The Best Story from My 2014 Walk
I made it to Kansas in September with help from old friends and new.
I spent seven weeks in Atchison and Baldwin
and got to see oldtimers Dorothy and Jim.
Some of my intentions for the trip were met, others not.
"Life happens while we make plans."
I blogged whenever possible at http://theportableschool.blogspot.com
and have added several since resigning from the road.
Some of the blogs are about my new home in Arizona.
I am glad for the dry air rather than the ghastly summer humidity in Kansas
and the long cold spells in Montana.
I am now duplicating the last blog I wrote and placing it here
because I think that most everyone can benefit from the story that goes with it.
I call it
Working the Night Shift
This is the most extraordinary story of my 2014 Walk.
It came to my awareness after I "camped" one night
on the back steps of the First United Methodist Church in Overton, Nebraska.
I wanted distance between me and the rumble of the Union Pacific Railroad that night,
so the FUMC steps filled the bill.
The concrete landing was not totally comfortable,
but it was quieter than many spots closer to the RR line.
First United Methodist Church in Overton
In the morning, I thought, "Maybe I should attend church."
I grew up in the Methodist Church in Mitchell, South Dakota,
and it had been a long time since I sat in the pew at any church.
So, I hung around the building until church service time.
I met some members, sat with twenty or so people, and listened to the sermon.
The most remarkable part of the sermon was when the minister
repeatedly acknowledged a frail man named Ernie -- and his wisdom.
Ernie nodded, but just a little.
After service, I went down to the fellowship hall and joined the group for brunch.
I quickly got two invitations to ride toward Kansas City in the coming days.
One couple was going to see the Royals play the Yankees.
Another woman, Ernie's wife, said she would be going toward Kearney on Monday.
She told me, "I will look for you."
Ernie and Kathryn face the camera at the viewer's left
so Kathryn Wempen did.
It had rained buckets Sunday night and I
holed up under a pavilion in the Elm Creek Park
hoping things would clear enough
to get back on the road and catch that ride.
skies opened late in the morning and I got several miles down the road
before Kathryn caught up with me.
I took off my backpack, put it and my
flag Sam in the back, and jumped in the passenger seat.
and I commenced to have a thorough though brief conversation as she
drove to Kearney
where I visited Morris Publishing, which has printed
three of my books, and Cabelas next door
to buy a new pair of
walking shoes - Keens.
conversation focused largely upon Ernie Wempen,
who is a bit of a
Much more than that, really.
You see Mr. Wempen has spent much
of his life in one kind of darkness or another
leading to total
But, he still managed to work, ranch, have a family, and
lead a full life.
Ernie Wempen at work during the day (age 75?)
being reminded a number of times about Ernie since I have been off the
road, I thought,
"More people should know about Ernie Wempen."
wrote Mrs. Wempen to get more details and she emailed me back with the
a surprise and a JOY to hear from you. It will take more time
than I have right now to answer your questions. I have copies of
some articles that appeared in some local papers a few years ago that
are quite accurate and answer some of your questions. This man is
a complex subject, to say the least. In the l5 years I have known
him I haven't stopped marveling at his accomplishments, his positive
outlook on life and a can-do attitude toward any challenge that
answer to your first question: He is 88 years old (last August);
he was born with congenital cataracts; his parents didn't figure out he
was blind until he was nearly 5 years old, as he did everything his
siblings did. A visiting uncle noted him searching for toys on
the floor and suggested he might be blind. His father confirmed
the fact when he would bump into him if he stepped in front of him.
parents began the task of finding a Dr. who would remove the cataracts
and as near as he can remember, a Dr. in Omaha removed both cataracts
when he was about 9 years old. Only one eye regained limited
sight, however, and he wore glasses with extremely thick lenses.
The natural progression of congenital cataracts is the onset of
glaucoma and he began treatment for this a few years later.
tells the story of attempting to round up cattle in a severe blizzard
and when he returned to his home his face was covered in ice and thawed
by sitting over a pan of hot water. The stress led to a spike in
the pressure in his eyes and he was hospitalized in an attempt to
reduce the pressure. He said he awoke about 4:00 a.m. in the
hospital and experienced a jolt of lightning like pain and at that
point he was completely and permanently blind. My best guess is
that his optic nerve snapped at that point resulting in irreversible
near as I can figure that was in 1959, when he was 33 years old.
He was living on his own (where we now live) in what he described as
"the shack". He said he spent a few months on the couch and one
day decided his lifelong philosophy of "I can do what you can't do, and
you can't do what I can do, and I just got up and went to work!"
And he's been working ever since as a rancher. His Dad gave him
the quarter of land he now lives on and he proceeded to accumulate five
more quarters through a lifetime of hard work and stick-to-it attitude
and an iron will to just get it done!
ranched alone (walking sometimes 2-4 miles to fence, etc.) until he
married in 1971. His wife helped him (as I did) driving, keeping
books, keeping house, etc., but he still did the lion's share of work
on his own. I have often remarked "had he had sight, he could
have been a construction engineer, or a mechanic, or a number of other
things because he could hitch machinery, fix simple mechanical
problems, and always know where and when to apply leverage to move
favorite story that occurred after we were married (in l999) happened
one extremely hot summer. He was visiting with one of the
neighbors who remarked that "It's so hot I can hardly stand to get my
replied, "It hasn't bothered me that much, I just get up about 2:00
a.m.and get my work done, then I come into the house about 10 and sit
by the air conditioner."
The neighbor replied, "I can't do that because I can't see (in the dark)."
Ernie's simple answer was "Neither can I".
has certainly not had an easy life. His mother died on his
youngest brother's lst birthday, and his father raised his four
children alone and ranched and also accumulated several quarters of
land. His wife of 25 years died two weeks after their 25th
anniversary from a nine year battle with cancer. He was alone
again three years before we married.
few weeks after we were married, we were attending a fellowship supper
at the Overton church when an outspoken, sometimes obnoxiously
outspoken, lady walked up to me within earshot of Ernie and demanded to
know why I would marry some blind man I would have to "look after" the
rest of my life.
was really taken back by her remark, but I replied with no hesitation:
"I don't look after Ernie, Ernie looks after me!" and that's the way it
has been in our 15+ years of marriage.
this point in time, it's my turn to look after him since he was so ill
after hip surgery on Dec 12, 2012. He has begun to exhibit signs
of stage 2 Alzheimers and can no longer remember all the stories that
were so interesting regarding his very colorful and productive life.
I could tell you all of those stories, but time and space wouldn't
allow it. He really is more book material than article material,
but that won't happen at this point, as many of his musings are locked
up in his mind forever. I read a book (rather technical book) by
an author named "Oliver" [may have been Oliver Sacks], the name of
which escapes me now, but in it he described almost to perfection, the
ways in which people like Ernie compensate for the loss of sight (and
other disabilities). It was very enlightening for me.
Kathryn sent a second email to respond to more questions:
Robert: Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your
questions. I really don't have any answers for you except a quote
from Isaiah 42:l6 "I will lead the blind by ways they have not
known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the
darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them."
think that is probably the only answer we will get to "how did he
manage these things". Ernie would tell you "the first thing is to
never be scared. If you get scared you can't do anything".
I know he discovered and appreciated more things that most of us take
so much for granted.
"can do" attitude was probably the most useful force in accomplishing
all the things he managed to do in his lifetime. He has an inner
calm and never sits in judgment of how other people do things. He
has a live and let live attitude that escapes many people.
Some time later, Kathryn sent me some of her
Musings About Ernie
time Ernie put one foot ahead of the other, it was a step in faith, an
unspoken trust that he he was "looked after." His job was just to keep
moving ahead to the next chore, the next thing that needed mending. And
he spent his life doing just that -- looking after his beloved cows or
chickens, or goats, or his faithful dog. He loved all animals
(especially mules) and he credited them with more sense and feelings
than most of us human possess. There were always fences to be mended, a
garden to be weeded, or animals that needed to be fed or sheltered from
the weather. He didn't much cater to farming, or "digging in the dirt"
as he put it, but considered himself a rancher first and foremost. He
carried a buggy whip to "guide" him and the slightest touch of that
whip on an object miraculously let him know where he was and which way
calloused fingers and hands were his eyes and they "showed him" how to
do simple mechanical repairs, how to hook up machinery to his tractors
and pickups that he sometimes took it upon himself to move about. He
always seemed to know just where and when to apply leverage to move
was a builder of all sorts of crates, bridges, gates, and even the
outbuildings on his farmstead. He only needed someone to read the tape
measure and the level and he could take it from there. He did the bulk
of his work on his knees, close to the work at hand.
was in his element at the livestock auctions, bidding and speculating
on cattle that he would take home and "shine up" and resell. He had the
uncanny ability to know the weight of an animal by the way the rattled
the scale in the ring, and their age by the soul of their bellow.
I do believe that Ernie's story was and is worth the retelling. What do you think?
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will be further installment/s to this story, somewhere down the road.