We all know someone who is a ‘goodtime Charlie’, lord knows I’ve met a few in my seventy five years on this earth. The genre is always the same, little boys who never grew up and who have little prospect to do so. I think some psychologist wrote a book called the Peter Pan Syndrome and the upshot is that there is always a ‘Wendy’ around to cater to their needs of continuing boyhood, someone to sew their shadows on their feet. But the story is always the same, contains the same elements, and sadly the same ending. As the song says, some got to win and some got to lose, Goodtime Charlie got the blues.
Names change but there seems to be a tendency towards those named Bubba, Bobby Lee, or even Beau. Don’t ask me for some definitive research on the subject, I go strictly on experience of past associations. Bob was somewhat handsome as looks go. Perhaps it was that was gifted with that certain ‘cuteness’ women find so attractive and he was a bit of a ‘bad boy’ too boot. We worked together in the factory, I spot welded the seams and then he did the seam welding, simple semi-skilled work. The factory was cold in the winter and hot in the summer while the wages were minimum, the union took theirs off the top. All I could afford was a room at the “Y” and a six pack of beer on the weekend. When you’re new in town their isn’t much to do and Bob was the only “friend” I had. Don’t ask me how he did it, but he was often hanging around downtown, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober. Kay was his wife and and she took care of the year old baby while working as a hair dresser. Blonde, thin, and pretty, she had that gift of laughter that gave sparkle in the eyes, made you feel at ease.
The factory closed down for two weeks of retooling and the two of us were left without pay, hard to make ends meet. But Uncle Sam caught up with me and I was destined to spend a hot summer in boot camp. Bob had been medically discharged from the Army after a few months and had almost no veterans benefits to speak of, so he was stuck in a rut. Still, the man had charm and knew how to use it, one can only marvel at his luck. I left what possessions I had with him and his wife, said I would be back later to collect them when I was settled at my next assignment after basic and they saw me off at the bus stop. Well, that was the plan, I expected to spend a couple of years at some Army camp doing what ever soldiers do except it didn’t happen that way at all. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise!” and I was off to Vietnam.
Kay wrote a few times, mostly about the generalities of living but not much about her husband. I figured they might be having problems being that they were both young and low wage earners. Bob and I had both tried to get hire on at the GM plant, the money was about four times better than what we were making, but you had to know someone in the union and neither of us did. I assumed that Bob was still working at the factory. True, we had talked about going to L.A. before I was drafted, Kay wasn’t keen to go, she wanted to stay close to her family, I think she knew what lay ahead.
Averages mean something and after nine months “in country” I found myself with the average wound in a hospital in Saigon waiting to be returned back to the forward camp. No Medivac Flight back to Travis and a stateside Army hospital, I didn’t qualify. Of course it took almost two months for Kay’s last letter to reach me, it wasn’t good news but it wasn’t exactly bad either. Bob had taken off for California on some sort of promise of the good life where the grass is always greener. Yeah, the grass is always greener somewhere else and I knew he would find something he didn’t have in Ohio, a new girl friend for instance. I wrote a couple more times but she never answered. Nine months later I was released from active service and headed back to that city. Kay and the baby had moved back in with her family, she didn’t want to see me and her father had harsh words about Bob. He just dumped my box of belongings at my feet and closed the door.
It might have ended then for there was nothing for me left in that city save for that chance occurrence in the diner I used to frequent. Linda was on duty waiting on tables, said her husband was coming home next month and asked how I’d been and did I hear the latest. What was the latest, I asked, not knowing what or who she meant. “Bob, of course,” she informed me. Her husband, Jack, was stationed at March, the SAC base, and ran into Bob in out there. “Bob was cutting grass on the base at the time, you know, a contractor, sort of, and Jack just happened to notice him one day near his barracks.” My reply was, “I didn’t now your husband had ever met Bob.” “Oh he did, just that one time in the café. Jack thought Bob was paying too much attention to me and I was sure those two boys would come to blows, but I cooled Jack down and Bob left immediately.” “Does Kay know where Bob is?” Linda just looked at me, then stared out the window before speaking. “She does, she knows everything. He’s got a new wife, just didn’t bother to divorce Kay. And a new baby girl, can you imagine that?”
A few year later fortune would smile upon me with a job working for the for the telephone company as a lineman in Riverside, a growing metropolitan area east of Los Angles. It was a good job where I had the promise of a future, working outside, and being with a crew of men who liked their work and did it well. We worked hard during the week so we could have our Friday afternoon steak fry with one of the local PG&E power crews. The foreman gathered the cash from us and went to the store to buy the steaks and beer. Men get to talking, swapping stories on diverse subjects, places we’d been, people we knew, and maybe a bit about our service lives, nothing too personal. A new man on the electric line crew wanted to know how I came to end up in the Army. So I told a little story about working in a factory and my buddy Bob worked beside me and stuff in general. Then the guy said, “I knew a Bob Garth, he was from your area, worked mowing grass at the base. He was in a car crash in Moreno Valley, hit an overpass abutment. County coroner rules it a suicide. Paper said he left two wives and a couple of kids. Did you know him?” Everyone was looking at me and all I had to give them was silence. “Only for a couple of months, not long enough to really know the man.” Another can of beer changed the subject.