Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hoosier Farm Wife: Rachel Peden

In the 1940s a farmwife who lived west of Bloomington, Indiana, used letters to share with her sister living in Indianapolis the joys and sorrows of earning a living from the land. Nina Mason Pulliam showed the letters to her husband, newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam, who, impressed by the writing ability of their author, Rachel Peden, offered her the opportunity to write a regular column. “I don’t care what you write about, so long as it has a farm flavor,” Pulliam said to Peden.

From February 1946 until her death in 1975, Peden imparted details of her life and the lives of her neighbors along Maple Grove Road to readers of her “The Hoosier Farm Wife Says” column in the Indianapolis Star and “The Almanac of Poor Richard’s Wife” column in the Muncie Evening Press. “I’m just a farm wife with the good luck to have something to write about and a chance to write,” she noted.

Peden chronicled the difficulties faced by small American family farms in the twentieth century as they began to “erode away into large farms, like unprotected topsoil into the rivers.” She also reported on the growing degradation of the land farmers depended upon for their livelihoods. “Man has an inescapable obligation to the land,” Peden wrote. “It is his destiny to touch, observe, and learn from it, in his passionate effort to understand himself.”

Born in Redkey in Jay County, Indiana, Rachel was third of seven children raised by Benjamin Franklin and Laura Mason. Rachel spent her formative years on her father’s High Gap farm on land that eventually became part of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The family resided there for seventeen years before her father’s injury in an automobile accident forced them to move. At an early age Rachel and the other children were expected to help with the daily chores, including fetching and carrying firewood and water, washing dishes, sweeping floors, making beds, and looking after livestock.

Often referring to her father as “the orchardist” in her columns, Rachel recalled that he knew the Latin names of plants and trees, and called them by those names. “My father planted orchards everyplace,” she said. He became so adept at horticulture that his children considered him a magician of sorts when he successfully grafted an apple tree so it bore sweet apples on one side and sour apples on the other. Mason’s real love, however, was peach trees, and he won fame by propagating a successful variety known as the Skipper’s Late Red. “His trouble was that he had more talent than he could use,” Rachel said of her father. While her mother, ten years younger than her husband, sought “small cozy security,” Benjamin always wanted to “reach out for a grasp, however tentative, of some big, exciting thing.”

Educated in a one-room schoolhouse that included eight grades, Rachel had early practice as a writer, as she and her siblings took to heart advice given to them by one of her father’s hired hands, Bill Pofall, who told them if something “doesn’t suit you, just write it down and burn it up.” She noted that there were “so many things that didn’t suit us that we had abundant practice in writing.”

As a young girl, Rachel’s mother had wanted to become a writer and passed along a love of reading to her children. Rachel learned to type by sneaking into her father’s office, supposedly off-limits to his children, and hurriedly pecking away at his old Monarch typewriter. “I never learned to type accurately,” she recalled, “but I learned to type fast, because if the orchardist found one of us there it would be a painful encounter.” (In addition to Rachel’s later work as a columnist, her sister, Nina, published a book on her travels in Australia and won awards for her newspaper writing, and another sister, Miriam E. Mason Swain, wrote more than fifty children’s books.)

After graduating from high school in Martinsville, Rachel attended Indiana University, majoring in sociology and psychology and graduating in 1923 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. She briefly worked as a reporter for the Martinsville Reporter before taking a job as women’s editor at Farm Life, a national magazine based in Spencer, Indiana, with approximately a million subscribers.

While at the magazine, where her sister, Nina, also worked, Rachel said she learned much about writing from its editor, George Weymouth, and treasured a letter from him complimenting her on a column she wrote. In 1929 she married Richard Peden, whose family had been farming in Owen County since Indiana became a state in 1816. The couple had two children; a son, Joe, born in 1939, and a daughter, Carol, born in 1942.

Farm Life went out of business during the Great Depression, and Rachel followed along as her husband decided to fulfill his dream of running a farm of his own. In 1941 the Pedens bought a farm on Maple Grove Road outside of Bloomington on which Richard raised feeder cattle, as well as corn, hay, and silage. By the 1960s the farm had grown from its original 130 acres to 239 acres. Before she started her newspaper column, Rachel wrote freelance articles for such magazines as Country Gentleman, the Farm Journal, and Peoples Popular Monthly, as well as several poetry periodicals.

For her newspaper columns, Peden wrote under the pen names “Mrs. R. F. D.” and “the Hoosier Farmwife.” (R. F. D. stood for Rural Free Delivery, the service first offered by the U.S. Post Office at the turn of the twentieth century.) She said she never went anywhere without carrying with her pencil and paper for her column’s sake. “The farm always inspired something to bring back,” Peden noted. She usually wrote in the morning, composing her columns on a typewriter set up on a small stand under a stairwell in her kitchen. “Sometimes I’m just certain there won’t be anything important enough to write about,” Peden said. “And then, I look out and the leaves are falling, or the sky is pink in the east, or there is hay baling to be done—so many wonderful things on the farm.”

Peden’s work proved popular with readers in central Indiana, with many telling her they saw themselves and their own experiences in her columns. A fan in Muncie helped bring her writing to a wider audience by convincing her son, Angus Cameron, an editor at the Alfred Knopf publishing firm in New York, to offer Peden a book contract. Peden eventually turned her columns into three books published by Knopf with illustrations by Sidonie Coryn—Rural Free: A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living (1961); The Land, The People (1966), which received Indiana University’s Author Award; and Speak to the Earth: Pages from a Farmwife’s Journal (1974).

As she did in her columns, Peden used her neighbors’ actual names in her books and experienced a range of reaction when gaining permission to do so. When Peden asked one neighbor if she wanted to see what she had written about her, the neighbor declined, saying she would wait and see it when the book was published. “Still another said to just to make her really human, not too good,” Peden recalled. “Neighbors are such a joy, and so close to my heart.”

