To the beat of his own drum|Sid Ervin’s a joke-tellin’, hat-wearin’ Jack-of-all-trades

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 5, 2009

He’s been a carpenter, a musician, a cattleman, raised both pigs and horses, has farmed, is a general repairman (he even once fixed a grandfather clock) and is a beekeeper.

Is there anything Sid Ervin can’t do?

“Several,” the 70-year-old said, “but I can’t tell you what those are.”

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He’s not a tinkerer — that’s what Webster defines as one who keeps busy in a rather useless way, “though my wife would agree with that,” Sid said, “but I feel like I could do brain surgery if it’s written down.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

Sid lives on land off Sherman Avenue, a place that has been in his family for generations. He’s a man with a lot of curiosity — how are things done and why? — and he set out to solve some of life’s puzzles many years ago. His earliest memories go back to when he was 2 years old, growing up right where he is today.

“What’s built, I built it, and what’s not built, well, I didn’t do that, too!” he quipped. He has a serious side, but much of his conversation is laced with witticisms and instantaneous one-liners.

He’s retired from several things: “I quit drinking, quit smoking and chasing women — my wife brought that on. I even quit drinking coffee,” he said, adding that a friend observed, “They might as well cover you up. You’re already dead.” Sid  confesses he has quit a lot of stuff, but “birthdays had a lot to do with it.”

He stayed on the old home place when he wasn’t rambling and has seen much of the United States on a Harley Davidson, being a victim of three bad wrecks along the way, giving an opening for his quip, “This is my third face.”

He wanted to box, so he did — “See that crooked arm?” All of his bones were broken except for his back, he said. “I wanted to ride; I wanted to go places; I wanted to see people; I loved girls” — the phone rang and interrupted his monologue and, after a brief conversation, he said, “That was my regular wife, Pat.”

They’ve been married 35 years, and he affectionately describes her as “a genuine, bonafide, guaranteed, full-blooded coonass from Louisiana — and I have papers to prove it.”

They met when he was working and living in Shreveport. She had the neighboring apartment, and he had taken notice of her even before the day she stopped to chat as he was working on his motorcycle. She was with the Louisiana Highway Patrol, “and she came bopping up with that short skirt and tight uniform and asked if it was my bike I was working on.”

He gave a sarcastic reply, then asked if she would like to go riding. The answer was yes — and she had her own helmet. They married after a year or two.

Pat rode with Sid all over the Southern United States, and he was planning another tour to Colorado when she told him her riding days were over. She told him, “I’ve never figured out why I rode with you to start with,” but the real reason was that they were expecting a family addition. They have two children, Dusty, who is really the third, and Lori.

One of Sid’s loves is music. He learned to play the guitar when he was a child at St. Francis. His father was also a musician, and Sid enjoyed the two playing together. He was in several bands, but after 60 years he lost the end of a finger and his doctor said he’d best learn to blow a harmonica. Sid tried the Dobro, “but, like B.B. King said, ‘The Thrill is Gone.’ It’s just not there anymore. I just don’t have it,” and he added that a dedicated, good musician had to give up so much, that you can’t have a job and be a musician, “when your toes begin to stick out the end of your boots, that’s just tough.”

Sid got his taste of farming when he was about 12 years old. His uncle had a field of corn, and his sons, Sids cousins, “older than me, big old boys, they were supposed to cultivate that corn and lay it by. I liked plowing, probably because I didn’t have to do it, I guess.”

All morning, Sid followed that big gray horse pulling that five-tooth harrow. The corn was just high enough that the sharp leaves were like blades of steel. At noon, Sid went to the house with his cousins where they had a fine country dinner with plenty of sweet tea, then they went back to the field, “where they let me plow some more. They sat back under the shade tree, and let me do all I wanted.” Sid eventually passed out, and his cousins took him to the old Mercy Hospital where a nurse immediately placed him in a tub of ice because he had had a sun stroke. They kept him in the hospital for a week, “but I had learned how to cultivate corn,” Sid said, “and I got to be pretty good at it.”

Another of Sid’s loves is carpentry, and he feels he can do anything with a piece of wood the Lord can do except one: “I can make a tree, but I can’t grow one. Only the Lord can do that.” Sid’s office wall is lined with books about carpentry. He has studied and read, he said, “because I never wanted to appear stupid,” and admits that he has bluffed his way sometimes “and got caught a couple of times.”

Two of Sid’s trademarks are his hats and his boots. He’s worn the same style hat since he was in the fifth grade and has a dozen or so, always wearing the right one for the season. One of his peeves is that men don’t remove their hats when they go inside. He wasn’t even comfortable wearing one for a photograph in his den. His boots come in an unusual size — a 7 — so when he sees a pair that size, he buys them, even if he doesn’t need them at the time, “because I will one day.” All his boots have another identical mark — they’re Nacona, made in Nacona, Texas.

He’s had jobs, like when he was working for the Dallas Cowboys and had plenty of money, to other times such as when his bike blew up in the Smokys and he played guitar in Tootsie’s Bar “for tips and beer,” and they let him sleep there. He was working in Memphis in the mid-1970s when his father became ill and died of lung cancer. After it was all over, Sid planned to return to his job in Memphis, “and I reached over and got my hat. I was ready to go,” but he didn’t because “I couldn’t go off and leave Mama.” Soon he was in the cattle and hog business, and had acquired “too much stuff. I couldn’t go anywhere.” He’s been here ever since.

His life took another turn about 10 years ago when he got a call to get a swarm of bees out of the chapel at All Saints’. They were 60 feet high and it took a scaffold to get them out, but he did it. A month later, another swarm invested a side door to the chapel, then later more were in an apartment at the school.

“I got interested in them,” he said. “I began to bring ’em home and put ’em in boxes. That’s how I got started, and then this thing got out of hand. Now anybody with bee problems calls me. He markets Warren County Pure Honey, which he sells “right out the back door, just like a bootlegger. Things haven’t changed much — just the bottles.”

Is there a name other than “Tha Beekeeper” for one who follows the trade or trail? Not that Sid knows of, “other than that idiot who catches bees.”

There’s a trick to catching them, he said. When they’re swarming, they’re usually full of honey and lazy and don’t sting, and, “I know you find this hard to believe, but when I go out I like to show off a little bit. I know they’re not going to sting me, so they’re diddling around and I’m playing with ’em and people are ooohhhing and aaahhhing,” but after one such call he got summoned downtown where they literally had a small tent bent over, there were so many bees in it. Sid was doing his thing, but those bees “were the baddest I ever saw.” They got under his shirt, “but I had to be cool, you know, because I had drawn a crowd — and people were watching me be cool, which is hard to do when you’re hurting.”

Sid could probably give a college course about bees, how mankind would be much better off if we were more like them. Like many, he’s concerned at the drastic decline of the bee population and he has no ready answers.

He wonders why he’s still on this earth, “because I’ve looked at death three times staring me straight in the face. I still don’t know why the Lord left me here, and I’m serious about that.”

Despite his quick quips and ready laugh, he has a serious side or two. He’s active in the Elks Lodge and makes regular trips to the VA hospital in Jackson to visit the veterans, playing Bingo with them and taking them snacks. It hurts him to see American heroes abandoned and forgotten.

His own life, he said, has been a charmed one, that probably his biggest problem all his life “has been doing my own thing. I’ve never mistreated anybody, but I do what I feel like doing. When you run out of plans, it’s time to call Saint Peter and tell him to open the gate, that you’re on your way.

“I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I don’t know of anything I wanted to do that I didn’t do.”

And he added with a grin, “But maybe I didn’t want much.”