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.

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