His statue stands near the corner of Charlotte and Sixth Avenue North in downtown Nashville, more than adequate defense for the southeast corner of the Tennessee State Capitol grounds.
His right elbow is cocked high to his ear, his left arm steadying the rifle like he was hunting wild turkeys back home in Fentress County, 36 miles northeast of Cookeville.
But the helmet, gun belt and woolen leggings wrapped around his Pershing boots put Alvin York in a different time and place.
The time is 1918 during World War I, the Great War with the optimistic name of “The War to End all Wars.” The place is the Argonne Forest in northern France.
According to the inscription on the statue’s base, “Armed with his rifle and pistol, his courage and skill, this one Tennessean silenced a German battalion of 35 machine guns, killing 25 enemy soldiers and capturing 132.” For his heroic deeds, York received the Congressional Medal of Honor, other awards and the rank of sergeant.
His deeds are important to remember and honor, especially near Memorial Day. Yet there was more to Alvin York than what the statue depicts. There is a deeper, more spiritual story about the man, his faith and his struggles to live a Christian life.
In the 1941 film Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper in an Academy Award-winning performance, Alvin turns from a life of drunkenness and fighting to a prayerful life of peace and respect for all men. When he receives a notice that he has been drafted into the army, he initially refuses to report.
“I ain’t a goin’ to war – war is killin’ and the Book is agin killin’ – so war is agin the Book,” says Alvin in the film.
With advice from Pastor Pyle (Walter Brennan), York applies to be a conscientious objector to the war. When his request is denied, he enlists into the army after a tearful goodbye from his fiancée Gracie (Joan Leslie).
But the prospect of killing others continues to weigh heavily on his mind. Before his platoon is shipped to Europe, York takes a ten-day furlough to think things over at home. In quiet solitude upon a high cliff overlooking the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River, York prays to God for direction.
“As I prayed there alone,” York recounted in his journal, “a great peace kind of come into my soul and a great calm come over me, and I received my assurance. He heard my prayer and He come to me on the mountainside. I didn’t hear Him, of course, but He was there just the same. I knowed He was there. He understood that I didn’t want to be a fighter or a killing man; that I didn’t want to go to war to hurt nobody nohow.
“And yet I wanted to do what my country wanted me to do. I wanted to serve God and my country too. He understood all of this. He seen right inside me, and He knowed I had been troubled and worried, not because I was afraid, but because I put Him first, even before my country, and I only wanted to do what would please Him.
“So He took pity on me and He gave me the assurance I needed. I didn’t understand everything. I didn’t understand how he could let me go to war and even kill and yet not hold it against me. I didn’t even want to understand. It was His will and that was enough for me.
“So at last I begun to see the light. I begun to understand that no matter what a man is forced to do, so long as he is right in his own soul he remains a righteous man. I knowed I would go to war. I knowed I would be protected from all harm, and that so long as I believed in Him He would not allow even a hair on my head to be harmed.”
After the war ended and he returned to Tennessee, Alvin and Gracie are married by the governor and receive a gift of 400 acres, upon which they built their home.
I drove to Pall Mall and the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf a couple weeks ago, marveling at the peacefulness and natural beauty of the valley. I saw York’s general store, grist mill and the front porch where he stood during photos with visitors.
Mona Baldwin, the grandmother of my friend Sheila, lived nearby and spent a lot of time with the Yorks. She helped take care of the children and the house while Gracie ran the general store, especially when Alvin was away. But when he returned, Baldwin saw a different side of the war hero.
“I’ve seen him sit and cry,” Mrs. Baldwin recounted to Sheila. “And they’d want to see him and take his pictures in his uniform, and he’d just cry when he put them on. ‘Cause he said, ‘I’m not a bit happy about none of it.’”
Despite the accolades and the medals, life was hard for Alvin, a balancing act between giving “Caesar what is Caesar’s” and giving God what is God’s. It is hard to be a human being on this earth, filled with duties, desires and temptations, all the while yearning to touch the divine and live a truly Christian life.
There’s always a deeper story within a statue. I’ll remember that the next time I see another war memorial, or a crucifix.
First published in the May 18, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio