Journey Into Light
Audie Murphy, who still looks like a baby-faced college boy, is one of the greatest heroes our history will ever know. He is one of the few living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was awarded to him when he was just nineteen years old. Rare and wonderful though this kind of courage is, it took even a greater and a rarer courage for Audie to be able to say, as he did recently, “I now know that the failure of my first marriage was largely my failure.” And then to add, “I’ve got a long way to go yet, but I guess I’m beginning to get so I can live with people.”
A strange statement for a young man to make, but no stranger than the struggles and the inner problems this particular young man had to face on the long journey that carried him from nightmare-shattered nights to the inner peace of a man who has learned how to live with himself.
How did it happen? Where did it begin? And why?
Ten years after the war, Audie Murphy was an uncertain, insecure person who was sure of nothing but the fact that he didn’t belong. He was out of step with everything. He had most of the things he had once dreamed of having, but none of them was bringing him that feeling of belonging which is the essence of happiness. He was rich. He was successful in a field in which few reach the heights he has reached. He had marriage and fatherhood. But none of it was any good. He was alone, cut-off, afraid without knowing what it was that he feared.
Audie Murphy had known fear before, but not this kind of fear. That other fear, the kind that comes to men in battle, had not left him immobilized. He had been able to function, to make decisions, to do something. This kind of fear left him restless, bored, unable to get along with people. There were the nightmares that brought him to sudden, instant wakefulness and made further sleep impossible. There were the moods of depression that would send him rushing out of his pleasant home, away from quiet, gentle Pam, his second wife, and their two fine sons.
Because Audie is an exceptionally honest human being, he was honest with himself. He knew that he was letting these moods master him. If he didn’t find some way to bring them under control, they would soon destroy the happiness he had worked so hard to achieve. Audie has always been a harsh judge of himself, and he was a harsh judge now. He made things even worse by telling himself angrily that there was absolutely no excuse for this kind of behavior.
Actually, there was an excuse. There were a dozen excuses, behind which a weaker man would have hidden. To this day, Audie is in almost constant pain from the leg wound he received on that incredible day he earned our nation’s highest honor by holding off, singlehandedly, the advance of six German tanks and their crews. Perhaps you remember the reproduction of this scene in Audie’s autobiographical movie, “To Hell and Back.” All those tank crews were shooting at him, and he was wounded, but he never gave up until the Germans had retreated.
What Audie didn’t let U-I put in the film was his suffering from this wound, plus the pain from the neck wound he received during the Italian campaign. He has hip wounds, too, which he received in Southern France. He doesn’t talk about them, nor the real-life nightmares that still haunt him—particularly the one of his closest buddy falling dead upon him and Audie using that dead body to keep himself from being killed.
Audie is also plagued by recurrent nosebleeds, and a tricky stomach that forces him to follow the most restricted diet. He doesn’t drink or smoke, but many of the foods he once dreamed of being able to eat someday, when he had the money to afford them, are, ironically, now forbidden.
Audie’s baby face reveals neither his physical suffering nor such necessary self-denial. One of his problems, and one of the things that made it so difficult for him to communicate with others, to feel a part of a group or a family, is his inability to reveal any real feeling. Spec McClure, one of Audie’s closest friends, tells about the one and only time he ever saw Audie give way completely to emotion. It was a couple of summers ago, and he and Audie were back at Holtzwith, where Audie had held off those six German tanks.
The whole village of about 250 people had come out to greet Audie. Nobody spoke any English and Audie doesn’t speak French, but the children sang, in his honor. The smallest ones danced for him, the prettiest girls kissed him, the older women threw flowers at his feet. Suddenly there were tears in Audie’s eyes, and he was throwing kisses to the crowd and crying as he hadn’t cried when his mother died, or when his father deserted the whole family, or when his first wife, Wanda Hendrix, left him.
On the surface, Audie is a quiet man. Too quiet. Or too flippant, using either extreme to mask his real feelings. For instance, when he visited Arlington National Cemetery recently, he covered up the deep emotion he felt, as well as his own self-consciousness at the realization that he, too, was one of the nation’s heroes who would someday lie there with her honored dead, by saying flippantly, “I ought to pick out my own grave while I’m here.”
