On The Death Of A Stepfather - An Appreciation
The memory of the righteous will be a blessing. Proverbs 10:7.
[This picture was taken just one
month before Ernest's death]
The phone rang on Monday 15 December and, because of its earliness, I knew it was one of those calls we all dread. It was my mother saying that her husband and my stepfather, Ernest King, had died peacefully and full of faith, at 8 o’clock that morning. Such news was not unexpected, but it still came as a dizzying blow.
His early years
Ernest George Elton King was born on 22 April 1921 and lived his early years in London, where his father was a post office clerk and his mother was a housewife. When he was twelve, the family moved to Canvey Island and Ernest’s love of the sea and rivers began. There were three King children; the eldest was Peggy, then Ernest and the young Ray – both had predeceased Ernest.
Ernest attended Southend High School for Boys and on leaving, in 1939, he joined the meteorological service of the Air Ministry. During the War, he joined the RAF as a flying officer, stationed in North Scotland. He flew sixty-seven operational sorties over the Atlantic and the North Sea as a meteorological observer with Coastal Command squadrons. It was while there that he met the young WAAF girl, Wilma. They were married in 1944 and set up home in Fife, where Ernest continued as a meteorologist. Meanwhile, their children, Sheila and Norman, were born.
Immediately after the War, Ernest went to sea for the first time in a converted corvette, renamed Weather Observer, which was the first of a fleet of meteorological ships to operate in the North Atlantic. Every six hours the crew would launch hydrogen balloons to record the temperature, humidity and pressure at 50,000 feet in order to help forecast the unpredictable British weather.
Ernest’s subsequent career as a weather forecaster and researcher meant several postings throughout the UK, including Yorkshire and Bedford, plus two years in Aden. In 1971, the family moved to Tilehurst in Reading, from where Ernest worked for the Meteorological Office at Bracknell and finally at Heathrow airport.
In 1980, he retired, aged 59. Ernest and Wilma had owned boats from the 1970s, but retirement gave them the opportunity to spend much more time ‘messing about’ on the Thames. Sadly, Wilma died of cancer in 1989.
Ernest and my mother
Throughout most of this time, Ernest had been something of a churchgoer, though his attendance had been regular rather than frequent (he would appreciate this subtle, but important, difference). Then, during 1989, Ernest began to attend Carey Baptist Church at the invitation of his next-door neighbours, Nigel and Jean Widgery, as well as a new friend, Pat Ling, my mother.
1989 was the year that she had first met Ernest at a garden party for retired civil servants – my father, Harry Ling, who had also flown Sunderland aircraft over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans with Coastal Command during the War, had died in 1988. And 1989 was also the year that I first met Ernest. My family was staying with Mum in Reading and Ernest was due to come to meet us all – poor him! What should we all eat? ‘Pizza’, cried the children. Without much thought, we phoned Pizza Hut and ordered the works. It was not what the meat-and-two-vegetable-eating Ernest was used to, but to his credit he persevered, and we all admired him the more.
By May 1991, he and Mum were married. But it was not that simple. During those intervening months a huge obstacle had emerged. Here I quote from some biographical notes, written by Ernest in August 1997. ‘By December 1990 Ernest and Pat had decided to get married. But pastor Jonathan Stephen (the minister of Carey Church) would not marry them, because he knew that Ernest was only a churchgoer, not a true Christian. Like many people, he supposed he was a Christian, even though most of his life he hadn’t gone to church. Pat was a born-again Christian, having been converted three years before, and was a member of Carey Church. The teaching of the Bible was clear: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). They had to accept that Ernest was not right in God’s sight, and to submit to God’s Word. Wedding plans were scrapped; if they ever did get married, it would surely be years ahead.’ Jonathan Stephen recalls just how indignant Ernest was during their momentous meeting – Mum recalls that she and Ernest went away devastated.
Becoming a Christian Ernest’s staccato notes continue, ‘The very next day Ernest was converted. Five days later they got engaged; five months later married, by Jonathan in Carey. Baptised July ’91 and received into membership.’
From that ‘very next day’, Ernest’s interests, conversation and attitudes changed – it was as if he had began a new life, just as it states in 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’ Later, he recalled how different Carey was to his previous experience of churches. Later, of course, he could articulate that this was because the Gospel was actually believed and preached there – Christ crucified was offered to all who would receive Him and the new life He gave. Some twenty-five years before, I too had undergone something similar to Ernest’s experience. Carey was the first church I ever attended as a 17-year-old, searching sceptic. Within a few weeks of hearing biblical preaching, I knew that I too had stumbled upon true truth – I too had believed and had become a Christian.
