I’ve always admired courage. Ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper I’ve been in awe of ordinary folks who, when push came to shove, performed extraordinarily. A voracious reader as a kid, I was amazed by the incredible feats of America’s most decorated soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy. And as an adult, the story of a humble Tennessee boy, who was originally a conscientious objector, Alvin York, and his exploits in “the war to end all wars,” still dumbfounds me.
I guess I was originally fascinated by courage displayed in wartime because my dad and all my uncles on both sides of the family served in “the last good war.” From them I learned that men of courage rise up when times get tough, and do the right thing — no matter what.
There are many tales of heroes and legends I knew as a child, but none shines more brightly in my heart than that of Harry Davis. One of America’s greatest sons, Harry and his wife, Eloise, live quietly near Mount Pleasant these days.
So unpretentious and humble is Harry that there’s a good chance many students who passed through his science classroom at old Sharp Middle School never suspected that they were in the presence of true courage.
Harry served in the Navy in World War II. If you’re familiar with the tale told in the movie, “U-571,” understand that Harry Davis is one of those men who define courage, having operated a captured German U-boat in Chesapeake Bay.
Interestingly, after World War II Harry joined the Army and flew Hercules C-130 aircraft, retiring as a Colonel. Perhaps categorized by some “merely” as a retired academic, Harry Davis exemplifies love of country and epitomizes courage, having sailed enemy subs and having soared higher than eagles.
Courage comes in many forms and fashions, though. It’s not only manifested in warfare when men sacrifice themselves to save their brothers, or when a president — fully aware of the personal heat he will endure — chooses to drop an atomic bomb in order to save millions of lives down the road.
Courage is a middle school kid turning away from doing drugs or joining a gang when the pressure from his or her peer group is so heavy it’s hard to breathe. Courage is a battered defensive end, a kid who weighs maybe 170 pounds dripping wet, still keeping his shoulders square in the fourth quarter and taking on two burly blockers, making the tailback turn it back inside instead of getting to the corner. Courage is a little girl, her ankle wrapped tightly enough to cut off the circulation but not enough to stop the pain, pounding down the runway and vaulting to a score high enough to win for her country’s Olympic team.
Courage is a man putting his jetliner down in the Hudson River and walking the length of the flooding cabin — twice — to be sure people in his care are safely off his plane.
Courage, for older folk, comes in other forms too. It’s easy to think of oneself as bulletproof when you’re young; unafraid, unattached, with the world as your oyster you can put about and launch in any direction. But as one grows older and finds a comfort zone, suddenly brave new worlds and whatever lies over the horizon don’t seem as important as they once did.
It’s easier to stay put. Launching out is — frightening. Chucking what you have for what you hope to have, putting all you you’ve attained on the line for what may be a better future, takes so much — courage.
My cousin, Fred Harwell, established as an expert auto parts manager here in town, had always wanted to sell the new ones. It took courage for Fred to leave his comfort zone and launch into the unknown, but the satisfaction of achieving his dream made the gut check worthwhile.
Another man I’ve long admired for his personal integrity, Richard Brown, was secure in his position with a large corporation. But a few decades ago, Richard put all his eggs into his own basket and started his successful Truss Systems. Enduring these tough economic times, fighting to preserve as many jobs within his company as he can, Richard Brown continues to serve his church, his community and his fellow man.
Yes, I’ve always admired courage, and those who dare to go boldly, who face despair, defeat and tough times by digging down and continuing to move forward.
You know them, too. Some are larger than life, like Harry Truman. But they’re also folks like Harry Davis, Fred Harwell, and Richard Brown. They’re ordinary folks living extraordinary lives, which inspire the rest of us to live life the way John Wayne defined it:
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.