stories, recent medical histories and sports trivia and commentory, for some reason my friend who is named Gary mentioned that his great-uncle was Sergeant Alvin York. This intrigued me, so I asked him to tell me more.
For those for whom his name is unfamiliar, Sergeant York was the US most famous hero of WWI. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.
From York’s diary:
“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across (the valley) and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”And:
“And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”Before the war, York was a violent alcoholic and prone to bar brawls. Nevertheless, after his best friend was killed in a bar fight, he eventually joined a pacifist church opposed to all forms of violence and reformed his ways. At the time he was drafted he claimed contentious objector status stating:
“I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”The story of his life was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards and won two, one of which was by Cooper for best actor. Gary said, that he was named after the movie star. I guess because Alvin was already taken.
The Yorks lived in the Town of Pall Mall deep in the hollows of Tennessee, Smokey and the Bandit country were moonshine was king and law nonexistent. In fact, the only law that existed in that county was provided by the York’s kin since out of respect to York, they were usually not run out of the county like all other representatives of law-enforcement.
As Gary explained:
“The lawless county would not tolerate any law officers whatsoever, although York thought he could (uphold the law and maintain order), he was wrong. Moonshine whiskey and marijuana came along in the late sixties there in the poverty-stricken mountainous area.”
“My grandmother, Vicey ( Frogg) Williams mothered her first when she was fourteen and all of them had first names beginning with L and middle names of Presidents. One was actually shot and killed in a feud. All of their middle names were names of presidents.”York married Gracie Williams (played by Joan Leslie in the movie), Gary’s grandfather’s sister.
“I recall Aunt Gracie had three boys. Andrew Jackson York, Woodrow Wilson York, and Thomas Jefferson York… I heard, but never verified as I never went down again after 1970, that Thomas Jefferson may of been killed by moonshiners. They were serious about that stuff.After York’s death, Gracie, his widow, kept a shotgun in every room in the house because of the practice in that county of raiding any large home soon after the dominant male departs those good green hills.
...My wife and I marveled at his son Woodrow, shooting bats of the front porch that we could not see...
…it would be interesting to know if the Jamestown, Pall Mall area still is lawless. It certainly was in 1970… My mom told me that Thomas thought he could bring law and order to the hill country…”
My grand father, Wesley was a teasing fun skinny guy who had been a share cropper. Many of those folks down there were… they would have many children hoping to use the children to ease their labors…Pensions are not big in lawless counties in America.”
"My aunt Gracie lived in their big house right by the Wolf River in Pall Mall Tennessee. She had a shotgun in every room. As the years after Alvin died many people in the hillbilly country went after the biggest house thinking there might be something of value."York himself as Gary remembered him was a quiet soft-spoken man who looked nothing at all like Gary Cooper.
In Gary’s own words:
“…he (York) was a classic Mountain Democrat and that was a bone of contention in those days with the Froggs ( my grandmother’s family)…”York refused to benefit from the honors awarded to him including the funds received from the movie and book about his life, choosing instead to donate the money to charities he favored. Most of the money and York’s efforts went into educating the children of his home county. Despite, donating the money from the movie to charity, the IRS rejected his claim and hounded York for several years, until shortly before both their deaths then President John F. Kennedy cancelled the debt calling the IRS actions in the matter a “national disgrace.”
“I was there that summer (the summer that York died) at fourteen..we lived in Springfield, Illinois and had (many) seemingly endless drives down to north central Tennessee..”Most of York’s male descendants as well as Gary’s uncles served in WWII with the 82nd Airborne, the successor to York’s old outfit. None of them, even York himself, would talk to Gary about their experiences during the war, even when Gary specifically asked them to. Finally shortly before he died one of his uncles opened up to him.
“In Springfield I was a page-boy in the State Senate and developed my disdain for Illinois politicians… In 1965, I was 19 and got my draft notice then left those assholes in August. I delivered their hookers, drove their wives around shopping, fixed little logistic issues for them and realized they never did their homework, only what the lobbyist paid them to say and do. I still remember a slick haired guy walking up to me back then and saying, “Hi, I’m Al Green with the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association.” He put a five dollar bill in my hand. I vividly remember his features. A few months later I was earning $78 per month in the USAF…
In 1970, I returned from the military and worked there again as a bill clerk. Across the hall from my parent’s apartment lived Paul Simon who I often walked to work with, a very nice man who always wore a bow tie and had terrific dandruff…he had risen in politics after being a newspaper editor down south in Troy, Illinois … I was 25, (when) I did the bill clerk thing and walked with Paul to work at 9 AM. I considered him among the kindest of those characters…”
“My father’s twin brother served in the 82nd when it was known as Airborne. It was only the 82nd division in WWI..Uncle Lloyd is still alive living across the river from St. Louis. He still has hair and blue eyes.. My father was bald and had brown eyes. In college they told me not to worry about baldness as it is a gene that comes from mothers. My mom had thick dense hair, so I figured I would never face the dreaded cue ball look. When it came I didn’t care as I could not see it anyway…”Gary told me some of what Uncle Lloyd told him. Two images stood out in my mind:
One day Gary and his Uncle Lloyd went together to see the movie Saving Private Ryan. A cow roaming in a pasture appeared in one battle scene. His uncle laughed. After the movie Gary asked him why he laughed at that particular scene. He said because,“in the war there were no cows, there were no birds they were all dead. After the armies came through there was nothing left alive for people to eat and so they starved.”
