I head out to Manhattan, KS quite often. I have fantastic friends out there, and unfortunately this last trip the friends I was visiting had a bittersweet event they needed to attend: the celebration of the life of Ernie Love, who passed not long ago after a long illness.
I’m sure I was the only person in the room who didn’t have a personal story about Ernie. I had never met the man. I made the effort to be a friend to the people hosting me, and that involved accidentally becoming audio-video support for the event. Leaving that event, I’m glad I did it. But, more than anything, I wish I could have known the man we were there celebrating.
The event was in a steakhouse. There was a steel guitar player, and a fiddler. A full band, actually. A band made up of good ol’ boys and girls, friends of Ernie’s who all enjoyed the simple joy of sharing good music. Nearly every man in the room had a cowboy hat, and nearly every pair of feet had western boots on them. To me, a Yankee (I got called that for the first time since my relocation this last week), it was surreal. I came from a place where small-town crowds were much more likely to wear steal-toed lace-up work boots and baseball or trucker caps flaunting the logo of a brand of seed corn. I felt like I had walked into a country music song.
I tell you what, though; one thing wasn’t any different than the equivalents I had witnessed in my own hometown in eastern Illinois.
A good man, much-loved. A Christian man, even if stories said he had a wild streak. He devoted his life to cowboyin’, and when he was done with his rodeo hay days, he passed his wisdom and natural affinity for cattle and horses to others. He was a mentor to many, and listening to friends and family share their words about him was an honor. I almost felt like an intruder, unworthy of hearing their tales, seeing any tears mixed in with the smiles. For, all in all, it was a beautiful, poetic, happy event. It was a true testament to the cowboy culture that I’ve slowly become familiar with since moving south and west from my midwestern row crop hometown.
I don’t recall any sound giving me goosebumps quite like Amazing Grace playing soulfully on the steel guitar. There are few things as humbling as a room full of dozens of tough cowboys, all cradling their hats over their hearts in memory of their legendary friend. It was moving.
I ended up knowing more folks there than I expected. It was only natural that someone as well-known as Ernie would draw a crowd, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. All of these people, every one, smiled and said that the get together was a perfect statement of how Ernie lived. Cheap whiskey, good music, great company, and tons of food. And stories. Oh my, were there a million and one stories being told about a cowboy who was larger than life, kinder than words could describe, and the mentor and idol of many.
Someone even made the joke that Ernie would be proud that his celebration of life was the event that allowed me to eat my first mountain oysters. There will be more to come about that, though.