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Dear Readers,

After writing more than 70 columns about films, faith and family, I’ve decided to take a break.

I would like to tell you that I am flying to New Zealand for a small part in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit.”

But the simple truth is that I have a number of writing projects I would like to complete in the next twelve months. Discontinuing my monthly Reel Life Journeys column will free up the time I need for these new projects.

However, I did not make this decision quickly. Only after much thought and prayer did I see that this was the best road to take at this point in my writing career.

“My writing career”… I like the sound of that. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and thanks in large part to the interest and support shared by Rick Musacchio and Andy Telli of The Tennessee Register, I have a great start.

Looking back over these past six years of writing this column, I learned a number of important lessons:

~ Writing is hard work. I can remember only a few magical moments when whole paragraphs flowed through my fingertips. For the most part, I wrote my 850-word columns after purposefully sitting down at my laptop many times to write.

The editors asked that I e-mail my column to them on the Tuesday before the newspaper is published on Friday. That means during the previous week I would ponder the column’s topic, what movie to feature and other quotes or song lyrics I could use to illustrate the topic.

The columns I like the most had a rough draft done by Sunday, extra quotes added by Monday and a final edit before e-mailing the text to Andy on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, too many of my columns, either through procrastination, family duties, my daytime job or other diversions (the Chicago Cubs, pizza, Notre Dame football) did not see a rough draft until Monday, some updates on Tuesday and a final edit early Wednesday morning. I know that most newspapers have a hard print deadline and I know it’s best to get things done sooner rather than later. I just hope I didn’t cause too many late nights for the TR staff.

~ Live each day to its fullest. Unless you are Phil Connors, the weatherman reporting from Puxsatawney, Pennsylvania in Groundhog Day, you can never repeat today. As many others have tweeted or posted on Facebook, today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.

~ Show respect to everyone. A simple school project of collecting one paper clip for every life lost during the Holocaust continues to teach valuable lessons of respect and tolerance to the students, parents and community of Whitwell, TN Middle School. We should remember that lesson and stop judging people because of their looks, their wealth (or lack thereof) or their religion and show them respect. We would all hope to receive the same.

~ There’s no crying in baseball.

~ Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. As Master Yoda so eloquently states, fear is often the root of many evils. But when we sing John Michael Talbot’s lyrics “Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest,” we know that our God is ever before us, guiding us in love.

~ Even the smallest person can change the course of the future. This theme from The Lord of the Rings is much more than supporting a three-foot, seven-inch hobbit on his quest to destroy the One Ring of Power. One individual, standing upon this rock in space we call Earth, is a minuscule part of the world’s population of 7 billion people. Yet that one individual, by his or her acts of kindness and love for other people, can start a chain reaction that will transform this world into a better place to live. You are just one person, but you have a very important role to play.

~ All you need is love.

~ The richness of life is not found in a large bank account. The first Reel Life Journeys column I wrote centered on the song “If I Were a Rich Man” sung by Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof. In this column I imagined what I would do if I won the Powerball lottery. I realized that the things I wanted to do most (write, talk to Grandma more often, spend time with family and friends) were things I could do now without the winnings. Carpe diem!

So thank you, dear readers, for your interest and encouragement through the years. It has been a pleasure and an honor to write this monthly column. I may yet show up on these pages again in the future. “God only knows when we will see each other again,” Hodel says to her father Tevye before boarding the train to Siberia. “Then we will leave it in His hands,” he replies.

The von Trapp family said it best in The Sound of Music when they sang: “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.”

CF

Christopher Fenoglio is grateful for the loving support of his wife and family, to whom these columns are dedicated.

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My feet pound the pavement, left, right, up, down, endless exertion just to burn a few calories. On the road, my head clears out the daily worries as prayers and ideas float to the top. Inside, my iPod plays my favorite playlist.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither while they pass, they slip across the universe.

The huge neighborhood hill looms above. Can I make it to the top? A straight line will be quickest if I don’t stop but it’s much too steep. Left, right, up, down, I serpentine the course, foot by foot, rising closer to the summit.

Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind, possessing and caressing me….nothing’s gonna change my world.

TV images replay in my mind. The candidates aspire, their words inspire, the confetti swirls around boys and girls, red or blue, red and blue. One way or another, historic changes are about to happen.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game. It’s easy…

The first time I watched Across the Universe, my mouth gaped open in amazement. Though set in America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, this is a film, not a documentary. It’s a musical, magical, lyrical love story that springs from the lyrics of great songs by The Beatles.

For us Baby Boomers, this is the soundtrack of our youth—music we heard when the raw, personal energy of changing from children to adults was amplified with sharp pains of lost innocence; when war and assassinations changed our nation and illuminated the certainty of our own mortality.

There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy…

Across the Universe is a love story between Jude, a ship builder from Liverpool who travels to America, and Lucy, a student-turned-activist who protests the Vietnam War in support of her brother Max, a recent draftee.

Along the way we meet Jojo, Sadie, Prudence, Mr. Kite and other characters who leap out of the songs onto the screen in full and living Technicolor. They are all instantly familiar, for parts of them live in each of us. They become immersed in the events and youthful culture of the 60s, but can’t escape the changes happening around them. They struggle with the physical and psychological horrors of war, both far away and close at home.

I look at the world and notice it’s turning, while my guitar gently weeps. With every mistake we must surely be learning, still my guitar gently weeps.

Slammed around by societal forces, they learn deeply that loss can strike at any time. They become separated by ambition, depression, jealousy, greed and pride. One loses a friend, another loses a lover; one loses his mind, another loses a home.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Jude is forced to reflect on his painful, recent past, deciding who and what is most important in his life. But instead of hiding away on an island in his own corner of the world, he invites more change into his life, choosing to reach out and engage, to live and to love.

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain, don’t carry the world upon your shoulder. For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making the world a little colder.

When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, his world was also experiencing incredible changes. The church was growing in Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonica, though factions clashed over beliefs. He sent his letter, a literary epistle that outlines many of the universal truths and beliefs in his preaching, to friends as a way to introduce himself to the Romans.

In this weekend’s second reading (Rom 13:8-10), Paul writes that we should “owe nothing to anyone, except to love another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

It’s easy…All you need is love…all you need is love…all you need is love, love is all you need.

But love is more than a feeling or an attitude—it’s a choice, an action, a commitment—to ourselves, to our family and friends, to our nation and the people of this world.

As I finish my run, a new playlist starts, streaming songs from gospel rock band dc Talk. One of the songs stands out:

I don’t care what they say, I don’t care care what ya heard. The word love, love is a verb.

Imagine…if that song became the soundtrack of our lives today.

CF

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First published in the September 5, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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I am an optimist.

As I tell my son, I am “a happy man.” I try to stay upbeat, see the good in others and have faith that everything will work out for the best.

Lately, however, I’ve been walking under a dark cloud of doubt. I rationally understand that a joyous event could happen in the near future, yet I am fearful that calamity will strike again, destroying this year’s dream and adding more misery onto me, my family, friends and fellow fans.

The subject of this column is near and dear to my heart, as much a part of my genetic makeup as Italian food and Irish blue eyes – the Chicago Cubs. The possible joyous event? The first World Series championship in 100 years.

A glorious night singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field.

Singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field in 2004.

As I write this column, the Cubs are beginning their “Hunt for a Blue October” with the division playoff series against the Dodgers. This is only the sixth postseason appearance for the Cubs in my 50-year-old lifetime.

My father, the man who indoctrinated me into Cubs fandom, was only nine years old in 1945 when the team last appeared in the World Series. My Nonno (Italian for grandfather) was not even born when the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Now those two die-hard fans are rallying the angels and cheering for the Cubs from Heaven.

Here on earth, I am trying to stay optimistic and keep the faith, but it’s hard. I’ve seen too many slumps, slides and strikeouts to know that no collapse is impossible for the Cubs.

Ground balls through the legs, foul balls not caught, hot summer day games, a black cat on the field, a billy goat kept out of the ballpark – all of these events have kept the Cubs from winning the pennant. Why, after the mythical collapse of 1969 when the Amazin’ Mets won it all, there were rumors that the Cubs were going to be sold and moved to the Philippines, where they would be renamed the Manila Folders. Not really, but you can understand the angst all us Cubs fans feel.

What really concerns me, though, is the realization that the level of my pessimism is directly proportional to the team’s talent and success. Each win delivers a one-two punch of elation and anxiety at the same time. After so many years of failure, am I scared that the Cubs might win? Can we handle the success?

This quandary leads me to wonder if I should “play it safe” with my emotions and not get too wrapped in either the highs or lows of daily life. Is it better to stay on an even keel, or is life best experienced by enjoying the highs and persevering through the lows?

And what about faith? If we are always playing it safe, then we don’t need faith; we don’t need a loving God to whom we turn for comfort for our sorrows or to thank for our joys.

