"Language, as well as the faculty of speech, was the immediate gift of God." ~ Noah Webster

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Heap O' Larnin'"

Sergeant Alvin C. York
I just finished reading Sergeant York and the Great War originally edited by Tom Skeyhill in 1930. Right from the “get-go” I have a confession to make: I had never heard of Sergeant York before I saw a movie about him. It starred Gary Cooper and was produced in the 1940’s. I am embarrassed by that fact, but I can probably top it. I didn’t know who Gary Cooper was either when I first found this movie. Matthew was just a little guy, at the time, so I think it was probably some time in the late 90’s that we first watched Sergeant York. I can’t remember how we came across it. It must have been on an old movie channel or something. But after the first time I watched it, it quickly became my favorite. I fell in love with Gary Cooper; and Walter Brennan had always been one of my favorite actors, as well. Though Brennan was just a young guy in Sergeant York, he played an elderly pastor, and he was fantastic in his part.

Gary Cooper as Sgt. York

After watching Sergeant York, of course I had to learn more about the person. For those of you that are like me and have never heard of him, he was a World War I hero. Probably the most decorated U. S. soldier of that war. He almost single handedly captured 132 German soldiers and saved his squad from being killed by the Germans. He started out as a Conscientious Objector due to his Christian faith, but he was drafted into service anyway and through a process, he came to accept the fact that he did indeed need to fight. He had been familiar with shooting and firearms since the time he was just a kid, and was an expert shot before he had become a soldier. Needless to say, his expert marksmanship was a huge asset to him and all those around him. Anyway, the movie is absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend it. However, you must watch the 1940 edition with Cooper. If there is another one that has been produced, I guarantee it will not even come close.

About a year or so ago, I found an edition of the book which this time was edited by Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler and I just recently sat down to read it. I could not have enjoyed it more! It was especially nice for me to see that the movie with Cooper was almost 100% accurate as compared to York’s own words. The first editor of the book published York’s writings just as they were and thus Wheeler did as well. York had only an equivalent of a 3rd grade education and he was from the back hills of Tennessee, so his dialogue and diction represents that. I had always wondered after seeing the movie if perhaps Mr. Cooper “played it up just a bit”, but “I’m a-tellin’ you” he did not! ;-) While reading Sgt. York’s writings I could see Mr. Cooper in those words just exactly as he had portrayed Sgt. York in the movie. I'm sure if I had read the book first, I would have believed Mr. Cooper deserved an Oscar for his acting.  In fact, at the beginning of the book the editor includes a note informing the reader that Mr. Cooper did indeed win an Oscar for “Best Actor of the Year” for his part. Cooper stated in his acceptance speech: “It wasn’t Gary Cooper who won this award; it was Sergeant York. Because to the best of my ability, I tried to be Sergeant York.” After reading this book, I can tell you, I believe Mr. Cooper played Alvin York to near perfection.

So there’s a little bit of history about how I came to read this book and my love of the movie. As for the book, it is an absolute treasure mainly because the editors left Sgt. York’s very own words and writings. Words are left spelled incorrectly and punctuation is inaccurate, but boy, does Alvin York come to life. It is absolutely beautiful! I wanted to share an excerpt from the book, because I believe you will love it too. It is thought-provoking, a lesson in history, and insight into the thoughts of a soldier who has experienced the possibility of death being simply seconds away. York’s writing will become a portrait as if from the stroke of a brush indelibly painted on your heart.

Below is one of the more moving stories from the book; one that will give you some insight into the type of person Sgt. York was – an American hero; in more ways than one.

The war brings out the worst in you. It turns you into a mad, fightin’ animal, but it also brings out something else, something I jes don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fightin’ with you. It’s sort of clean, like a fire of pine logs on a frosty night. I had kinder got to know and sorter understand the boys around me. I knowed their weakness as well as their strength. I guess they knowed mine. If you live together for several months sharing and sharing alike, you learn a heap about each other. It was as though we could look right through each other and knowed everything without anything being hid. I’m a-telling you I loved them-there boys in my squad. I had forgiven them for their bad shooting. I had forgiven it if they drank and tore things up before going to the front. Anyway, that was their own business. It was no affair of mine. If they got happiness that way, it was all right with me. I guess they sorter figured they were going to be mussed up and maybe killed when they got into the trenches, so they figured they might jes as well enjoy things while they had the chance. If that’s the way they figured it out, it was all right with me. If they cussed a whole lot, I don’t think they meant it to be as bad as it sounded. It was their own way of expressing themselves; that’s all. Even if a fellow doesn’t drink or smoke or cuss, like me for instance, he has no right to find fault with others, provided they don’t interfere with him. He has no right to pass judgment, and I didn’t nohow. I kinder think away down underneath I sorter loved them for their weakness most of all. They were my buddies. That’s a word that’s only understood by soldiers who have lived under the same blankets, gathered around the same chow can and looked at death together. I never knowed I loved my brother-man so much until I was a doughboy. I knowed men could be strong and rough, but I never understood before that they could be so tender and loving, and I jes couldn’t baar to think of anything happenin’ to them. It was too awful to think of them-there boys being wounded or killed. I kinder did a lot of thinking and praying about these things as we moved out into the Argonne. Some how, I seemed to jes know that we were going to get into it right, in them-there Woods.
Ok, I just have to do one more. I just love this….and one always wants to share what they love, right? So below is just a little more insight into Sgt. York and the person he really was. To me the excerpt below speaks volumes. There is so much more to read, learn and discuss, but for me this was a highlight.