But then, a year or so ago, a change began to take place. Audie began to admit this over-quietness, this over-flippancy, to himself. Just as, after the war, he had eternally walked the dark streets of Dallas, Texas, searching for he knew not what, so that winter he discovered that, despite his love of Pam, his love for his children, things were getting so dammed up in him that an explosion seemed inevitable. He had to find an outlet for all these troubled and troubling emotions. But how? Where?
A different kind of fellow could have been helped by religion. Audie didn’t have a religious upbringing. He had to be helped by thinking it out.
The change in him began one day when, in the midst of a trivial, fault-finding argument with Pam, Audie stopped, walked away, and asked himself, “Why do I demand so much of people? Who am I to demand—and expect—perfection?”
Who was he, indeed? It was time to stand back and examine himself and his life as though he were a cool, impersonal stranger, called in to estimate and evaluate Audie Murphy. He had always been proud of his early struggles. They had made him strong, fiercely self-reliant. But what else had they done to him?
Audie was born the second son of a Texas sharecropper, another seven children being born after him. The year was 1926, which made him seven when the Depression began, but Audie didn’t have to wait for any world-wide depression. The depression was always on for the Murphys, and after his father walked out on his mother and her brood, it was only Audie’s marksman’s eye, an old gun and a bullet a day that kept them eating. By the time he was seventeen he was in the Army, after the Marines and the paratroopers had turned him down because he was underweight. Within months, he was a decorated hero. Within a year he had put on five inches and twenty-five pounds, under the novelty of three square meals a day for the first time in his life. By nineteen, he was out of the Army and in Hollywood. Nowhere along the way had there been any time for fun, for just plain living. Nowhere had there been time or the opportunity to learn how to live, how to enjoy the good things of life for which he had worked and hungered. So, when they came, like marriage, they found him totally unprepared.
Audie’s first wife, Wanda Hendrix, is now Mrs. Jim Stack, and Audie can honestly say, “I hope Wanda is very happy.” But the break-up of that marriage, for which neither he nor Wanda was prepared, was another embittering experience, because Audie was at that time far from emotionally mature enough to be able to blame himself and not others for what went wrong with his life.
It was all wrong, their union, from the very day of its beginning. What did an emotion-starved boy like Audie know about giving or sharing love? He didn’t. Wanda tried. She tried valiantly, but she knew nothing about keeping a house, less about cooking, nothing about a husband. The fact that Audie would spend evening after evening in the little apartment they had rented, playing penny poker with his war buddies, was no help.
Within fourteen months, they were divorced. Audie was so hurt and embittered that he gave away every stick of furniture and never went near the apartment again.
Again, he had demanded too much, but he was a long way from being able to see how little he offered in return.
Pam Archer, the pretty airline hostess, whom Audie married in 1951, was as different from Wanda as dawn from dinner. She was, in fact—and she still is—very much like Audie. She’s a Texan, an orphan. She’s stubborn, and she’s sweet, and her one ambition in the world is to make Audie Murphy happy. Just the same, she has no intention of being a martyr about it, or of putting up with more moods than the winds.
And so, naturally, there were quarrels. There were even rumors of an impending divorce. This was during those dark days when Audie felt the forces within him slowly mounting, getting out of control, threatening to destroy everything he loved and valued. He saw his boys being small wild men, when he wanted them to be so polite. But he was afraid to discipline them for fear of losing their love. There were the hangers-on who either kowtowed to him too much because he was a star, or ignored him because he wasn’t the biggest star on the lot. He didn’t know how to cope with any of it, so he didn’t even try. He kept to himself more and more.
And then one day, in the midst of this tormented self-searching and self-seeking, something happened that was so small, so trivial, really, that it almost went by unnoticed. And yet it was to change his life.
Audie was out on location shooting for “The Guns of Fort Petticoat.” Going down into the nearby town one evening after the day’s work was finished, he saw a man brutally kicking a small shepherd pup. Audie walked up to him and told him to stop it. The man turned on Audie and said sullenly, “Why? He’s my dog, and if I feel like kicking him, I will.”
Audie said, “How much do you want for him?”
“I guess about fifty dollars.”
“Fine. You’ve just sold a dog.”
Audie picked up the cringing, quivering animal and put him into his car. When he got back to the hotel where the rest of the location crew was quartered someone asked him curiously, “With all the dogs you’ve got at home, Audie, why the devil did you go and buy another one? And who’s going to take care of him until you get him back home?”
