Quote of the Day: Tolkien on Courage

 

“Courage is found in unlikely places” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Every now and then I read about an act of courage that is so inspiring — and so unlikely — that it provides a necessary balance to my normal dim view of humanity.

Kenneth Byrd. According to a 2014 news story, 67-year-old Kenneth Byrd of North Carolina, his wife, and their granddaughter were at home when they heard a knock at the door. When the grandfather opened the door, three armed thugs forced their way in. After menacing the family, including a boast that they were going to rape the granddaughter, they demanded that the old man open his safe.

The old man led the three men into the next room where the safe was located. While the three home invaders hovered, their guns drawn, Byrd opened the safe. Inside, among papers and a bit of cash, Byrd had stowed a gun for safekeeping.

And thus arrived the old man’s existential and defining moment. He could take the money out of the safe and hand it to the thugs. Perhaps they would leave them alone if he did. Or he could grab the gun and confront the thugs. He might get a few shots off before he himself got shot up. The first option may have sounded too much like rationalizing, the coward’s way out. The second sounded like suicide.

Kenneth Byrd chose the second way, the hero’s way. He was just not going to allow his granddaughter to be raped, even if it meant dying in a fusillade of bullets. So he grabbed the gun and exchanged gunfire with the three goons. Byrd managed to hit all three, but in the exchange he was hit multiple times. (He ended up in a hospital in critical condition.)

Although wounded, the hoodlums got away, stealing Byrd’s car to use as a getaway car. When two of them showed up in a local hospital with gunshot wounds, the police arrested them. They left behind their accomplice lying dead in Byrd’s car, the result of one of the old man’s bullets.

Byrd’s story struck home. I have an eleven-year-old granddaughter. If I had been in the old man’s shoes, I wonder if I would have reached for that gun, knowing I was probably going to get shot.

 

Audie Murphy. Who would have thought that a baby-faced kid, all of 5’ 5” tall and 136 pounds, a sharecropper’s son from Oklahoma, would perform deeds of valor that could fill ten war movies.

At sixteen years of age (he told the Army he was eighteen), Murphy joined up. At nineteen, he climbed atop a burning tank destroyer that was ready to explode. Firing its 50-caliber machine gun, Murphy held off a company of attacking German soldiers, killing twenty. Although wounded and out of ammunition, he led his fellow infantrymen on a successful counterattack.

Before that magnificent act of courage, Murphy had already received 20 awards for valor. The little guy from Oklahoma turned out to be about as big a man as you could find anywhere.

 

The Boys of D-Day. For me, the most inspiring displays of courage were exhibited by those ordinary Joes crammed in the landing craft on their way across the Channel toward Omaha Beach. It was June 6, 1944, and the invasion of Europe was on.

As they approached the shore, the young soldiers could hear German bullets hitting the armor-clad front ramps, sounds that must have struck fear in the hearts of these young soldiers. But when those front ramps descended, the young men, every last one of them, jumped into the surf in the face of withering German fire. Soldiers in the first two landing craft to come ashore on Omaha Beach were massacred as German automatic fire and mortars rained down from a bluff overlooking the shoreline.

The U.S. suffered 2,400 casualties on Omaha Beach that day. Some of the wounded drowned in the surf as they struggled to reach the beachhead.

Here is one of the cemeteries that contain the bodies of soldiers who died during the Normandy Invasion. (A few years back, I visited the Normandy Museum and this cemetery, and it was a gut-wrenching experienced, believe me.) One hopes these young men will be honored as long as there is a United States to honor them.

Let me leave you with a quote from the redoubtable John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” Perhaps you have been scared to death but saddled up anyway. I’d like to hear about it.

Postscript 1: I read six different accounts of the Kenneth Byrd episode. None of them seemed to know where Byrd found the gun that he used. One of the accounts mentioned that it might have been in the safe. That’s the version I used. I followed the general narrative of the news story, but it was so sketchy that I had to occasionally imagine what was going on. The original story comes across almost like an urban legend (Lumberton NC, October 25, 2014).

Postscript 2: The closest I ever came to displaying courage was in a tavern in Germany in 1959. I was a soldier at the time. A fight broke out and one poor sap of a U.S. soldier was being beaten senseless by two rather large German civilians. This was just seven years after our official occupation of Germany ended, fourteen years after the firebombing of Dresden. Perhaps these German toughs were taking out their resentments on a U.S. soldier.

My plan was to be a hero by rescuing this outmanned U.S. soldier, so I waded into the fight by pulling off one of the Germans and shouting “Wie geht’s?, my version of “What the [fork] are you doing?” I think he replied that the soldier tried to pick up his girl. Actually, I could only understand a few words of his German. At any rate, I replied, “Weitergehen,” or “OK, carry on.” I think I had come to my senses when I realized that I was very close to getting my clock cleaned by two hulking Germans.

The U.S. soldier ended up on the floor, bloodied and somewhat worse for wear. After a bit, he got up and hobbled back to his table. The damned guy almost got me beaten to a pulp. I’m no hero.

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  1. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    KentForrester: Let me leave you with a quote from the redoubtable John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

    Courage is having a love greater than your fear. 

    Strangely, perhaps, there are different kinds of courage. Not every soldier who offers his life in battle overseas will risk his job or reputation to verbally stand up to tyranny at home. The courage to correct a friend or relative is different than the courage to resist a government or stand up to a mob. Perhaps the difference relates to different loves. 