No, even though I am a man of doubt and fears, I am also a man of faith. I will enjoy this postseason. I want to remember the Cubs of 2008 as a great team, no matter the final outcome.

“How do you want to be remembered?” asks Kent Stock, the coach of the Norway High School baseball team in the film The Final Season.

Norway, Iowa is a small farming community just west of Cedar Rapids. Playing baseball is as much a part of the daily routine in Norway as feeding the livestock and hauling hay to the barn. Based upon a true story in 1991, The Final Season tells the story of a very successful baseball team.

Year after year, this small 1A high school baseball team remained independent of any conference so that they could schedule teams from much larger schools. Under the guidance of longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc, the team focused on the fundamentals of baseball and won 19 Iowa State Baseball Championships.

That winning tradition, however, was seriously put to the test when the county school board decided that the students of Norway High School would have many more educational opportunities if they close the school and merge with the larger Madison High School.

Forcing Coach Van Scoyoc to retire, the school board hires inexperienced Kent Stock (Sean Astin) to coach the team before the merger. Coach Stock must inspire the players to work hard for one more season, one more championship. He wants the team to be remembered as winners.

It’s a story that shows us that despite the possibility of failure or the certainty of change, we should live in the moment and use our God-given talents to the best of our abilities, even if those talents are a love for the Chicago Cubs and a fervent hope that they are successful.

There are many reasons to stay optimistic: the Cubs have excellent pitching, big hitters, and they wear the Roman numeral for 100 on their caps – this has to be the year!

Eddie Vedder, a longtime Cubs fan and lead singer of Pearl Jam, wrote a song this summer titled “Some Day We’ll Go All the Way.” After 100 years, there’s no time like the present.

Keep the faith, Cubs fans.

CF
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First published in the October 3, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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Two weeks ago I was at Wrigley Field in Chicago, watching the Cubs beat the Pirates and step toward the playoffs. As I drove home, I imagined conversations that might be heard if a Chicago sports talk program aired on a religious radio station.

This is Father Michael Patrick O’Connor, talking to you live from our studio and devotional chapel on Waveland Avenue, overlooking the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Go ahead, caller, you’re on the air.

Caller 1: Hello Father Michael, it’s Cathy from Elgin. I have been a Cub fan all my life, but some of my friends have lost faith in the Cubbies. They think the team will always find some way to lose. What should I tell them?

FMPO’C: Well Cathy, it’s interesting that wrigley-layout.gifyou use the word “faith,” as that is exactly what us Cub fans need right now.

Sure it’s been a long time since the Cubs won the National League pennant in 1945. Whole generations have come and gone since the team last won the World Series in 1908. But we can’t switch allegiances and cheer for an American League team. We must have faith that this could be the year the Cubs win it all.

“Hope springs eternal in the hearts of Cub fans everywhere,” my father used to say. Despite the losing streaks, the lack of clutch hits with men on base and a reliable closer, we still believe in the Cubs. They are the team of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. They are so much a part of us that cheering for them is like cheering for ourselves. We can overcome; we can grab the brass ring.

Cathy, tell your friends to keep the faith. How about another call?

Caller 2: Hi Father, it’s Andy from Omaha, listening on the Internet. Do you think they should make a movie about the Cubs?

FMPO’C: Yes and hopefully a better one than Rookie of the Year. In that film, Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a twelve-year-old Little Leaguer who breaks his arm. When the cast is removed, he celebrates by going to Wrigley Field with his friends.

When an opponent hits a home run that lands nearby, Henry follows tradition and throws the ball back onto the field. But since the tendons of his arm healed tighter than before, his throw goes all the way to home plate.

Desperate for good pitching and greater ticket sales, the Cubs sign Rowengartner to a major league contract with funny and predictable results. Some of it is just plain silly, much like the Cubs in the mid 1970s.

A better movie would be like Fever Pitch, except with scenes of Wrigley Field, the Bleacher Bums, and the joy felt by 40,000 fans singing “Go Cubs Go” after every victory.

Millions of fans have loved the Cubs since before the days of Banks, Kessinger, Santo and Williams. Now with Lee, Theriot, Ramirez and Soriano leading the way, there’s bound to be a happy ending. We just don’t know the day or the hour of its arrival.

When we read the Book of Job, we find that Job endured many long years of affliction and disaster. Yet he did not curse God or start cheering for another team. We too must have faith that in God’s time—we will be rewarded for our devotion. So, who’s on line one?

Caller 3: Hey, it’s Steve from Chicago. Do you have a good prayer to get rid of all the curses put on the Cubs over the years?

