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Monday, December 19, 2011


I was ten years old the last time I saw Ernie Oliver Cravattes.
He was a slender, white-haired man, bent by arthritis and time. He’d spent his entire life as a cowboy/ranch hand, until technology and age not only caught up with him, but passed him by.

It seemed to as every road he ever traveled was deeply etched into his face.

He lived alone, in a one room house, less than a quarter mile from us, and is a part my earliest memory.

Ernie was the one who held the ladder my mother used to retrieve me from the bottom of a 20 foot dry well. A solid push from behind had sent me downward, but it was the old man’s bent, strong hands which plucked me from my mother’s grasp, and put a faded, yellow handkerchief to my bloody forehead. He was over eighty years old that morning, and I vividly remember his labored breathing, and his gentle, calming touch. I remember him calling me ‘boy’ and ‘son.’

I learned later that he had heard my Mother's cries for help, and had ran from his house to ours. An eighty year-old sprinter, answering a cry for help.

I was sorta fond of Ernie after that.

Kids would go over to his house on warm summer evenings, sit on his porch, and listen to him remember. He told us about cattle, horses, fences and saddles. The veins of his gnarled hands would stand out as he rolled his cigarettes. He’d strike a kitchen match, light his cigarette, and then pick small shards of tobacco off his tongue. To this day, the smell of a flaring sulfur match sometimes catapults me back to the old man’s porch.
It is a journey I savor.

The old man couldn’t read or write, and that’s what we talked about the last time I saw him. It was apparent even to a little boy that he was losing ground, and that something bad was about to happen to him.
He was sitting on his porch, perched on a folding aluminum beach chair, when I came to visit. He dug into his pocket, pulled out a quarter and asked me to get him a Coke. He said I should get one for myself, too. I came back from the store with two Cokes and a nickel. He said I should keep the nickel, because I might need it someday.

We sat quietly on the porch, until he asked how was school going? 

I told him I didn’t like it and that I thought it was a waste of time.

He said nothing is a waste of time if you were learning something. I wasn’t so sure.

He told me he was ninety-one years old and had never spent a day in a classroom. He told me he couldn’t read or write, but that he’d figured out the most important thing any man could know.
“Most often, the answer is in the not knowing,” he said. I had no clue what that meant, so I didn’t say anything.

A few days later, my Father gathered us together and told us that Ernie had died. I was a relative newcomer to death, and handled it as best I could.
I cried.
A lot.

“Most often, the answer is in the not knowing.”

Why we can recall certain things above all else remains a mystery to me. Over the ensuing years, I’ve learned to read sophisticated defenses, both on the sports and battle fields. I’ve amassed enough credits for several degrees, and the words to countless songs. I've mastered intricate medical procedures and how to use language. I cannot, however, truly recall most of what I've learned.

Eventually, I think I discovered what the old man meant.

“Most often, the answer is in the not knowing.” 

The answer—all the answers—are available, but only if I acknowledge my lack of understanding, and my need to learn. By admitting to myself that I don’t know, I set the table for knowledge.
The old man was born in 1870, and died in 1961. As far as I know, he had no living relatives at the time of his death, and precious few friends. There are no photographs of him, and his existence is chronicled only in memories.

I am humbled by two things this evening. The first is that when I struck a kitchen match this afternoon, I remembered an old, old friend. The second is that tonight, his words will live across the Internet.

Thanks, Ernie.

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