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The Great Tradition of Ernie Pyle 

One of the minor certainties about the coming war is that sooner or later someone in the media will laud someone else in the media for combat coverage "in the great tradition of Ernie Pyle."

Ernie died the way the country's best-known combat correspondent might wish, dog tags around his neck and a Japanese sniper bullet in his body. His death on a small island off Okinawa in the spring of 1945 meant that he missed the debut of a movie based on his career: The Story of GI Joe, starring Burgess Meredith as Ernie.

To grasp the full impact of this, we have to imagine Hollywood producing a full-length feature on Dan Rather or even the Scud Stud. But Ernie Pyle was able to engage the attention and even love of the American public because of the unprecedented way that he brought home the folkiness and fear of the common dog soldier, USA.

But there was more to Ernie Pyle than that, plenty more. The beloved uncle-figure to America's GIs was a master dissembler, impotent alcoholic and closet malcontent. Even his storied journalistic style that brought history's worst war home for millions of his countrymen -- the personal take, the telling detail, the democratic anecdote -- had been carefully honed in the seven years leading up to the war. It was during that time that Ernie Pyle had come to know America.

Even New Orleans. Though Ernie Pyle knew as well as anyone, and better than most, that the linkage between "New Orleans" and "America" was as problematical as you could wish for. Or against.

Ernie was a true son of the twentieth century, born in 1900 in rural Indiana. He dropped out of the state university at Bloomington and joined the circuit of small-town newspapers that usually ended up as lining for canary cages.

By 1925, he met and married Jerry, a girl from middling Minnesota. Their rebellions were usually quiet, but even though they were legal, they told everybody they were "shacking up." Jerry, well-read and reclusive, refused to wear a wedding ring for many years.

Both were alcoholics by 1935. That was the year Ernie talked his way out of the desk job he'd risen to at the Washington Daily News; his way out would be as traveling correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate. He had to roam the country and write six columns a week of a thousand words each. Long before Kerouac, Ernie and Jerry had chosen to make their inner journey visible along the highways and backroads of America.

In the next seven years, Ernie pushed his Ford Coupe across the continent 33 times, touching every state at least three times. But his Huck Finn-like wanderlust was paid in heavy coin. After a couple of years, Jerry became more settled -- and troubled. She became hooked on Benzedrine. Ernie became largely impotent. The pair divorced and remarried, sandwiched around a couple of suicide attempts by Jerry. She was gone, a victim of uremic poisoning, six months after Ernie's death.

That death was massively mourned and not solely because of his unforgettable combat journalism. In his years of continent-trotting, Pyle had touched a chord in Depression America and he had done this by largely ignoring that Depression. He focused instead on what we would call "nostalgia."

"Why, I wonder, can't an old place really die? Why can't it lie down amid its old drama and wrap its romantic robes about it and pose there, unstirring and ghostlike, for the trembling contemplation of us latecomers?"

Naturally, such a soul gorged itself on New Orleans, where he sent dispatches March 7 and 9, 1936: "They say that when you get within a hundred miles you begin to feel a little drunk on just the idea of New Orleans ... that is true. Anything you may say about New Orleans, good or bad, is true."

Pyle claimed that he "got" New Orleans right away, though he had trouble articulating it. Not only that, but the locals had trouble articulating it, too. "So it's like music, or the wind. You can't see it, you can't put it in a bottle, you can't hang clothes on it, but it's there all right. It's there pounding in your temples and singing in your heart."

People who daily bathe in such a dangerous elixir have generalities heaped on them, and Ernie did his share of heaping. "People care a little less in New Orleans. They're born to a what-the-hell attitude. They grow up to take a chance."

"People grow up dancing ... The youngsters start making love early, and being happy."

"The people of New Orleans believe devoutly in their right to drink, dance, gamble, make love and worship God."

"New Orleans hungers for pleasure, and has it, and let him beware who tries to interfere."

The last thing in Ernie Pyle's dispatches from New Orleans was the story of the old Creole belle who passed away. Neighbors dropped in to express regret, but her brother said death had been beautiful. She had asked for a glass of old brandy and had sat up and drank it just as the cathedral bells had begun ringing.

"My dear good friends, how could anything be more beautiful than that? With the taste of good brandy in her mouth, and the sound of bells in her ears, and a smile on her face -- is that not beautiful?"


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