Note: This essay is the first installment in a series entitled, "American Lives," which spotlights great Americans, famous and anonymous, who have lived exemplary American Lives.

As we glide comfortably into the twenty-first century, social commentators ask if this generation of Americans will embrace the ancient cause of liberty. Because we live in a free society dependent on enlightened self-government and public service, each generation is called upon to embrace the mantle of citizenship. Free men and women dedicated to upholding sacred institutions handed down from our heroes of the past must give new life to Democracy.

Lt. Colonel Charles Yates, USAF-Ret is one of our heroes. Through tenacity and a desire to serve, Charles and millions of Americans like him met every challenge of their critical times. Our generation inherits the blessings of freedom, security and prosperity from men like Charles Yates. If we are to meet the challenges in our future, we do well to appreciate and emulate his model American life.

Born in Rutherford, Tennessee in 1924, Charles Clancie Yates inherited a tradition of stubborn self-reliance, independent thinking and devotion to duty from his Gibson County antecedents. Men of that region, who intrepidly pioneered the Northwest Tennessee frontier during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, a few generations later, bucked the prevailing tide of secession as the Civil War approached. A significant number of them volunteered to fight for the preservation of the Union; one of those volunteers was W. C. Bell, maternal great grandfather to Charles Yates. By the 1920s, however, like most rural Southerners, residents of Rutherford battled an enemy at least as furious as civil war: the onset of the Great Depression.

Although Charles inherited a sturdy spirit and a rugged constitution from his Tennessee forefathers, his hardscrabble life bequeathed him little else. Abandoned by his father around his first birthday, Charles and his mother (Hattie Bell Yates) struggled to endure. The Depression-era South entailed a level of severity “difficult to someone who did not live through it,” Charles recounted, reflecting the sentiments of an entire generation. Surviving on the kindness of extended family, mother and son moved from small farm to small farm in the rural area east of Rutherford during the late-1920s and 1930s.

In 1937, Charles and his mother took up permanent residence in a small three-room house. “It was little more than a shack,” Charles noted, wryly pointing out that it was the “first air-conditioned house that I ever lived in:” the air conditioning was unintended, however, as the holes in the walls allowed a strong breeze to circulate through the humble dwelling in all weathers.

Working fulltime while attending Rutherford High School, Charles made a life-altering decision upon graduation in 1942. Convinced that farm life in Northwest Tennessee held no future for a young man with his limited resources, Charles applied for a government job in Washington, D.C., for which he successfully completed a battery of competency exams.

The War Department swiftly summoned him to Washington to work in one of their offices as a clerk processing applications for dependency allowances. Charles Yates boarded a bus for the nation’s capitol, setting forth on an adventure that would take him around the world many times over and leaving his rural Tennessee life behind forever. He was eighteen.

Alone in wartime Washington, living in a rooming house with twenty strangers, the wide-eyed Tennessee youth busied himself visiting historic sites about which he had read but never dreamed he would experience firsthand. When the agency asked for volunteers for the New York office, he unhesitatingly offered his services.

Living in New Jersey with an immigrant Irish family who took him under their wing, Charles exuberantly soaked up the sights and sounds of New York City. Moved by the ubiquitous presence of uniformed American fighting men in the city, Charles surrendered to the patriotic call and merrily enlisted in the United States Army (although he was not yet draft age).

In his brief sojourn through Washington and New York, Charles admitted that he felt burdened by his meager beginnings. “I had developed an inferiority complex,” he said, “people looked down on me, and I was determined to change that if I could.” And he did. Although he entered the Army with only a “poor” high school education, Charles scored well on the placement exams and found himself in Cincinnati, Ohio studying cryptography after completing basic training in New Jersey.

