“Finest non-fiction writing I’ve ever found”

I read Dave Lieber’s online column today where he quotes from World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle.

Mr. Lieber called the piece the “finest non-fiction writing I’ve ever found.” Dave gave me permission to share this information. I think that when you read this passage, you will agree with Dave and me that this is “great writing.” and perhaps find this quote your “favorite piece of writing by anyone, ever.”

One dreary evening in London a friend and I started out to dinner. We had gone about two blocks when we heard hurrying footsteps behind us. We turned and saw that it was a little bellboy from my hotel. The lad’s name was Tom Donovan, and he was the one who had showed [sic] me my room on that first strange night months before when I arrived in London.

“This telegram just came for you, sir,” he said. “I thought maybe I could catch you.” I thanked him and he started on back.  

I stepped over to the curb, out of people’s way, while I tore open the telegram and read it.

“What is it?” my friend asked. “More good news from home?”

“Read it,” I said, and went on ahead. When he caught up he said, “I’m sorry,” and we walked toward Leicester Square as though nothing had happened.  

It was the cablegram that told me that my mother, far away in Indiana, had come to the end of her life.

That night in London, back in my room, it seemed to me that living is futile, and death the final indignity. I turned off the lights and pulled the blackout curtains and went to bed.

The pictures of my mother raced across the darkness before my eyes. Pictures of nearly a lifetime. Pictures of her at neighborhood square dances long, long ago, when she was young and I was a child. Pictures of her playing the violin. Pictures of her doctoring sick horses; of her carrying newborn lambs into the house on raw spring days. I could see her that far day in the past when she drove our first auto – all decorated and bespangled – in the Fourth of July parade. She was dressed up in frills and won first prize in the parade and was awfully proud….   

I could see her as she stood on the front porch, crying bravely, on that morning in 1918 when I, being youthful, said a tearless good-by and climbed into the neighbor’s waiting buggy that was to take me out of her life.

The pictures grew older. Gradually, she became stooped, and toil-worn, and finally white and wracked with age – but always spirited, always sharp. 

On the afternoon that I was leaving London I called little Tom Donovan, the bellboy, to my room. One by one the floor servants had come in, and I had given them farewell tips. But because I liked him, and more than anything else, I suppose, because he had shared with me the message of finality, I wanted to do something more for Tom than for the others. And so, in the gentlest way I could, I started to give him a pound note.

But a look of distress came into his face, and he blurted out, “Oh no, Mr. Pyle, I couldn’t.” And then he stood there so straight in his little English uniform and suddenly tears came in his eyes, and they rolled down his cheeks, and then he turned and ran through the door. I never saw him again.

On that first night I had felt in [sic] a sort of detached bitterness that, because my mother’s life was hard, it was also empty. But how wrong I was. For you need only have seen little Tom Donovan in faraway London, wretched at her passing, or the loneliness of Snooks [her little dog] after she had gone, or the great truckloads of flowers they say came from all over the continent, or the scores of Indiana youngsters who journeyed to her both in life and in death because they loved her, to know that she had given a full life. And received one, in return.

Courtesy of Dave Lieber,
“Watchdog Nation”
The Dallas Morning News

You can contact Mr. Lieber at davelieber@dallasnews.com.

If you haven’t discovered Mr. Lieber’s column, you are missing a great column.

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", Preparing for Disunion, and Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy. He taught classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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