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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.


First published in the June 15, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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.


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

Purchase this product from Amazon.com:
> Sergeant York DVD

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