Our town had its share of interestin’ people, but the one that had the greatest impact on me was a feller that most folks called Long Leg Ernie. He was from all appearances an uneducated clay person, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth, since it was him more than anyone else, what was responsible for helpin’ me with my understandin’ of life.
I remember the first time Ernie heard me call colored folks clay people, what gave him pause for a moment, before he broke out into a grand belly laugh. When he finally got the laughter out of his body, he asked me to explain how I came up with that name. He sat quietly listenin’ as he nodded his head a few times, then he grew silent. In the end, he found the name to be a good one, ‘cause he said that we all come from God’s bountiful Earth and that by callin’ him a clay person, I was really just statin’ a natural fact.
For a boy growin’ up without a father, life can seem more than a little overwhelmin’, ‘specially when there ain’t anyone around to teach you about the proper ways of manhood. In my early days, I found my self gettin’ into trouble more than my fair share, what laid heavy upon the back of my poor momma, who had three youngin’s she was tryin’ to raise.
Lucky for me, Ernie took me under his wing and offered his kind and generous heart to a lost little boy, who was bound for a troubled life if he hadn’t stepped in when he did. He taught me about animals, healin’ and the why’s and how’s of livin’ on this fine Earth in a profound and patient way, which he was kind enough to do for all the years I knowd him. That alone would’ve been far more than I could’ve ever expected, but he done somethin’ even more heartfelt, he became like a father to me.
For the most part he treated me like his own son, though he never really made any mention of it. He didn’t have to, since I always felt his love. I don’t think there’s anythin’ more important in a boy’s life than to knowd that he has a father who loves him and is around for some of the bigger events of his life. Ernie was always around for me, even when it put him in grave situations, which he could easily have turned his back on, but he never once wavered in his willingness to help me.
Of all the things Ernie graciously offered me, the gift I hold dearest is the way he ushered me into manhood. I remember what Ernie used to say about becomin’ a man. No one becomes a man alone. It’s through the struggles and pleasures of livin’ life that a man is tested, ‘cause until he finds his balance, either one can bring him to his knees. I knowd what he said was true, ‘cause I’ve ventured a good ways in either direction, leavin’ me each time at a destination that was sorely lackin’ in any real meanin’. Ernie liked to tell me that the main reason we’re here is to learn lessons and find our true direction, which he said was nearly impossible to do without bravin’ the rapids of life.
Funny thing, with all that Ernie had done for people over the years and bein’ wise and all, not many folks even took the time to learn his full name. There was even a goodly amount that was of the notion that since he looked like an ignorant colored man and was fool enough to live in a stable, he just weren’t worthy of their high and mighty attention.
To my thinkin’, it was their great loss, ‘cause they never got to knowd who Ernie truly was. That’s the shame of it all, when folks judge others by how they look, the color of their skin or how much money they have. They end up missin’ the real value of their feller man, which is the goodness that lies hidden in their heart.
The really interestin’ part was that not a soul, ‘cept me, Gully and a small handful of others, knowd that Ernie actually owned the stable and weren’t a hired hand at all. He bought it from the man that used to own it, who was a truly unsavory character and had used the stable for years to keep horses, some of which he occasionally sold.
A couple of years after the war ended, the man decided that he wanted to sell all of his horses, what he done for a good price, then took his earnin’s and headed out west. Some say he went all the way to a town someplace in the desert called The Angels, what seemed like a funny place for him to end up at, since he definitely weren’t one his self.
Before he left for his adventure, he asked some of the folks what lived around there if they’d be interested in buyin’ his stable, which was on the northwest side of town, at the end of the road. It was in a good spot, just a short stone’s throw from the main street and facin’ the river, though the water was a spell away to the west, through a thick patch of woods.
No one paid much attention to the man, mainly ‘cause they had no respect for him, since he treated his horses cruelly. For me, I didn’t like him ‘cause of the way I saw him treat Ernie on a few occasions. He was one of those ornery types, what’d drink whiskey and then find all sorts of reasons to get angry at anyone who was around him, which unfortunately ended up bein poor ole Ernie.
I never heard about him hittin’ Ernie, but there were many times when folks would hear him yellin’, callin’ my friend all sorts of vile things. My momma told me that Ernie never got riled up, though he could’ve, bein’ as tall as he was, what might’ve set that bully straight, but he never did. Instead, when things got bad, he’d just drop his head and shake it ever so slightly, almost like he felt sorry for that ornery man and his darkened heart.
One of the first things what Ernie told me, was that if you got mad at that type of feller, then you could turn your self into a man just like ‘em. I never did truly understand what Ernie meant, not until I was older, but at the time the idea struck terror into me, and for a long spell I tried to watch out about gettin’ my anger up, which for a hot head like me was always most tiresome.
I didn’t realize at the time that it’d take me hatin’ a person for me to turn into someone like them, what Ernie later told me was the reason why many folks that are beaten when they’s youngins, do the same awful thing to others when they get older. He said that until the chain is broken and love replaces hate, nothin’ changes and the pain goes on forever.
Anyway, Dwight, the man who owned the stable, don’t ask me how I can remember his name, asked Ernie if he wanted to buy the place. He said it was against his principles to sell anythin’ to a worthless colored man, but he was desperate to get rid of his stable and get some more money for his trip.
Ernie told the man that he only had a little money put aside from the healin’ he done since he’d become a free man and he was plannin’ to use it to buy some land and build a house. Dwight asked Ernie how much he had and the two of them bargained to an agreement, which they wrote on a piece of paper and signed. Ernie took the bill of sale to a nearby town, where a man of the law looked at it to make sure it was legal.
The man of the law said it looked good to him and made Ernie go to some office nearby to get the paper made into a true document for his records. Before Ernie left his office though, the lawyer cautioned him by sayin’ that he weren’t sure if the judge would sign it or not, unless there was a compellin’ reason, since he weren’t inclined to let a colored man own property in his territory.
Ernie just nodded his head, then left to get his legal document, what he presented the followin’ day to the judge, who listened to the whole story about him wantin’ to buy the stable. When the judge found out that it was Dwight who was plannin’ to sell Ernie the stable and that the rascal, who the judge referred to as a drunken bastard, was goin’ to move out west, he changed his tune a little. The judge told Ernie in no uncertain words that he wouldn’t sign the document, until he knowd for sure that Dwight was long gone. Havin’ said that, the judge just looked at Ernie and told him that they had nothin’ further to discuss.
Almost a month later to the day, the judge received news of Dwight’s unceremonious departure in the dead of night, what he responded to with the words good riddance. He kept his word and signed Ernie’s document, agreein’ to everythin’ even though he was a colored man. The reason the judge liked Ernie, was ‘cause he’d helped deliver one of the judge’s calves, what was turned around inside its mother and would probably have killed the both of ‘em. Ernie had heard about the judge’s problem with his cow and showed up just in time to perform some of his special healin’, what saved the mother and babe and earned him a powerful friend.
In the end, I think the real reason the judge changed policy and let a colored man own land, was ‘cause he wanted Ernie around in case there was need for his healin’ magic, but he did make a point of tellin’ my friend that he weren’t goin’ to make a habit of it. For this reason, the judge told Ernie that he needed to keep the sale a secret or he’d be liable to change his mind.
Ernie, in all the years I knowd him, which was a good long spell, helped more people and animals than anyone else that I’d ever seen or heard about, bar none. He was truly a man of healin’, both for the body on the outside and for the spirit on the inside, though most folks only really knowd about his way of fixin’ what was wrong on the outside. It was those same folks who only believed what they wanted and thought that Ernie was born with his special healin’ ways, but that weren’t the case at all.
It was his momma, who long ago when she was just a youngin, came to knowd the healin’ ways of the Ancient Ones, when their knowledge was fresh and the world hadn’t changed to make them want to leave. She was the one that helped guide him into becomin’ the man he turned into, and along the way, she also taught him all that she knowd about healin’.
There’s a powerful lot more to tell about Ernie, but his momma was highly interestin’, both for the kind of person she was and for the adventures she had. To my great fortune, Ernie liked to tell me tales about his momma and her friend Opah.
Their stories was like a healin’ balm to my soul for the lessons they helped me learn and for the goodness that they left behind. One of the few things I’m sorry about in my life was that I didn’t have a chance to meet Ernie’s momma, what of course was impossible, since she was long gone before I was even born, but it would’ve been nice just the same.