One of the most unforgettable people I ever encountered was my eighth grade American history teacher. In 1964, Greensboro was so tiny that all grades were housed on the same campus, so he was familiar to everyone. But not until I was 13, and in his class, did I get to know a Tennessean with some Indian blood in him, Mr. G. M. Charles.
Now, the whole town knew Mr. Charles as assistant principal and football coach. But he was startling in appearance to young people, as his Indian features were exaggerated by the effects of an automobile wreck which caused his mouth to droop at one corner, elongating his face a bit. The crash had left him with a limp.
He brooked no foolishness. In a day and age when every teacher swung a paddle, students exhibited respectful behavior in his classes. He had a wry sense of humor, which discombobulated his students. At times we'd want to laugh out loud, but on the other hand didn't know if we should.
Quite the conundrum.
Anyway, it was 1964. Nov. 11 rolled around, and Mr. Charles taught us a little lesson about Armistice Day. Ten years earlier, President Eisenhower had changed the name of the Federal holiday to Veterans Day. Our parents had grown up after World War I and most had fought in World War II, so to them, and to Mr. Charles, Nov. 11 was still Armistice Day, the day World War I, "the war to end all wars," came to an end.
Mr. Charles explained that the armistice was signed "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month." World leaders were convinced at the time that no nation would ever contemplate fomenting another war, so horrific had been the cost.
In 1919, President Wilson established the first Armistice Day, and it remained so until the 1954 change was made to honor America's veterans of all wars, not just World War I.
"History books will be changed at some point in the future," I remember Mr. Charles telling us. "So I want you boys and girls to remember, long as you live, that Nov. 11 was once called ‘Armistice Day.' Remember why it was so, and pass that on to your children so that it will never be forgotten."
And then Mr. Charles told us the story of a fellow Tennessee mountain boy, Alvin York. Alvin was raised in a church which forbade members from taking up arms. Mr. Charles went on to tell us how young Alvin was a sharpshooter who would walk sometimes for days to turkey shooting contests and bring back the only food the family might have at all.
America got involved in World War I, and the call was issued for young men to enlist. As the greatest sharpshooter known in those parts, pressure was put upon Alvin York to do the right thing, to enlist and serve his nation by killing Germans.
York initially registered instead as a conscientious objector by virtue of his religious beliefs. But an Army chaplain convinced the youngster that taking up arms against the forces of evil for the cause of right was justified.
York's accomplishments are well known to students of history. On Oct. 18, 1918, his unit was ordered to capture a hill held by Germans commanding the field of battle. York single-handedly killed 28 Germans, destroyed 32 machine gun nests, and captured 132 enemy soldiers. For his exploits, York received the Medal of Honor.
Mr. G. M. Charles was particularly proud of his fellow Tennessean, and he shared a passage from a speech Alvin York made at the 1939 World's Fair:
"We in Tennessee are descendants of the pioneer long hunters of the mountains. The spiritual environment and our religious life have made our spirit wholly American, and that true pioneer American spirit still exists in the Tennessee mountains. Even today, with all the clamor of the world and its evil attractions, you still find in the humble log cabins that old-fashioned family altar of prayer - the same that they used to have in grandma's and grandpa's day - which is the true spirit of the long hunters. We in the Tennessee mountains are not transplanted Europeans; every fiber in our body and every emotion in our hearts is American."
Alvin York will not be forgotten. Come this Nov. 11, the Stars and Stripes will fly at our house in grateful appreciation for America's veterans of all wars. And it'll also wave in memory of Armistice Day, and a grand old man from Tennessee, Mr. G. M. Charles.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.