Peden died on August 16, 1975, and is buried at Payne Cemetery in Bloomington. Although her books went out of print for a time, she remained popular in her home community where, in 1976, she was a charter member of the Monroe County Hall of Fame. Starting in 2009, Quarry Books, an imprint of Indiana UniversityPress, began reprinting Peden’s books.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

George Ade: Indiana's Warmhearted Satirist


The 1908 presidential contest pitted two would-be reformers against each other. In June in Chicago the Republicans nominated William Howard Taft, groomed for the post by former President Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats responded by selecting William Jennings Bryan, who would be making his third, and last, attempt for the nation’s highest office. And while Bryan was shocked by his staggering million-vote loss to Taft at the polls, perhaps the campaign’s biggest surprise came at the beginning when Taft decided to open his race for the White House in the small Indiana town of Brook.

Brook may have been a tiny dot on Indiana's map, but it did have something other Hoosier towns did not: the spacious country estate of Indiana journalist, playwright, and “warmhearted satirist,” George Ade. Hazelden Farm was the scene of a number of large parties and celebrations in the thirty-nine years Ade resided there; enough, in fact, that Ade’s biographer recalled it being described as the “amusement center of the United States.” Ade himself noted in an autobiographical piece: “I love to put on big parties or celebrations and see a throng of people having a good time.”

Born on February 9, 1866, Ade was the second youngest of seven children raised by John and Adaline (Bush) Ade. “From the time I could read,” Ade remembered later in life, “I had my nose in a book, and I lacked enthusiasm for manual labor.” His aversion to physical work, especially his dislike for farming, troubled his father, who wondered how his son would make a living. In 1883 Ade started classes at Purdue University. His attention, however, soon focused on the Grand Opera House in Lafayette, where he became a regular patron—sometimes to the detriment of his studies. Ade noted that he was a “star student as a Freshman but wobbly later on and a total loss in Mathematics.” Still, while at the university he did meet and begin a lifelong friendship with Hoosier cartoonist John T. McCutcheon.

After graduating from Purdue in 1887 with a bachelor of science degree, Ade started work as a reporter for the Lafayette Call at the princely sum of six dollars per week. Along with his low salary, Ade had to cope with a frugal editor, who, for example, liked to use old envelopes as copy paper. Ade later moved on to a job writing testimonials for a patent medicine company's tobacco-habit cure. In recalling Ade’s work for the firm, McCutcheon noted that the cure was not a fake remedy, “for it was guaranteed to cure the most persistent tobacco habit if the tobacco user followed the directions. The first direction was to discontinue the use of tobacco and then take the tablets.”

By 1890 Ade had joined McCutcheon on the staff of the Chicago Morning News. Ade's first regular assignment was a daily weather story.  His big break came when the steamer Tioga exploded on the Chicago River and Ade, because no other reporters were available, rushed to the scene and produced the best account of the tragedy. His success led to his covering such important events as the heavyweight championship fight between John L. Sullivan and James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in New Orleans and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

In November 1893 Ade was put in charge of the column “Stories of the Streets and of the Town,” which also featured McCutcheon's illustrations. In his writing Ade captured life on Chicago’s bustling streets through the antics of such characters as Artie, a young office boy; Doc’ Horne, a “gentlemanly liar”; and Pink Marsh, a shoeshine boy in a barbershop. Ade’s column was also the birthplace of the work that made him famous: fables.

Fables in Slang, published in 1899, was an immediate hit with the public, selling sixty-nine thousand copies that year alone. These “modern fables” were syndicated nationally, produced as movies by the Essanay Film Company, and turned into comic strips by cartoonist Art Helfant.  Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White was moved to write that he “would rather have written Fables in Slang than be President.” Despite such lavish attention, Ade remained levelheaded, wryly noting: “By a queer twist of circumstances I have become known to the general public as a ‘humorist’ and a writer of ‘slang.’ I never wanted to be a comic or tried to be one. Always I wrote for the ‘family trade’ and I used no word or phrase which might give offense to mother and the girls or a professor of English.

Ade next turned his humorist’s pen to the theater, writing his first Broadway play,  The Sultan of Sulu, a comic opera about America's activities in the Philippines, in 1902. Other hit plays soon followed, including Peggy from Paris, a musical comedy; The County Chairman, a drama about small-town politics; and his best-known play, The College Widow, a comedy about college life and football set on the Wabash College campus in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

While Ade was busy writing and traveling, frequently abroad, back home in Indiana his brother William was acquiring on Ade’s behalf numerous acres of farmland in Newton County. In 1902 William Ade bought four hundred and seventeen acres near the town of Brook. Impressed by the wooded land, George Ade called on his friend Billy Mann, a Chicago architect, to design a small dwelling for him that would cost $2,500. A suggestion here and a suggestion there later, Ade ended up with an impressive English Manor/Tudor-style home that cost approximately $25,000.

Ade, who moved into his Hazelden Farm estate in the summer of 1904, described his home as “about the size of a girl’s school, with added wings for the managers, otherwise known as employees.” Included with the home and elaborate gardens were a swimming pool, greenhouse, barn, caretaker's cottage, fuel supply house, and a forty-foot-tall water tank.

Once settled into his new home, Ade wasted little time in making his neighbors feel welcome, hosting numerous parties. Along with Taft’s visit, Hazelden was the site of celebrations for the Indiana Society of Chicago, Purdue University alumni, and local children. Ade also hosted a rally for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912; a homecoming for soldiers and sailors on 4 July 1919; and a party and speech for vice presidential candidate General Charles W. Dawes in 1924. It was McCutcheon who best captured the spirited, and crowded, times at his friend’s home when he noted: “If all the Sigma Chis, Purdue students, Indiana friends, movie stars, stage stars, political mass meetings, golf professionals and automobile clubs from Chicago, Indiana, New York and Hollywood, who have eaten the famous fried chicken at Hazelden farm, being regaled the while by the stories of one of the greatest American raconteurs, were stood in a row, the line would reach from hell to breakfast.”