On another occasion he told Gary that there was nothing good in war. At the end, he said, he saw children and old men dressed in German uniforms because all the young men had been killed and they were all that was left of the German Army. What choice did he have? Kill them or be killed.
Now this all may be an interesting story and fascinating history, but there is a moral there, perhaps many, but one in particular that resonated with me.
Although he died in 1962, I have no doubt in my mind that had he lived into the 1980s, this kind, thoughtful and compassionate man, this New Deal “Mountain Democrat,” would have become a Reagan Democrat and were he alive today, a Tea Party sympathizer. Similarly Gary, a considerate and gentle man who found Paul Simon, the arch-liberal of his time, a paragon of kindness, humility and rectitude is today a committed conservative voter who happily passed on to me some of the most salacious right-wing propaganda on the internet.
Why did were they lost to the Democratic Party? Oh yes, it easy to dismiss them as simply old white men, racists to the core whose last hurrah was this most recent national election. Even I did so, in previous blogs here in Daily Kos. Yet they were not the grand beneficiaries of the “ancien regime,” but only their expendable foot soldiers: those who had been persuaded that they had the most to lose when in fact, they had the least to gain.
Many years ago I was tasked with the responsibility of guiding through to fruition one of the most massive pieces of environmental legislation in the country. Arrayed on the other side were the usual suspects, the rich and powerful and the corrupt and venial. Standing with them were those who actually were most at risk; those persuaded by those that had the most to gain they had the most to lose. People like the construction workers and the family farmers and the like. We, the liberals, laughed at them, at their ignorance and conservatism. And we won.
I recall a short time after our victory spending night after night driving from one farm house to another, sitting in their kitchens explaining why it was necessary that their lands be preserved for the good of society and future generations and then working with them on how to replace that marginal income that used to be available to them and their descendants from sale of a portion or all of their land to developers. Figuring out how they were going to be able to continue to farm when faced with increased costs and reduced markets. In some cases I was able to work something out. In others I could not. I had in those cases agreed to plead with the great coalition we had assembled to pass the legislation and the regulatory agencies it had empowered to help with a solution to these specific equitable problems. Usually my pleas fell on deaf ears. We won they lost was the response that in one way or other I most heard. So those who began with fear of the unknown because they were the most marginal became filled with hate at what they saw as arrogance and insensitivity of those professing to be liberals.
We cannot let that happen again and again. Those people on the margins should not be lost, even if they for one reason or another believe they must oppose whatever we stand for. It is like the parable of the lost sheep. Liberalism means sweat so that no soul is lost, no soul left behind if you will. If we wish to continue in 2014 and 2016 what was begun in 2008 and continued 2012, it cannot be lost like it was in 1980, 2000 and 2010. It is those who most fear and hate liberalism that must be wooed; one by one if need be. We cannot win by only relying on our people getting out to vote, because inevitably we will lose them just like we did the Reagan Democrats.
Yes, perhaps we should each even consider taking a conservative out to lunch every week. Find out what you can do together. Most will reject you but some will not.
TODAY’S QUOTES by TRENZ PRUCA:
On the Role of Civil Society:
Why would anyone be morally bound or wish to be morally bound to a civil society that does not share the goal that it’s citizens deserve a fair distribution of wealth, income and power? If the civil society is not dedicated to that end what else could it possibly be dedicated to? What is freedom, to those without wealth, income or power?On Free Enterprise:
The goal of every business enterprise is not to maximize profit but to separate risk from reward.
The most important goal for any democratic government should be to avoid removing risk from enterprise. Yet it currently appears that the only function of government is to shield enterprise from risk.On Governmental Priorities:
It is interesting to note how much easier it is today for a government to abandon its promises to its people but not to its creditors.
As with most fundamental freedoms, preventing those who wish to abridge the fundamental rights of others is a more important role of government than encouraging the exercise of those rights. Exercising our rights are our individual jobs, protecting us from those who would abridge are rights is the duty we collectively give to government. If government is not the guarantor of Freedom then it is a tyranny.On Conservatives:
Conservatives are irony deficient.
Did you ever wonder why ownership of oil production by the Saudi government is not considered socialism by most conservatives but in Venezuela’s case it is?
Why don’t Libertarians and conservatives call for abolishment of the most fundamental intrusion of government into the so-called free market, the limitation from financial risk represented by the corporate form?On too big to Fail:
If it is too big to fail, it is too big to manage.On the Republican Party’s political playbook:
Nothing is so inconsequential that it cannot be used by the Republican Party as an opportunity to hold the nation at ransom in an effort to bring down the opposition party.