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As the people of our little town slowly gathered into the old stone railroad depot that 150 years ago this month was itself the center of a life and death struggle between soldiers for North and South, we anxiously gathered to celebrate America’s veterans.
A talented brass band – the Jericho Brass awaited making final tunings for the evening concert of patriotic music.
As the first notes rang out I thought back to the old movies where often at the train station an arriving hero was greeted by the strains of a brass band. One of my favorite old movie heroes was one depicted by Gary Cooper – Alvin C. York. A hero of World War I whose heroism made him the most decorated soldier of the war.
As a child, little Alvin did what other boys from the country did. He hunted for rabbits and squirrels, fished for trout and walked barefoot behind the plow feeling the earth between his toes on the family farm. After his father’s death, being the oldest left at home, it fell to him to look to the family’s needs.
He pushed to keep the farm going and grew up keeping the family together. As a young man, Alvin enjoyed spending his free time out having a good time with his friends — raisin’ a little ruckus with some drinking.
At a certain point, he realized that he needed to change his way of life and dedicate his free time to better, more productive pursuits. Depictions about how this metamorphosis took place show a bolt of lightning knocking him off his horse while he was in a drunken stupor. Supposedly, he heard the sound of his mother singing in a church service nearby and made his way toward the voices until he fell at the altar and dedicated his life to Christ. Apparently in real life, it was his mother’s pleas and the love of a young girl, Gracie Williams, that would straighten his life out.
Some months later, the Army called Alvin to serve his country and fight overseas.
At the urging of his mother and Pastor Pile, he shared his view that killing was wrong and against the teachings of the Bible by sending a written request for exemption as a conscientious objector. The request was denied.
He struggled between his faith and patriotism. His trainers pushed him harder to try to make an example of someone who did not want to fight for his country.
As an accomplished backwoodsman whose talent with a gun meant the difference between having food on the table or not, he could shoot straighter, run faster and endure more than most men in basic training. Because of his expertise with the rifle, he was soon enlisted to help his fellow soldiers learn the skills they would need. He built strong friendships with men from the streets of Brooklyn to the shores of Lake Michigan.
In spite of his success in basic training, he still did not want to kill in battle. As he lay on the dirt on a battlefield in France, with German bullets hitting around him, killing and wounding the men he had grown to know as friends, something within him pushed him from cover. As he worked his way through a hail of bullets from machine guns and rifles to get to a vantage point where his marksmanship would save the lives of his fellow soldiers, the concerns about killing were washed away in the need to save his friends. Practically unassisted, he captured 132 Germans, including three officers, confiscated about 35 machine guns and killed no less than 25 of the enemy.
He always played down his heroic acts. He described the incident by saying: “So we had a hard fought battle.”
In the battle between his belief in God and his belief in country, I believe both won that day.
No greater gift can a person give than to lay down his life for another. He certainly could have lost his life that day as many of his friends did.
Two thousand years ago, one man gave his life so millions could be free of the sins of this world. Even young Alvin C. York, World War I’s most decorated soldier, looked to God to guide him in his darkest moments and brought him beyond a day where he reluctantly killed the enemy. God gave him the strength to face the bullets and save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives that day in France.
As I looked around the room as the band narrator invited representatives from the various branches of service to stand and be recognized, I could not help to think what they had faced in their service and the tremendous thanks that we owe each and every one of them that stood and are currently standing in harm’s way so we might live free. I encourage you, if your community works to honor veterans, take the time to participate. We owe them our best and not just on Veteran's Day.
Randall Franks is an award-winning musician, singer and actor. He is best known for his role as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night” now on W