Ade died on May 23, 1944, in Brook after an illness of many months. Following his death Hazelden was turned over to Purdue University. Unable to afford its upkeep, the university turned the site over to the state, which also could not afford to maintain the home and in turn gave it to Newton County. In 1962 Hazelden was acquired by the George Ade Memorial Association, formed that same year in Kentland. The association raised the necessary funds to renovate the home and restore a number of rooms to their original condition.



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Father of Indiana History: John Brown Dillon

On August 8, 1838, readers of the Indiana Democrat in Indianapolis were greeted by a special correspondence from the northern Indiana community of Logansport, which had been originally printed in the Logansport Telegraph. The article, signed “A Visiter to the Lake,” reported on the sighting of a sixty-foot-long creature sliding through the once quiet waters of Lake Manitou, located near Rochester in what is now Fulton County.

The article quoted one eyewitness, who viewed the monster from the safety of the shoreline, as describing the beast’s head as “being about three feet across the frontal bone . . . but the neck tapering, and having the character of the serpent; color dingy, with large bright yellow spots.” The monster inhabiting what came to be celebrated as “Devil’s Lake” received attention nationwide, with reports on its existence published in Buffalo, Boston, and New York.

The man responsible for the Telegraph’s publication of this unlikely story was a person who, in all other respects, seemed to be the least likely to come up with such a whopper of a tale—John Brown Dillon, who became known as the “Father of Indiana History” for his much respected History of Indiana, which went through four editions between 1843 and 1859, and helped save future the state’s past for future generations through his work with a number of early Hoosier historical organizations. His writings won praise from Indiana historians who came after him, with one, Emma Lou Thornbrough, commending Dillon for being the “only person in the state in this period whose writings deserved to be called history by modern standards of historical scholarship.”

Details about Dillon’s early life are sketchy at best. Born sometime in 1808 in Wellsburg, Brooke County, in what is now West Virginia, Dillon and his family soon moved to Belmont County, Ohio. After the death of his father, nine-year-old Dillon was apprenticed to a printer in Charleston. At the age of seventeen Dillon moved to Cincinnati, where he displayed literary skill, having his poems published in several local newspapers. Sometime in his life Dillon had suffered a visual malformity, and always could be seen wearing dark-green eyeglasses equipped with side mirrors. A shy man, he never removed his eyeglasses, even among his friends.

By 1834 Dillon had settled in Logansport, where he studied law and was admitted to the Cass County bar in 1840. He never, however, established a law practice, preferring instead, noted his friend, fellow attorney Horace P. Biddle, to spend his time on “hoary border legends, traditional story, but more especially local history.” Dillon pursued these interests through a career in pioneer journalism, starting work as an editor for the Logansport Canal Telegraph in August 1834. A year later he purchased an interest in the newspaper, which, by 1836, had changed its name to the Logansport Telegraph.

Dillon’s work as a historian soon usurped his journalism career. He started his research on a history of Indiana in 1838, receiving assistance from U.S. Senator John Tipton, a close friend. Dillon left Logansport in 1842, moving to Indianapolis to pursue his historical studies and find funding for his history. Although he could rely on materials from the state library and private collections, Dillon lamented that “many interesting facts, connected with the early settlement of Indiana, have been perverted, or lost forever, because they were never recorded, and the stream of tradition seldom bears to the present, faithfully, the history of the past.” Still, his Historical Notes on the Discovery and Settlement of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio, appeared in 1843, and was followed sixteen years later by his History of Indiana. His posthumously published Oddities of Colonial Legislation in America came out in 1879. 

Fellow Hoosier historian George S.Cottman, founder of the Indiana Magazine of History, dubbed Dillon as the “Father of Indiana History” and praised him as the first in the state to enter the field “with any seriousness of purpose, and his contributions exceed in value any that have come after.” In his writing Dillon displayed “immense industry, unflagging perseverance and an ever-present purpose to find and state the truth,” said Cottman.

Dillon himself wrote that in his work he was striving to give an “impartial” recording of history. He noted in his preface to his History of Indiana that in writing the book he attempted to keep his mind free from such influences as “ambitious contentions between distinguished men, or from false traditions, or from national partialities and antipathies, or from excited conflicts between the partisans of antagonistic political systems, or from dissensions among uncharitable teachers of different creeds of religion.”

In 1845 the state legislature elected Dillon as state librarian, a post he held until 1851, when a Democratic legislature replaced him with Nathaniel Bolton. Dillon later served as, assistant secretary of state, secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and held a number of offices with the Indiana Historical Society, including secretary and librarian. He proved indefatigable at adding books and manuscripts to the Society’s early collection. In addition to state offices, Dillon served on a variety of Indianapolis governmental bodies, including being a member of the Marion County Library Board and a school trustee.

In 1862 Dillon left Indianapolis for Washington, D.C., where he received a position as clerk to the Department of the Interior, later moving to a job as clerk with the House Military Affairs Committee. Civic leaders in Indianapolis remembered Dillon’s contributions to the state, with noted attorney Calvin Fletcher calling upon the state legislature to bring the historian back to Indiana to write a history of the state’s contribution to the Civil War. Dillon finally returned to Indianapolis in 1875, living in a room at Johnson’s Building on Washington Street. He struggled to make a living, even having to sell his beloved library in order to make ends meet. Dillon died at age seventy-one and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Man Godfrey, Carole, and Me

Before the days of cable and the Internet, when there were only three major networks available for viewing, one of the few things on television that always sparked my interest was the perennial showing of old movies, usually on lazy Sunday afternoons. The films ranged from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meeting a host of monsters (Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man to name but a few) to the detective adventures of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. My favorites, however, were the sophisticated, and often hilarious, screwball comedies produced by Hollywood studios during the height of the Great Depression in the 1940s and early into the 1930s.

