Before he went off to war, Charlie McDaniel dreamed of the college degree that would surely catapult him beyond the textile mills, pine forests and limited horizons of this snoozing, southern town of 35,000.
As one of the first black students to integrate all-white Rock Hill High School in the late 1960s, he had toughed out jeers and spitballs. He was determined to become a lawyer.
A black grandson of sharecroppers, McDaniel had white collar dreams.
Those dreams died 10 days ago when McDaniel was stabbed to death in Washington, D.C., on the A-2 Metrobus. But it was not just the randomness of the killing that makes McDaniel's passing a story of the times.
It is the fact that the dreams of this disabled veteran has been eight years in the dying. He had been psychologically wounded, like thousands of other Americans during the nightmare of Vietnam.
Charlie McDaniel did not flinch when he received greetings from Uncle Sam on that warm spring day in 1971. His father, Charles McDaniel Sr., 59, a $15,000-a-year pipefitter for the city gas company here, just could not afford to underwrite four years at North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, not with four daughters to support and bills to pay.
So Charlie figured he would fight a war and later, the GI bill would pay for the dream. The dream had been deferred before.
"Looks like you're gonna have to go," said his father.
And off he went -- to boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C., where he learned how to fire a mortar. He admired his black drill instructor with the Smokey the Bear hat. "He stands tall," Charles wrote his family. "I like that."
"He was always concerned about standing tall," said a sister. And off he went to Vietnam.
"If you make good, you can go to school after that," encouraged his father.
"I'll make it," said Charlie.
Like most soldiers, Sgt. McDaniel thought the fighting would be over the day he came home and sank his combat boots into the rich red clay of Rock Hill. He figured wrong.
For McDaniel -- and the 96,000 Vietnam veterans still receiving tax-free disability checks, because their reality was permanetly and irretrievably altered during their time in service -- the war raged on.
Those 96,000 mentally impaired veterans represent 18 percent of the 537,000 Vietnam veterns receiving disability for a range of service-connected infirmaties, about the same rate as in World War II and Korea. About 9,000 Vietnam veterans remain hospitalized for psychiatric reasons today.
Traumatic experiences in war have always made some soldiers snap. "The population of our psychiatric hospitals is certainly evidence of that," said Dr. Donald Custis, the Navy's former surgeon general and now chief medical director of the Veterans Administration. "Everyone has his breaking point, but the severity of the [traumatic] insult in terms of stress is a relative thing."
Of the three million men who served in Vietnam, 51,000 died; 270,00 were wounded.
"No doubt about it, war is stress-provoking," said a Veterans Administration spokesman. "Though the rate of psychiatric disability among veterans is the same as among nonveternas, you'll see more veterans being treated . . . because care is available and free."
As for Charlie McDaniel, he had never been the same since he departed from Vietnam that summer of 1972, say family and friends. After a nearly one year tour slogging through rice paddies half a world away from home, he entered the psychiatric unit of Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. For the last eight years he was in and out of hospitals.
He'd get better, but he'd always get sick again," said one sister, Vita McDaniel, 27, of Oxon Hill. "It was always Vietnam."
"I hated the war, but I hated it even more becaue of the way it affected him," said childhood friend Charles Williamson, 25, a radiation control officer at the Catawba Nuclear Power Plant down the road. "It shocked me when he came back from Vietnam."
Charlie wrote his sister from Vietnam. He wrote his friends. He said he spent the only free time he had writing letters. He was lonely. He couldn't wait to get home and go to college.
He wrote Gloria Dye, 32, a sister. He said, "I'm just shooting and shooting and I know I'm killing somebody, and I can't stand it,'" said Dye, a teacher's aide in the York County public schools.
"After he got home, I remember thinking, 'Thank God, he's home safe.' I burned his letters. They were so sad."
"He wrote me and said, 'It's hell over here,' but I didn't know what he meant until he got back," said Larry Hart, 29, a close friend who grew up across the street from the McDaniels' modest white frame house with green trim on the windows and a "No Trespassing" sign on an oak tree in the yard.
Once back, he got moody, irritable. He suffered hullucinations. He imagined strangers were trying to hurt him. He complained of stomach pains, pains in his neck. He felt a pressure on the top of his head that kept his eyes from seeing level. It frightened him.
