Once there was a man named Ernie Pyle. He was a newspaper columnist, a smallish man with a bristly crew cut, who wrote a column every day for a chain of newspapers. Only these columns weren't about sports, politics or international matters.
Ernie Pyle wrote about the boy with the light blue piping on his cap, the GI, the dogface, the infantryman. And he wrote about that kid in every theater of the war, from the first invasion of Africa to the South Pacific. In his columns he became the historian of the infantryman. There is the sound of troop trains at night, you can taste the last drink with friends who are going another direction and will never be seen again. What happened? Oh, they were killed or they were sent to another repple depple and went back to the gas station in Spokane or to a small white cross in Normandy.
Ernie Pyle could write the sound of music. In the lines, you can hear "Chattanooga Choo Choo" on a jukebox or catch the opening phrase of "I'll Walk Alone," through a harmonica, like the soft singing of the meadowlark in the dusk.
I'll walk alone, because to tell you the truth, I'll be lonely.
Oh, my yes.
Now a fine actor named William Windom, in whose friendship I rejoice, has made a one-man show of Ernie Pyle's columns. Show isn't the right word. Neither is theatrical presentation. That's too heavy. It's as if the water-clear simplicity of Ernie Pyle's could only have had Bill Windom for a storyteller.
Bill read through every galley of type that Ernie Pyle ever filed, from his first days as an aviation editor. He found something that most people don't know about Pyle. I thought Pyle sprang into being when he became the court reporter of the infantryman. I should have known that kind of ease of writing doesn't come instantly with a J-school degree. It comes of long, hard writing on deadline, in cramped and cold places, in trains, cars, porch swings, airplanes.
That's where Ernie Pyle learned to write like a mountain creek running. He learned it hitching across the United States, meeting people in small towns and metropolises, on lean-to farms and palm-studded grand hotel lobbies. Every day for years, he and sometimes his wife drove all over the country, filing the words in a telegraph office so that it could appear in newspapers all over the nation in the next couple of days.
It's funny stuff, sad, sentimental, uproarious, part of the texture of the fabric of the United States. And that's the first part of William Windom's Ernie Pyle evening.
Windom walks out onto the stage in a 1935 pinch-back suit and a wide-brimmed felt hat and turns into Ernie Pyle. The desk and stool are the front seat of a car, a stool in an all-night diner. The desk can be a rolling field of grain or the side of a mountain, so good is Windom's way with Pyle words. It's as if his talents as an actor have been waiting for the Ernie Pyle columns to sound a clear bell. William Windom has the gift of picking the terrible plainness of living and bringing it forward in his hand to say, "See? Here's what we are, every one of us. And do you know, we're not so bad."
Windom works his wizardry for the second half of the show wearing a set of Army fatigues. The desk and the stool are a jeep, a fox hole, a bombed-out church, a hotel balcony, an assault boat, whatever he wants you to see.
William Windom will do his Ernie Pyle as a benefit Saturday evening, March 9, at the Marianne Frostig Learning Center in Pasadena. That's a school for kids with learning problems. That's a great big tent of a word that covers every sort of a learning problems little boys and girls might have. These people say the children first have to learn to learn. With the money they get from Bill's evening, they can teach more kids.
The other night, Bill did a run-through of the Ernie Pyle show for Patsy and me in our living room. It was Christmas. He is so good that when he delivers an aside, starting, "Oh, did I tell you . . . " you're caught for a minute not knowing if he's still in character or has stepped out.
It is a rich evening of theater, full of heartbreak, music and merry go-rounds. Ernie Pyle wrote: "I'm not much for the Big Picture. I write from the worm's-eye point of view." And so he did. And that's the way the young men beside him lived it, in small fragments of terror and pain and boredom.
Ernie Pyle was the historian and friend of the foot soldier who was killed in the South Pacific. Bill Windom brings him home at last.