Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest. Learn about Ernie's life in his new home, and of his struggles with his fame and his wife's increasing depression.
A visit to the only home Ernie Pyle ever owned
It wasn't a happy time
By Chuck Woodbury
Long before Charles Kuralt or Out West, Ernie Pyle was on the road writing about America. In 1935, Pyle left his job as managing editor of the Washington, D.C., Daily News to become a roving reporter for Scripps Howard Newspapers.
His self-assignment: write six columns a week, 1,000 words each, to be syndicated by the chain's 24 daily newspapers. It was a tall order, yet for seven years Pyle did it — writing about regular folks and out-of-the-way places that most journalists couldn't care less about. His style was folksy and non-pretentious, and it wasn't long before his name became a household word in towns across America. His columns were like letters from a friend, and that's what endeared Ernie to his readers. However, it was not until World War II that his reports from the front lines gained him widespread fame and even a Pulitzer.
You can visit a little piece of Pyle history in Albuquerque, at the only home Ernie and his wife Jerry ever owned. Since 1947, the modest, wood-frame structure at 900 Girard S.E., has been the Ernie Pyle Memorial Library — the very first branch of the city's public library system. It's on a corner lot in a quiet residential neighborhood, surrounded by adobes. Ernie opted for a wooden house to remind him of his childhood home in Indiana.
Ernie Pyle was never meant for a desk job. In 1934, while working at the Daily News, Ernie got sick and was slow recouperating. His editor gave him some time off, which Ernie and Jerry used for a road trip west. Ernie returned convinced that travel would have to be a part of his life. A year later, it was.
The couple took off in their Ford coupe, and for the next two years, crisscrossed the country, Ernie writing, Jerry reading and doing crossword puzzles. When Ernie would gather enough material, they'd pick a hotel, where Ernie would write frantically. Jerry would type his final manuscripts, which they'd mail first class to Scripps Howard. In seven years, the post office never lost a single one.
They traveled together at first, and then, in 1937, Ernie took off alone. Jerry's mental health had deteriorated since their days in Washington, and for the next eight years she would fight a losing battle with depression and substance abuse. Although they would travel together again from time to time, Ernie spent most of the following years alone, first mostly in the states, then in Europe as a war correspondent.
Pyle was a loner, an alcoholic himself, and a life on the move suited him well. "Stability cloaks you with a thousand little responsibilities and we have been able to flee from them," he wrote, using "we," as he often did even when alone. "I have no home. My home is where my extra luggage is, and where the car is stopped, and where I happen to be geting mail this time. My home is America."
Although everyone who met Ernie loved him, Pyle was shy and avoided close relationships. People that Ernie and Jerry met on the road would often ask them to stay for awhile, but the couple would always find an excuse to move on.
In his years roaming America, Ernie almost never wrote about bad or big news. It didn't interest him. He once wrote a friend that he'd gone three weeks without reading a newspaper or hearing the radio, and he didn't care.
He picked his own stories, and when he couldn't find one, he'd write about his life on the road. Ernie believed that how a person got somewhere was as important as the destination.
Ernie and Jerry built their Albuquerque home in 1940. Ernie wrote: "As the years of wandering rolled over us, we began to sense a lack of something. We realized we had become human whirling dervishes. We had become footloose finally to the point of just swinging forever through space without ever coming down. We were like trees growing in the sky, without roots."
But Ernie lived in the house only briefly while on vacation from the war. By now his fame was so wide, and his column in such demand, that he couldn't remain in one place very long even if he wanted to; he had to always move on, always writing.
Jerry's years in Albuquerque were the worst of times. Twice, she tried to kill herself, once by trying to gas herself with the kitchen stove, then, when Ernie was home, by locking herself in the bathroom and slashing her throat with scizzors.
Ernie did little writing in the house. During his first visit, he was so distracted by acquaintances that he checked into a hotel to write. He left the house for the last time in January, 1945. Four months later, in a freak action, he was killed by sniper fire in Ie Shima, near Okinawa. He was 44. Jerry died seven months later.
The library, like the house, is small. There's isn't too much Pyle material; you could probably visit and miss it altogether if you weren't paying attention. But there are some photos, a fewmanuscripts, news clippings, copies of Ernie's books, the gloves he
Although the library is used mostly by locals, it's also a tourist destination. "We have people come to Albuquerque just to see this house," said librarian Suzy Sultemeir.
Pyle's bedroom is now the non-fiction room. The bathroom, where Jerry tried to commit suicide, is the periodical room, perhaps earning it honors as "Best Restroom Reading in the West."
For me, the best part of visiting the Pyle house was looking in the same bathroom mirror that Pyle must have used many mornings to shave. I stood before the mirror and stared, looking, perhaps wistfully, for a glimmer of Ernie.
But he wasn't just there, of course, — just me, another guy of a different time, on the road, doing a little of what Ernie did, just wishing I could be half as good as the master himself.
