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End of an Era

By Dan O'Brien

I hardly ever watch television but for the last couple decades I’ve been paying a monthly Direct TV bill. I do that because my best, old friend, Erney, had been reduced to watching television most of the time. He was not always that stationary. In fact, when I first met him, back in 1971, he was active in a 100 different pursuits. He was a trap shooter, a fly tier, a gardener, an authority on cactus and bromeliads, a hunter, and a voracious reader. He was also a falconer and that is how we met.

From that starting point we ended up living together for almost 45 years. We started by sharing a house. Then, when he began to work for me on the ranch, we built a little cabin so he could have his own space. When we moved to our present ranch, he wanted to duplicate his cabin so we built an apartment in one of the out buildings. It was so close to what he was used to that we still called it his cabin.

He didn’t have a television until 20 years ago, when his eyes started to fail; and because he no longer had any income, I put his television in my name. As he aged, his duties contracted to feeding the kennel dogs and the falcons. He still got out enough to hunt for agates but, after he had his stroke, he became glued to the television set. Without the exercise, an old leg injury began to bother him and soon he wasn’t doing much more that sitting in his Lazy Boy chair. I took over his dog and falcon chores and I reveled in the predawn walk out to his little cabin beside the kennels and the falcon chambers. I enjoyed the chores and the few minutes of talking with Erney even though Andy Griffith, Lawrence Welk, or the Golden Girls chattered in the background.

I’m an early riser but it was not until last fall that I began to catch Erney still in bed. Sometimes the television did not come on until seven or even eight o’clock. Our talks became more strained as his hearing faded and the volume of the television went up. I came to resent that television set as if it was stealing my old friend.

Things have changed but I’ve continued doing the chores all this winter and sometimes I forget that Erney no longer inhabits that little cabin. I forget that he is now in a nursing home. The dogs and falcons still greet me with wild barking and wing flapping but the familiar sounds of the theme songs of I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are not to be heard. When I open the door of Erney’s cabin his very old dog, Al, staggers to his feet and looks hopeful as if Erney might be right behind me. Every night he insists on going back into the cabin for the night. I look around at the simple decorating of a lifelong bachelor: pictures cut from magazines and stapled to the walls, prints of animals and birds, and the auction notice that always stops me in my tracks. It is the sale bill from 1941 when Erney was a year old and his mother sold off everything on the farm after his father died at 45-years old. Some of the sale items have stuck in my head: nine head of horses, a sixteen-inch sulky plow, a kitchen range, and one chicken brooder. In the center of the room the old Lazy Boy sags with Erney’s imprint. The television is black and lifeless.

A few days before Christmas I got out to the cabin around six o’clock in the morning. That time of year it is still dark and I was not surprised that the television was not blaring from within. I went ahead with my chores and, as an afterthought, looked in on Erney. He was laying flat on his back on the concrete floor. He looked up at me and moaned, ”Dan.”

He had fallen the night before and laid on the floor until I found him. When I tried to help him up, it hurt too much and so I called Colton who was out doing his chores. Together we got him up and into his chair. I asked if he wanted the television on and he grimaced, “Yes.”

He did not want to go to the hospital and no amount of reasoning would change his mind. He said that he’d just sit there until he felt better. He sat in that chair for two entire days before he finally admitted that he should probably go to the hospital. When Colton and I tried to get him up and into the pickup, he howled in pain. In his day, Erney was as tough as they’d come. He could work all day in subzero temperatures, sleep in a worn-out sleeping bag on the bare pickup box, and be up the next morning at four-thirty to do it again. I was there when his glove got caught in the power takeoff of a tractor and twisted his right thumb off. He wrapped it tight in the mangled glove and drove himself to the hospital. When he returned with only one thumb, he was back at work after a couple weeks. But he could not stand the pain of us trying to move him. This time he would not be coming back. He had broken his hip.

Yesterday I called to cancel our Direct TV account and they said they would turn us off on Tuesday. This morning I went out to do the chores as usual. I let all five dogs out and walked with them for a couple miles. When we returned, I fed them, then the pigeons, and finally the falcons. The last thing I did was let Al back into Erney’s empty cabin. I looked one more time at the interior and recalled the comradery that I had enjoyed there. Al settled onto his dog bed as he has done for 11 years and my eyes fell on Erney’s old chair with the television remote on the side table. I couldn’t resist. I sat down and pushed the button. Gunsmoke was just coming on and I watched the whole thing.

