A Life Like a Norman Rockwell Painting
Memoir by Michael Usey
May 2, 2015
Ever heard of the mighty men of David? They were the OT version of the Avengers. They were known as the Gibborim and are described in 2 Sam 23. These mighty men of David were a group of David’s toughest military warriors who were credited with heroic feats.
This group included Josheb-basshebeth, who killed 800 men in one battle with a spear. Another was named Eleazar, who stayed on the battlefield when other warriors fled and killed Philistines until his hand was stuck clenched around his sword, and Abishai, the leader of the mighty men, who killed 300 men with a spear. Benaiah was known for going into a pit on a snowy day and subduing a lion, and for killing a powerful Egyptian with the guy’s own sword. He also served as leader of David’s bodyguards.
Within this group are three men who served as a special elite group called “The Three”: Josheb-basshebeth, Eleazar, and Shamma., who were stand-outs among the Gibborim. Although the mighty men are called “The Thirty,” a total of 37 are listed, so not all of these were on the team the entire time—again like the Avengers. Some of them, like Uriah, were killed in battle during David’s reign. Or maybe David’s elite group numbered approximately 30, a figure not meant to be exact. Some of these mighty men of David had considerable military skill. David’s Gibborim served a crucial role in protecting the king and fighting for the freedom of their nation.
I don’t think Charlie ever killed anyone with a spear (I bet he could have), but what he did do in his life seems to fit in well with the Gibborim. Driving a huge train–as the lead conductor. Fishing streams, lakes, and ocean all over the Southeast. Being aboard ship in the Navy during WW2. Playing to noteworthy acclaim all three high school sports of football, basketball, and baseball. Learning to be an honest-to-goodness pool shark. Playing baseball, semi-pro for a short while, then for the Navy, then on softball teams for both company and church. Growing giant German Johnson tomatoes and hot, hot peppers. Hunting for treasure all over NC. Collecting coins of all kinds. Dancing into the night with his lovely wife.
It occurred to me as I prepared this that Charlie’s life, sports, interests, and hobbies sound like they are right out a Norman Rockwell painting, or a 1940s issue of Boys’ Life. I’ve always loved the scenes and lifestyles Rockwell lovingly captured in his iconic scenes, and Charlie could well have been his poster child. A couple of weeks ago I said here that part of what I think we owe the world and our God is, if possible, finding a way to be happy in a carpe diem way. Charlie found lots of ways to be happy and live his life with gusto. He always called me Usey in the comfortable tradition of fraternizing athletes, which I liked—he made it sound like I was on a sports team with him—and when I visited he was usually happy and affable, if he wasn’t hurting.
Born in 1932, he was the 10th and last child born to his parents. He had six brothers and three sisters—Jack was the one he was closest to, and Jack was four years Charlie’s senior, and the brother who taught Charlie to love fishing by taking him to fish at the coast. Charlie was the last of the big family to die, his nine siblings going before him.
He went to Greensboro High, now Grimsley, class of 40, and there is a fantastic picture of him on the school team you should take a moment to find sometime. Remarkably, he was even good enough to be looking to play semi-pro baseball in a promising continued sports arc–when he had to go into the Navy, serving on the USS Pittsburgh CA-72, which was a Baltimore-class heavy cruiser commissioned late in the war, 1944, and serving in the Pacific theater in ‘45. It served in the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, before being damaged in a typhoon in June. He didn’t tell me much about what he did aboard ship, except the old standard Navy line: if it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t move, paint it. Charlie painted a lot, he said, and played baseball, if you can believe it. He made the All-Ships-Afloat team, playing outfield and pitching some. Not a bad way to spend one’s time in the military.
He and Darcie met in 1958, after being introduced to each other by a mutual friend at the telephone company where Darcie worked. They started dating, and were married November 11, 1961, at a Baptist preacher’s home—which I think is the center picture on the worship bulletin. Darcie said it was the first and last time she wore a hat.
I asked Darcie to give me three words to describe Charlie, from the person who knew him best. She gave me three readily; first, Charlie was friendly, had never met a stranger, and that people liked him. He got to know lots of people along the train track, where people always called him CW. He was congenial and could talk with anyone. Secondly, Charlie was loyal—to his wife, to his family and friends, to his church, to his sports teams, and to his God. Lastly—and this might not be a side most people saw of Charlie—he was loving and affectionate. He always kissed her hello and goodbye, and liked to hold her hand, and left her notes often.
