I wish Charlie were here.
Charlie Speights was one of my oldest and dearest friends for more than half a century. He passed away in June at the age of 88.
He’s exactly the guy I’d go to for insightful commentary during crazy times such as these, although we did have several occasions to discuss the whole Donald Trump deal before he departed. Charlie couldn’t believe such a thing as Trump was happening. Not in America.
I first met Charlie in January of 1964 when I arrived in Flint for my 7-midnight DJ shift on WTAC. He had played trumpet as a young man with a horn back in the late 1940s when he was still in his early 20s, working with such notables as Ray Anthony, Claude Thornhill, and Jimmy Dorsey. After he married and settled down in Flint, Charlie looked for “the next best thing to a real job” - deciding a radio career perfectly fit the bill.
Charlie was WTAC’s vice president and general manager when I arrived on the scene, but was always much more coach than boss. I never heard him raise his voice in anger. He was very active expressing progressive thinking, sharing his perspectives with weekly editorials over WTAC’s powerful signal throughout much of Michigan and surrounding states.
When George McGovern visited Flint in 1972 as he ran for president, it was Charlie who introduced Senator McGovern before a cheering crowd of autoworkers - at that time enjoying the enviable distinction of being highest paid factory workers in the history of the world.
When I wanted to introduce “Radio Free Flint” with locally controversial Michael Moore into WTAC’s Sunday morning programming, Charlie not only provided permission, but happily and expertly ran extended interference for us against more conservative elements in the community, particularly General Motors.
He left broadcasting in 1974 and headed for Las Vegas, where he paid his union hall dues and returned to show business, spending a number of years back on trumpet, playing behind all sorts of major stars at all the big casinos.
Charlie is very much on my mind as I write this column early Saturday afternoon. Election 2016 is still three days away, but I’m taking a break and heading down to Palm Desert. There’s a special “Remembrance Celebration of Life” being held in Charlie’s memory on Sunday, put on by his friends at Desert Falls Country Club, where they’ve already installed a permanent commemorative plaque in his honor.
He was that rare sort of a guy - earning that kind of lasting respect without even trying. I wouldn’t miss Charlie’s party for all the tea in the Tea Party.
When this week’s paper is published, Nov. 10, it will be 10 years to the day since Eileen and I arrived in Oakhurst.
We drove across the country from Michigan to California in a 22-foot Penske Rental Truck containing all of our earthly belongings, including two cats and a cockatiel named Clancy. Every few hours Charlie would call from his condo in Palm Desert as he tracked our journey west with pins on a map. He was glad we were finally moving closer.
We visited Charlie and his wonderful wife, Toby Meyers Speights, a number of times in subsequent years, including an extended stay with them at Incline Village on Lake Tahoe, where Charlie and Toby had rented a house over the 4th of July weekend in 2008. Charlie was in his 80th year, but was still running all over the place. I could barely keep up. We brought this cool German Shepherd named “Captain Mike” several beers at a cowboy hang out in Truckee. “Captain Mike” put his great big doggie feet right up on the bar and lapped those suds out of a giant glass ashtray filled to the brim with bubbly Bud Light. It was cool.
Charlie always said he really didn’t miss radio at all. He felt the whole business and, in fact, much of what seems important in life at any given point is ultimately just “snow on the water.” He always felt everyone should just slow down, relax and enjoy the ride. He’d say, “What, me hurry?”
There’s no doubt in my mind that “snow on the water” is how Charlie would summarize this last year and a half of national political insanity.
The phrase is from an Incredible String Band song called “Big Ted.”
“Big Ted’s dead and gone. Gone like snow on the water. Goodbye.”
Election 2016? Goodbye.
More on Charlie? Visit petercavanaugh.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/charlie/.