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81 comments

  • After reading this great life story, and being a dog lover myself, my heart aches for Al. I can feel his lonely sadness in the cabin hoping for Erney to come through the door. Damn, my heart breaks for the two of them. Bring them together; Please.

    Mark R Rivet
  • I have all four of what I think of as your “essential” books, but really they are ‘essential’ for me. I started out with you and Erney in Equinox, spotted at a used bookstore. After reading it and enjoying it in a way I never had with another natural history book, I looked ‘Dan O’Brien’ up and saw that you’d written Rites of Autumn first and I got and read that. In the process I also met Erney as well as you. Well the along came Buffalo for the Broken Heart and then Wild Idea and I read about Erney’s decline. We all must come to infirmity in the end unless we shuffle off this mortal coil before it really sets in. But I had never seen a photo of Erney and now with this essay of yours I have. It’s important to me to put a face with a name, and a name with a real live person. I hope that Ol’ Ern’ is not too distressed by his circumstances. I remember after that first stroke, when he could barely talk, he just managed to say “Home – want to go home”. Anyway thanks for putting a coda on a long saga about a great friend.

    Breck
  • Friendships like these don’t come around very often.

    Donna V
  • A moving and heartfelt tribute to the man whom I’ve come to know through your writings. Dan, many in this world do not understand nor have the great fortune to have a friendship like you and Erney,,,that my dear man is one precious part of the meaning of life! Memories of those dear to us are the best blessings!

    Nancy C
  • My wife Patti and I have followed with high interest and admiration the chronicles of Erney, the O’Briens, and Wild Idea through your books and blogs. Through those media, I feel I know you all. Thinking warm thoughts of our man Erney.

    John K. Cole
  • Please send all my best regards to Ernie, I met him briefly when I was at your place with Florence in june when we went to see the Buffalos with you ; I was glad to say hello to him because I had read a lot about him in your books ; so sad for him, I hope his wisdom will allow him to endure all this ; but maybe he will be able to walk in a few weeks and come back home ?? please keep us informed. All the best to you. Astrid and Florence, the 2 french girls

    Astrid
  • ah oui quelle belle histoire , amitiée,, fidélitée au passé , présent et avenir ,,, enjoy félicitations pour l°amour porté a ce vieux compagnon,,,,,,, salut de France ,,,,

    michel vincent
  • Friends are a mutual blessing. I’m happy you found each other.

    Bill Reynolds
  • Give Erney my best; he is one of my most favorite people of all time! I learned so much from him about falconry, birds, wildlife, and just about people and life in general.

    Melissa Moore
  • Erney was kind enough to give my husband and I a tour of your ranch about 8 years ago. He gave us a ride in the side by side and brought us down to where the bison were grazing. We sat among the the beautiful animals listening to them breathe and snort. We went across the river to another land and Erney explained the bison grazing rotation. We took a ride up the hill and looked across the beautiful prairie. After the tour, Erney showed us his “space” at the ranch. He was so proud of his simple but beautiful collections and would’ve talked to us forever. He introduced us to his gorgeous falcon. Many people have been touched by Erney. Our day at the ranch is a memory I will never forget with your lovely friend Erney.

    Patti Peterson
  • Having read about Erney in your books, we were later privileged to meet him several years ago. We were led to his single-room “cabin” within the barn. Erney was sitting there with Elsa, the peregrine falcon. The two of them were watching television. It’s a loving image we’ll remember for the rest of our lives!

    Keith and Kay

    Keith and Kay Lewis
  • What a great article about a great friend who was tough as a boot. I am 81 years old myself now, and doing my very best to stay in good shape. As you know I do a lot with natural supplements, and I have some very good treatments that really help. Keep up the wonderful work Dan and Jill, and more power to you

    I put you and all your dear ones in the loving arms of God.
    May the blessings be.
    Love, Don

    Don Meyer
  • Thank you for sharing your friendship with us. It is good to
    Know that people still care and take care of each other, friends and strangers and animals alike. Lots of love to all of you from SC. We may have warmer weather, but your hearts are warm and wonderful.

    Cheves
  • so, it is said that life is but a dream . . . stay within the happy dream. we light the path before us as we bless all those within it.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • A wonderful tribute to your friendship. I hope that Al and Erney have the chance to be together again.

    Elizabeth

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