One time they were angry with each other, and Charlie drove Darcie to work before he had to go. She slammed the car door when she got out. When she came home that night—one of the nights that Charlie had to work away—she found notes everywhere: on the TV, in the fridge, on her Pepsi cans, on her pillow, and even … on the toilet paper roll.
Charlie, being a train conductor—the supervisor of the freight train, not the ticket puncher, as his father has been—Charlie and Darcie loved to dance, but being on the Norfolk Southern line, he worked overnight all Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—working a six-day workweek.
Back in the day, Darcie fondly recalled, they could they’d go to Myrtle Beach with $20, stay the weekend, and come home with money. Later on, they bought a cottage on Baden Lake, a grand place to watch the geese, and fish, and watch the world go by. He and Darcie spent many a weekend day and night there.
He was a numismatic since he was young, loved to collect coins, and to share them. Not that many years ago, Charlie gave my Hannah a full set of the 50 states’ quarters, as well as a gold cross he’d found using his metal detector. The treasure hunting by detecting was a hobby that developed late in life, but he found all kinds of things, like class rings, earrings, keepsakes, false teeth, even a diamond ring of a half caret. He gave my two sons, Nate and Zach, a whole grip of cool rare coins when they were a bit younger. Charlie recognized that they were athletes who played for Grimsley High, as he had done many years earlier, and he connected with them on that aspect, and shared with them some of his sport stories. In fact, once when Charlie and Darcie were going to a reunion (I’m not sure if was high school or a business team he had played for), he decided he would wear his baseball uniform (minus the cleats) that he could still fit into (he was still very fit) and had worn 30 years earlier. So he did; Darcie was aghast, but the people at the reunion loved it, and the newspaper even featured Charlie in his still-fitting athletic uniform, so rare such a feat was.
Darcie kept the books and did the bills in their home. He never fussed at her about money, nor was he controlling about it, as some men were of his generation. Instead, he good-naturedly quipped, “We wouldn’t have anything if it weren’t for Darcie’s frugal nature.”
He was a city boy by birth, but Darcie’s country relatives loved him, and he was close with Darcie’s granddad especially. His people were all from down east, the flat sandy part of the state. That he could bond with his in-law family was a testimony to his affability and general goodwill.
I want it to be clear that Charlie’s death was sadly due to lung cancer from smoking. Anyone can contract lung cancer, whether they smoke or not, but smoking makes the chances for cancer increase exponentially. Like my Navy father, Charlie bought his death one pack at a time, which brought low this incredible athlete. So many of his generation smoked before the dangers were fully known, but now of course we know.
Charlie’s father made him work in the garden when he was a boy, and Charlie hated it, said he’d never garden himself—and when they moved into the house they bought, he’d say he had a garden, meaning the Kroger store in the shopping center behind their house. But, 25 years ago, he became his father’s son, and came full circle and became an excellent gardener, growing huge German Johnsons, all kinds of peppers, onions, and cucumbers. He grew so much in part because he loved to give it away, especially to many people in our church. Often in the late summer I’d find a huge bag of fresh veggies on my desk before a Sunday service. I will greatly miss those remarkable tomatoes in particular—all due to Charlie’s generosity. In later years his generosity manifested itself in that he loved to feed the animals in his backyard—the birds especially, cats, deer, whatever else.
Charlie was a good and solid man, who loved his life, his friends, his hobbies, his church, and his God. He was generous with his friends, and deeply comfortable with people. He was not scared to die, he told me, and I don’t believe he was. He might well have been able to play pro baseball based on his high school shining skills, but the war interrupted that moment for him—as wars have always interrupted lives. So he made the most of life’s humbler joys: working a cool and remarkable job, playing pool, gardening, fishing, and metal detecting until he could not physically do those things anymore. We were friends; we talked about sports and the Navy, where my father had also served. We shared a unique love for banana-flavored Yum-Yum’s ice cream, which not enough people appreciate, and which I will henceforth eat often in his honor and memory. He always welcomed me with a warm hello, and a vigorous shake of his huge paw of a hand, a good story, and a cold drink. I will miss Charlie, and, while I am sad to be burying a friend, I am grateful to God for his life and loves, and to have known this “man’s man,” who was so kind and gentle to those around him, whom he loved so very much—as we did him.