Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ernie Comes to Town

I was recently contacted by reader Cleo Bee Jones, who shared that back in 1936, a piece about her uncles from St. Vincent was featured in a column by the well-known reporter, Ernie Pyle. She asked if I'd like to see it, and I said boy, would I!

Tales of Two Towns in the Northwest: Brothers by Wholesale in Minnesota, and Nocturnal Disturbances in Dakota
by Ernie Pyle of the Washington Daily News
August 25, 1936

Pembina, N.D. - I am crazy about the towns of Pembina and St. Vincent.  Because of a couple of events that happened last night.  They are virtually the same town, except that St. Vincent is in Minnesota and Pembina is in North Dakota.  They're both just a stroll from the Canadian border.

Each town is about as big as a pinhead; the Red River (of the North) runs between them.  That's one trouble with this country - there are too many Red Rivers.  I have crossed a dozen, and I don't know yet which one the song was written about. But let's get on with what happened last night...


Once I knew an aviator in the East whose name was Vern Lucas.  He was a swell fellow.  But he was killed. His widow bundled up the four children and went back to the home town. That was five years ago.

Now, while driving up through flattish northern Minnesota, with my head out of the window, better to see through the dust.  I happened to remember this widow's home town was St. Vincent, Minnesota, which lay just ahead.

So I pulled up in front of a grocery along the gravel street and asked a fellow if he knew a Mrs. Lucas, whose husband had been an aviator, and was killed.  He said yes, indeed, but that she was married again and living in Hallock, which I had already come through, about ten (sic) miles back.

A fellow came around on the other side of the car, opened the door, and got in beside me.  A little unusual, I thought, but maybe just a local custom.  He held out his hand.  "I heard you ask for Mrs. Lucas," he said.  "Well, I'm her brother."

So I explained where I had known the Lucases, and that I had been at the airport the night Vern was killed.  You would have thought I was a long lost brother.

St. Vincent native and aviation pioneer, Vernon R. Lucas...
We sat and chatted, and pretty soon the brother sitting beside me (his name was Manford Lang) called to a fellow walking down the street, "Hey, come here!"

So the fellow came over, and Manford said, "This is my brother, Earl."

We talked for awhile and pretty soon Manford said, "Let's go down to the beer parlor."  So we did, and when we walked in Manford took me around behind the bar and said, "This is my brother, Lawrence."

We went around in front of the bar, and Manford said, "This is my brother so and so..."  I lost track of the names about there, and I said, "My God, how long is this going to keep up?"  And Lawrence laughed and said, "A long time...There's 12 of us - seven boys and five girls.  We're all around here, too, except one boy down in South Dakota."

So I said, "Well, I'm going over to Pembina and go to bed before some more of you show up."  Which I did.  Except that just as I was getting into bed, the phone rang and it was Lawrence down at the beer parlor saying that his sister, the former Mrs. Lucas, had got word by grapevine telegraph and had driven right over from Hallock, and would be up in a minute.

So, I slipped on my pants and sweater over my pajamas and went down, and sat and talked with her and her husband for an hour, and I was happy about it, because I saw that she was happy, and had been able to put her old grief away from her, and begun a new life.  That is what all wives of dead aviators should do, but many of them cannot.


They called it a hotel, but it was really just a private house.  My room was the second-floor front porch, and there were two huge beds in it.  There were no locks, and nobody even shut his door.

About midnight I finally wore myself out trying to decide which bed to sleep in, and fell into a great snore, which must have ripped long streaks in the golden North Dakota moonbeam that streamed through the window.

Suddenly a loud siren started to blow.  It would have awakened the devil himself.  It was a quarter to 3.  People started running along the street.  But I said, "Nope, I'm too sleepy."

In another minute or two, people started running out of my own house.  From the darkness I heard a woman say, in the most agonized surprise I have ever heard:  "Oh my God, my God!"  And then quick panicky running steps down the street.

That was too much.  For the second time that night my pants and sweater went on over my pajamas.  I dashed down the dark stairs, caught my foot in a rug, rammed my head into the wall, worked loose, and was off down the dark street like a winged Vulcan with club feet.  It was a fire alright.

The whole thing was burned down when I got there.  Just one corner still standing, with a doorway in it, and a small section of roof just above it.  All the rest was a bright blazing heap on the ground.

I asked a fellow if everybody got out.  He looked at me and laughed.   "What's the matter?"  I said.  "It was a barn," he said.  "There wasn't anything in it."

The town firemen were there with their hose cart shooting water on a pile of railroad ties nearby.  The siren was still blowing.  One fellow said it was caught, and they couldn't get it stopped.  Everybody in town was there, half dressed.  I never would have suspected that so many women in the a little place like Pembina wore purple lounging pajamas.

After awhile the remaining corner of the barn - the corner with the door in it - fell over.  People started going home.  They finally got the siren shut off.  I went home, too, and hung my pants over the back of the chair, ready for jumping into at a moment's notice.

First page of original draft for the St. Vincent/Pembina newspaper article
[Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN]