Can’t Kill Ole’ Cha-lee
“I knew Tina Turner when she was a prostitute!” he explained, out of the blue. I turned to my cousin and rolled my eyes as if to say, “Here we go again.” My grandfather was at it, once again.
“Yeah, I loaned her some money and told her to fix herself up. Look at her now!” pointing to the television. His stories were all like that. Too good to believe. Too impossible to be true. We believed him when he told us that he was Marine Corps Boxing Champ, 1952. We knew he had fought in Korea and we were quite certain that he took more than his share of shrapnel to the head!
We’d sit in the Florida room, watching Transformers after school when he’d make one of his entrances – “Once I was fight’n in Korea, things done got so bad we had to eat rats and roaches and…then each other, just to stay alive! You don’t want to go to war, son. No, sir!” We’d look at him, each other and back at the TV while laughing.
It must have been the sugar. That was our grandmother’s explanation for the crazy stories, told out of context or with no relation to the ones that preceeded or followed the others.
He’d sometimes drift from Vegas to Korea, and then to D.C. From war to boxing to how he’d like to have given that man more money, but it was his daughter’s birthday and he had to get some gifts. We’d look at each otehr and ask, “WHAT?!?!”
As kids, our grandmother’s explanation contributed little to our understanding of my grandfather’s mental health. My great-grandmother was more clear. “That’s Cha-lee Harris for ya!” and we agreed. We coped with him the only way smart-alecky kids knew how. We mocked him.
My mom asked how was school. “Yeah, the fifth grade done got so bad we had to eat rats and roaches, just to stay alive! You don’t want to go to school, mommy. No ma’am!” The whole car rocked with laughter and we repeated that inside joke for years.
It was certainly comforting to know that our grandfather “never was sick a day in [his] life.” This, of course, was contrary to what his heart and kidneys had to say on the matter.
It was almost a mistake that the doctors even gave him a prognosis. It only added to his bragging rights. “Doctors don’t know not’in. Told me I had six months to live…and that was in 1972! I said, ‘shit’ and I got out of that hospital bed and walked straight home. ‘Can’t kill ole’ Cha-lee!’ That’s what I told em.”
Charles Harris was my grandfather. My “granddaddy” was Frank V. Parks, Sr. He was a tall, college-educated man who knew three languages, read avidly and spoke very little. Charles Harris did none of these things. He believed in two absolutes: the power of GOD and duct tape, and one simple truth – You can’t kill ole’ Cha-lee.
But that didn’t matter too much. When my granddaddy died in 1978, he wasn’t dead. Everyone spoke about how God had “called him home” and finally he “passed over.” No, no one really died. And yes, you could be killed. Well, everyone except Cha-lee.
“Once a woman got so jealous of me, she came to my girlfriend’s house and shot me…FIVE TIMES! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!,” he’d say while pointing out five different points of entry on his body. “And I got three bullets still in me, too!”
“Riiiiiiiiight. Whatever you say, Cha-lee.”
He was the only adult we kids could call by his first name. Even our continued mockery wasn’t considered disrespectful, either, because who could believe the things he said? Not parents, aunts, uncles or anybody.
“Three bullets, huh?” my dad smiled and asked.
“Hee-hee! You don’t believe ole’ Cha-lee, do ya, son? Well, that’s okay, too.” He’d say, as if he already knew he didn’t have long to convince us.
Even when the doctors told us that his kidneys were so damaged by uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes and whatever Cha-lee believed going to Korea did to them, he didn’t admit, openly, that his time had grown short. “Oh, yeah? Well, that’s what they told me…in 1972!” So we all went home.
His routine changed little. At the crack of dawn, he was running the neighborhood streets. The whole house would be called to wake by the sound of him banging a medicine ball on his bare stomach. By breakfast time, he’d already mixed his favorite drink: milk, eggs and onion. He’d offer everyone some and laugh as we recoiled in disgust. Later, he’d call down to the gym to talk to the young boxers about coming by the house for the day’s training and the big fight coming up. And in the afternoon, he’d take the younger cousins to McDonald’s and remind us that “they serve hot dogs in California, but not in Florida. Can you believe that?!?!?!” And one day, he was dead.
The doctors explained to us how if his kidneys hadn’t failed, his heart would have, sooner or later. And his backaches were from prostate cancer. And did we know he had three bullets in his abdomen? No, but we knew exactly where they could be found.
Later came letters of condolence. Some from the neighborhood and Bethel. Some from old Marines, who knew him from Korea. Then came a letter from a former U.S. Senator, soon followed by a lengthy letter from Muhammad Ali.
All we could do was laugh and roll our eyes. For two things were certain: ole’ Cha-lee was more alive to us than ever and Tina Turner owed him some money.