(Story contributed by my best friend—the late Jerry Daniels) How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these. (George Washington Carver)
In our small community lived a drunk by the name of Charlie, a skinny little man with a huge balloon belly; a person we enjoyed tormenting. We asked him the same stupid question over and over, “Hey Charlie, when’s the baby due? Who’s the father?” His left leg was stiff; and somehow he managed to walk by leaning to the far right until his left foot came off the ground; then he would swing his hip, causing the unbending left leg to go forward. “Hey Charlie,” we taunted, “want to dance?” His worn and tattered face made him appear much older than his years. The vivid scar that started at the bottom of his right cheek formed a Y shape under his eye, adding years to his life. His voice was raspy; part human and part frog.
My dad was killed in Korea and it became my responsibility to help mom on Saturdays at the family restaurant; that was also the day I had to be nice to Charlie. He made it a practice of coming to our back door and yelling, “Miss Edna, can I clean your garbage cans for a hamburger?” It was my unhappy duty to prepare Charlie’s meal.
One day some friends and I decided to go into Charlie’s shack, rearrange his furniture and watch the crippled drunk stumble around. While moving his dresser, I found a thin rectangular box, containing four military medals. I thought, “Not only is Charlie a drunk; he is a grotesque thief; a pathetic loser who had the audacity to steal metals from an American patriot.” Suddenly, his loud gritty voice erupted in the room; I had no chance to get away because he was standing directly in front of me. Charlie snatched the medals from my hand and yelled, “Get out of my house!” Instead of obeying, I looked into his eyes and asked, “Why did you steal those medals?” An expression of pain swept over his leathery face. “Is it beyond your ability,” he declared, “to believe that I may have once lived a different life?” “Charlie,” I asked, “what war were you in? What do those medals stand for? My dad was a war hero.” “I knew your father,” the soldier said, “he was a good man.” Then he said to me, “You know son, my toughest battle has been at home; what I experienced on the battlefield is nothing compared to what I have experienced here.”
The next day was Saturday and as usual Charlie showed up. This time I met him at the door with a hot meal. “Charlie,” I said with a smile, I’m not sure how it happened but those cans cleaned themselves.” He sat down on an empty crate and began eating; as he sat there I’m almost sure that I saw a tear in his eye. I turned to walk away. “Hey boy,” he said in that raspy voice that any blues singer would have been proud to own, “I’ll see you next week.”