He was a race car driver in the 1920s and there are boxes of black and white pictures with him standing next to some of the early pioneers of auto racing like the Chevrolet brothers and Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Murphy. How did a kid from Kentucky get into auto racing at such venues as Indianapolis’s famous Brick Yards? I don’t know. Why did he quit? I don’t know. Somehow I knew even as a small child that you didn’t ask. Nice people don't pry.
The Charlie I knew was a sweet, gentle man who didn’t seem to have a lot to say. He would come home from lunch from his job as a mid-level engineer with the Kentucky State Highway Department and have a shot of whiskey with his hot lunch my step-grandmother made for him every day. You didn't actually see Charlie drink but as I got older I noticed that the bottle of whiskey on top of the the ice box on the enclosed the back porch would gradually be less and less full until suddenly a new bottle appeared. I remember that if no one was looking my sister and I would sniff the empty shot glass next to the bottle and the sweet acrid smell of whiskey both delighted and repelled us as it burned our nostrils.
During dinner he made solo trips to the back porch and spent the rest of the evening semi-asleep on the couch as friends and relatives chatted away around him in the living room. That’s what adults did in the early 60s in the South, talk politely about everything and nothing while puffing on their favorite brands of Kentucky's finest tobacco. My sister and I, the perfectly behaved children of people who don't pry, sat there on display under threats not to squirm in the heavy blue haze of smoke and avoidance in that living room.
Occasionally Charlie would suddenly ask a question or make a sly comment.
“Chaaaarlie”, my mother Pug would declare in her soft Southern accent, “You’re playing ‘Possum’!”
In my family we didn’t have drunks. We had people who played “Possum.”
After the first round of mouth and throat cancer they pulled out his teeth and cut out part of his jaw. He ate soup the rest of his life. Campbell's bean soup for the next 20 years and two more operations for cancer. Bean soup along with the secret shots of whiskey, cigarrettes and playing “possum” on the couch.
Many years after Charlie mercifully finally passed away my mother died suddenly from the undiscovered lung cancer that had spread to her brain. Pug rapidly regressed and went from her first signs of symptoms to her death in 19 days, two days after what would have been my parent's 47th anniversary. I knew that after watching her father slowly die of cancer that contracting cancer was her greatest fear. We didn't talk about it of course. Or ask.
Two years after mother's death, a historian was referred to my father, Herb Sr from a relative. The historian was writing a book about the early attempts to make Owensboro Kentucky, my grandfathers hometown, the new center of aviation manufacturing.
He showed us the yellowing newspaper clippings that described how my grandfather had taken up flying and had designed a new wing for airplanes. He and his business partner had grand plans to open a plant to build airplanes in Owensboro based upon Charlie's new wing technology.
In the late 20s, seeing a plane was still a rare thing in small towns and the entire town of Owensboro turned out for the first test flight. My grandfather's partner piloted the plane and as he slowly circled the town, one wing broke apart and the plane crashed onto Frederica Street, a street lined with grand homes and the street my grandfather grew up on, killing the partner and his passenger.
We had no additional information to offer. Herb Sr. said he had heard my mother mention this once or twice but he didn't recall many details. We didn't ask a lot of questions. Uncomfortable silence. The visibly disappointed historian gave me copy of the newspaper articles and I think they are in my filing cabinet today. I don't know for sure, I never looked at them again. Maybe tomorrow. Possums still live on my family's couches.