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A Quiet Prelude to War in Ernie Pyle's Archives

Editor's Note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns from across America as it prepares for a possible war in Iraq.

November 17, 2002|PETER H. KING

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Before the United States entered World War II, and before he made his name as the chronicler of the common soldier, Ernie Pyle spent a half-dozen years or so roaming the country, batting out folksy newspaper columns six days a week about what might be called the real America.

Pyle was the son of a Hoosier farmer, and his columns from this period are kept at Indiana University's Lilly Library. The collection seemed to offer a natural set of reference points, a roadmap, for exploring the country now, some 60 years later, as it contemplates the prospect of another war.

As these things go, however, nothing is ever quite that simple.

Pyle went everywhere and wrote about almost anything. He wrote about his encounters with one-handed cowboys, bowling champions and "lady barbers" on the Alaskan frontier, about the foibles of roadside mechanics and the nuances of Wisconsin cheese-making. What he didn't write about all that much, it turns out, was the coming war.

Pyle resisted joining the keyboard generals of the press in what he called "war blab-blab." His discipline was remarkable. As the Nazis poured into Poland, Pyle was filing daily dispatches about a hike through Montana's grizzly bear country. On the week that France fell, he was introducing his readers to the founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain.

This is not to say, however, that a reading of Pyle's prewar ramblings offered little to illuminate. In a subtle way, the collection reflects the manner in which a country moves toward war -- not in a purposeful march, but in a slow meandering, like a river rolling easily toward a violent waterfall.

If Pyle avoided the topic of war, it was only in part because of the nature of his assignment. He found that Americans -- at least the ones he came across in more remote corners of the country -- weren't all that interested. Half of them, he observed once in a letter, didn't seem to know there even was a war on in Europe.

"Traveling as we do from here to there," he wrote in late 1939, "we get, I suppose, what the chart-makers would call a cross-section. And this cross-section is about the most unanimous I've ever observed on any subject. It shows that in the West, when people speak about the war, they say mainly, 'Oh to hell with it.' But mainly they don't speak about it at all.

"Letters from Washington and New York tell us that every gathering of friends these days practically ends in a fistfight over war dissensions. But we have recently spent entire evenings with whole roomfuls of people without the war even being mentioned once."

More than once, Pyle mentioned in passing what he perceived to be unreal assumptions about what a war would entail. In San Francisco, he watched small boys play army on a hillside: "The trouble, you see, is that 25 years is too long between wars. We've got to have wars oftener, so everybody will remember the last one. Because wars are fun -- until you've been through one."

Crossing Nebraska, he stopped to describe a scene he'd seen played out more than once: "We go to some big public celebration, such as a Fourth of July parade, 5,000 miles from the nearest bomb. The Army puts a group of two-month draftees in the parade. They march by in good order and look pretty nice. The flag passes and everybody stands up. The announcer cracks over the loudspeaker. 'Boy, if old Hitler could just see this!'

"We all cheer wildly, ripple our muscles, picture Hitler shaking in his boots, sit back down, nod knowingly to each other, and go back to eating our beautiful popcorn out of a sack. We're wonderful."

As the possibility of war crept into national consciousness, so did it creep into Pyle's columns, first on the edges, as marginalia, subtext: "There is no German building," he observed in one of several columns from the World's Fair in New York, which occurred after the Nazis took Czechoslovakia. "There is, however, a Czechoslovakian building. A building without a country."

In 1940, Pyle described a summer day spent on a beach in Biloxi, Miss. Dressed, he dutifully reported, in a pair of 49-cent swim trunks, he talked for hours with a friend about the German invasion of France. The war, he said, was becoming an all-consuming concern, and he wrapped up his column with this:

"The birds sing all night down here, and sometimes I waken deep in the night, and the birds are gay out there in the dark stillness, and I can picture the lovely magnolia tree in the backyard, and everything is so hushed and gentle and sweet, and I wonder if ever again in this world there can be such peace as this."

In time, as the war drums banged more and more loudly, Pyle began to address the subject head-on -- although not exclusively, for he was filing copy about spelunkers and crab fishermen right up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went to England and wrote powerfully about the firebombing of London. In the United States, he visited boot camps and bomb factories.

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