Ernie Pyle Got It

by Mark Blackwell

Every year, without fail, there is a great migration of tourists coming to Brown County. It’s been that way ever since the word got out about its rustic charm back in the 1920s. Things really picked up when the Park opened in 1930 and today visitors are numbered in the millions. But what I wonder is how many folks really get what Brown County is all about?

I know of at least one who did—Ernie Pyle.

Ernie Pyle, who has a school of journalism named after him at Indiana University, was not famous yet when he visited Brown County in mid-August of 1940. His fame would be earned a few months later by reporting on the lives of ordinary G.I.s during World War II. Ernie had a gift for going to the heart of a situation and describing it in plain language. He captured the essence of Brown County in prose sketches the way Frank Hohenberger caught them in photographs.

The way I understand it, Ernie was having some personal difficulties and needed to get away from things for a while when a friend, Fred Bates Johnson, graciously offered Ernie the use of his cabin. Pyle accepted and wrote, “There is nobody here but me. Not only the cabin is mine, but the breeze under the shade trees is mine, and the uncanny stillness of the night is mine, and mine are the chipmunks in the chimney and the cool drink in the icebox and those first soft streaks of dawn over the dark ridges.”

That’s the first way the Ernie got it. But he wasn’t content just to enjoy the solitude. He sought out the local folks.

Ernie wasn’t a fan of his own cooking and didn’t care to dine alone so he generally took his meals at the Nashville House. It was there he met and befriended Susie Lindsay, the manager. It should be noted here that if Ernie Pyle met someone it was almost a forgone conclusion that he considered that person a friend. He ranged around town being introduced or just introducing himself and got to know Helen Andrews, who made leather crafts, Buddie Thompson, the philosopher, raconteur, wood carver, souvenir shop owner, and midget. And it appears like he took time to meet just about everybody in the county including members of the artist colony.

“Ernie observed that, “You don’t see artist trailing around town in arty clothes. They simply work hard and live like normal people and hope to Heaven somebody buys their stuff.” He looked up and met with the Shulz’s, Adolph and Ada, and he spent time with Karl Martz, the potter. He liked the way Will Vawter talked and said of him, “When a man can talk like that and still have no sense of time or direction whatever and doesn’t recognize his own house half the time when he sees it, then I say he has combined the functions of artistic detachment and common horse-sense to a degree that nearly reaches perfection.” Pyle seemed to be genuinely impressed by and respectful of everybody he met and had something special to say about them. And that’s the second way Ernie got it.

During his stay in the county Ernie noted that “Nashville still abides by the old custom…of taking up a public collection for people in distress…if anybody burns out, or is caught by some calamity and needs help, the people help him.” This was true in 1940 and it is the norm today but how many folks, passing through on their way to the park or to shop in Nashville, slow down enough to notice that?

Ernie did—and he also noticed that the town had no commercial entertainment venue such as a movie theater. But he was aware that “On Saturday nights—and some week nights, too, whenever the spirit moves them—a bunch of the boys sit in front of Paul Percifield’s auto repair shop and sing.” He went on to write that “…there is nothing better in New York than the soft, low, professionally perfect harmony of the voices….” Ernie got it a third time there. We are a community that pitches in to help each other and we tend to entertain ourselves as well as our visitors.

When Ernie’s stay here was coming to a close he said, “I want to come back to Brown County when the slopes turn into the bitter beauty of dying summer. Come back and hunt squirrels with the boys and listen to the quartet at night and go far out into the back dirt roads where the cabins still lean. The artists and the local people have found a common bond in regard for each other. But there are many people who come and take a look and go away without understanding.”

It is true that Ernie Pyle spent not just a day or a weekend but nearly two weeks here. He was a man who had trained himself to observe and report but more than that, he took time to understand what he was reporting on. Ernie Pyle got it.