Audie grinned sheepishly, and patted the dog’s head. “Darned if I know,” he admitted. “I didn’t think of any of those things. I just saw somebody kicking him and I moved in and did something about it.”
I moved in and did something about it.
The words, and the impulsive thought behind the words, stayed with him. Yes, he found himself thinking, slowly, wonderingly, that’s the way it had happened and that’s the way it has been during the war, too. That’s why the fear hadn’t immobilized him. Someone had needed him and he had been able to overcome his own fear, his own problems, because there wasn’t time to think about them. That’s the way it had been in the early days, too, when he had had the specter of poverty and hunger to fight—not for himself so much, but for others. Always, all his life, there had been something to fight. And then suddenly, there had been nothing to fight. All the external battles had been fought and won—the war, the fight against poverty, the fight for fame. That’s when the fight had turned inward, when he’d begun to fight himself. That’s when he had begun to feel that he didn’t belong anywhere, that no one really needed him, and to set up those impossible standards. Without something to fight, he was lost. Because he’d never learned how to love.
And yet, he loved this small, warm, happily whimpering dog who was snuggled down in his lap. He had been able to act quickly, spontaneously, when he saw the animal’s need of him. Then why wasn’t he able to act that way with his friends, his wife, his children? Why did he hold back, waiting for them to make the first move? The answer came along with the question, pinpointing his fear, dragging it out into the open where he could face it— and fight it.
Audie was afraid of being hurt. Not physically hurt. He had enough courage for ten men, and the years had built defenses around physical hurts. He was afraid of the kind of hurts he’d known as a child; the kind he’d suffered when his first marriage failed. And so he had been demanding proof that people really liked him. “I demand too much of people,” he had said, often. But now, for the first time in his life, he found himself thinking, “If I just gave, without thinking about whether or not people wanted me to give, if I just moved in on life the way I moved in on this puppy, not worrying about whether I’d be liked or thanked or hated for what I did, I’d at least be doing something about it, wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t just be sitting around letting it get me, letting it run my life for me the way it has been doing.”
He looked at his new-found friend, at his new-found life, and he smiled. That warm, wonderful smile that lights up his whole face and crinkles the corners of his eyes. “Well,” he said, speaking aloud, “we can try it, anyway, can’t we?”
Eric, as Audie named him, is a full-fledged member of the Murphy family and, like the dozen pairs of mounted longhorns in Audie’s garage, Eric is a Symbol of the change in Audie Murphy.
Pam Murphy will tell you that those longhorns get in the way of four-year-old Terry Michael Murphy and one-year-old James Shannon Murphy when they want to play. They’re also a nuisance and a hazard when Pam or Audie back their cars in or out. Nobody, especially Audie, has any idea of what they might be used for. But he wasn’t thinking of anything practical when a fellow he had known in the Army came by his house in San Fernando Valley. The man wasn’t any particular friend or buddy of Audie’s. He was just someone who had been in Audie’s outfit back in 1943, in Sicily. But Audie not only bought all twelve pairs of horns, he sent the man away feeling fine because he had convinced the fellow that the one thing he and Pam needed to make their ranch-type home perfect was twelve pairs of longhorns!
On Audie’s personal payroll there is a fine press agent, a friend he made almost the first day he stepped into Hollywood. And on the payroll of Audie’s studio, there is a fine writer, another pal Audie has known from his first Hollywood days. The writer is now working on the sequel to “To Hell and Back,” and he richly deserves the salary he’s earning. But that’s not the point. The point is that Audie made it clear—either this writer, or no sequel. Nowadays, as he will tell you, he’s much too busy with his wife, his sons, his home, his quarter-horses, his career and his friends to have any time left to worry about himself. He’s still a creature of moods and always will be, but now the moods are under control and he’s found plenty of healthy outlets for them.
One of these outlets is skin diving. In this dangerous sport, he finds the exhilaration and aloneness he sometimes needs. But the thing that really set him free was the realization that the only demands we can be sure of fulfilling are the ones we make on ourselves. When he began to demand of himself that he find a place in the world and that he learn to get along with others instead of expecting others to get along with him, Audie found, as millions of people have found before him, that, “Love and understanding can win over anything or anybody.” Eric wagged his tail in full agreement.
YOU’LL LIKE: Audie Murphy in Columbia’s “The Guns of Fort Petticoat.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 1957