Thursday, August 02, 2018

'We Can't Stay Long Even in the Places We Love'

Ernie Pyle was writing long before the war, for various newspapers, and became one of the country’s first aviation reporters. From 1935 to 1940, the latter half of the Great Depression, he traveled the U.S. for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain as a “roving reporter,” filing six columns a week of “human interest” for most of that time. He wrote more than 1.5 million words and his traveling companion was the anonymous That Girl (his wife, Jerry). It was a dream job for an introverted man who had trained himself to become professionally extroverted. Pyle would drive to a new town, look around, meet people and write about them. Not every reporter can do this sort of thing. The biggest temptations to overcome are sentimentality, propaganda and self-aggrandizement (often simultaneously). The chances he would end up with a “big story” were slim, though his column ran in more than two-hundred newspapers. It was the perfect preparation for covering World War II from the G.I.’s perspective. Some of the work was published posthumously in Home Country (William Sloane Associates, 1947).

When Pyle visits Houston, he devotes his entire column (two pages in book form) to a man who two years earlier had been released from Alcatraz after serving twenty-two months for transporting narcotics. Pyle treats him like any guy who’s looking for a job:

“There were a dozen things this former convict could do. He was an experienced oil-field worker, he knew steam boilers, he had done office work, he had done selling.” Instead, he had been doing “picayunish jobs—ticket-taking, dance-hall bouncing.” Some cops are friendly, others roust him. Pyle writes:

“I don’t believe the time in the penitentiaries, as such, had affected this man’s spirit. He was not cowed. But these two years as a free man had done something to him. They had stopped his smiles; they made him suspicious; and he didn’t dare think about himself too much. He stayed in his room as little as possible, to keep from brooding and getting too blue. He just used the place to change clothes and sleep a little. He said he wasn’t much of a reader.”
Pyle wishes the man well but makes no predictions about his future: “. . . by staying two years in the same city, showing his hand and showing it clean, surely he had pulled his end of the load.”

Pyle went on to cover the war from December 1940 until April 1945. He filed dispatches from Great Britain, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and the Pacific. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. In a 1950 tribute in The New Yorker, fellow war correspondent A.J. Liebling credited Pyle with creating the mythic figure of “G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman”:

“The portrait was sentimentalized but the soldier was pleased to recognize himself in it, and millions of newspaper readers recognized their sons and lovers in Pyle’s soldiers and got some glimmer of the fact that war is a nasty business for the pedestrian combatant. Through millions of letters from home enclosing clippings, the soldiers learned that their folks read Ernie Pyle. He provided an emotional bridge. . . . He was the only American war correspondent who made a large personal impress on the nation in the Second World War.”

Among those American war correspondents was Liebling, who worked not for a newspaper but The New Yorker, which had a very different audience. In “Vagabondage,” the final column collected in Home Country, Pyle writes:

“When we started I weighed 108 pounds, had two bad colds a year, felt very tired of an evening, and was scared to death at meeting strange people. But now, after five years and 165,000 miles of travel, I weigh 108 pounds, have two bad colds a year, feel tired of an evening, and am afraid of people. Travel is indeed broadening.”

And this, from the final paragraph:

“Stability cloaks you with a thousand little personal responsibilities, and we have been able to flee from them.  But just as important with us, I suspect, is the fact that we can’t stay long even in the places we love. There is no opportunity for lingering disillusionment. . . .And we still love all those places because we always had to leave before the sweet taste could turn to vinegar. And also before they could find out about us, and kick us out.”

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