FMPO’C: I know some people say that the years of last place finishes and excruciating near misses are evidence that the Cubs and their fans are jinxed. I disagree.

Granted, trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio was an All-Star mistake, and the College of Coaches was a very bad idea. But those were just poor choices made by human beings. Since God gave us free will, we have to live with the consequences of our bad decisions. That’s baseball; that’s life.

C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”

Like Job, we are stronger from our suffering. We enjoy every small victory that comes our way, yet still know the pangs of humility. Not many Yankees fans can say that.

As for the Curse of the Goat, the story goes that Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant and Chicago restaurant owner, brought his pet goat to the 1945 World Series—the last one played at Wrigley Field. When the Andy Frain ushers ejected him from the stadium, he cursed the Cubs. But they were right in kicking him out—goats can really stink by the seventh inning.

Forget about curses and believe in the Cubs with a sincere heart. Lou Piniella will do the rest. Of course, a prayer to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, can also help. Finally, we have time for one more call.

Caller 4: Hi Father, it’s Rory from South Bend. Do you have any advice for this year’s Notre Dame football team?

FMPO’C: Oh, Rory my son, the lessons of faith are even more important there, but we’ll have to wait until next week. Keep the faith!

CF
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First published in the October 5, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio.

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Ever since the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France was completed in the early 13th century, sunlight streams through its windows and bathes the worshippers at Mass in glorious technicolor.

Each of the three stained glass rose windows tells a different story. The one on the north transept shows the Glorification of the Virgin. The one on the south portrays the Glorification of Christ, while the one on the west front depicts The Last Judgment.

For the first visitors to the Cathedral, the windows were an artistic portrayal of inspirational stories, whose messages of sacrifice, good works, repentance and love enriched their lives outside of the church.

These windows (and the beautiful examples in our local churches) continue to inspire us to this day.

But thanks to modern technology, we have many more media formats in the 21st century through which inspiration touches our lives. Readers of this column know that one of our favorite formats is film.

Robert K. Johnston writes in his book Reel Spirituality that “film has the power to disturb and to enlighten, to make us more aware of both who we are and what our relationship with others could be. It can even usher us into the presence of the holy.”

Some films were created specifically to be inspirational stories of faith:

> A young French shepherd girl holds fast to what she saw, heard and believes, despite the ridicule of her family and the townspeople. (Song of Bernadette)

> An Olympic runner refuses to run on Sunday, but runs on another day, saying “I believe God made me for a purpose…but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure. (Chariots of Fire)

> A non-Italian cardinal is elected pope and takes drastic measures to feed the starving people of the world and diffuse the growing threat of nuclear war between two superpowers (The Shoes of the Fisherman)

> A widow and her son offer gentle help and heartfelt words to a recovering alcoholic country music singer, helping him reclaim his life and advance his career. (Tender Mercies)

Other films, while not specifically stories of faith, have scenes that mirror the choices we have to make every day.

> When it is clear that Lord Voldemort has returned, Professor Dumbledore tells Harry that “dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must make the choice between what is right and what is easy.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

> In the heat of battle, Luke Skywalker realizes that his anger serves the wrong purpose. He regains his peaceful composure, throws away his light saber, and tells the Emperor “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side…I’m a Jedi, like my father.” (Star Wars VI – Return of the Jedi)

Movies can also be metaphors for classic themes (good vs. evil, individual vs. establishment) or for contemporary issues. Consider a film currently in theaters Evan Almighty, starring Steve Carrell.

In this film, Carrell reprises his weatherman role from Bruce Almighty and wins election to Congress. But his wife and three sons recognize Congressman Evan as the same old Dad, who brings work home and never has time for them. Late one night, Evan learns that his wife has prayed that they grow closer as a family. Evan also decides to pray, asking God for help to fulfill his campaign promise to “change the world.”

God listens and asks Evan to build an ark in the middle of his subdivision. God makes the clear distinction that he is not answering Evan’s prayer by changing the world, but that he is giving Evan the opportunity (along with a large supply of gopher wood and the necessary hand tools) to change the world himself.

evan-almighty.gifStill, it’s up to Evan to make the right choice and do what is necessary, even at the risk of losing his job, his family and the respect of his community.

The film becomes a metaphor for the internal conflicts we experience when making a choice in our lives. Do we follow God’s way or the path we want? Evan Almighty also explores the themes of man’s improper use of the Earth’s resources, the misuse of legislative power for personal financial gain, and the influence that Biblical stories should have on our lives and the operations of our government.

