Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Small towns - big heros

As one drives across this great land of ours, we can see big cities - smaller cities - and those little villages that are represented by a small dot on our Rand McNally Road Atlas. It happens in every state - there's a little dot for a town that the Interstate has bypassed and may not seem like much to the average person driving cross country.

Indiana has a lot of these small dots on its state map. For most people the names may not seem significant. But each of those dots represents the home town of somebody. Maybe a farmer - maybe the owner of the only gas station in town - maybe the operator of a small store struggling to compete with the major chain store ten of fifteen miles away. That little dot on the map may even have a sign or monument to celebrate a veteran of past or present wars.

Dana, Indiana is one of these dots. Chances are you've never heard of it before. It's located in west-central Indiana, almost in Illinois. It's closer to Danville, Illinois than it is to Indianapolis. In the 2000 census it had about 650 residents. Just a little dot on the big map, you might say.

But like a lot of small towns, Dana has a claim to fame. If I understand part of its claim, it has a museum. Not about an event or some major contributor to the growth of our nation. A museum dedicated to the life of Ernie Pyle.

Ernie Pyle? Who was he? What was his claim to fame?

Ask most any veteran of World War Two and his face is apt to light up with recognition. No, Ernie wasn't a military hero - at least in the sense of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines.
He was just a newspaper correspondent. He wrote about events that happened in World War Two. Not from some relatively safe and comfortable office well behind the lines - but from the front lines. From where the action was. He might well be called the GI's newsman. He endured artillery bombardments. He endured the foxholes the same as front-line fighters. He ate the same rations (when they were available) as the rest of the troops. He saw friends die. He experienced first-hand the worst of war and painted pictures in words of what our armed forces endured. He became the personal tie between America's fighting men and the folks who waited at home praying that their loved ones would safely return.

Ernie did not survive the war. He died in the Pacific in a major battle for one of the major islands. He became a casualty as real as any of our service losses in World War Two. But he died as a hero serving as honorably as any person wearing the uniform of a service man. He may not have worked for the War Department, but he worked for his brother soldiers and for their families. There are a more than a few people in history who were not eligible for medals. But some of them, like Ernie Pyle, went far beyond basic job assignments to become heros in their own way.

By the time the war had lasted a few years, Ernie and his wife moved to New Mexico. That doesn't negate his tie to Dana, Indiana. He was just another great person who grew up in one of those small towns that seem no more than a dot on a map. I tend to wonder, as I drive through small villages, well off the beaten track, who in that town made the world a better place. Maybe as a farmer, or a store keeper, or a retired gas station owner. Maybe as as a service veteran. But someone important around that little dot on the map. And they and their town get a big salute from me - their road atlas dot has just become larger and more significant.

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