These films, which often matched the wits of dazzlingly daffy females with those of hapless males, featured the talents of such well know stars as Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Cable, and Claudette Colbert. Who hasn’t chortled over the budding romance between a spoiled heiress and a recently fired reporter in It Happened One Night (1934), the misunderstandings between a married couple in The Awful Truth (1937), the madcap search for a missing dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and the underhanded attempts of a newspaper editor attempting to lure his ex-wife back to her former job in His Girl Friday (1939)?

My favorite screwball comedy, however, involved an actress who became a fixture in this film genre: Carole Lombard of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1936 Lombard starred alongside here ex-husband William Powell (“the only intelligent actor I’ve ever met,” according to Lombard) in the Universal movie My Man Godfrey.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, the movie tells the story of Godfrey “Duke” Parke (Powell), a former Boston Brahmin who after a failed romance begins living at the city dump with victims of the depression. A scavenger hunt organized as part of a society fund-raiser for the underprivileged brings Parke—the proverbial forgotten man—in contact with Irene Bullock (Lombard), a young and scatterbrained member of an eccentric Park Avenue family who, upon their first meeting, charms him with such remarks as “You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody’s gone home.” Irene hires Godfrey as the family’s butler and eventually falls in love with her new “protégé.”

Of course, as often happens in screwball movies, Godfrey, representing the decency and forthrightness of the common man, teaches the wealthy family a thing or two about life and saves them from financial disaster. Godfrey, however, has a surprise or two waiting for him when Irene sweeps aside his reservations about romance and drags him to the altar.

A box-office hit at the time, the movie featured fine acting from not only its stars—both Lombard and Powell received Academy Award nominations for their performances—but also from its supporting cast. I still marvel at the fine comedic timing of Mischa Auer, who played Carlo, the piano-playing protégé of Irene’s mother, and Eugene Pallette, who portrayed the harried patriarch of the Bullock family. Not even a fine physical comedian such as Jim Carrey could hope to match Auer’s side-splitting imitation of a gorilla to amuse Irene during a (fake) crying spell.

Her role in My Man Godfrey reinforced Lombard’s developing image as the queen of the screwball comedy. Lombard, who had moved to California from Indiana with her mother and two brothers, had labored early in her acting career in minor roles in silent comedy films for Mack Sennett, had found in films such as Godfrey and 1937’s Nothing Sacred (famous for Lombard using her childhood boxing lessons to good form by punching co-star Fredric March) an outlet for her own often zany behavior, which included the ability to swear like a sailor when the opportunity called for it, a talent she learned from her brothers. She became America’s favorite screwball actress, both on the screen and off.

In addition to her film success, Lombard also found personal fulfillment with her marriage to screen idol Gable in 1939.  Nicknaming each other “Ma” and “Pa,” the couple enjoyed an idyllic life together on their twenty-acre ranch located in the San Fernando Valley. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lombard was finishing her last role, that of Maria Tura in the comedy To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny. Lombard and Gable immediately offered their services on behalf of the war effort to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Lombard who participated, with her mother alongside her, in a whirlwind bond drive back home in Indiana. On Jan. 16, 1942, the plane carrying Lombard and her mother back home to California crashed outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, killing everyone aboard.


Monday, February 6, 2017

On the Road with Ernie Pyle

Clem “Pop” Shaffer, the owner of the only hotel in Mountainair, New Mexico, was sitting in front of a fireplace in the lobby of his brick establishment in May 1942 when he noticed a slight, thin man walk into the room. The man, Ernie Pyle, joined him near the warmth of the fire and said he was looking for someone named Pop Shaffer. “You don’t have to go any farther,” said Shaffer, as the two men shook hands. Pyle had come to talk with Shaffer about his hobby of carving animal figures from wooden branches and roots.

As the two men talked, they discovered they both were from Indiana. After a tour of the hotel and lunch (a meal Pyle described as “the best food I have eaten since my mother’s”), Shaffer took the reporter to his ranch and showed him his collection of carved wooden animals. While there, Pyle asked Shaffer “so many questions” he could not remember all of them.

The interview ended back at the hotel, where Pyle inspected the first two silver dollars Shaffer had made when he opened his hotel in 1924. He then sat down with Shaffer to talk some more before leaving late that afternoon to write two columns based on his day with the hotel owner and artist.

Shaffer is just one of the thousands of unique individuals Pyle tracked down to talk with during his days as a roving columnist for the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers from 1935 to early 1942. His job, as Pyle saw it, involved “just writing about anything interesting I bump into.” He proudly claimed that during his travels nobody ever turned down his request to talk to them. “Only one man has ever refused to let me write about him,” he wrote, “and even he was friendly and we talked for an hour.”

Published under the title “Hoosier Vagabond,” Pyle’s column became popular with readers looking for relief from such matters as the country’s economic struggle during the Great Depression and the possibility of war in Europe with the rise of dictators such as Adolph Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Readers longing to break free from their boring lives were thrilled to read about Pyle’s descriptions of exotic locations. They wished they could be with him on mornings when he and Jerry would pack their car, check out of their hotel, fill the car with gas, and “light out into open country.”

When the nearly thirty-five-year-old Ernie Pyle set out from Washington, D.C., on August 2, 1935, with his wife to tour the country and report on what he found, traveling by automobile proved to be a difficult and long task. “I have no home,” Pyle observed in one of his columns. “My home is where my extra luggage is, and where the car is stored, and where I happen to be getting mail this time. My home is America.”

The Pyles were well suited to life on the road. Neither cared much for dining on fine food, gathering material possessions, or owning the latest fashions. Their luggage consisted of six suitcases and satchels. The backseat of the couple’s Ford coupe became filled with books and copies of the New Yorker magazine, which both loved to read. As Pyle drove to his next assignment, Jerry, whom he identified in his column as “That Girl who rides with me,” worked on the crossword puzzles she enjoyed solving. “My arms never get tired, even on rough roads,” wrote Pyle. “But being a skinny fellow, I do get to hurting where I sit down, and I think I’ll have to get an air cushion to sit on.”

Tracking down possible stories in every state and such faraway places as Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, South America, and Central America, Pyle traveled by automobile, train, airplane, boat, and horse. In his travels, Pyle wore out two cars, five sets of tires, and three typewriters.

When he came to a strange town, Pyle, hoping to learn about possible subjects to write about, would visit the local newspaper office and ask editors and reporters about interesting people who lived in the community. Other sources of information he sought out included a town’s chief of police or a doctor. In addition, he took with him on his travels a small wooden box filled with index cards, organized by state and filled with story ideas sent to him by friends and fans.

Pyle seldom took notes when he interviewed a subject for his column. Instead, he relied on his excellent memory. On one trip to Maine, he unearthed a half-dozen stories in less than two hours. Visiting the state of Washington, Pyle worked an entire week on one story. More often than not, however, he gathered material for a number of columns and then retreated to a hotel room to write for a few days, pounding out his stories on a portable Underwood typewriter.

Once he finished his work, Pyle sent his columns back to the Daily News office in Washington, D.C., by first-class mail. In all the years he traveled throughout America, the postal service never misplaced one of his columns. Because he moved from place to place, Pyle had little chance to see his published work. “Once I went for five months without seeing my own column in print,” he said.

The hard work done by Pyle paid off. Fellow reporters and Scripps-Howard editors praised his writing. One Cleveland columnist called Pyle the best reporter in the United States. Walter Morrow, editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, said Pyle’s column was “without a doubt the most widely read thing in the paper.” Polls conducted by newspapers in Evansville and Pittsburgh indicated that the roving reporter’s work was popular with older readers as well as high school and college students. Lee Hills, editor of the Oklahoma News, said his subscribers often commented, “Ernie Pyle does the things that we ourselves would like to do.”

As Pyle had been traveling around the United States reporting on quirky stories of American originals, Europe became engulfed in another war. Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, had sparked declarations of war from the allied powers, Great Britain and France. After a period of quiet—a time that came to be known as the “phony war”—Germany had unleashed its powerful military machine, invading and taking control of Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. France finally surrendered on June 22, 1940.

Pyle felt the pull of war, as he had when his friend Thad Hooker had left Dana to join the army in 1918. There grew in the forty-year-old Pyle an “overpowering urge to be there amidst it all.” The feeling he had did not come from a curiosity to travel or a journalistic need to report on a story, but because Pyle “simply wanted to go privately—just inside myself I wanted to go.”

If he avoided the opportunity to see firsthand a nation at war and to share the experience with others, Pyle reasoned, it would mean he had become “disinterested in living.” With his decision made, Pyle consulted with Scripps-Howard editors in Washington, D.C., about his plans. They agreed to send him to England.

In addition to reporting on German bombing raids while in England, Pyle visited a number of air-raid shelters, spent time with a crew manning an anti-aircraft gun, and talked to ordinary British citizens about their responses to the bombing. Pyle became “terribly impressed” with the British people through these face-to-face meetings. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he wrote Miller. “The people are determined to win this war, and if they don’t it will be the leaders’ fault, and not the people.”  


Pyle returned to the United States in late March 1941, carrying with him in his luggage a dud German incendiary device and fragments from German bombs. After visiting with his father and Aunt Mary in Dana, he returned to his new home in Albuquerque hoping to relax and finish some final columns on his experiences in England. He had become so popular, however, that people from all over came to his home hoping to see him in the flesh. The racket grew so great that Pyle had to abandon his home and find a hotel room where he could write in peace.

Upon returning to his work, Pyle outlined a possible trip to the Orient to begin in December 1941, with stops in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Burma, China, and possibly Australia and New Zealand. Pyle’s journey, however, took a backseat to the developing tension in the Pacific between the United States and Japan. He had to give up a seat on a flight to Hawaii to make room for the transport of war materials to American forces there.

The tensions between the two countries flamed into war on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The sneak attack achieved total surprise; nineteen U.S. ships from the Pacific fleet were either sunk or damaged, more than 250 planes were destroyed while still on the ground, and approximately 3,500 soldiers and sailors were killed or wounded. On December 8, Congress approved President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for a declaration of war against Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. America had entered World War II and Pyle would soon find himself traveling overseas to report on the war and its effect on American GIs.
           


Friday, February 3, 2017

Hellcat Ace: Indiana's Alex Vraciu

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, those in the United States that were listening to their radios were stunned to hear of an attack by the Japanese Empire on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. At 2:26 p.m., Len Sterling, staff announcer for WOR Radio in New York, interrupted a broadcast of a professional football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants at the Polo Grounds to read the following bulletin from the United Press news agency: “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President [Franklin] Roosevelt has just announced.”

Soon, other radio stations broadcast the momentous news to a stunned and disbelieving nation. Some even thought that broadcasters were trying to pull a hoax similar to the one Orson Welles had done with his famous October 30, 1938, War of the World broadcast on Halloween that tricked some Americans into thinking the nation was being invaded by Martians. Others, however, were determined to avenge the defeat and began lining up at recruiting centers for the army, navy, and marines.

In December 1941 twenty-three-year-old Alex Vraciu, born in Indiana Harbor, Indiana, the second child and only son of a longtime police officer in that community, was stationed at the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Glenview, Illinois, where he received training to become a fully qualified navy pilot. Vraciu had recently graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was respected for his athletic ability, but best known for having a wicked sense of humor and for playing an elaborate prank with his fraternity brothers on a psychology professor that received nationwide attention.

