Friday, August 26, 2011
My Cousin Charlie
My mama had a cousin named Wanda who had a son by the name of Charles Jr. known as just plain Charlie to us cousins. Now cousin Charlie didn’t fall far from the tree, so-to-speak, and was as colorful, if not more so, than his infamous mom. As scatter brained as Wanda was Charlie was just the male version of his mother. When Charlie was about 17 years old his mother asked him to go to the store to get a loaf of bread. Somewhere on route to the store Charlie decided to keep going. He ended up 200 miles west at the Oklahoma City airport where he sat and watched planes take off and land for two days. On the third day he headed back home but without the bread. The crazy thing about this is his parents were never alarmed because, “Well, that’s just Charlie.”
Charlie is the oldest of 3 kids. He has two younger sisters Judy and Karen. Charlie’s dad was a career Marine who spent most of WWII in a Japanese prison camp. Big Charlie was a tough taskmaster and my dad once said that he wasn’t the only one in the Marine Corp. His whole family was as well. Big Charlie served in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. Those years of battle and captivity made him tough but he was especially hard on his only son. Little Charlie could never seem to live up to his father’s expectations. And the fact that he marched to a different drummer made it all the more complicated. Neither of them understood the other and there was tension between them their whole lives.
Charlie’s home town had a population of about 10,000 so when he came to Norman to attend the University of Oklahoma, with a student population twice the size of his home town, you would expect it to be quite the culture shock. Not for Charlie. He was oblivious to his surroundings and he had a system of enrolling that I had never seen then or since. As we walked the campus Charlie would point to a building and ask, “What do they teach in there?” After hearing my response he would reply, “Well, I like that building, I think I’ll just take some of that.” And so it went. We had no idea if he would every get a degree but 4 years later he graduated with a degree in physical education. That fact may say more about the academic standards of the University than Charlie’s intelligence.
After Charlie finished school he enlisted in the Marine Corp. following his father’s footsteps and possibly hoping to finally receive his approval. He served one tour of duty and immediately re-enlisted for a second. After two years in Viet Nam we woke up one morning to find Charlie asleep on the floor in my brother’s room. Charlie had tapped on Mike’s window in the middle of the night and crawled through and slept at the foot of Mike’s bed. The next morning the family was surprised when Charlie strolled in the kitchen and sat down at the table for breakfast. Surprised my dad asked, “When did you get home Charlie?”
“How are your mom and dad? I’m sure they are happy to have you home.”
“I don’t know how they are, I haven’t been home yet.”
Right then my dad handed Charlie the phone and said, “Son, call your folks and let them know you are safe and then we’re going to put your butt on a bus for home.”
Two years in Viet Nam and the first place he comes to was my brother’s bedroom window. Go figure!
I remember the story Charlie’s mom Wanda would tell about the time the Marine Corp transferred Big Charlie to Hawaii. The entire family went by ship to the island. Charles Jr. and Judy were just 8 and 9 years old at the time but they were so mischievous they had the run of the ship. They had noticed that every evening people would put their shoes outside their cabin doors so the Porter could pick them up to be shined and then returned the next morning. One evening Judy and Charlie decided for some reason to gather all the shoes left out on the ship. I’m not sure what they planned to do with them, perhaps they were going to start their own shoe shine business. By the time Big Charlie discovered what they were doing there was no way to return them to their rightful owners because the kids couldn’t remember what shoes went to what room. After notifying the Captain of the situation a room was set up on board the ship where rows of shoes lined the assembled tables and all passengers missing shoes were invited to come and look for them. Charlie and Judy had to stand sentry by the shoes and apologize to each and every passenger who came by.