Having done a bit of writing on the road myself, I marvel at how Ernie Pyle managed to endure seven years of it, alone most of the time, writing six columns a week. I'd guess that during my last seven years, I've probably averaged about 1,500 words a week — a lightweight compared to Pyle.
In Pyle's time, roads were rough, cars weren't air conditioned, good hotels were rare, roadfood was marginal, and the tools of a writer's trade were a manual typewriter and carbon paper. Yet even with these now-primitive tools, Pyle wrote religiously, first on the road in America, then as a war correspondent during World War II.
Here I sit, 60 years later, in a toasty-warm motorhome equipped with two deep-cell batteries and a power inverter, a laptop computer with built-in fax, printer and a cellular phone, and access to e-mail and the internet's World Wide Web. I've got two 35 mm cameras, plus a video camera that caputures images my computer can convert instantly to still photos for publication in this newspaper.
Ernie Pyle didn't need such gadgetry. I envy him for that.
I feel a kinship with Ernie Pyle, because like him, I, too, am a loner although probably not the the degree he was.
Like Pyle, I, too, was drawn to the road. For ten years before I started Out West, I dreamed of the gypsy life. I could never determine if my motives were to travel or simply to escape a life of responsiblity and bordom. I think it was the latter.
Life on the road shelters a person from the reponsibilities of day to day living. Even now, when I travel, there is a feeling of great liberation and freedom. On the road, life is so purposely unresponsible — you go where you want, when you want, and when you're tired of where you are, you go somewhere else. Short meetings with strangers become momentary friendships, each person presenting a "Best Of" performance. "What do you do? Where are you from? How many kids?" Common demonimators are established and pasionately discussed.
Ernie might say. "You meet 'em, you talk with 'em, you figure what's interesting, you write about it, you move on."
Like Pyle, my life on the road started out easy. I wrote and sent my stories off to newspaper and magazines. Life was still delightfully simple when I started Out West. There were few subscribers, and I could stay on the road two months before returning home to put out the next issue.
Then, I got splashed all over the TV networks and in People Magazine and on the cover of USA Today, and pretty soon my mailbox was stuffed with money, which was great because it meant I could keep traveling. Yet, to keep up, I'd often have to shorten my trips to punch all the names in my computer.
People would say, "You're a success!" And I'd wonder what the heck they were talking about. I was so busy taking care of busines that taking roadtrips was getting harder and harder. Sometimes it got so bad I couldn't get away at all!
Pyle experienced something very similar. He and Jerry took off to wander and write. It was the perfect life for a couple of loner gypsies.
Ernie's life got complicated when he started getting famous. Fans started hounding him in cafes, which made him very uncomfortable. Newspaper editors pressured him to plan trips to their towns to help boost their paper's circulation.
After awhile, Pyle was not on the road by choice, but because he had no choice! If you're a daily columnist, you just can't take a month off whenever you're tired. The presses roll, and your column better be there.
A friend once said to me, "When you travel because you are forced to rather then because you want to, you have a job, and that's different from having work."
A friend of mine is a sports reporter, and I remember him telling me about what happened to bicycle great Greg LaMond after he won the Tour de France. "It's hard to get out and do my training," he told my friend. "There are so many demands on me by the news media and sponsors, and there's so many pressing business matters."
Long before he was a champion, LaMond was doing what he loved, racing bicycles. He'd train on the steep highway from Carson City, Nev., to Lake Tahoe, and everybody would leave him alone to train. The only thing he fought was fatigue.
Now a champion, he was fighting success — a far greater challenge to remaining world champion.
Success changes everyone who experiences it. A simple idea that succeeds forces us to become someone we may not have wanted to become. A writer who starts off to publish a newspaper as a hobby watches as it succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and then finds himself fighting to not become turned into a full-time businessman.
Ernie Pyle became a commodity to the publishers whose papers his column helped sell. At age 34, before he went off to war, Pyle was worn out. His writing was stale, and he wondered if he was washed up. The war saved him.
Before I started Out West, Ernie Pyle was only a name to me. I vaguely recalled that he was a war correspondent, but I knew nothing of his pre-war travel in America.
When readers began to mention him to me, I went to a used bookstore and found a tattered copy of "Home Country," a collection of his columns from his days of traveling the USA. I was astounded at our how much we were alike. I read the entire book before I learned that he was dead. It was like losing a friend. I suppose it was the same sense of loss his fans felt in 1945.
After reading "Home Country," I contacted Scripps Howard to obtain the rights to publish his columns in Out West. I am privileged to have his words in each quarterly issue of my newspaper.
People should not forget Ernie Pyle, yet they are. My generation barely knows him. Generation X knows him even less. If you are not at least in your 70s, then you do not remember Ernie Pyle when he was alive.
I'll do my part to keep his wonderful words flowing.
From Out West #33
©2002 by Out West Newspaper
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