During a summer break from his college studies between his junior and senior year at DePauw, Vraciu had earned a private pilot’s license through the federal government’s Civilian Pilot Training program. Relaxing at the home of his uncle in the Chicago suburbs that Sunday in December, Vraciu remembered being as shocked as millions of other Americans were when they heard the news over the radio about the disaster at Pearl Harbor. “I had a big mad on . . . after Pearl Harbor,” recalled Vraciu, whose anger also grew as he later saw his friends fall to Japanese gunfire. He vowed to gain a measure of revenge on the enemy, and his uncle promised to pay him $100 for each Japanese aircraft he destroyed.

Vraciu earned his navy wings in August 1942 and eventually became one of the more than three hundred navy pilots flying from U.S. carriers in the Pacific Theater to earn the title of an ace (downing five confirmed enemy aircraft in aerial combat). He did so while flying the famous F6F Hellcat fighter plane built by the Grumman Aircraft Company of Bethpage, New York. “The Hellcat gave us not only the speed, range, and climb to compete successfully against the Zero,” Vraciu noted, “but it could dictate the rules of combat.” One Hellcat pilot spoke for many when he exclaimed: “I love this airplane so much that if it could cook I’d marry it.”

While stationed in Hawaii early on during his service, Vraciu became the wingman of legendary pilot Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who had been awarded his country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for shooting down five Japanese bombers. “We were training with a legend. I learned my trade from one of the best!” Vraciu said of O’Hare, for whom O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is named. “He taught you lessons you didn’t realize until you are fighting in combat yourself that may have saved your life.”

Vraciu learned well with O’Hare’s Fighting Squadron 6. Finally making it into combat at the end of August 1943 as part of a strafing raid on a Japanese base on Marcus Island, Vraciu earned his first aerial victory by shooting down a Zero in October during a mission against Wake Island. Vraciu’s feud with his opponents in the air had become much more personal when he learned that his mentor, O’Hare, had been killed in combat on November 26, 1943, apparently by a Japanese Betty bomber during a confused night battle. He vowed to shoot down ten of the same aircraft to avenge O’Hare’s death.

The Hoosier pilot began to make good on his promise and achieved ace status on January 29, 1944, when he downed three Betty bombers near Kwajalein. “Between the vow on Butch and Pearl Harbor, I think that probably was the biggest single motivator—driving force—in my life as to why I preferred to be out there rather than back home,” Vraciu later explained. “I’d rather be in combat. That’s really what it did to me. That’s the honest truth.”

Possessed with keen eyesight, quick reflexes, excellent shooting instincts, and a knack for finding his opponent’s weak spot, Vraciu became skilled in the deadly game of destroying the enemy in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. “That was our job,” he noted. “That is what we were trained to do. You can’t be squeamish about the thing or you don’t belong in a cockpit of that kind of an airplane [a fighter]. Nobody told you it was going to be an easy job.”

For a period of four months in 1944, Vraciu stood as the leading ace in the U.S. Navy. He shot down nineteen enemy airplanes in the air, destroyed an additional twenty-one on the ground, and sank a large Japanese merchant ship with a well-placed bomb hit. He also earned a distinction as “Grumman’s best customer,” as he twice had to ditch his Hellcat in the ocean due to battle damage or mechanical failure, and two of the carriers he served on were torpedoed (but not sank) by the Japanese.

Perhaps Vraciu’s most notable achievement in the war came on the morning of June 19, 1944, while part of a carrier task force protecting American forces landing on Saipan in the Mariana Islands. Facing an attack from a large Japanese fleet, Vraciu and other American pilots rushed to their planes to protect the American ships in a lopsided air battle that became known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

Calling the mission a “once-in-a-lifetime fighter pilot’s dream” when he spotted a large mass of enemy planes bearing down on the U.S. fleet, Vraciu, launched from the USS Lexington, pounced on the Japanese and shot down six dive-bombers in just eight minutes. “I looked ahead,” Vraciu told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “There was nothing but Hellcats in the sky. I looked back. Up above were curving vapor trails. And down on the sea, in a pattern 35 miles long, was a series of flaming dots where oil slicks were burning.”

The Hoosier pilot had accomplished this stunning feat despite a number of mechanical difficulties. Engine trouble caused Vraciu’s windshield to be smeared with oil, which meant he had to fly his Hellcat close to the enemy so he could see what he was aiming at. Later he also learned that he flew his mission with his plane’s wings not securely locked into place (aircraft serving on carriers usually had folding wings in order to be stored in the tight confines of the ship). Returning to the Lexington, Vraciu found that he had used just 360 rounds of ammunition from his Hellcat’s six .50-calibre machine guns—an impressive display of shooting.

Vraciu’s luck, however, finally ran out on December 14, 1944, during a strafing run against a Japanese airfield before the American invasion to retake the Philippines. Heavy anti-aircraft fire hit his Hellcat, puncturing his oil tank. “I knew I had it,” he remembered. “Oil was gushing out and going all over my canopy, and my oil pressure was rapidly dropping. There was no way I’d be able to get back to my carrier.”

After safely bailing out of his stricken plan, Vraciu parachuted to the ground close to enemy-held territory near Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano. Luckily he was almost immediately rushed to safety by a small group of U.S. Army of the Far East guerillas, who had been battling the Japanese in the area for the past few years. The small force was under the command of an American who had escaped from Japanese capture after the surrender of U.S. troops in 1942.