    There are also forms of charity similar to courage. We call it courage when someone offers his life in a single moment. What do we call it when someone offers her life for weeks or years on end? I’m thinking of hospital workers who work obscene hours, suffer regular abuse, and perform humiliating acts to help weakened people. I’m thinking of mothers who devote every day to exhausting and often ungrateful children. Honestly, I think I’d find it easier to give up one day with a gun before dying to evil doers than to give up every day in tiring service. 

    Courage is a virtue most brilliant in a flash but needed in mundane circumstances as well. 

    • #1
  2. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    KentForrester: Let me leave you with a quote from the redoubtable John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

    Courage is having a love greater than your fear.

    What do we call it when someone offers her life for weeks or years on end? I’m thinking of hospital workers who work obscene hours, suffer regular abuse, and perform humiliating acts to help weakened people. I’m thinking of mothers who devote every day to exhausting and often ungrateful children. Honestly, I think I’d find it easier to give up one day with a gun before dying to evil doers than to give up every day in tiring service.

    Courage is a virtue most brilliant in a flash but needed in mundane circumstances as well.

    Aaron, you’re exactly right. The most courageous moment in my life was when I walked out on a stage to act in a play. I seriously considered stepping off an overhang backstage and then pretend I had hurt my leg so badly I wouldn’t be able to play my part. But I overcame my fear and walked out onto the stage to recite my lines. I was terrible.

    I never signed up for a play again.

    • #2
  3. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I don’t mean to reduce the sacrifice of soldiers to the heroic moment of martyrdom. Soldiers endure all sorts of suffering daily in war, from foregoing meals or sleep to being separated from loved ones for months on end. 

    But should we call that courage, charity, or discipline? It’s fair to reserve “courage” for momentary and unusual challenges. Whatever word we use, the keys are loving self-sacrifice and daring.

    • #3
  4. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    KentForrester:

    Postscript 2: The closest I ever came to displaying courage was in a tavern in Germany in 1959. I was a soldier at the time. A fight broke out and one poor sap of a U.S. soldier was being beaten senseless by two rather large German civilians. This was just seven years after our official occupation of Germany ended, fourteen years after the firebombing of Dresden. Perhaps these German toughs were taking out their resentments on a U.S. soldier.

    My plan was to be a hero by rescuing this outmanned U.S. soldier, so I waded into the fight by pulling off one of the Germans and shouting “Wie geht’s?, my version of “What the [fork] are you doing?” I think he replied that the soldier tried to pick up his girl. Actually, I could only understand a few words of his German. At any rate, I replied, “Weitergehen,” or “OK, carry on.” I think I had come to my senses when I realized that I was very close to getting my clock cleaned by two hulking Germans.

    The U.S. soldier ended up on the floor, bloodied and somewhat worse for wear. After a bit, he got up and hobbled back to his table. The damned guy almost got me beaten to a pulp. I’m no hero.

    You may or may not be a hero – the incident in question is inconclusive. 

    Oftentimes the underdog has earned his [redact]-kicking fair and square. 

    • #4
  5. JoshuaFinch Coolidge
    JoshuaFinch
    @JoshuaFinch

    The Israeli people are the most courageous on earth. Surrounded by enemies who want to destroy them, they go about their daily lives with unwavering strength, good humor, and compassion. Case in point: many relatives of the leader of Hamas have been treated in Israeli hospitals over the years.  Some would call that madness, others would describe it as the courage to be human.

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-chiefs-niece-has-been-hospitalized-in-israel-for-over-a-month-report/

    • #5
  6. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Joshua, I totally agree. 

    • #6
  7. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    KentForrester: Let me leave you with a quote from the redoubtable John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

    Courage is having a love greater than your fear.

    What do we call it when someone offers her life for weeks or years on end? I’m thinking of hospital workers who work obscene hours, suffer regular abuse, and perform humiliating acts to help weakened people. I’m thinking of mothers who devote every day to exhausting and often ungrateful children. Honestly, I think I’d find it easier to give up one day with a gun before dying to evil doers than to give up every day in tiring service.

    Courage is a virtue most brilliant in a flash but needed in mundane circumstances as well.

    Aaron, you’re exactly right. The most courageous moment in my life was when I walked out on a stage to act in a play. I seriously considered stepping off an overhang backstage and then pretend I had hurt my leg so badly I wouldn’t be able to play my part. But I overcame my fear and walked out onto the stage to recite my lines. I was terrible.

    I never signed up for a play again.

    Sorry, Kent, that’s not courage.  That’s just overcoming nerves.  You were in no danger.  You’ve shown true courage in a dozen incidents in your life, I’m sure.

    • #7
  8. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View

    Aaron, you’re exactly right. The most courageous moment in my life was when I walked out on a stage to act in a play. I seriously considered stepping off an overhang backstage and then pretend I had hurt my leg so badly I wouldn’t be able to play my part. But I overcame my fear and walked out onto the stage to recite my lines. I was terrible.

    I never signed up for a play again.

    Sorry, Kent, that’s not courage. That’s just overcoming nerves. You were in no danger. You’ve shown true courage in a dozen incidents in your life, I’m sure.

    Doc, it felt more like courage than anything I’ve ever done. 

    • #8
  9. She Member
    She
    @She

    This is the Quote of the Day. June’s sign-up sheet is here, and the days are going fast.  Get ’em while they’re hot!

    If you’re new at this game, it’s a easy way to get your feet wet and start a conversation; if you’re an old-timer, you already know the ropes.  Either way, please sign up to speak up.

    Another ongoing project to encourage new voices is our Group Writing Project. June’s theme is “Journeys.”  If you’d like to weigh in, please sign up for Group Writing too!

    • #9
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