From now on, Ernest began to be absorbed by the things of God, he worked for the church, and his great pursuit became the cause of Christ. Visitors could overhear him and Mum reading their Bibles and praying together at the start of each day. Ernest began to take an interest in world mission and started to support missionary endeavours. He became computerate in his early seventies and for almost three years he edited the church’s newsletter – to become more competent, he attended a course for editors at the University. He and Mum took over organising the accommodation for students and lecturers attending the Prepared for Service (PfS) training course, run by the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), and based at Carey. Ernest signed himself up and, in 1996, was among the first group to complete the two-year course. He and Mum drove to Hampshire once a month to help a Christian charity pack clothes to send to the needy of the Ukraine. Ernest became a regular steward at church on Sundays. He braved the weather and helped at a church bookstall in the shopping centre of Reading on Saturdays. They often visited Reading jail to serve refreshments to visiting families. They helped man the Good News bus whenever it visited Reading for a day of Christian outreach. They supported almost all the meetings of the church. They loved to attend the numerous weddings, and the funerals. They were busy, busy – many observed that it seemed as if they were making up for lost time. When my children visited their home they admitted that they could hardly keep up with this industrious pair.
One of the early fruits of Ernest’s new-found faith was his determination to be reconciled to his son, Norman, who lived in Venezuela. They had been estranged for some twelve years. Ernest refused to attend his son’s wedding and he had vowed never to speak to him again. But now Ernest took the initiative and wrote that much-needed letter asking for Norman’s forgiveness. Norman phoned back, ‘My son!, my son!’, Ernest exclaimed with a mixture of joy and tears. They were invited to Venezuela. Ernest initially thought they would go the following year – they went that same year. The rift was healed and Ernest and Mum regularly visited Norman and his family in Venezuela, or they arranged family get-togethers at their apartment in Florida.
In a real sense, Ernest’s life was a life of two, albeit very unequal, halves. His first seventy years were quite ordinary. He left school at eighteen. He became a civil servant. He lived a quiet, respectable life. He had two children. He liked to wear grey and lovat clothes. He drove a Toyota Corolla.
On the other hand, his second life lasted less than thirteen years and, in many ways, was extraordinary. This was his Christian life. It began with him coming in faith and repentance to the Lord Jesus Christ – this was the beginning of the end of Ernest’s seeking for answers to life’s big questions. At last, he was satisfied. Now, the previous seventy years could be put into perspective – it all began to make sense.
But becoming a Christian never obliterates the personality, nor does it produce some dumb automaton. Ernest was still Ernest. He was decently educated, musical, well read, and modest to the point of self-deprecation. Yet hit the right button and he would extol the beauty and enormity of creation – clouds, mountains, the sea – they had long fascinated him. He was a man who questioned everything, from the price of petrol to why sermons were forty minutes long. And he was forever searching for answers. He was creative too. His children tell of a father who lovingly made them toys, the most robust constructions, with remarkable working bits and pieces. Mum and I were recently reading through a book of his post-wartime press cuttings when we suddenly realised that he had actually made the book himself from cardboard and wallpaper, presumably while on board his weather ship.
He was also a practical and organised man. He could mend most things, sometimes in rather unorthodox ways. He was a man of lists – things to be done. We reckon at times, he even made a list of his lists! His office was full of notes and reminders. Any long-distance journey was meticulously planned and suitcases would be packed in a dummy run several days in advance. Oh yes, he was organised, but not to the point of becoming uptight – he could do laidback well.
He was literate. He read widely. He was a man of grammar and punctuation – how he would have enjoyed my Christmas present to him, the best-selling book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Previous Christmases I had bought him some of the Travel Guides, produced by Day One, and he and Mum had used them to trace the lives and environs of John Bunyan, around Ernest’s Bedford, and CH Spurgeon, around Mum’s Cambridge.
What he meant to me
I shall miss Ernest so much. Whenever you visited the home, Mum would invariably open the door and then, about twelve seconds later, Ernest would appear with that big grin, those sparkling eyes, and that firm handshake. I already miss those aspects of the man.
Ernest was also my friend. He never attempted the stepfather role. We simply got on well. In the early days of his Christian life we talked long and hard about biblical doctrine, church history and church practice. It was such a delight to answer his questions – some of them were convoluted, some were straightforward, but they were always, like him, truly earnest. He was feeling his way as ‘a babe in Christ’, as well as dumping shedloads of false ideas he had collected during the previous seven decades. We also had lots more in common – we both thrived on problem solving, whether it was an ailing washing machine or a crossword clue. We were both mechanically minded – outboard engines and boat maintenance helped bind us together.
He was my best proof-reader – he checked almost everything I wrote. Characteristically, he had his editorial routine: I would e-mail him some text, he would print two copies (one for him, and one for Mum), they would read them separately, then compare notes and draw up a list of corrections, then, after just a few hours, Ernest would phone me with the emendations. The system worked wonderfully and improved my writings considerably. He knew the difference between loath and loathe, and peon and paean (and for that matter, paeon too!). But he did not know everything – poring over the last crossword we did together, Ernest did not know that a kent was a type of punting pole – nor did I, and now I shall never forget it.
He was also a great supporter of mine. I had opened his eyes to the shadowy world of modern-day bioethics. My interest in the work of the LIFE organisation became his interest too. It was his wish that at his funeral, in lieu of flowers, money should be given to that pro-life charity. And it was he who often urged me to continue this work. During our last phone conversation, a few days before he died, he was there encouraging me to write more and more. ‘This latest article is a real eye-opener. You must keep telling the truth. People need to know what’s really happening in bioethics,’ he exhorted me.
Ernest was an easy man to love. He had no pretensions. He never pushed himself forward. I cannot remember him ever speaking a harsh word. But he was not uncritical. Oh, he could certainly criticise government policies, institutions, and trends in society. Yet he even did this, like the rest of his endeavours, gently. Among the 120 or so sympathy cards and letters Mum has received, the words 'gentle', 'gentlemanly', 'kind', 'thoughtful', 'interested' and 'interesting' occur again and again.
He usually had something memorable to say. He became famous among our family for his pithy little comments that became quite unforgettable. For example, on seeing a photograph of my wife, Wendy, holding a bunch of 25 red roses that I had bought her to mark our 25th wedding anniversary, ‘Yes’, he slowly observed with that smile, ‘Every picture tells a story!’ What did he mean? To this day, we still ask that question. Another of his enduring witticisms was that his car registration was J339 WDP, which he always referred to as ‘Well Done, Pat.’ What fun he would have had with my new car, CP53 OJL. I can almost hear him now wryly asking which, of at least four ways of articulating, ‘Oh, John Ling’, was the correct one!
His last years
Despite all his health and vigour during his seventies, Ernest’s last two or three years were dogged by increasing episodes of ill health – his lungs, not helped by many years of smoking twenty-five cigarettes a day, were failing. Did he complain? No. Did he even tell you he had been ill? No. It took me months to persuade him to ask his doctor for a dose of medication so that he could pre-empt his next attack of breathlessness. However, his breathing inevitably became more and more difficult and his emergency trips to hospital by ambulance increased.
During one of his short stays in hospital he became the very first person to read a complete copy of my book, The Edge of Life – Dying, Death and Euthanasia. Imagine, an elderly, sick man, with serious breathing difficulties, reading a book with a title like that! It created quite a stir among the healthcare professionals, and he even sold three copies! And he always took his Bible with him. On one occasion a Christian nurse announced that in all her twenty years of nursing she had never before seen anyone reading a Bible in hospital – of course, from then on, they became great friends.
His last years were his best years. He took greater delight in his extended family, including his new step-great-granddaughter. His granddaughters and step-granddaughters especially adored him, and he doted on them. He sought out several distant and long-forgotten relatives and travelled to meet them. His circle of friends grew and grew. And he found new enthusiasms, though he maintained his resolute dislike of gardening! He remained active and full of merriment until the end. Of course, he found deep and deeper consolation in his Christian faith. Ernest prepared to die well. He made sure the home was in good working order for Mum. He tidied up his personal affairs. He planned his funeral hymns and readings. But above all, he looked forward to going to meet his Saviour. We often talked about heaven – now, for him, that happy prospect has become the reality.
How I have tried to avoid a hagiography. By this world’s standards, Ernest was not a great man. He, like the rest of us, will never find a place in the history books. Yet hundreds of us mourn this somewhat ordinary man. He became significant to most of us primarily because he became a Christian. And for those who knew him, Ernest will not be forgotten. He left his mark, and it was an affirmative one. I hope that my last years will be as useful and productive as his. I shall remember him as Ernest the Earnest, a fine Christian man, and a beloved stepfather.
Precious in the sight of the
LORD is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15.