Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Roadrunner At Ernie Pyle's Place In Albuquerque

Postcard, c. 1945

Yesterday, we had some time on our hands between errands in town (Abq) so we decided to divert over to Ernie Pyle's place on a little height above the University.

Ernie and his wife "That Girl" built the small, simple and very pleasant house then on the edge of Albuquerque in 1940, the only house they ever owned as a couple apparently, and they lived there for a month or more each year while Ernie was working first as a Traveling Columnist for Scripps-Howard, then as a War Correspondent for Scripps-Howard. His wife Jerry was also traveling and writing during the same period.

It was in his latter capacity as War Correspondent that Ernie gained his largest audience. Americans followed his war dispatches from both the European and Pacific Theatres eagerly. He was the writer, after all, who created the character and coined the still-current sobriquet "G.I. Joe" to represent the ordinary American caught up in the patriotic fervor and wartime mechanism that swept the country just before and during WWII, fervor and mechanisms that were kept going through various strategies long after it ended.

It was in his latter capacity that Ernie was killed on some god-forsaken island in the Pacific just weeks before the end of the War in the Pacific. Ever since, he's been iconicised as the quintessential American war correspondent. In my view, it's a very well deserved accolade. The man could write, passionately, emotionally, and truthfully. And not only about the horrors and triumphs of warriors in field and foxhole, either.

There's a small collection of Pyle's works (one of them signed by himself) in the glass case in our library at home as my father was quite fond of his works and apparently had the opportunity to meet him at some point during the War. It took me a while to appreciate Pyle, but then, that's the way it is with kids.

The City of Albuquerque acquired the Pyle home from his estate in 1948 and decided on one of the most unique and appropriate courses they could have done for it. They decided to preserve it as a house and as a memorial to Pyle, and to operate it as the first branch library in town.

To this day the city has maintained this objective and promise, and it's wonderful.

The house is simple and plain and small. Two bedrooms, one of which Pyle paneled in rough wood boards and used as his den, a living room with a fireplace, a dining room and kitchen, a bath, and that's it. The attached garage was converted into a workshop by Pyle so that he could make some of the furniture in the house (and I assume he made many of the bookshelves as well.)  The house is in the contemporary style of the era, not the pseudo-Pueblo style that was -- and is -- quite common in Albuquerque and throughout New Mexico. It's white with wide board siding, steel multi-paned windows and a shallowly peaked hip roof. There is a big front porch on which to sit and take the air.

Pyle memorabilia, including one of his typewriters, many pictures, news clippings, and other items are scattered throughout the house, in a glass case, up on the tops of bookshelves, and even among the shelved items. The place still has very much the feel of a home, his home.

Back in the day, this home wasn't exactly out in the middle of nowhere, but it was, as he wrote for New Mexico Magazine in 1942 (pdf), on the edge of town. Because it was up on a ridge and there were only a few other houses around, it had magnificent views of the Sandias out the back and over the Rio Grande Valley clear to Mount Taylor through the front windows. It doesn't have the views any more, thanks to urban-suburban building crowding around it and the many trees growing on the property and nearby, but the windows are still there, and the views from them, though much more constricted are still very pleasant.

Tourists visit on pilgrimage from all over, day in and day out, just as we were doing, and we spotted license plates from California, Montana, Nebraska and Indiana on the cars parked on the side street that serves as the parking lot for the Ernie Pyle Library-cum-memorial. To the south of the house is a side yard bordered by a white picket fence that Pyle himself built soon after moving in. The yard is lush green now, though in Pyle's time, he said it only grew volunteer gray-blue shrubs of the kind that proliferate in the desert southwest (I suspect they were chamisa, but there are others they could have been...). There's a pleasant walkway to a wall that has inscribed a very moving quote from one of Pyle's war reports, the grave of his dog is marked in the yard, and there is a bench on which to sit and commune with nature and his spirit if that's your choice. There's also a concrete turtle bench topped with ceramic mosaic to sit on of an afternoon if the other bench is already taken.

And yesterday, there was a roadrunner in the yard. Some women were trying to take its picture, but the bird was being elusive, so they left. It winked at us, however, and raised its little crest and said, "Come on in." So we did.

We took the brick walk through the middle of the yard to go look at the inscribed quote on the wall, while the bird walked calmly around the periphery and ultimately met us there, came right up to us in fact, raising its crest and tail looking quite the perky little thing. I shouldn't say "little." Roadrunners are not small birds at all, they're tall and long, though rather skinny, but this one may have been a juvenile rather than a full-grown adult.

At any rate, the bird was clearly delighted to have our company in its yard as it wandered about, posing for our phone camera (pictures which I am unable to download unfortunately), and digging up worms and grubs for its lunch, some of which it seemed to want to share with us. "Here, would you like a piece of worm to have, maybe a grub? There's plenty!"

We've encountered several roadrunners on our perambulations around New Mexico, but none as friendly as this one, as eager to enjoy the company of humans (though none of them have been particularly shy), or quite as curious and spirited as this one. Until it started bringing us little bits of food, I thought it might be tame and probably wanted us to give it crackers or something from our sandwiches if we'd had any, but we didn't, so it brought us food instead. It was the most remarkable thing.

Roadrunners are known for their quick wit and sense of humor (Warner Bros got it right in that regard at any rate). These are qualities Ernie himself possessed in abundance (though they say he was a manic depressive), and I thought, "You know, this bird could represent the spirit of Ernie himself saying 'Hello' and greeting us and showing us around at the only home he ever owned. It could be.Yes, it could."

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was.

After fifteen-twenty minutes communing with the bird and the spirits, the roadrunner walked us over to the gateway on the driveway side of the yard and seemed to know it was time for us to go on the rest of our errands (by that point, we were late) and I took one last picture as it raised its crest and tail.

"Bye bye!" we said. "Great to meet you!" The bird seemed to wink and smile as we made our way to the street and The Red Van waiting there for us. The house in front of which we'd parked was growing corn in the little strip between the sidewalk and street.

Only in New Mexico.

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