Colorful events aside, pictures of the former officer on the streets of Middlesboro during the 1950s evoke images of Andy Taylor on the beat in Mayberry.
Mike grew up in Middlesboro, but was born outside the city in the Edgewood mining camp near Bell County Coal. His story, however, began with his grandparents decades earlier and an ocean away.
In 1903, Mike’s grandparents arrived in the US, accompanied by their parents. The Marino and Calchera families hailed from Italy and journeyed together to begin a new life in the US.
“They came through Ellis Island, and my grandmother left all the relatives on the ship,” said Ernie. “She couldn’t speak English, she didn’t know. They were sent to Jellico, Tenn., up there where the mines are. That’s where my Daddy was born,” said Mike.
In Jellico, the families worked to adjust to their new lives, polishing their English and expanding their family. Mike’s father, Beano, was one of four sons all of whom were born in America.
In an effort to conform to American standards, Ernie’s grandmother made the fateful decision to change the family name from Calchera to the more American-sounding Mike.
“When Dad and them started school over in the mountains, they made fun of them, the kids did,” Mike remarked. “They let the name go; they should have never done that.”
As the family adjusted to America, they maintained communication with relatives in Italy. Mike remembers taking letters written in Italian to the Post Office for his grandmother, and during World War II she sent parcels of clothing to family members.
“I think it must have been pretty bad for them over there,” he remarked.
Mike’s childhood in Middlesboro was mostly a pleasant one. He cherishes memories of tree-climbing, playing marbles, and riding his bike around town.
He was especially close to his only sibling, Rosella, who recently passed away, following the death of his wife.
“We were close throughout school and the rest of our lives,” he fondly recalled.
One unpleasant episode from his youth remains fresh in his mind. During his father’s tenure as a cab driver, a rogue passenger attempted to kill him.
After asking to be driven to a remote section of town, the man instructed Beano to pull over. He then shot him several times and left him for dead, escaping in the cab.
“My Dad crawled to a house, and just barely made it. They thought he was going to die for a long time,” Ernie said.
Ernie and Rosella stayed with their grandparents during their father’s recovery and were thankful that he was able to pull through.
At the age of eleven, Mike took his first job, delivering papers on bicycle for the Middlesboro Daily News. Like a proverbial postman, deliveries didn’t stop, come rain, sleet, or gloom of night.
“Back then we had big snows,” he remembered. “After a while, that snow would get caked under the bike. I had to push it to get back home. I’d be about froze.”
A short time later, Mike took his second job, delivering groceries. Although he wasn’t old enough to get a driver’s license, it failed to stop him from driving the delivery truck.
When Mike was 18, World War II was at its peak, and he knew how likely it was that his number was coming up.
“They were getting ready to [draft me] I think, so I went ahead and joined the Navy,” he stated.
Mike spent two years at sea. He visited the Philippines, Nagoya, Japan and landed at Pearl Harbor just after the war’s end.
“Some of those ships were still sticking out of the water,” he said of the sight at the harbor.
After returning home to Middlesboro, Mike worked for a cab company across the street from the Middlesboro Police Department. Well known and well-liked by the Chief and other officers, Mike decided to explore joining the force.
“I guess I was the youngest police officer ever hired. I had the job, but I wasn’t 21. I had to wait until I was 21 to be sworn in,” he commented.
As an officer, Ernie took on significant initiatives, including setting up a City School Safety Patrol. Mike met with student “officers” from all of Middlesboro’s seven schools once a week and worked with the kids and principals to keep the students in a peaceful environment.
While his occupation came with a lot of authority, Mike never abused his status.
“I gave out more warnings than tickets,” he asserted.
The most memorable of Ernie’s duties on the force was taking Richard Nixon, Vice President at the time, through Middlesboro and to the Pinnacle Overlook during the dedication of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Preparation for the event was extensive, and the Secret Service put him through a battery of driving tests.
“I had to go through two nights of briefings before he came in,” Mike remembered.
He still has the map of the route that he drove that day, July 4th of 1959.
In 1946, the young officer met Anna Ruth Irvin, a nursing student from Jonesville. At Evans Hospital, formerly located on the corner of Cumberland Avenue and 22nd Street, nurses were educated and lodged in the upper floors of the hospital.
“She had a guy, she was about ready to get hitched, I think,” said Mike of his lifelong love. “I watch him come out of the hospital...and I’d pull right in behind him.”
Ernie won the battle for Anna’s affections and the two were married June 4th of 1947. Within a few years two children, David Ernest and Lawanna Francine, completed the family.
Anna completed her nursing degree and spent 27 years in the field.
“She helped deliver a lot of babies in this town,” declared Ernie.
In 1960, Mike took on a new challenge. He was promoted to US Marshall and spent the next 20 years guarding and transporting prisoners. Some of his more colorful inmate also had roots in Italy.
Mafia informants required a lot of security, and as a Marshall, Ernie was assigned the unique task of guarding them.
“Where they were going to testify for the government, they put a price tag on their heads,” said Mike. “It was left up to us to keep them safe, so no one could get to them.”
After 32 years of working in law enforcement, Mike retired and began working as the Chief of Security for Great Western Coal of Harlan.
“I retired on Friday and went right back to work on Sunday,” Mike said of the transition.
After 12 years in security, Mike finally hung up his badge. Currently, he is living in the Middlesboro Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and fighting a different kind of battle; he is now taking on cancer.
He remains close to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and is always available to recount a great story.
Lorie Settles is a staff writer for the Middlesboro Daily News. She can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.