The navy flyer spent the next five weeks with the guerrillas, receiving the honorary rank of brevet major while with them. “For the final week of this episode,” Vraciu recalled, “I found myself in command of 180 men, dodging Japanese to meet General [Douglas] MacArthur’s advancing Americans.” He finally marched into an American camp carrying with him a captured Japanese pistol and sword. Unfortunately, because of his time behind enemy lines, Vraciu was prevented by navy officials from participating in the last missions against the Japanese home islands. When the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, Vraciu, the navy’s fourth-ranking ace, was in the United States flying as a test pilot at the Naval Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland.

After the war, Vraciu remained in the navy, working in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. During the 1950s he reached the “ultimate desire of all fighter pilots” when he took command of his own squadron, becoming the leader of Fighter Squadron 51, flying North American FJ-3 Fury jet fighters. Retiring from the navy in 1964 with the rank of commander, Vraciu began a career in banking for Wells Fargo in California. Today, he lives in Danville, California, in the home where he and his late wife raised five children (three daughters and two sons). Vraciu died on January 29, 2015, at the age of ninety-six.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Other Hoosier Poet

Upon awaking one day in May 1919 at his home at 958 Tecumseh Place near Woodruff Place in Indianapolis, a longtime feature reporter for the Indianapolis News trudged wearily to breakfast. Turning to his wife, Josephine, the journalist complained that he had no idea what to write about for that day’s issue. Unsure of what to do, he picked up his typewriter and traveled out of town, finally ending his sojourn in the countryside at Brandywine Creek in Greenfield, Indiana. At the creek he spied an older man fishing while sitting on a log. When the reporter commented on the area’s beauty, the fisherman responded, “I can’t complain, after all God’s been pretty good to Indiana, ain’t he?”

The offhand remark on this lonely stretch of water inspired the reporter, William Herschell, to write his masterpiece, “Ain’t God Good to Indiana?” The poem proved popular with not only with Hoosiers (the work is inscribed on a bronze plaque in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse), but with readers from around the country who clamored for copies. The demand grew so great that Herschell’s wife had to issue special printed facsimiles of the poem.

During his career at the News, which started in 1902 and ended with his death at age sixty-six in 1939, Herschell contributed countless poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. In addition, his World War I song “Long Boy” contributed the doughboy refrain, “Goodbye Ma! Goodbye Pa! Goodbye mule with your old heehaw!” to the nation’s vocabulary. Herschell, a close companion of famed Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, worked in a corner of the newspaper’s ninth floor that came to be known as the Idle Ward. Along with Herschell, other members of that delightful company included cartoonists Gaar Williams and Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard, creator of the renowned cracker-barrel philosopher Abe Martin. The three men were all quite productive when it came to producing copy and illustrations, but they seemed idle to other newspaper employees because they always seemed to be able to find time to discuss and gossip about the issues of the day.

Born in Spencer, Indiana, on November 17, 1873, Herschell was the eldest of six children born to Scottish immigrants John and Martha (Leitch) Herschell. Trained as a blacksmith in his native Scotland, John worked for the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad and later served as foreman for a quarry near Spencer that supplied limestone for the state capitol in Indianapolis. One of William’s earliest memories involved his father sitting by lamplight to recite to his family the poems of Robert Burns. John’s work with the Evansville, Rockport, and Eastern Railroad took him and his family to a succession of communities in southwestern Indiana, including Rockport, Evansville, Huntingburg, and Princeton.

Although at best an unfocused student, Herschell did display some of the writing talent he later used during his newspaper career. While in the Huntingburg school system he was falsely accused of running away with the teacher’s pet dog. An unabashed Herschell penned the following in reply: “Teacher says I stole his dog / But why should I steal Jim, / When teacher’s with me all day long / And I can look at him?” Herschell’s talent for thumbing his nose at the school’s authorities proved to be his undoing. As a seventh-grader, Herschell, already a solid supporter of the Republican Party, played hooky from school to carry in a political parade a banner that proclaimed, “A Vote for [Grover] Cleveland Means Souphouses.” The school’s principal found out about Herschell’s truancy—and political persuasion—and expelled him from school, noting, “Inasmuch as William Herschell had gone into politics he could not possibly wish further education.”

With the assistance of his father, Herschell found work as an apprentice railroad machinist. In 1894 when Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union told its members to refuse to handle Pullman cars in support of striking workers at the Pullman plants in Illinois, Herschell allied himself closely with the union cause. With the strike’s failure, Herschell found himself out of a job. Leaving the Hoosier State, Herschell toiled at a succession of jobs, including stints in Chicago, Buffalo, and Canada. Returning to the United States, he worked at an electric-light plant in North Tonawanda, New York. He eventually found his way back to his native state, where he worked as a night machinist for the Monon Railroad.

On a visit to his family in Princeton in 1896, Herschell met James McCormick, who just three years before had started the Princeton Evening News, an independent Republican Party daily. McCormick offered Herschell a job, telling him, “I’ll give you $9 a week, if you can get it.” Herschell did not discover what his editor had meant until the end of his first week at the newspaper. After everyone else on the paper had received his wages, there remained only $4.00 left for Herschell. Week after week there never seemed to be enough funds to pay Herschell his full salary. On one occasion, McCormick even had to borrow brown wrapping paper from a local butcher in order to publish his afternoon newspaper. An editorial dedicated the issue as “A Souvenir Edition to Our Creditors.” To supplement his meager income, Herschell served as the Princeton correspondent for several larger newspapers, including the Indianapolis News. Herschell sometimes used his money from other publications to buy enough newsprint for McCormick to print his paper.

