Aug. 3, 2010

Reading to the Blind Man

by David Shumate

We start with the classics. Homer. Shakespeare. Chaucer. But
he becomes bored and wants to read romances. Stories of
people adrift on the tides of their passion. He is afraid he is
missing more than sight. That there are continents of
emotions he has never explored. As I read, his lips move as if
he now can see the words. As if he were one of those lovers
about to collide. As if it were his hands on her breasts. His
body atop hers. He whispers for me to slow down. It has taken
him this long to get here. He would like to linger now for a

"Reading to the Blind Man" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Diane Wakoski, (books by this author) born in Whittier, California, in 1937. She said, "Poetry is the art of saying what you mean but disguising it."

It's the birthday of Walter Kirn, (books by this author) born in Akron, Ohio (1962). He recently wrote the novel The Unbinding (2007), which was first presented in serial form on Slate.com (2006).

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle, (books by this author) born on a farm near Dana, Indiana, in 1900. He dropped out of college and got his first big job as a reporter for a Washington, D.C., tabloid newspaper.

Within a few years, he hit the road with his wife, a brilliant bipolar woman from Minnesota who was often sick, and who drank too much and used drugs. Together, they traversed America in a Ford, crisscrossing the country dozens of times. He wrote about the daily lives of ordinary people across the nation.

When the United States entered World War II, he began working as a war correspondent. He reported from North Africa and from Asia. He suffered badly from combat stress, was hospitalized for two weeks with "war neurosis," and nearly died in an accidental bombing by the U.S. in Normandy.

His column was syndicated by 300 newspapers around the U.S. and was read by more than 14 million people. His reporting read as if he were writing a letter to a close friend back home. In one column, he apologized for having "lost track of the point of the war."

Ernie Pyle's most famous column was written from the beachhead at Anzio, in Italy. It's called "The Death of Captain Waskow." Pyle wrote:

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow's body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

[...] The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip [...] Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road [...]

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.

Pyle won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. The next year, he died in combat off the coast of Okinawa, shot in the temple by enemy gunfire while embedded with American troops. His columns are collected in the books Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944), and Last Chapter (1946).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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