The day Earnest Left the World
Remembering a man who lived for more than 100 years
His name was Earnest, Earnest with an A. He lived every single day of 1 entire century and through parts of 2 others. He was introduced to a man who’d met Thomas Jefferson and to a man who’d met William Jefferson Clinton. William McKinley was president when Earnest was born, Bush II when he died, and that’s a lot of administrations. He liked TR the best. Earnest eulogized a Civil War veteran (his uncle,) and a Vietnam War veteran (his nephew,) in the same church.
Earnest built his house with his own hands and with his dad’s oxen and wouldn’t ask for his girl until the house was completed and arriving at the house following their nuptials, he carried his bride over the threshold. She was 15 and was taller than Earnest. They celebrated their eightieth wedding anniversary in the house and shortly after, she died.
Earnest lived to be 105 years old and it was said about him how he never once in all those years cussed or told a dirty joke. He’d laugh, though, if someone else told a dirty joke, as long as it was only mildly vulgar. Earnest never smoked or chewed but he liked a glass of scotch after supper. Every night before he went to bed, even on a World War I troopship and on his way to Europe and with all those men around him, he got down on his knees and said his prayers. Finally, and into his 90s, he asked God would it be alright did he say his prayers in bed instead of on his knees. God said OK, as long as Earnest didn’t fall asleep before he got to the end.
He was 15 before he saw his first airplane and 60 when he got his first TV. He didn’t care much for TV, it was mostly for his bride, he always called her his bride, and how she loved those game shows! After she passed, the TV became his best friend. Or at least his best companion, although he never could watch the game shows.
He liked baseball on the radio. He said it was like reading a book. You didn’t need pictures, if the radio guy was doing his job and what galled him was how, after so many years of listening to ball on the radio, how the ads crept into the chatter. He loved the radio guys’ baseball chatter on a muggy summer’s night on the porch and it offended him, those crass interruptions. He never did stop listening, though.
He and his wife didn’t have any kids of their own and all of the kids on the street became their surrogate children.
Once, when he’d taken us fishing and we were driving back to town, he stopped along the side of the road and we got out of the car and there was a field and behind the field a swamp and behind the swamp, a mountain. To our right, to the southeast, the mountain ended in a rocky outcropping and he told us to face the outcropping and shout for “John Small,” that is, shout like John Small was out there and we wanted to get his attention.
We did like he told us and with no idea why and what we heard was a cacophony of John Smalls, our adolescent voices echoing back to us from along the side of the mountain. He had us shout it over and over and for us, it was fun, all those echoing John Smalls and Earnest was enjoying it too, laughing so hard he slapped his knee. That’s how you knew he was really enjoying himself, he’d take off his battered old baseball cap and bang it across his knee. But why was he laughing so hard? It puzzled us, until he explained:
There’d been a cabin out there on the other side of the swamp and the man who lived there was John Small, a big man, not a small man. John was a solid worker but was 1 of those Saturday night drunkards and in those days, before cars and refrigerators, and on Friday afternoons, Earnest and his brother would load up the family wagon with corn or firewood or peaches, whatever was ready on the farm, and take it town and peddle it. On the way home, Sunday morning, the boys would stop there by the side of the road and shout to John Small and laugh and yeh, they’d probably slap their knees, at the thought of the hung-over John Small roused from sleep by a couple of loud-mouthed kids.
“Did he use to yell back at you?” we asked Earnest.
“Not in a very long time,” he said, and he walked back to his car, like the fun was out of it for him, and I think it was the first time for us, to realize he was old and how there’d been a world, a life, for him, before there was us. He sorely missed his world.
As he got older, as we got older, we started asking him about his world and it wasn’t all idyllic. He had some bitterness about the good old days. He always talked fondly of his mom and not so fondly of his dad. His dad was a hard man. Growing up on a farm, it was mostly all work for the boys. Earnest’s dad thought Sunday was as good a day as any for working but their mom wouldn’t allow her husband to work the boys on Sundays. The horses or the oxen, either. She said it was the Lord’s day and it was, but what else she knew, the boys needed a day for doing boy things, baseball and fishing and running through the woods behind the farm when they were younger, sparking as they got older, and yes, he called it sparking.
“What kind of childhood is it, working all day, every day?” Earnest's mom would say to his dad, and what else she’d say: “Do you want the boys to think unkindly of you after you’ve passed?”
In all the years after I was grown up and gone, I never missed visiting with Earnest when I came home. It’d be long afternoons on his front porch if the weather was nice, alongside the stove in the kitchen in the winter, and how it ended for us, I was halfway across the country and in my 50s when my brother called to tell me Earnest had passed. He went peacefully, not in his bed but in his rocking chair on the porch. He just closed his eyes and he was gone and it was, I think, with a sense of gratitude to the Lord for finally taking him.
It was just a few days after September 11, 2001, and stepping outside after the phone call, I looked up into the sky, entirely empty of airplanes and noise, and I remembered something Earnest had told us, more than once. He said how what he missed the most from when he was a boy was his sky. When he was a boy, only birds were up there and a boy could go up onto the cliffs behind the farm or anywhere else and look up at the sky and without all those noisy airplanes to disturb his thoughts. The same sky Earnest had known in his youth, the same sky he saw before he closed his eyes for the last time, the same sky I saw 1500 miles away and on the day Earnest left the world.