J. Y. SMITH, The Washington Post's obituary editor, and I had agreed that, since I was probably the only person on the staff who had ever interviewed Charlie Smith (no relation to J.Y.), I would write the final story on the man's life, which at that point had spanned 135 years.
Charlie was in intensive care after doctors had taken his gangrenous right leg (doctors have a habit of getting one out of this life in bits and pieces, the way they did John Wayne), and, although it is a grievous professional sin to allow any celebrity over 100 to exist without a prepared obituary, we had none and planned none, knowing that it could be written at the moment.
Well, Charlie died over a weekend last October, at the age of 137, and both J.Y. Smith and I were snuggled into our lawnmowers and martinis, and The Post ran a wire story about Charlie's death. He died 15 years, almost to the day, from the day I met him, from natural causes. He wore out. a
And the fact that he died without my mentioning it has gnawed at me since.
Charlie Smith had been billed as the oldest living American man. And in October 1964 I was stringing for one of the crudest of the yellow tabloids -- Midnight, published in Canada -- with my home base in Miami. Midnight decided it would like to have a first-person story by America's oldest man, telling what it is like.
Well, I had planned a trip to Ft. Myers, on the Gulf Coast, to pick up a story and pictures about a man who had scalded his baby to death, and so I decided to swing up through Bartow, where Charlie ran a little store with nothing in it except pictures of the Beatles and Dr. Pepper. At the time Charlie was 121.
The way it worked was that such interviews were arranged through the regional office of the Social Security Administration, which wheeled Charlie out like that plaster horse they display in Haymarket, or the Plains or whatever hamlet on Route 55 out in Virginia, and the regional director was only to happy to meet me in Lakeland and take me up to meet Charlie.
It was like watching a cicada shell sitting on a tree limb out in the woods: nothing except a transparent bodyless shell with little feet clutching at the bark of the tree, the rest gone elsewhere. Anywhere.
The Social Security people predicated their being on the existence of people like Charlie Smith, who, after all, had worked in the citrus groves until well after the age of 110. Then he retired, Social Security took over and we were all together again.
Charlie told me the old stories: his youth; his enslavement; how he was lured aboard the slavers' ship by a "fritter tree" guaranteed to grow in abundance in the new world; his sale in New Orleans to a man named Captain Smith, whence the surname, and the fact that he became 21 on the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, the day he became a free man as well as a man.
I wrote it all down, and it occurred to me then as it occurs to me now that he was not telling of memories, but memories of memories of memories, a condensation of thought process that eliminates all the extraneous and lets us oversimplify all that Carl Jung was trying to tell us. (Jung was born 29 years later than was Charlie Smith.)
I paid Charlie $30 for his release for the first-person account. For writing it I received $100 and mileage. For the scalded baby story I got $100.
Now, a litany of a few of the things that occurred between the time I met Charlie Smith and his death:
The earthen dam at Philadelphia, Miss.; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; the first Soviet spacewalk; Selma; Lyndon Johnson's Dominican war; Watts; the first New York power blackout; Rhodesian Independence; Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper; the holocaust of Apollo I; the six-day war; the censure of Tom Dodd; the Pentagon protests of the Vietnam war; the Vietnam war itself; Christiaan Barnard and his heart transplants; the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the ensuing riots; the police riot during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the loss of the nuclear submarine Scorpion with 99 aboard; the election of Richard M. Nixon; Abe Fortas and Chappaquiddick; the first man on the moon; Charles Manson and Helter-Skelter; Kent State; a Peruvian earthquake with 50,000 dead; the Pentagon Papers, Attica, Mylai and Watergate.
All of this took up about 8 percent of Charlie Smith's life.
And when we parted, he squeezed my hand in both of his and said, "God bless you."
He had to die with a smile on his face.