Ernie Chiles and the Rock of the Month Club

Cape Girardeau Central High School teacher Ernie Chiles with his ham radio equipment Oct. 1963

Ernie Chiles was a student teacher in my freshman biology class. He was a quiet guy who didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

Next year, though, he had been hired to teach Earth Science, which was generally considered a Mickey Mouse class that anybody could pass.

By the luck of the draw, Jim Stone, George Cauble and I ended up in his class and achieved some kind of critical mass. We started an informal competition with Ernie. Our goal was to ace every one of his tests and his was to create tests that nobody could ace.

THAT played havoc with the grading curve

Ernie Chiles - Ken Steinhoff - Jim Stone Oct 1963The three of us would meet at my house the night before the tests and we’d practically memorize the text book and class notes. Ernie, for his part, would dig into obscure points to try to trip us up. If we missed a question, we’d do even more research to prove that we were right. At the 20th Reunion, I was still disputing a question that Ernie had marked wrong.

Ernie was a pilot and a ham

Ernie, who wasn’t more than a handful of years older than us, was a ham radio operator and a pilot. Before long we were hanging out at his house, going flying and doing stuff that teachers today would be afraid to do with their students.

He was Mr. Chiles in class and around other students, but he was “Ernie” when we were together. He was the first teacher I knew who had a first name and the first one I connected with as as a person, not just someone who taught a class.

I became a newspaperman because of him

First Missourian picture 04-18-63One of our flying expeditions turned out to be a life-changer for me. You can read about how I became a newspaper photographer because of it.

Pam T can comment on one of her flights with Ernie after this is published. He laughs about it today, saying, “I can just see the headline you would have written if the icing on the wings had gotten any worse, “Teacher, Students Die in Crash.”

I corrected him. I’d have written “CHS Teacher Kills Students.”

Ernie Taught me how to drive

Of course,  I crashed in the first 150 yards. Here’s the whole, sad, story.

Rock of the Month Club

When Jim Stone and I came back for the 20th Reunion, we stopped by to see Ernie. After all the business of catching up was over, Ernie looked at us and said, “OK, guys the statute of limitations has surely run out by now. Fess up.”

Jim and I looked at each other and asked, “Fess up to what?”

“Come on, you guys. I figured someone would leak it by now, but you’ve done a good job of keeping a secret. Just confess it was you who did it.”

Not a clue

“We don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” I said.

Bulldozer in Mexico MO 1942“One night I woke up to hear a loud noise outside my house. The next morning, there was this huge boulder in my front yard with a sign, ‘Welcome to the Rock of the Month Club.’ I knew Ken’s dad was in the construction business and he’d have access to heavy equipment, so you two HAD to have been involved.”

I looked at Jim. He looked at me. “We’d be proud to admit to it, but this is the first we’ve ever heard of the story. We’re innocent.”

Somewhere there’s a Central High School student who is great at keeping a secret.

Anybody want to step up?

Ernie’s getting up in age and I’m sure he’d love to know the whole story before he “goes West,” as pilots call it.

Tomorrow we’ll show you what Ernie looks like today. He and I took a bike ride around Horseshoe Lake on Tuesday.

I drove.

He tightened his seat belt.

He remembers that first driving lesson.

UPDATE: Ernie and I still fly together.

6 Replies to “Ernie Chiles and the Rock of the Month Club”

  1. Ernie Chiles broadened my horizons in multiples. Mr. Chiles was a young, first-year teacher, a nice guy who cared about his students, and a 160 from the teachers that we were used to. To have a guy like him as a teacher made us so happy that we didn’t know whether to love him or take advantage of his freshness, so I guess we did both. He certainly added interest to what would otherwise have been a boring fulfillment of my science requirement, and 46? years later I still remember quite a bit of what he taught us, both in and out of class.

    When I think of Ernie Chiles, I think of how he gave me my very first flight. Wow! Here I was in an actual airplane. For some wonderful, crazy reason, he even let me “drive” for a minute or two. Don’t tell anybody though because I don’t want to get him in trouble. There we were doing circles and loops, and I can still remember that supremely ecstatic freedom, that thrill of looking out to the earth and sky from such a view as I had never experienced except in my dreams. Such a joyous, beautiful, completely new adventure for me! This is it! I wanted to be an airline pilot.

    Mr. Chiles was so absolutely COOL as to fly a bunch of us to an out-of-town ballgame. This flight probably got a little worrisome for Ernie when the wings started icing because he was well aware of the dangers, not to mention the thought of killing his students. He would never get tenure that way. Me? I was too naive to know the extent of the danger and just thought how beautiful the snow and ice looked while we were flying. The weather turned so bad that we were “grounded” for the trip home and had to get rides with other students who had traveled by the mundane automobile to the game. However, my lessons from my Earth Science teacher were some I have never forgotten. I didn’t get to become an airline pilot, but I DID get to become a teacher who cared about my students. I had learned by the best example. This was probably the most valuable life lesson I got from any teacher. Thank you, Ernie.

  2. Miz Pam, Mam,

    I’d be proud to have even half of those comments carved on my tombstone. I’ll forward them on to Ernie. He’ll probably remember them as long as he has the hugs you gave him in the hallway.

    I warned him that a select group of his classmates would track him down at home if he chose not to attend the reunion, as is his custom.

    You really nailed our relationship with him: you didn’t know whether to love him or take advantage of him. I’ve thought about his class many times over the years. I won’t say he was the best instructor I ever had, but he was a darned good teacher and a better friend.

  3. Delightful stories. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. I think I stumbled in here from Facebook, in case you’re wondering. Long live The Rock of the Month Club! 🙂

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