This is the account of a day long ago when my brother and I learned important lessons about life. We were too young to understand fully the impact the days events would have on us, yet the effects of that day were profound.
Ernie Sunday was a skinny little kid with a tousle of dark hair perpetually unruly and always oily looking. He was always a bit unkempt. His clothes, obviously second hand, the pants too long and the shirts usually too big. He was what would today be labled as special ed. Back then, he was just a slow kid who was part of our regular class.
Our families were mill people. Our parents worked in the cotton mills in our small southern town. It was the mid fifties and America and the south in particular were a very different place than now. We knew very little of the world outside our little village, being young and inexperienced. We'd led a sheltered life by and large. The entire community took care of one another and looked out for each other's kids. We were protected, shielded against the ugliness of life and allowed to simply be children.
We attended the local elementary school. I was in the first grade, my older brother, Loren, was a second grader. Wise and studious, serious beyond his years, he was often picked for responsibilities which were really beyond his skill level. One of those responsibilites was Ernie Sunday. Mrs. Daniel, his second grade teacher, had given him the responsibility of seeing to it that Ernie made it home safely each day. Since he and I walked to school together the six blocks from our house to the school, that meant that I was included in that job as well. To take Ernie home, we had to walk four blocks out of our way, crossing the highway and walking by the mill, which constantly thrummed with the activity of industry. The lint from the cotton mill would often blow from the mill yard and onto us as we walked by. That was uncomfortable on a hot day in May, adding to our distaste for the job we were forced to do for Ernie.
Ernie always wanted to keep walking with us on toward our house. Each day we'd have to walk him all the way to his door to make sure that he got home ok, turning him over to his mom on the front porch.
We'd walked Ernie home all year, through cold and rain and now the heat of the end of the school year. On this particular Friday, it was hotter than usual for May and the humidity was oppressive. I remember how the sweat ran down my face, stinging my eyes as I trudged along with my back pack full of books and weekend homework assignments.
When we came to the corner of the block where Ernie lived, Loren said, "Now Ernie, you go on home. It's hot and I dont' want to have to walk you all the way to your house." I chimed in, "Yeah, Ernie! Walk on home." Ernie refused, insisting that he walk on to our house with us. Knowing that the rest of the way to Ernie's house would be a struggle, Loren began to yell at Ernie to go on home. Ernie still refused. We took him under his arms, lifting him slightly ,carrying him across the street. His house was only three doors down. "Go on home, Ernie!" we insisted. He still refused, becoming more agitated and difficult. My brother got angry and picked up a small stone from the gravel which had been carried out of the back alley into the concrete street by cars leaving from behind the houses. He threw it at Ernie, striking him on the arm, as he yelled for him to "Go HOME!" The look of hurt on young Ernie's face made us both say, " Hey, Ernie, sorry man. Now, come on. We'll walk you on home."
Instead, Ernie ran across the street toward the mill. We ran after him, yelling for him to come back. He kept running all the way to the fence around the power substation behind the mill. The gate was chained and locked, but was askew enough that a skinny kid like Ernie was able to squeeze through and into the small compound surrounding the substation. We tried futilely to follow but were too large to squeeze through. Apparently, Ernie had done this before. He traversed the yard with the ease of familiarity. We were yelling for him to come out. Instead, he ran to the small metal tool house. He climed a ladder which was leaning against the back of the building and crawled atop the little house. All the while, we were yelling, begging him to come down. He turned to look at us, lost his footing, slipped and fell backwards. He landed atop the insulators above the transformer and was instantly electrocuted.
I remember the loud bang and the sound of the electricity arcing as it coursed through his young body. He died instantly. He felt no pain, the newspaper later said. I have no recollection of the next few minutes. The next thing I remember is that there were people all around. I don't recall seeing Ernie's parents. Everyone I saw was in uniform, with the exception of some men from the mill. A firetruck was there as was an ambulance and several policemen. One of the policemen came over to us and told us in no uncertain terms to go home. We walked away, totally in shock, not saying a word. No one ever asked us if we'd seen what happened. No one ever talked to us about it at all, because we never spoke of it, afraid that if people learned what happened that they'd take us away somewhere. Ernie's parents moved away. We never walked that way again.
Fifty years later, at Christmas, my brother and I were sitting out under his carport chatting and enjoying one another's company..Everyone else was inside the house. We often ended up out there, playing our guitars and singing, him smoking his cigar as we shared a glass of wine together. We started talking of old times. Out of the blue, and I'm not quite sure why, I asked him at some point if he remembered Ernie Sunday .I saw a look of shock cross his face. The memory came flooding back for both of us. It was as if a dam had broken. We both recounted our recollection of that day. I remember that he said that he resented Mrs. Daniel for putting that responsiblity on him as such a young age. He also said that he had forgiven her. We decided that it was past time to forgive ourselves as well. It was a very cathartic moment for each of us. Feelings which had been bottled up all those years were released. I had never realized that I still carried all that around with me, so totally had I blocked it all out. We came full circle on that evening.
We raised a toast to young Ernie who'd lost his life so long ago. RIP Ernie Sunday.