Growing up, I remember my mom talking about Ernie Pyle, and the impact he had on Americans during World War II. Pyle came along at a time when communication was a slow and chancy thing, and news from the war in Europe was a month old by the time the folks at home heard it. There was no way to send radio signals across the ocean quickly, and the only film of the war people saw was usually the newsreels at the beginning of movies. Americans were desperate to know what was happening over there.
Pyle wrote his columns on a portable Underwood typewriter he carried from tent to jeep to foxhole to bunker. He sent his finished stories home in mailbags along with letters from soldiers to their families, friends, and sweethearts.
But Pyle’s stories were not special because he risked his life to get them, or because Americans needed news so badly. They were special because he wrote, not about the generals and admirals, but about the common foot soldiers, the grunts, the boys who became men in the midst of a war between good and evil. Ernie Pyle was special because he believed those guys were special, and he was right.
Before the war, Pyle started a syndicated traveling column. He and his wife drove all over America, looking for interesting places, events, and people for Ernie to write about. He avoided big cities, concentrating on small towns and the average, daily goings on of the country. Had America not been dragged into the war, he probably would have kept doing that for years.
Another dominating figure of the time was Franklin Roosevelt, not only because he was president, but because of the emergence of the radio. Roosevelt was the first national leader to enter Americans’ homes on a regular basis. His ‘fireside chats’ not only kept the citizens informed about the war, but endeared him to a generation of people who were just beginning to realize their place in the world.
But those guys both died before my time. Their legacy still remains, but they were part of my parents’ era. All I know of them I know from books, and stories told by my elders.
Then, in 1969, when I was eight years old, a man entered the public scene and did for Texas what Pyle and Roosevelt, combined, did for America. During a decade when our country was looking for itself by protesting war and flying to the moon, one man realized how much things were changing, and decided to preserve a part of the past. His name was Bob Lewis, and Texans have been reading his stories and listening to his syndicated radio program for 40 years. But they don’t know him as Bob Lewis. They know him as Tumbleweed Smith.
Smith has spent four decades traveling the greatest state and interviewing people for his radio show. I remember listening to him when I was a boy. I remember Dad shushing my brother and me in the backseat of the car, and reaching to turn the volume up on the radio. I remember his friendly, comfortable voice talking about some interesting person somewhere in Texas who otherwise would never have made news.
My favorite Smith spot was one in which he compared Texans to mesquites, how the relentless wind and weather bent and shaped the tough, resilient trees, and made them stronger and more enduring. He said the people of Texas were like that. Adversity goes with the territory, especially in West Texas, and the people adapt or die. I believed it, because Tumbleweed Smith said it was true. He was a friend who visited me for years on long, lonely drives.
Last Saturday I finally met Tumbleweed Smith, because he was staying in my mom’s bed & breakfast while working on some stories about Mason. And the unimaginable happened – he asked if he could interview me. I thought he was kidding at first, but he wasn’t. So I said, “Well, sure.”
He came to my office and asked me about Mason, hunting, fishing, the Llano River, global warming, archery, and probably some other stuff. I have no idea what I said, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t impressive. I was, however, impressed. Tumbleweed Smith made me feel almost important, and seemed happy with my answers. I have to admit it was a high point for me although, if you happen to hear me on the radio, bear in mind that I sound taller in person.
It wasn’t fair, really, for him to put me in a spot like that. I think he expected me to come up with something funny to say, and he kept looking at me like he wanted to help, but all I could think of was, “Tumbleweed Smith is sitting in my office. This is great!” Before I knew it the interview was over and he was gone. Still, it was a fine thing.
And now, I think I’ll write down some funny stuff to say, in case he ever comes back . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who always thinks of the perfect comeback, 24 hours too late. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org