Although McCormick and Herschell became close friends, the publisher did not stand in his protégé’s way when, in 1898, Herschell received a job offer from the Evansville Journal. Before Herschell left for his new duties, he found waiting for him in the newspaper’s editorial office a gold watch—a going-away present from McCormick. Later, Herschell dedicated his 1922 book Howdy All: And Other Care-Free Rhymes to McCormick, noting that the editor taught him it was “easier to swing a pencil than a hammer.” A year after starting at the Evansville newspaper, Herschell left to join the staff of the Indianapolis Press as a police reporter. With the folding of the Press after only sixteen months, Herschell moved to the Terre Haute Tribune. He returned to Indianapolis in 1902 for a position with the Indianapolis Journal.
 Herschell’s work at the Journal soon caught the attention of Dick Herrick, secretary to Indianapolis News editor Hilton U. Brown. Herrick told his boss that Herschell was “full of fun, can write rhymes and can make the dullest story read like a novel. He belongs here and ought to make a top feature man.” Taking his secretary’s advice, Brown hired Herschell in April 1902, beginning the reporter’s thirty-seven-year association with the newspaper. 

In his early years on the News, Herschell served as a police and court reporter and won the lasting respect of the Indianapolis police department. At slack times, members of the department and local media conducted mock trials at an old bicycle barn. Conducted by the newspapermen, these trials often concluded with the officers having to pay a cigar or two in fines. Herschell presided over the proceedings as judge. His wife, Josephine, who also worked at the News, noted that her husband acted like “a regular roughneck when he came home at night after hanging around the police station all day. But he changed a lot after he became a feature writer.” Josephine also noted that her husband used to jokingly scold a clock that he had been given as a boy, especially when he arrived home at a later time than he had told her to expect him. “We had a lovely life together,” she said.

In 1911 News editor Richard Smith, impressed with Herschell’s poetry, assigned him to write poems and feature articles for the newspaper’s Saturday edition. Herschell’s poems about such staples of city life as policemen, firemen, street urchins, and other characters appeared in a series titled “Songs of the City Streets.” Later, his paeans to rural life were highlighted in the series “Ballads of the Byways.” A fellow News employee noted that Herschell was a true democrat, a friend to everyone from bank presidents to truckers, and a person who could “rub elbows with prominent men at some important banquet, and the next day revel in a picnic at [Indianapolis’s] Douglass park.” 

The poetry Herschell wrote for the newspaper was collected and published in a number of books during his lifetime, including Songs of the Streets and Byways (1915), The Kid Has Gone to the Colors and Other Verse (1917), The Smile Bringer and Other Bits of Cheer (1919), Meet the Folks (1924), and Hitch and Come In (1928). A posthumous collection, Song of the Morning and Other Poems, which was put together by his widow, appeared in 1940.

Known simply as Bill to his friends inside and outside the newspaper, Herschell won the esteem of readers through his simple verses, flavored as they were with the dialect style pioneered so successfully by Riley. “There was no dullness where he was and there were no dead lines in what he wrote,” Brown said of Herschell, who became well known for his laugh, described by Brown as a “musical roar” and which “preceded him wherever he appeared.” Profiling Herschell for a biographical pamphlet produced by the News in 1926, B. Wallace Lewis described Herschell as looking “more like the manager of a successful retail store than a poet. He is big, with the kind of bigness that goes clear through. A round head, hair trimmed close, joins to a massive trunk with a powerful neck. The hands that once wielded a machinist’s hammer are strong and grip yours as if they meant it.”

With America’s entry into World War I, the subject of Herschell’s writing began to turn more and more to wartime matters. He produced for the News such poems as “The Service Flag” and “The Kid Has Gone to the Colors.” His most successful effort, however, came after he spent time at Indianapolis’s Fort Benjamin Harrison, which then served as an officers’ training camp. Herschell became close friends with the camp’s commander, Major General Edwin F. Glenn. The two men often spent a part of each morning discussing news about the war and what was going on at the camp. During one meeting on May 18, 1917, Glenn asked Herschell to use his talents to write a war song. “These boys out here,” Glenn said, “are sick of singing about ‘Mother Dear’ and ‘Broken Hearts’ and ‘Gentle Eyes of Blue.’ Give us something that will keep down homesickness, the curse of an army camp.”

As he crossed the parade ground on his way to return to the office, Herschell spied a company of tall soldiers passing by, which gave him the inspiration to write about the army’s “long boys.” Driving back to downtown Indianapolis, he began to formulate the song’s words and sang them to News photographer Paul Schideler. Charles Dennis, who worked just a few desks down from Herschell at the newspaper, remembered the day the reporter came back from Fort Harrison to work on the song “with pursed lips and corrugated brow, his blue eyes in a fine frenzy rolling.” After seeing Herschell finish his writing, Dennis slipped into a chair next to the poet to view and hear the final result. “As he voiced the verses the workers in this hive of industry gathered about him,” said Dennis. “Other workers from various parts of the building came in. He was obliged to sing it over and over again and though his throat became raw and raucous he kept his good humor through seventeen recalls, and the curtain went down amid the most appreciative applause.”

The next day, Herschell submitted his work, titled “Long Boy,” for Glenn’s review. The general took an immediate liking to the song, especially the chorus line “I may not know what th’ war’s about, / But you bet, by gosh, I’ll soon find out.” Several members of Glenn’s staff also expressed their satisfaction with the song, and the general asked Herschell to find someone to set the words to music so his troops could sing it on parade. Herschell responded by turning the lyrics over to Bradley Walker, an Indianapolis composer, who produced the music for the song. Just a week later, the troops at Fort Harrison sang “Long Boy” as they passed in review before Ohio governor James M. Cox. The song became an instant success, selling more than a million copies. Wabash College honored Herschell for his war verse by awarding him an honorary degree.

Herschell died on December 2, 1939, at his Indianapolis home. His last words to his wife were: “I’ll whip it yet, Jo.” Reminiscing about Herschell’s life, the newspaper he served for so many years said that he had been a part of Indianapolis as much as the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument. “He loved writing,” said the News, “he loved to compose his sincere verse, but most of all he loved people. Otherwise he could not have written so inspiringly of their lives.”