“In wartime it is an axiom that the closer you get to the front the less you know about what is going on… we would often say to each other that we wished we were back in New York so we could find out how we were doing,” wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle. My great-grandmother Lela, an orphaned, adopted cowgirl, turned young wife and rancher, bore many babies, the depression, dust bowl and two world wars. She read these words and smiled, blew out the lamp, turned over and closed her eyes. When she read the headlines from Washington she would dream of wastelands, scorched earth and young bodies shriveling up, smaller and smaller into dust in the ceaseless wind. Even when it was good news, she’d wonder what they weren’t saying, what frontlines they concealed for morale, if her boy was there in the silent place, or her neighbor’s. She’d heave her sore bones into the kitchen, turn a glass right side up in the pie safe, strike a match and pick up where she left off in Brave Men. She would read simple, common things about simple common men: Tom Temple, or rather Thomas Nicholas Temple, was a seaman second class. His father deliberately put in the middle name so the initials would read TNT. Tom, aged nineteen, was tall and thin, very grave and analytical. He talked so slowly I thought sometimes he was going to stop altogether… then across the spine, Arch Fulton, of 493 East 129th Street, Cleveland, Ohio was an electrician’s mate second class. Before the war he worked as a lineman for the Cleveland Illuminating Company. Fulton was married and had two children. He was thirty-seven, much older than most of the crew. He was born a Scotsman and went to America at seventeen… turning the page, Arch had a short pompadour which slanted forward and gave him the look of standing with his back to the wind. He had a dry Scottish humor, and he took the Navy in his stride. Back in Cleveland he used to read my columns, so you can see he was a smart man… then at the bottom there, her favorite Fred Moore, a young black man from Alabama who was a wizard at baking delicate and beautiful pastries. He made all the pastry desserts for the officers mess. He had never done any cooking before joining the Navy, except to fry a few hamburgers at a short-order joint. He couldn’t explain his knack for pasty baking. It was just like somebody who can play the piano beautifully without ever taking lessons. The whole ship paid tribute to his streak of special genius… but before she could get to Fred Moore’s view on the action, she dropped off, her head back on the bars of the rocker, dreaming of young men growing as fat and as merry as Santa Claus, eating Fred’s pastries. When the roosters started crowing, she woke gently from letting out the seams on a thousand uniforms.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings of WWII, or D-Day. I had seven great-uncles in the war, and two of them were Lela’s sons. One of these, Harold Lewis, was missing in action. A government man came all the way out to the ranch to give them the news. Lela went right on praying for his safety every day, until the end of the war when he turned up in an army hospital. He was 68 pounds. She and his wife went to get him, and despite the doctors orders, bailed him out and brought him home at last. When Ernie Pyle died in the Spring of 1945, they say Lela mourned him like a son. He had helped her through war on every side, from without and within, from the enemy across the great sea to the black rat snake eating her biddies in the chicken coop. He brought the women of America to the frontlines, the trenches and the shores, where they longed to be, and yet he left them in their own battles still, better fit to face them, ashamed to turn back at danger, resigned to suffer quietly, quick to smile and ready to laugh at anything that halfway qualified. He didn’t spare them the painful truth, and they respected that. He told of boots sticking out from deep in the sand like driftwood, of photographs and cigarettes and blank writing paper littering the ground, but also of sunsets and sights beyond their imaginations and gardens to pale their own struggling crops, yet in all this, a world not unlike Vian, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Kentucky or Esto, Florida. He opened their eyes not only to the story in Europe, but the story at home, so that, when the sons and brothers and husbands returned, the ones who did, they found that they were remembered by name and known, not only in their place, but every place and every heart where Ernie Pyle was loved and read and mourned. Just a cheerful man with a typewriter, facing the smoke, asking questions, listening and telling the truth.
If you don’t remember him, it’s because you haven’t asked a lady of that time if she does.