Uncle Charlie was the most exceptional man I’ve met in a lifetime. Nothing changed him, right up to the end in his 90’s.

Twenty years ago he was taking in the late November sun, thinking, “To be ejected from hospice does not happen often. But two evictions in two months from the same hospice center? Some kind of record.”

He hadn’t so much been ejected as encouraged to leave. Now as he sat in his silver wheelchair outside the Pasadena Hospice Center, he should have been figuring out what to do next. He was happy to be out. However, at that moment in the short life he had left, he just wanted to enjoy the warm California sun.

His spiritual advisors counseled: “Be at peace with each moment. Beware of your jabbering monkeys and clear your mind, zone out.”

Charlie’s moment was troubling: He was dying, out on the street and with no resources. But that was hardly a reason to dramatize the situation. Ever since he arrived in Southern California Charlie’s existence was mellow. From his first day in Los Angeles, it had always been about the sun. The warmth plus the brighter-tomorrow ambience became part of his DNA. He’d been happy to leave the West Virginia darkness and his coal-mine home. His job as an aeronautical engineer with NASA space jockeys only reinforced his sunny, can-do outlook. His situation on the sidewalk should have been crushing, but for Charlie this was a passing cloud on an otherwise sunny day.

When the hospice center first learned his condition was no longer terminal, they asked him to leave. Charlie signed himself out and simply wheeled out the door and down Fisher Avenue for six blocks. Then he u-turned and wheeled back again. By the time he returned, the night shift had come on and hardly noticed him reentering his old room.

The head nurse erupted the following morning. “You can’t just sneak into our hospice!” she yelled. “You reneged on our agreement. You think we’re a damn motel where you pop in and out for free drugs? You were discharged! You’ve no business being here!”

Charlie grinned at her.

Hospice centers don’t toss inmates out, but in Charlie’s case they had made an exception. When he first entered the Center, the prognosis was “ short term terminal.” With less than two months left it was a routine case.

But it didn’t work out that way. Three months passed, but Charlie did not. Hospice is supposed to be sedate, appreciative, and penitent. Charlie was not only still kicking- he seemed to be rallying and disruptive.

He became foulmouthed and barked at the nurses, “You can’t force me to take carnivore meals and quack medicine! That’s poison!” He confronted Margaret, the head administrator: “You don’t even try to honor my requests! I’m fed up with all of you animal eaters and I’m getting out of here!”

Margaret’s face brightened. She’d had enough and encouraged Charlie to seek other arrangements. The day for his first discharge came and Charlie assured the nurses someone would pick him up. He had lied. Margaret quickly regretted trusting him when she found Charlie’s grinning face back in his room that next morning.

Two months later came his second discharge and she took no chances. The taxi arrived at noon. Charlie’s son said he would take Dad in until the illness progressed further. Charlie was helped into the cab. Minutes later, the driver jammed on his brakes. After only four blocks the driver learned that the destination was bogus and there was going to be no payment or tip.

Charlie was out on the street again, with no money and no place to go: You might call that a jabbering monkey. But Charlie had spent his life being rejected by small-minded people. Had he been mentally retarded or insane, it would have been so much simpler for his friends and relatives. In truth, he was extraordinarily brilliant.

At 16 he was thrown out of high school but continued to studied on his own. A few years later, he had applied to MIT for a master’s degree program in The School of Engineering. He was not so much admitted,- more like he talked his way past the admission committee. Regardless of his registration standing, and despite the fact that he never graduated from high school or college, he was awarded an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering. Charlie’s sister Mary—my mother—explained:

“As a child, he was a wonderfully normal brother to me and my sister back in Wheeling. He played baseball, helped his dad with the household chores,- he was a normal brother. But then he studied calculus at MIT. It jumbled his brain and he never recovered. It got worse: He went to Southern California and there he went crazy with those fruits and nuts.”

But that was all in the distant past. What was indisputable now was that Charlie had cancer of the liver. His condition deteriorated, and he had gone to hospice. When it came to treatment and prescriptions, Charlie would agree to nothing. No chemo or traditional medicine. Instead, he embarked on his own medical regimen: Acidophilus bacillus. It’s an expensive yogurt Charlie had taken most of his life. When the doctors told him he was dying, my uncle eventually accepted a more aggressive treatment, but not what the doctors were recommending.

Charlie explained, “Acidophilus bacilli die when they pass through the stomach-acid bath. To get a stronger implantation in the intestines, it must come from the other end.”

That “other end” was what got him evicted from hospice. Nurses reluctantly agreed to the costly yogurt, but they drew the line at yogurt enemas. Everything went south from there. Charlie protested. “The center won’t provide me with my lifesaving treatment, ergo, they’re trying to kill me.” Confronted with slanderous homicide accusations, the nurses threatened to quit and the center quickly warmed to the idea of Charlie’s second departure.

As the afternoon shadows were drawing long on Foster Street, Charlie sat there on the sidewalk in his wheelchair. He was comfortable enough that he didn’t see any immediate problem. He had enjoyed a fine career, a loyal wife, and a vacation home in Waikiki. He had two fine boys who were doing well farther down the coast. He lived his unconventional lifestyle and relished the fact that he had been an embarrassment to his family. In turn, the family gave Charlie slack and kept their distance.

Charlie’s sons were good boys and he felt no need to trouble them now. They had offered to take him in, but he canceled their plans. So what was the meaning of it all he wondered? Had he somehow played his cards badly over the past ninety-one years? As a teen he had been destined to follow his father’s career as a local coal merchant in downtown Wheeling. Charlie’s dad enjoyed a reputation for old-fashioned rectitude all his life, and he wanted the same legacy for his children. But “rectitude” and “tradition” were never part of Charlie’s vocabulary. He dreamed dreams far beyond anything the coal business had to offer. He arrived in Southern California and never looked back.

There his disruptive, unconventional attitude was no embarrassment . Wild political ideas, nudist camps, and vegan health diets were tolerated and admired in his NASA community. During his forty years as an engineer at North American Rockwell, Rocketdyne Division, he had experienced nothing but growth and contribution. The NASA space program benefited greatly from his input.

The new company in Pasadena, Rocketdyne, secured a huge military grant and needed engineers. Charlie spent the next twenty years working on the engine for the Saturn 1B rockets carrying payloads into outer space. Then in his late seventies, he left Rocketdyne and retired to Hawaii. He formed a health food society, an exercise commune and continued as a new age radio announcer till the end of his life.

( How he got off the sidewalk that day in Pasadena is a mystery. Phone calls were made. His children were notified and Charlie spent his final days in the loving care of his family.)

Charlie is long gone now, but what remains is the memory of his unconventional, wacky, eccentric life. He had a unique viewpoint for everything. He would see me peel my oranges, toss out the rind. He would then furnish me with documents proving the rind was the most nutritious part of the fruit. “And those eggshells! Don’t you know the health benefits of ground-up eggshells you are tossing in the garbage?”

His time was the early 1950s, when space travel was beyond comprehension. We remember Charlie with nostalgia. He seemed to stand for simpler days of long ago, … maybe the Eisenhower Era when the country was comfortable, conformist, and conventional. That was “yesterday thinking” to Charlie. Worse than that it was  Wheeling! He was an eccentric blast of fresh SoCal wind. He was about excitement, the coming new thing, a futuristic world.

Categories: Humor

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