“Mountain people are not great readers. I don’t mean the people in the towns and more settled communities in the mountain country, I mean we-tins right in the mountains. It is hard to get books and there ain’t no libraries. But we’re most all good storytellers. And we repeat our stories over and over again until they become sort of household news. Whenever you get two mountaineers together you ‘most always get a story. Around the old blacksmith shop, at the store, or at the shooting matches you are most certain to hear a whole mess of them; and when we visit each other and sit around the old open fireplaces on long winter nights we tell a right-smart lot of them. Hunting and shooting stories are the most popular.

And the best of them are remembered and handed down from father to children, jes like the muzzle-loading guns and the old dresses. We never seem to tire of hearing about old Davy Crockett’s bear hunts and Daniel Boone’s fights with the Indians. And we have all kinds of stories of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. They used to get around these parts. There’s a whole heap of Crocketts living in Jimtown to this day. These old-timers must have been right-smart men. We don’t find the like of them around nowadays. But times have changed. Maybe we don’t live the sort of lives which make great men.
Since I was knee high to a duck I’ve heard tell of these men. I guess what outsiders call history is jes plain story-telling with us.”

There is so much to learn from Mr. York’s words here. Not the least of is the importance of sharing and passing down stories and skills to one’s children. I love that. But another thing I love that is revealed here in Mr. York’s writings is that he did not believe the men of his time were as great as the men of our history. Makes one really stop to wonder where our men of today might be on a “grading scale of great and heroic men”. Just sayin’….  

York shared in his writing how quickly there were those that tried to figure out how he was able to stay alive throughout his military battles.  There would be one explanation after another.  After each explanation he respectfully states how he could see some truth in their thoughts.
"I'm willing to admit that all of these explanations have a whole heap of truth in them. I am willing to admit that maybe I had all the breaks and had them right.  Jes the same, there was something else.  There had to be something more than man power in that fight to save me.  There can't no man in the world make me believe there weren't.  I'm a-telling you the hand of God must have been in that fight.  It surely must have, been divine power that brought me out.  No other power under heaven could save a man in a place like that." 
Nope, he didn't argue, but he always knew that it was by the grace of God that he was able to stay alive.

Something else one just has to admire about Sgt. York is revealed in this statement he made about his German prisoners:  "They done surrendered to me and it was up to me to look after them.  And so I done done it."  I cannot even write that comment without tearing up out of respect and pride for the kind of soldier Sgt. Alvin C. York was.

Once Alvin York had gained so much celebrity, education for children became extremely important to him. His heart was especially for those that did not have advantage like the children he knew in the hills of Tennessee. He dedicated the rest of his life to this cause. He came to understand the importance of education after traveling to Europe and attending all the ceremonies he was asked to speak at after he became a war hero.

None the less, after reading all that York did in battle and in his civilian life, I believe he was one of the right-smartest men I ever did hear-tell about. ;-)

I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children showing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
Psalm 78: 2-4

My apologies:  I know it seems like I gave away everything that happened in the book. I couldn't help it...I could just keep writing and writing...but nevertheless, there is so very much more and I hope you will have the opportunity to read it. Once you have read it, I'll bet you will have a story or two to tell, as well.

Please check out the official website of Sgt. Alvin York:

Photos: prayerfoundation.org and meredy.com


  1. Hello, Thank you for your post. I am executive director of the Sgt.York Patriotic Foundation. We are a nonprofit dedicated to Sgt. York's legacy. His living children are on my board. Please visit our website www.sgtyork.org and www.yorkgeneralstore.blogspot.com. And we would love ot have everyone come to Pall Mall and tour his home, mill, grave and farm.
    Claudia Johnson, sypfdirector@gmail.com

  2. I also love this movie -- it is definitely one of my favorites. And I actually have the book, but just haven't read it yet. I think I should round it up and add it to my list.