Films can inspire us to lead better lives, to respect others and make good choices that affect the lives of our family, friends and even our planet.

In The Lord of the Rings films, we see Frodo’s courage and hear from Galadriel that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

Imagine what we could do for our planet if we combine that sentiment with the suggested energy-saving measures in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

We truly could change the world.

CF
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First published in the July 13, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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Purchase from Amazon.com:
> The Song of Bernadette

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My father was John Wayne.

Not literally, as if I was the result of a Hollywood lifestyle or the offspring of one of the actor’s three marriages.

Figuratively speaking, my father during my childhood years was John Wayne — bigger than life, a commanding presence at home and work, a movie star among mere mortals.

The first-born in an Italian-American home in Terre Haute, Indiana, John Richard Fenoglio was raised under the influence of America’s “greatest generation,” so called by Tom Brokaw in his book by the same name.

According to the book’s cover notes, “this generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values — duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country and, above all, responsibility for oneself.”

During my father’s youth, America was focused on World War II, coffee and gasoline was rationed, and the Hit Parade on the radio featured Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra.

War movies filled the silver screens during the next decades, often starring my father’s favorite actor — John Wayne.

According to the World War II portrayed by Hollywood, John Wayne was a hero simultaneously in all four service academies: Army (Back to Bataan, The Longest Day), Navy (Fighting Seabees, In Harm’s Way), Air Force (Flying Tigers), and Marines (Sands of Iwo Jima, The Flying Leathernecks).

Though he tended to act first and ask questions later, no one doubted whether John Wayne’s character was in charge. He was — and so was my father.

Following graduation from Indiana University’s Medical School, my father’s residency programs guided us to homes throughout Indiana, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, and finally to his general practice in Rockford, Illinois.

When he came home after a long day of caring for patients and managing the office staff, he usually kept his boss’s hat on, ordering his seven children to pick up our stuff, feed the dogs, help Mom and let him know when dinner was ready.

We all knew when he was home.

Yet he wasn’t all business and commands. There was indeed a softer, emotional side to my father.

From him I learned the language of music, with which orchestras, big bands and vocalists use to convey a wide spectrum of human emotions.

In my altar boy days, I watched my father read from the lectern as a lay minister. He pushed all of us in our studies and school sports. He encouraged us to have a professional career that was not tied to any one location.

We drove to museums, ballparks and historical sites during memorable family vacations in the black station wagon. Just as John Wayne barked in Sands of Iwo Jima, when our father yelled “Lock and load,” we knew it was time to go.

Watching John Wayne films became a calming diversion from my father’s stressful days with his medical practice. Perhaps that’s why he enjoyed The Quiet Man so much.

In this atypical John Wayne film, the actor portrays Sean Thornton, an American boxer who returns to Ireland and his birthplace “White O’ Morn,” a wee humble cottage near the town of Innisfree.Quiet Man2

After arriving on the Dublin train, he meets many of the townspeople, including matchmaker Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond). But neither makes an impression on him like Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), whose interested eyes and fiery red hair foretell the passion and conflict that will fill their lives together.

Along the way we’re treated with the delightful differences between American and Irish cultures over courtship, personal fortune, gender, religion and social conversations.

Thornton, who left America after killing another boxer in the ring, just to win a large amount of money, realizes he can’t escape his responsibilities. He must fight again for money to win the respect and love of Mary Kate. In the end, he wins the love of his Irish wife, the friendship of his brother-in-law, and the respect of the entire village.

Watching The Quiet Man gave my father a welcomed escape from the extraordinary pressures in his ordinary days, even if it was only for a few hours. Perhaps he even enjoyed the idea of living in a distant country with his own Irish wife, my mother Judith O’Connor Fenoglio. He certainly relished the moments when he called out to her just like Sean Thornton, “Woman of the house, where’s my tea?”

So this Father’s Day weekend, give your father a call and if possible, do something special to escape the ordinary. Create a new memory, a new expression of love.

Me? I’ll be in Indianapolis to bring a little Irish to my Dad. I’ll find the place where he is lying, so I can kneel and say an Ave just for him.

CF

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First published in the June 15, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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Purchase from Amazon.com:
> The Quiet Man (Collector’s Edition)

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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.

YorkBut 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.”

Returning to Tennessee, Alvin and Gracie are married by the governor and receive a gift of 400 acres, upon which they build their home.

Valley of 3 Forks of WolfI 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.

CF
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First published in the May 18, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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