Ghosts of Christmas Past #10: Ernest “Red” Anhauser
Ernie “Red” Anhauser was eighty-nine when he died last summer. He’d been a widower for almost twenty years; lived by himself but was never alone. He gardened like it was World War II. Watched at the polls to keep us honest. Volunteered at the animal shelter and read a book a week to friends at the Senior Center—until the tables turned and we read to him.
Ernie’s day job was unique in Agincourt; indeed, it may have died with him, at least the way he did it, because he was an horologist—a watchmaker. Ernie didn’t just clean and fix timepieces, replace broken crystals or dead batteries. Ernie could actually make a watch. From scratch. Watches today are practically disposable. And so may be their caretakers.
It was easy to stop at Salmagundi, just to say hello, and be mesmerized by the lathe-ing of raw metal into tiny widgets. Walk into the store, pass one delicate crystalline showcase after another, and there was Ernie in his own customized display, visor down, jeweler’s loop a bionic implant, wrinkled hands at work. Yet he took note of every caller, had an instructive word for kids, an inquiry for others about their health or that of a mutual friend. Yet outside the “office” (his word) Ernie’s avocations may come as a surprise. He was, for example, the long-time librarian at The Why, Agincourt’s gathering of non-believers, atheists, agnostics, and others unconvinced or downright skeptical about the existence of gods. As its librarian for forty years, Ernie may have become the most theologically literate person in Fennimore county, so it isn’t odd at all that ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and other spiritual leaders counted him a friend. Gurus, on the other hand, not so much.
Calling him a “Ghost of Christmas Past” seems a stretch, you say, but Ernie had the spirit of a holiday that meant nothing more to him than the opportunity to do more good than he normally would have done. I wouldn’t want to make a list of his volunteering; it would be long. The brief list above will have to do.
Physically, he was slight, no more than five feet eight (“and shrinking”). Never an athlete in the “brute” sense, he might have once been very good in track and field; I don’t know, just wondering. Those small bones and delicate hands were ideal for the craft he chose, however. But if you think his nickname “Red” had some connection with hair color or complexion, forget it: in addition to his role at The Why as its long-time keeper and scribe, Ernie was also the town’s most upfront Marxist, born into the turbulent ’20s and nurtured on Sacco and Vanzetti as well as Bradlaugh and Besant. “There are a number of reasons to dislike me,” he challenged me once. “Pick a good one.”
There’s a meme abroad these days about the possibility of good without God. But billboards blaring that message would have offended Ernie; he preferred deeds over rhetoric. “Actions count. Words get in the way.” And billboards may be a place to hide. “Pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain.”
What will fail me first, I’ve often thought, mind or body? Will I prefer to wonder with Carl Sagan about the mysteries of the cosmos and quest for signs of intelligent life or wander in the retirement home, concerned only whether Thursday’s dessert will be butterscotch or chocolate? Ernie has answered those questions for me.
Besides, I prefer rice pudding.