A Soi Cowboy story: Memories of Sargent Alvin York.
A few mornings ago, I had coffee with Gary, he of the bald head, beloved of God and protected by the deity’s own she-bears (See below (*) 5. Kings 2:23).
We met up at a pub at the corner of Soi Cowboy. It was early morning. I walked through the Soi to get there. At night the street is lit up with an unholy glare and flooded with noise imparting a frisson of excitement that causes your heart to beat as though someone suddenly set off roman candles in your living room. In the tenuous morning light, however, the excitement had long since dribbled away and the street now was seedy looking, quiet and deserted except for those cleaning up the refuse from the night before.
Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s three main “red light” districts originally set up to cater to allied soldiers on RR during the Vietnam War. It now serves the erotic needs of mostly Western and Japanese tourists. The other two are Patpong and Soi Nana. Patpong, built on land owned by the Royal Family, had long ago gone into the sexual voyeurism business; ping-pong balls, darts and balloons, razor blades, frogs, simulated sex acts and the like. Soi Cowboy, a block long alleyway with bars and go-go establishments on each side had more recently graduated from a run of the mill carnal emporium to a required stop on packaged Asian sex tours. Nana for the time being, has remained what it has always been since the soldiers left, a low-class hang-out for the typical ex-pat reprobate.
A girl working on Soi Cowboy, because of its up-scale status, can earn as much as $10,000 or more a month. In the villages they come from the average income is something less than $100 a month. I sometimes wonder what most people would be willing to do to make over 100 times more than they make now. Alas with the upscaling, gone are the independent entrepreneurs working the bars. They have been replaced by employees. And, with that comes the real exploitation.
But this post is not about the Soi, Bangkok’s seamy undersides or the Girls and their clients, but about what Gary told me as we sat there at the tables outside the pub drinking coffee and watching the Green Bay-Detroit Lions football game on television.
During our exchange of stories, recent medical histories and comments on the game, for some reason Gary mentioned that his great-uncle was Sargent Alvin York. This news intrigued me, so I asked him to tell me more.
For those for whom his name is unfamiliar, Sargent York was the US most famous hero of WWI. He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.
From York’s diary:
“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”
“And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
Before the war York was a violent alcoholic and prone to bar brawls. Nevertheless, after his best friend was killed in a bar fight, he eventually joined a pacifist church opposed to all forms of violence and reformed his ways. At the time he was drafted he claimed contentious objector status stating:
“I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”
The story of his life was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards and won two, one of which was by Cooper for best actor. Gary said, that he was named after the movie star. I guess because Alvin was already taken.
The Yorks lived in the Town of Pall Mall deep in the hollows of Tennessee, Smokey and the Bandit country were moonshine was king and law non-existent. In fact, the only law that existed in that county was provided by the York’s kin since out of respect to York, they were usually not run out of the county like all other representatives of law-enforcement.
As Gary explained:
“The lawless county would not tolerate any law officers whatsoever, although York thought he could (uphold the law and maintain order), he was wrong . Moonshine whiskey and marijuana came along in the late sixties there in the poverty-stricken mountainous area.”
“My grandmother, Vicey ( Frogg) Williams mothered her first when she was fourteen and all of them had first names beginning with L and middle names of Presidents . One was actually shot and killed in a feud. All of their middle names were names of presidents..”
York married Gracie Williams (played by Joan Leslie in the movie), Gary’s grandfather’s sister.
Gracie and Sgt. Alvin York taken when Gary was about 6 years old.
“I recall Aunt Gracie had three boys . Andrew Jackson York, Woodrow Wilson York , and Thomas Jefferson York… I heard , but never verified as I never went down again after 1970, that Thomas Jefferson may of been killed by moonshiners. They were serious about that stuff..
…it would be interesting to know if the Jamestown , Pall Mall area still is lawless. It certainly was in 1970… My mom told me that Thomas thought he could bring law and order to the hill country…”
My grand father, Wesley was a teasing fun skinny guy who had been a share cropper. Many of those folks down there were… they would have many children hoping to use the children to ease their labors…Pensions are not big in lawless counties in America.”
After York’s death, Gracie, his widow, kept a shotgun in every room in the house because of the practice in that county of raiding any large home soon after the dominant male departs those good green hills.
York himself as Gary remembered him was a quiet soft-spoken man who looked nothing at all like Gary Cooper.
In Gary’s own words:
“…he (York) was a classic Mountain Democrat and that was a bone of contention in those days with the Froggs ( my grandmother’s family )…
York refused to benefit from the honors awarded to him including the funds received from the movie and book about his life, choosing instead to donate the money to charities he favored. Most of the money and York’s efforts went into educating the children of his home county. Despite, donating the money from the movie to charity, the IRS rejected his claim and hounded York for several years, until shortly before both their deaths then President John F. Kennedy cancelled the debt calling the IRS actions in the matter a “national disgrace.”
“I was there that summer (the summer that York died) at fourteen..we lived in Springfield, Illinois and had (many) seemingly endless drives down to north central Tennessee ..”
Sargent York bed-ridden. The boy is Gary’s cousin. Gary was between 10 and 12 years old at the time this photograph was taken.
“In Springfield I was a page-boy in the State Senate and developed my disdain for Illinois politicians… In 1965 , I was 19 and got my draft notice then left those assholes in August . I delivered their hookers, drove their wives around shopping, fixed little logistic issues for them and realized they never did their homework, only what the lobbyist paid them to say and do. I still remember a slick haired guy walking up to me back then and saying, “Hi, I’m Al Green with the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association.” He put a five dollar bill in my hand. I vividly remember his features. A few months later I was earning $78 per month in the USAF…
In 1970, I returned from the military and worked there again as a bill clerk. Across the hall from my parent’s apartment lived Paul Simon who I often walked to work with, a very nice man who always wore a bow tie and had terrific dandruff…he had risen in politics after being a newspaper editor down south in Troy, Illinois … I was 25, (when) I did the bill clerk thing and walked with Paul to work at 9 AM. I considered him among the kindest of those characters…”
Most of York’s male descendants as well as Gary’s uncles served in WWII with the 82th Airborne, the successor to York’s old outfit. None of them, even York himself, would talk to Gary about their experiences during the war, even when Gary specifically asked them to. Finally shortly before he died one of his uncles opened up to him.
“My father’s twin brother served in the 82nd when it was known as Airborne . It was only the 82nd division in WWI ..Uncle Lloyd is still alive living across the river from St. Louis . He still has hair and blue eyes .. My father was bald and had brown eyes.. In college they told me not to worry about baldness as it is a gene that comes from mothers. My mom had thick dense hair, so I figured I would never face the dreaded cue ball look. When it came I didn’t care as I could not see it anyway…”
Gary told me some of what Uncle Lloyd told him. Two images stood out in my mind:
One day Gary and his Uncle Lloyd went together to see the movie Saving Private Ryan. A cow roaming in a pasture appeared in one battle scene. His uncle laughed. After the movie Gary asked him why he laughed at that particular scene. He said because,“in the war there were no cows, there were no birds they were all dead. After the armies came through there was nothing left alive for people to eat and so they starved.”
On another occasion he told Gary that there was nothing good in war. At the end, he said, he saw children and old men dressed in German uniforms because all the young men had been killed and they were all that was left of the German Army. What choice did he have? Kill them or be killed.
(*) – 5. Kings 2:23 – “Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you bald head! Go up, you bald head!” So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.”
- On August 25th, 1942: the 82nd became Airborne (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
- Exhibit tells story of World War I hero Alvin York (timesfreepress.com)
- Medal of Honor Roll Call: Alvin C. York (givemeliberty01.com)