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.
Pyle did much of his prospecting in the newsrooms of local papers, picking up tips on where the good stories were waiting in each new town he visited. He carried in his car, along with his carefully annotated AAA Hotel Directory, a wooden box in which he filed leads, contacts, clippings—the raw material for future columns. His editors occasionally put in requests. “I don’t like that idea,” he said to a suggestion that he take a look at the impact of government relief efforts in one small city. “It sounds too important!” But he did take a look, and the resulting series was set in North Platte, Nebraska. He wrote another series, about the drought in the upper plains, that was good enough for Scripps-Howard to nominate for a Pulitzer. (It didn’t win; the war is what finally earned one for him.)
Pyle traveled with one suit, three neckties, a supply of ten-cent white cotton socks, and a Borsalino felt hat that he finally lost on the set of a Joan Crawford movie, one more reason to hightail it out of LA. He would report for a few days, collecting material for several columns or more, and then hole up in a hotel room to write them in batches. He spent seven days in Monument Valley and the Four Corners region, and then, sunburned and nursing a cold, spent the next week in an Arizona tourist cabin writing about it: twenty thousand words, enough for three weeks of columns.
The job wore on him, a hole with his name on it that he had to fill every day, and he was irked by friends who regarded it instead as a permanent vacation. “One story a day sounds as easy as falling off a log,” he wrote in one column. “Try it sometime.” He tried to build up what he called his “cushion” of columns, the more weeks ahead the better, and to plump that cushion he sometimes told stories from his own life—sometimes serious (his columns about his mother’s stroke brought her sympathetic get-well wishes from across the country), and sometimes not (one of his most popular pieces documented his struggle with a recalcitrant zipper on his trousers).