My journey for my book was largely done in the dark—chronicling the Americans who went to work each night while the rest of the country slept—and Pyle’s index was a useful torch. It let me quickly find if he had been where I was going, and he usually had: Boston, St. Petersburg, Laredo, Seattle, and plenty of other places about which he always had something interesting to say.
But the index is also useful for the way it illuminates Pyle’s notion of what a reporter’s job is. The index consists entirely of the names of people and places; nothing but human beings you could buttonhole with questions, or cities, towns, and crossroads where you might try to find a medium-boiled egg, crisp bacon, and some dry toast, his preferred breakfast. No entry for “Dust Bowl” or “Depression” or “New Deal” or “Civilian Conservation Corps,” although he wrote about all of those things. A few of the names are famous (Walt Disney, Gene Autry, George Washington Carver), but most belong to people whose one turn in the national spotlight came when Ernie Pyle happened to bump into them.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is in the index, too, but when you turn to page 56, you find no commentary upon his policies, just a tenderly observed account of the way he maneuvered himself out of his touring car at his hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota:
The President put both hands on one leg, and pushed downward, locking the jointed steel brace at his knee. He slowly did the same with the other leg. Then he put his hands on the side of the car, and with his arms lifted his body out and up and onto his legs. He straightened up. I have never seen a man so straight. And at that moment the tenseness broke, and the crowd applauded. The President’s back was to the crowd, and he did not look around. It was brief and restrained applause….It was as though they were saying with their hands, “We know we shouldn’t, but we’ve got to.”
Far more space in Home Country is allotted to the shepherds, hat-check girls, tugboat captains, crab fishermen, silver miners, moonshiners, revenuers, soda jerks, agate hunters, abalone divers, sharpshooters, and Death Valley cave-dwellers whom Pyle chatted up in the easy, unassuming way that led one of them to tell him, “Why, I feel like I’d known you all my life.” He didn’t think celebrities had cornered the market on interesting lives. “Every time I go to a night club I waste too much of the evening down in the men’s department trying to find out from the whisk-broom boy how much he makes in tips,” he wrote when he was in Los Angeles and itching to get out.
Pyle was much happier in a leper colony in Hawaii, or above the Arctic Circle in Fort Yukon, Alaska, with Maud Berglund, her three daughters, and the twenty-two dogs they used to run a trapline from their one-room log cabin. “Eleven months of the year they did not see a living soul,” he wrote. “They lived alone among snow and wolves and moose and mountains.” He was especially fond of prospectors—Josie Pearl, in her tar-paper shack in the desert thirty-five miles outside Winnemucca, Nevada, is a particularly memorable one—perhaps because their trade so nearly resembled his own: hunting for shiny bits of light in a world so often dimmed by shadows.