Transferred to California (still as a cryptographer), he was reassigned to the Army Air Corps and eventually mustered into pre-Aviation Cadet training. From there he went to Eastern Oregon College as an aviation student where he completed a year of demanding college courses (including geometry and physics) in five months. After his training as an Aviation Cadet, he was then commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to a B-24 aircrew as a Navigator. Although assigned to the Aleutian Islands and designated to take part in the coming attack on northern Japan, the atomic bomb ended the war with Japan before Charles and his crew arrived in the Pacific theater.

He made Lieutenant at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii, flying a C-54 transport all over the Pacific. After a stint in Germany (Rheim Main Air Base), during which he participated in the Berlin Airlift, he went back to California where he attained a radar and bombardier rating in addition to navigator.

He went to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana after that, where he flew B-29s and made Captain. He received pilot training in Mississippi and Texas, which gave him four aeronautical ratings. He trained as a Bomb Commander in New Mexico (still flying the B-29). And then, in 1953, the Air Force assigned Charles to the B-47 jet bomber.

In 1950 the dashing Air Force officer met, fell in love with and courted an enchanting young woman from Vivian, Louisiana. The meteoric rise of Charles Yates (from Army private to USAF Captain in just eight years) paled in comparison to the swiftness with which he captured the heart of his beloved. Charles and Janice Walton married just six weeks after they met at a hardware store in Shreveport. Their union produced six children over the next eleven years, born in three different states. Living the life of military brats, the children of Charles and Janice Yates saw the world during the 1960s.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Charles flew jet bombers for the Strategic Air Command (SAC), commonly considered the most sensitive, most powerful and psychologically demanding military assignment during the Cold War. Devised as a deterrent to potential Soviet aggression, SAC stood ready to deploy thermonuclear weapons against the Russian interior via long-range bomber aircraft. After Charles drew the SAC appointment and B-47s, he gained promotion to Major in 1958. Charles also received seven months of training at the nuclear weapons school at Lowry, AFB in Denver, Colorado.

The SAC motto: "Peace is our Profession" belies the pressure-packed atmosphere that accompanied custodianship of the most powerful and potentially destructive weapons known to man. As a SAC commander, Charles led a life of awesome responsibility and rigorous discipline in which perfection was the only acceptable level of performance. And he loved it.

After spending two winters in Maine at Loring AFB, Charles served as Squadron Commander at Greenham Common Air Base (where he was promoted to Lt. Colonel in 1963), and a year at Brize Norton Air Base, both of which were in England.

Lt. Colonel Yates came back to Barksdale in 1964 assigned to the Inspector General Team for the entire 2nd Air Force, where he would command the flight line at Barksdale. In 1964, due to a “critical shortage” of jet pilots, Charles drew a reassignment to fly B-52s. As the Vietnam conflict heated up in 1969, Central Command selected Lt. Colonel Yates for transfer to Guam to serve as Chief of Command and Control for all B-52 operations in the Western Pacific. The assignment included a promotion to full Colonel and represented a crowning achievement in a career already marked by exemplary service.

However, the fighting in Southeast Asia contributed to a host of tumultuous events and cultural changes back in the United States. The assignment required an indefinite extended separation from his family, and with four of his six children now teenagers, Charles felt the tug of family obligation especially strong during the turbulent late-1960s. After twenty-seven years of national service, and with intensely conflicted emotions, Lt. Col. Yates retired from active duty, and Citizen Yates entered into domestic service.

In addition to his commitment to family, Charles pursued a second career in public education. After working for three years at Benton, High School in Louisiana, he took his Master of Arts degree from Northeast Louisiana University in 1972, and moved to Germantown, Tennessee to work at the local high school in 1973, from which he retired as Vice Principal in 1993.

Active in his church and the Memphis community following his retirement from the military, Charles served in numerous veterans and civic organizations. A lifelong interest and two degrees in history made him a natural for genealogy, one of the passions of his retirement. He joined the Tennessee Genealogical Society in 1988 and has spent countless hours unearthing and restoring the fragile threads of kinship that connect the present and the future with the past. Dedicated to national service, community service, public service, Christian service and service to posterity, Charles Yates leaves a powerful legacy: a model American life.