Tuesday in Albuquerque, part two. (I remember you well, long-ago Tuesday.)
We’re at the Ernie Pyle Branch Library, 900 Girard Boulevard SE.
Pyle, whose work as roving reporter for Scripps Howard Newspapers had already turned him into a national icon, and wife Jerry built this humble home in the fall of 1940.
For the most part, sadness reigned here.
Ernie was gone much of the time, first wandering the country and then covering the war overseas. Jerry’s mental condition deteriorated, and she became increasingly despondent and alcohol-dependent. At one point she was drinking down 10 quarts of booze a week. She tried to kill herself twice.*
Pyle wrestled with his own demons, including a fondness for liquor and a persistent battle with the manly malady those sunny, 21st century pharmaceutical ads refer to as “erectile dysfunction.”
Neither seemed to harbor illusions about domestic bliss. Pyle, who envisioned it as a “sort of home plate,” nonetheless derided the 1,145-square-foot house as “a regular little boxed-up mass production shack in a cheap new suburb.”
Compared to Jerry, though, he was brimming with optimism.
“To pretend that I give one solitary good God damn about a shack or a place or any other material consideration in this world, would be to foist upon everybody at all interested, the greatest gold-brick insult a low mind could conceive,” she confided in a letter to a friend in November 1940. “I’ve no doubt I’ll go thru all the motions of doing what must be done. I’ll probably even double-hem, and French-seam the window curtains … And if I live through that, I’ll know I’m good. For the truth is that the situation seems to me as diabolically ironical as ever devised.”
By the time 1945 ended, both were dead. In April, Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper on an obscure Japanese island. Jerry succumbed to a combination of poor health and heartbreak on the day after Thanksgiving.
But there had been a happier time, a time spent traversing on less-than-hospitable roads of the nation.
As newlyweds in 1925, they circumnavigated the rim of the United States, covering 9,000 miles in 10 weeks in a Model T. The diminutive Pyle then attended to his career, including a spell writing a ground-breaking aviation column, eventually rising to managing editor of the Washington Daily News.
By the mid-30s, Pyle felt trapped by his “man-killing” desk job. The road beckoned. Desk work bred contempt, mixing memories of past trips with desire for new adventures. He must’ve read a thousand “important” stories with mounting disinterest and incalculable boredom.
Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m not sure if anyone is made for the cubicle life. Some adapt and tolerate it better than others. Some thrive. Others endure. I spent eight years on a newspaper desk, and while I enjoyed my colleagues and generally held to the belief that it was preferable to laboring in one of Uncle Don Blankenship’s coal mines, a day never passed when I didn’t long to throw off the shackles of workaday life and breathe freely.
In any case, Pyle sold his bosses on the idea of turning him loose. He surrendered his post of managing editor to become a vagabond raconteur. An American her was born.
In August 1935, Ernie and Jerry, whom he referred to in print as “That girl who travels with me,” hit the road. He wrote six columns a week for seven years, sketching extraordinary portraits of ordinary Americans. He didn’t care about big-picture dramas or hot-button issues. He didn’t bother localizing national stories. He reveled in the eccentricity of the common man, the genius of the independent spirit.
“I have no home,” he famously wrote. “My home is where my extra luggage is, and where the car is stopped, and where I happen to be getting mail this time. My home is America.”
Pyle seemingly had few writerly pretensions. At least that’s the feeling you get reading his uncluttered portraits from the road. He didn’t need to be James Joyce or John Steinbeck.
He didn’t have to please high-brow critics like the preternaturally caustic Westbrook Pegler, who dismissed Pyle as a “tumbleweed reporter blowing this way and that across the land” producing stories which were “strictly T-bone medium all the time.”
Tumbleweed or no, Pyle wrote like a motherfucker. Six columns a week. Nowadays, even in the midst of the newspaper apocalypse, hack columnists still can earn six figures for producing three cliche-ridden pieces a week.
With all the traveling, Pyle was always short of time. He’d often hole up in a hotel room and abandon himself to catch-up “writing sieges.” By his own account, he once completed 13 columns in two days.
