Living With Ernest T.



If you are a fan of “The Andy Griffith Show,” you are familiar with Ernest T. Bass, the mountain man with the mercurial personality, running the gamut of capering, giggling glee to pugnacious fighter of Englishters, to ornery rock-throwing nuisance. This week at the annual Mayberry Days in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I got to thinking about Ernest T. Did you ever wonder about Ernest T’s family? Did he grow up in a loving home of mountain people? Were they all like Ernest T, or was he the prodigal son? Were his odd ways the mannerisms he learned at home or were they the result of some slight mental disorder?
This week I got to wondering what it would have been like to be the sister of Ernest T. Bass. I wondered if she would have been just like him, or maybe she would have been someone in his life who tried to help him learn how to interact with others and teach him some social skills like Andy tried to do. Do you suppose Ernest T. would have thrown a rock in her window when she tried to help him?
I guess one reason I was wondering about ol’ Ernest T. Bass is I grew up with my own Ernest T. I have a brother who was born with some learning disabilities and mental problems. He was born with a sweet, playful nature, but the many frustrations he faced growing up gave him a resentful edge, and in her effort to protect him, my mother ended up spoiling him terribly. Our lives revolved around our little Ernest T. When he got cross or moody and “threw rocks,” my mother said we all had to “jolly him up.” When he giggled, made faces and acted inappropriately to get attention, we were not supposed to take notice.
Growing up in a home where good manners and social skills were important, my brother preferred to take after Ernest T. and rebelled by wearing the same clothes day after day, eating with his fingers and chewing loudly with his mouth open well into his 20s, ignoring the instructions my father sought to give him. As an adolescent, he began to pattern himself after a gruff, bitter uncle of ours instead of emulating our more refined father. My brother added things to his vocabulary like “that’ll learn ya, dern ya” and other quaintly impolite sentiments. In response to our mother’s pampering, my brother learned that when he acted gruff and cross, he would be given a treat or otherwise spoiled to get him in a better mood. He learned to act grumpy about doing things he really wanted to do, and he played hard to get, expecting to be chased down and cajoled, much like Ernest T. running and hollering “you cain’t ketch me!”
The result of this was that my friends and others were often uncomfortable around him. Still, I took him to church, invited him out with my friends, and tried to find activities that would interest him in socializing. Unbeknownst to me, he harbored great bitterness towards me for the things he could not do. Recently I learned how much he resented my dating, attending college, marrying, and other things he never did. He began to throw rocks — not physical stones; he used the telephone.
It started about 20 years ago when first one friend, then another, told me my brother was calling them, repeating things I had said, “repeating” things I had NOT said, and stirring up trouble. In each case – four that I know of – my friends got mad at me first and believed what he told them, because they didn’t think he was capable of deliberately sabotaging the friendship. However, each time, they figured out he had some malicious intent and tried to warn me about his behavior. I was the slow learner this time. I assured them he didn’t mean to cause trouble. I made excuses for him.
Time passed, and I thought we had put the “rock throwing” days behind us. I moved back home to take care of my terminally ill parents and my brother. He began to spend time with some relatives in another town who had not had much to do with us growing up. I was glad he had someplace to go to get away from the sorrow we faced at home, but when our father was in the hospital dying in Nashville and our uncle went into the hospital in another town at the same time, I was sorry my brother chose to spend his time with the uncle rather than the father who had raised him, paid for his special education and many doctor bills, and who had worked all his life to care for and teach our Ernest T.
After our parents both died, I helped my brother start a new life, living close enough to me where I could help him while still giving him the independence he had never had. For a while I fell into the pattern my mother had established: cajoling, babying and bribing him. Eventually I realized that was hindering him from growing while at the same time draining me emotionally. I began to try to teach him to overcome some of the handicaps my mother had left him with, helping him become more independent and working on his social skills, personal hygiene and wardrobe. I was proud of the progress we were making. But then he began to tell me of conversations he was having with the relatives he was now spending time with. He would tell me something unkind that had been said about me, I would respond, and he went back and forth, repeating messages, embellishing, and stirring up trouble until I caught on and would no longer discuss that branch of the family or respond to the mean-spirited things he was passing along.
A few years passed and to my sorrow, I discovered he was throwing rocks again, telling tales and making up stories, this time in the community where I lived and where I had helped him move. If I wouldn’t spoil him and jolly him up anymore, he made sure others would feel sorry for him and baby him. He began to make plans with me and then take his phone off the hook, forcing me to chase him down to try to talk him into going someplace he really wanted to go all along. “You cain’t ketch me!” he seemed to be hollering in glee while waiting to be caught and bribed into going so he could “do me a favor” by showing up.
He was supposed to go to Mayberry Days with me this year, but he took his phone off the hook when I was trying to reach him to make a plan. When I finally got through to his machine, I left him a message that I would not be chasing him down this time, but that he could call me at home or meet me where I work my second job at the mall to make a plan. He never called. He never came by. What he DID do was call several of our Mayberry friends and say that I was mad and being mean to him, and that was why he wasn’t going to Mayberry Days. Perhaps in his eyes not chasing him down and not babying him anymore are being mean… or perhaps he is just throwing rocks again.
On “The Andy Griffith Show” when Ernest T. throws rocks through windows we all laugh, but throwing rocks in windows is not so funny after all. Someone could get hurt. I should know. Living with Ernest T. is not easy.
But as I was pondering life with Ernest T. it occurred to me that when the good Lord looks down at me… I bet sometimes he sees ol’ Ernest T. Bass. He reaches for me, and I run away, wanting desperately to be caught, but on my own terms. He seeks to mold me into a new creation, but I prefer the same old flesh I have been wearing. Something doesn’t go my way, and I complain about Him. He seeks to speak to me, and I take the phone off the hook. He loves me more than anyone else, but I prefer the attention I get from others. He has plans for me, and I break them — then I blame Him when my own plans don’t work out.
I wonder… when I look at my brother and see ol’ Ernest T. Bass looking out of his eyes, is it just my own reflection looking back at me?

My Father Remembered
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