Mack Williams: Remembering ‘Ernest T’ (Wesley L. ‘Wes’ Carter Jr.)
Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 12, 2020
This isn’t about the late Shakespearean-trained actor, Howard Morris, famed portrayer of “Mayberry’s” Ernest T Bass. It’s about another talented “Ernest T” portrayer, the late Wesley L. “Wes” Carter Jr. of Danville, Va., but originally, and for most of his life from Caswell County, North Carolina.
Wes performed “Ernest T” so well at churches, senior centers, and nursing home venues that many people in the area thought and said: “Ernest T Bass” whenever someone said: “Wes Carter.”
Wes also sought to educate his audiences about Ernest T’s originator, Howard Morris, stating that Morris had trained as a Shakespearean actor (as did the late Jim Varney, another “Ernest”).
Speaking of Shakespeare, when Wes’ Ernest T really got wound up, it was like hearing mountain “verse”: “Aunt Maria, jump in the fire; fire too hot, jump in the pot; pot too hot, jump in the fire; pot too black, jump in the crack; crack too high, jump in the sky…etc.”
Wes first asked me to accompany him as Mayberry’s Rafe Hollister in a presentation for a congregational dinner at Yanceyville’s Prospect United Methodist Church a few years ago.
For costume, I found bib overhauls and plaid shirt at the Goodwill (“the” Goodwill, like “the” Woolworth in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” (sometimes Wes’ own “Soggy Bottom Boys,” sporting fake ‘mountain’ beards, performed for the public’s additional delight).
Since Rafe Hollister had once bootlegged, I brought along an air-line size liquor bottle to the church dinner, where the minister joined in our act (much to Wes’ delight), seizing it, and saying no “mountain dew” (the un-capitalized kind) was allowed in church! Since the brand might have been “Everclear,” it actually was the un-capitalized “mountain dew” (fortunately, it wasn’t opened, and there were no adjacent candle flames).
Wes had already contacted someone at the church to be his “Charlene” (an “Ernest T” must have a “Charlene”). At a nursing home performance, Wes scoped out a nurse for his Charlene.
Just like Santa’s Helpers, we were Ernest T’s and Rafe Hollister’s “helpers.”
Wes worked at Danville’s Midtown Market (like Salisbury’s long gone little grocery operated by the late Grover and Faye Roseman). Wes’ jokes abounded there; and he often performed “Ernest T rant!” When wearing my old East German top coat, we did an impromptu General Burghalter/Kommandant Klink routine there (including Sergeant Schulz for good measure).
Wes always said to shoppers there in our immediate vicinity, “Have you heard this man sing?” With Wes standing there, grinning so hard that his eyes almost squinted, I knew I wasn’t getting out of there without singing something, usually Rafe Hollister’s “Lonesome Road,” followed by “Ridin’ on that New River Train” (Wes was a promoter of sorts, urging each of us to join him in using our talents to help others through a weary world, sort of like Willy Wonka).
Wes told me last year he was writing a book about his life-long struggle with Type I diabetes, also including diabetic-healthy recipes. Fortunately, it was published last April and is obtainable on Amazon (“Bittersweet ‘How Sweet It Is,’ My Life Journey with Diabetes, a Never ending Road”), along with a children’s book he titled “Malachi.” “Malachi” is about an elephant bullied about his size; but I can’t help wondering if Wes himself may have received some childhood bullying because of his short stature (gosh, he was shorter than I; and I’m Peter Lorre height).
One of Wes’ many friends wrote on Facebook that he devotedly accompanied Wes to the rest room in grade school when he had to inject himself with insulin (reading that post, if your vision doesn’t “blur,” you have no soul).
Wes’ son, David graciously allowed me to sing Rafe Hollister’s “Lonesome Road” (by Shilkret/Austin) at his father’s funeral, following with the song lines: “Ridin’ on that New River Train; Ridin’ on that New River Train; the same old train that brought me here’s gonna’ take me home again!”
I then repeated those words softly, as if originating from a train moving far away.