When the house went up in the fall of 1940, this pleasant, tree-lined hamlet was just a twinkle in developers’ eyes.
As for his attraction to the Southwest, Pyle loved the way the land opened up in all directions “as far as you can see.” He found in Albuquerque an oasis where he wouldn’t be “stifled and smothered and hemmed in by buildings and trees and traffic and people.”
In 1942, Pyle was persuaded to write a “Why Albuquerque?” piece for New Mexico Magazine.
“Probably the main reason,” he offered, “is simply a deep, unreasoning affection for the Southwest. It was, he wrote, “like being in love with a woman … You just love her because you love her and you can’t help yourself. That’s the way we are about the Southwest.”
If it wasn’t Dana, Ind., Albuquerque was “still small enough that you always see somebody you know when you go downtown,” Pyle wrote. “You can cash a check almost anywhere … without being grilled as though you were a criminal.”
And that’s the way it was. Then.
In 1940, the population of Albuquerque was 35, 449. As of the 2010 census, it had mushroomed to 545,852.
The wood-sided, one-floor home with green awnings has been a branch of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County library system since 1947. It was the first branch of the library system. The clapboard siding is painted white, just as it was seven decades ago. Several lovely Arizona Sycamores, planted in subsequent decades, amplify the place’s elegiac atmosphere.
Inside, every nook and niche is filled with bookshelves, aside from the crannies reserved for a modest collection of Pyle memorabilia, like the photograph of him and Jerry and Cheetah, their beloved Shetland shepherd. Among the curatorial curiosities: Pyle’s typewriter, Stetson hat and a few donated scrapbooks.
Sitting on their front porch, they had a spectacular view of 11,305-foot Mount Taylor, which rises out of the Rio Grande Valley 65 miles to the west.
Then Girard Boulevard was a simple dirt road. Now it is a busy thoroughfare. When I accompanied Max on a scooter trip around the neighborhood, we had to be wary of cars and buses that flew past at 45 mph.
Soon the neighborhood filled up with adobe homes on all sides, and the panoramic view disappeared. That didn’t happen till after the Pyles were gone.
Ernie Pyle, who had admired the people of Albuquerque for being “kind enough to know when to leave you alone,” saw his privacy disappear faster than the view. Tourists soon besieged America’s favorite reporter, leaving him to compare his existence to that of a goldfish.
“Word got around somehow and the damn place is like a museum,” Pyle wrote. “People drive around and around and park out front and stare, even come look in the window.”
Their life here was tumultuous in the best of times, heartbreaking in the worst.
Almost by accident, Pyle was pulled overseas by the expanding carnage and became this country’s most famous war correspondent. He won a Pulitzer Prize, but we shouldn’t let that diminish his work (Did you know Thomas Friedman, who apparently just learned about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, has won three of them? Mon dieu!).
The Pyles divorced in 1942, then remarried less than year later. On his last visit to the house in the fall of 1944, Ernie found Jerry locked in the bathroom. He broke down the door and discovered her covered in blood from head to toe. She had stabbed herself no fewer than 20 times.
Adrienne Warner was the helpful librarian du jour (There is, by the way, always a helpful librarian. Public libraries, big and small, metropolitan or rural, are perhaps this country’s last great civic institutions. Someday the vultures of privatization will come for the libraries, incensed that government should impose its will on the people in the form of free access to learning and entertainment. It’s an affront to freedom, no doubt.).
Sixty-seven years after Pyle’s death, she said, visitors still make pilgrimages from all over to touch a piece of his legacy. Most are World War II veterans looking to pay one last tribute to the man who gave his life to tell their stories.
Anyway, Adrienne says she feels the acute presence of Ernie and Jerry here. It’s almost as if their ghosts live in the bookshelves.
“It’s intense,” she said.
She feels particularly for Jerry, whose debilitating frame of mind was the centerpiece of the couples’ turbulent existence. She was left alone while he went overseas to cover the London Blitz, and then the war proper in Africa, Europe and finally, Asia.
“I know I’d go out of my mind with worry,” Adrienne said.
*The information about the Pyles’ turbulent times in Albuquerque was lifted from Richard Melzer’s excellent Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest.