Extraordinary stories began to appear on my 2014 Walk after I "camped" one night on the back steps of the First United Methodist Church in Overton, Nebraska. I wanted some distance between me and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that night, so the FUMC steps filled the bill.
In the morning, I decided, "Maybe I should attend church." I grew up in the Methodist Church 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. Quickly while brunching, I 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 said, "I will look for you."
Ernie and Kathryn face the camera on the left
And, so Kathryn Wempen did. It had rained buckets Sunday night and I had holed up under a pavilion in City Park at Elm Creek hoping things would clear enough to get back on the road and catch that ride.
The skies cleared 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 seat, and jumped in the passenger seat.
Kathryn and I commenced to have a wide-ranging though brief conversation as we drove to Kearney where I visited Morris Publishing, which has printed three of my books, and Cabelas next door where I bought a new pair of walking shoes - Keens.
Our conversation focused largely upon Ernie Wempen, who is a bit of a wonder. Much more than that, really.
You see Mr. Wempen has spent much of his life in some kind of darkness or another leading to total blindness. But, he still managed to work, ranch, have a family, and lead a full life.
Ernie Wempen at work during the day (age 75+)
After being reminded a number of times about Ernie since I have been off the road, I just thought more people should know about Ernie Wempen. I wrote Mrs. Wempen to get more details and she emailed me back with the following note.
"What 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 presents itself.
In 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.
His 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.
He 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 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 blindness.
As 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!
He 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 'immovable' objects."
My 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 work done!"
Ernie replied, "It hasn't bothered me that much, I just get up about 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".
Ernie 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.
A 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.
I 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.
At 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.
Wish 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 questions:
Hi! 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."
I 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.
His "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.
Each 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 to go.
His 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 "unmoveable objects."
He 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.
He 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 sound of their bellow.
Thank goodness and God for people like Mr. Wempen. We can all stand to be reminded we can do more - like Ernie has done.
There will be a Part II to this story, down the road.
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