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A Trust Reserved for God and Very Few Others

April 15, 1993|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

"Charlie is kind of, well, different. He can't hear and he can't talk. He won't get within 20 feet of another person because he has allergies. He lives alone in a trailer, raises birds, has two pet roosters and takes care of the property. We communicate by writing notes back and forth. He's allergic to estrogen, so he stays really far away from women. He's a good guy, though. He went through some bad things in Vietnam."

The speaker of these words was a friend of mine named Frank. His subject was the groundskeeper/security man at the Alpine Rod and Gun Club. The Alpine Rod and Gun Club is a place I'd frequented as a boy but had not seen for 20 years.

Frank is one of the founding and still active members. We were in his truck. It was springtime, and the purpose of our visit was to shoot some clay targets and check out the countryside during this particularly lovely time of year.

"Like what?" I asked.

"He got machine-gunned by the Vietnamese. They threw him on the body wagon with the rest of the dead soldiers, but later they saw him breathing. So they took him prisoner, cleaned him up a little and waited for him to die. He didn't.

"The first time he escaped, they caught him and beat in his head with the butt of a carbine. He couldn't hear after that. The second time he escaped they caught him and beat his head with a gun butt again. After that, he couldn't talk. They stopped feeding him. The third time he got away he lived in the jungle for a month or so, eating beetles, roaches, whatever he could catch. He actually gained weight, 'cause the Vietnamese had starved him down to about 95 pounds by then."

"Frank, ah, what happened next?"

"He ran into an American patrol. After he was back in the States it was hospitals, operations, physical and mental therapy. Then alcohol and drugs, and a car wreck the doctors said should have killed him. Tough for Charlie to hold a job, so we put him up out here in one of the trailers, pay him a little salary and he takes care of the place. Been here a couple of years. Like I said, he's a good guy. Real religious. Just don't, well, press him. And don't let your dog near his roosters."

We got there. It was wonderful to see the old dirt road, the same creaking gate, the familiar scrubby cattle land, the old trailers and clubhouse. It had changed far less than I had. The air was cool at this elevation, and the sky met the hills in a contrasting jolt of blue and green. The ferric earth was a deep red, and profoundly rutted by the winter rain.

While I stayed in the cab of the truck, and my Labrador, Cassius, waited in the bed, Frank walked over to Charlie's trailer. Much to my surprise, Charlie shook Frank's hand. Charlie signaled that I was close enough. He smiled, nodded, looked down. He was average height, heavy in the middle, wearing jeans, boots, a flannel shirt and a baseball cap that said "Alpine God and Gun Club" on it. He had one of those big beards like the ZZ Top guys.

Two roosters stood beside him, one huge and white, the other a black bantam. For a while, Frank talked and Charlie answered from an expressive palette of looks and gestures.

Frank came back to the truck. "He'll throw some targets for us."

"I thought he wouldn't get close to anyone."

"I'm the only one he ever shakes hands with, that I've seen."

"Why you?"

"Trusts me, I guess. The thing with Charlie is he comes to you; you don't go to him."

At precisely this moment, Cassius launched himself from the pickup bed and careened after Charlie's bantam. The bird exploded with speed and feathers, scooting around the club-house corner, shrieking while the dog's teeth snapped inches short of his tail. Charlie waved his big arms and loped after them. Frank and I sprinted. I yelled for my allegedly obedient bird dog to come, which he did not, instead achieving about Mach 3 before Frank stopped him with a flying tackle.

After screaming at Cassius (he bore an expression of unrepentant glee during his "punishment") and offering my tongue-tied and entirely inadequate apologies, Frank and I took our shotguns out to the trap field while Charlie went down to the trap house to load the machine. He returned a while later wearing a cap that said "Jesus Loves Me" on the crown.

From varying distances, we shot 10 regulation rounds of trap--25 clay birds each round. Frank, who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Shooting Team some years ago, managed a couple of perfect rounds. He told me a story about hustling some good money from shooters on a cruise ship. The best I could get was 21, missing four of the easy straightaways that so often confound me. After that we goofed off from different angles, and from distances that soon became ridiculous. Frank shot down a bird at 80 yards and I gave up.

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