From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Ole Charley

I can still see him meandering down the long hill from the adult psychiatric ward to our cottage backyard where we took the children with autism out to play. His name was Charley, or “Charwee,” as he pronounced it. I saw him every day for three years, and he always approached me with, “Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” He would laugh, shake my hand and pat me on the head. “Hello, Joe!” was his childlike response, always with a hearty laugh and a warm smile . . . not to mention a wad of “bakker,” or Skoal, in his mouth minus a tooth or two.

Charley rarely missed our afternoon recess. He loved playing with the autistic kids . . . running and laughing, eating dirt, leaves and various other nonedible items. Charley loved those kids and they loved him, too. So did I. He was a gentle ol’ soul. He had been institutionalized for many years and he was mentally challenged; but that hearty laugh and smile were contagious.

However, one crisp autumn morn Charley ’bout cost me my job. My teacher’s aide was out sick, and I had no backup that morning; so I was left to fend for myself with four young autistic children, two of whom were not even toilet-trained. That morning was destined to be the longest four hours of my life.

By 8:30 A.M., the kids sensed the kill. Yes, they were in a state psychiatric hospital, but they were smart enough to know I could not handle all four of them by myself.

Why not pay me back for all those times . . . I was about to explode when suddenly a loud knock came from our side door.

“Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” After our usual exchange, Ole Charley, who rarely talked, whispered in my ear, “Got an itchin’ you was in trouble and thought you could use my help.” I stopped dead in my tracks, having never heard my friend utter much more than his name. Before I could question Charley, he was off, rubbing the kids’ heads and laughing that laugh.

Within minutes, the classroom went from “Let’s get him. . . .” to “Let’s show Charwee what we’re learning!” It was amazing! Charley had those kids eating out of the palm of his hand. So much so, that I decided to take a quick bathroom break, and . . .

I wasn’t gone forty-five seconds. I raced back into the classroom to find my boss, the CEO for children and youth services, and an institute administrator, “taking a tour of the outstanding program we have for autistic children.” My boss looked at me with eyes that cried out, “What in the world is going on here?”

“Yes, we met ‘Charwee,’” our CEO sternly replied as she looked at me with eyes that could kill.

It seems Charley and the crew couldn’t resist the combination of my absence and the old sink in our classroom, not to mention the four rolls of toilet paper and . . . It’s amazing what four autistic children and one jolly old man can do with a faucet, toilet paper and forty-five seconds.

“Is Charley one of ours or one of yours?” the institute administrator questioned.

“He’s a joint effort,” I quickly chimed in as Charley and the boys sheepishly sat down at the table.

“A what effort?” my boss muttered, perhaps wondering if I had been dipping into Charley’s Skoal can.

“I’m Joe’s classroom aide,” gleamed Charley. “We were conducting an experiment to see how the kids would respond in his absence.”

“Absence?” My boss was now dumbfounded.

“Bathroom break,” I sheepishly replied.

“Go poo poo!” yelled Donnie, the ringleader of the autistic crew.

“Good boy, Donnie!” hollered Charley as he grabbed Donnie’s hand and led him out the classroom door to the bathroom.

“A joint effort, huh,” the administrator sighed. “I wasn’t aware of such a thing. Dr. Biggs,” the administrator turned to our CEO, “looks like another one of your innovative ideas. You guys never cease to amaze me with what you can do with these kids.”

“Yeah . . . amazing,” my boss muttered under her breath.

Charley looked back at me with a gleam in his eye that was both haunting and heartwarming. He had almost buried me in one moment and saved my rear end in another.

“Conducting an experiment?” I questioned him. “I’m Joe’s teacher’s aide? Charley, you’ve never used big words like that before. What’s going on?”

“Hi, what’s your name?” he turned to me with that haunting gleam in his eye. “My name’s Charwee.”

At that moment it dawned on me I didn’t know this jolly old man even though I had spent countless hours with him on our playground. Where did he come from, and why was he here in a mental institution?

That afternoon, I visited Charley’s other world . . . his fourth-floor ward in one of the archaic adult psych buildings overlooking the sprawling acres and cottages below, where the children and youth programs were located. Behind an old, glassed-in nursing station reminiscent of One Flew over the Cuckoo ’s Nest, I read his chart. Charley was fifty-two years old. When Charley was twenty-six, his father had suddenly died and Charley, who was slightly retarded, was dropped off at the state hospital by his mom. She never came back to get him.

In the blink of an eye, Charley lost his family. In another blink of an eye, twenty-six years had gone by and Charley had not one visitor from the outside world . . . not one. Charley’s best friend was an old blind woman named Irene, who amidst the howls of patients who truly needed to be on the unit, sang “Amazing Grace” with clarity and grit. I can still hear her raspy yet heavenly voice belting out those chords above the helter-skelter sounds of that eerie ward.

And what about Ole Charley? Well, he continued to sneak off from his world and meander down to our autistic neighborhood. “Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” he would say and eagerly await my reply. “Hello, Joe!” he would laugh as he shook my hand and patted me on the head.

Ole Charley never used big words again around me. He kept things simple. And the kids . . . well, they didn’t care about Charley’s words. They simply loved his laughter and playfulness, his zest for dirt and toilet paper and old faucets and . . .

I would catch Charley watching me every now and then . . . that gleam in his eye, as if to say, “I saved your hide that day.” I knew that he knew.

Ole Charwee.

My teacher’s aide.

My loyal friend.

Joe Pritchard

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