He told the psychiatrists: "I don't want to go back to Vietnam."
Sometimes he would be carrying on a conversation, normal as can be, then he'd dive behind a couch screaming for others to take cover. He'd dance about the room, karate-chopping the air, or firing an imaginary M-16 to his own chorus of explosions.
One night, during a visit home, he rapped on the window of a friend, Lester Walker, 26, a Rock Hill fireman. Charlie was shivering and wet to the bone. He'd gone on maneuvers down in the creek. Walter dried him off and put him to bed.
Once, he attempted suicide.
When not visiting home, he lived just outside Washington in a dingy Oxon Hill apartment, comfortable on his $889-a-month tax-free disability check. He worked sporadically for his uncle's D.C. janitorial service between stints in the hospital. He kept mostly to himself.
Childhood friends noted sadly that he was no longer the bright, cheerful boy who used to revel in the camaraderie of the Flint Hill Falcons, the neighborhood baseball team (he played second base, batted number two) or take comfort in the kinship of his family.
"He still had the war on his mind," said Larry Hart, a mixer at the Mobay Chemical plant here. He learned to deal with Charlie's outbursts long ago. Friends nicknamed Charlie, "Pig."
"Aw, Pig, cut that out," he'd chide gently, and McDaniel would "calm down right away, smoke a cigarette, We'd talk or take a walk.
But he wasn't violent; there was no violence in him at all."
Friends in Rock Creek were shocked by last week's news: McDaniel, stabbed to death in Washington after attacking Barbara Williams, 23, a short, plump black woman on her way to work.
It was 8:04 a.m. and Williams, a Hart Junior High School guidance aide, was waiting for the A-2 Metrobus at Ninth and Bellvue SE, her umbrella and novel ("The Stand," by Stephen King) in hand.
McDaniel was waiting, too, his designation St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, where he had spent considerable time as a patient. He made the trip nearly every day -- to see friends -- even when he didn't have an appointment with his therapist, said his uncle.
They were strangers to one another, although both lived nearby -- Williams in a basement apartment in the 4000 block of Ninth Street; McDaniel, five blocks away in a one bedroom walk-down he'd leased for $215-a-month in the shabby, sprawling Southview complex just across the Distrct line in Prince George's County, where a small child armed with a BB gun had recently been terrorizing tenants.
The A-2 whines and coughs through some of the meanest streets in town, zigzagging 11 miles about Southeast Washington and winding up downtown at the National Archives.
Even though they had likely shared the bus before. Williams later told police she had never seen McDaniel up until that morning.
"CALL ME GENERAL! CALL ME GENERAL!" McDaniel was shouting from a parking lot near the bus stop.She later told police McDaniel was beating and kicking another man. Williams turned the corner and waited for the bus. She felt raindrops and put up her umbrella.
"I hate people who put up their umbrella when it's not raining," McDaniel told her.
He followed her onto the bus along with the man he'd been kicking. He cursed her, threatened to hit her, she later said. Frightened, she fumbled in her purse for a pocketknife, just in case . . .
He "was talking crazy," she said. Then he spat in her face and smacked her on her lip. She gripped the knife and swung it . . . He slumped into a a seat, eyeing her lazily, his head resting against the window. The bus halted at 200 Atlantic Street SE and passengers scampered off. Williams' lip was bleeding; her face was puffy and bruised. She was crying.
McDaniel staggered down the steps, collapsed and died in the gutter.
"I didn't mean to kill him," said a shaken Williams. "I was scared. I just wanted to get him off of me. It's really frightening to think I killed someone."
Williams was arrested, but the charges were dropped. Prosecutors said she had appeared to act in self-defense; a grand jury is investigating the stabbing.
Police carted the body to the morgue, labeled it "John Doe." The dead man carried no identification. For three days, no one claimed Charlie McDaniel.
"I just don't believe he did what he done," said his uncle, Miller McDaniel, 44, a Northeast Washington maintenance contractor who had hired Charlie to buff floors part time. "He'd never do anything like that -- unless he was harassed or didn't know what he was doing. He just wasn't that type of person."
Indeed, Rock Hill remembers two Charlie McDaniels -- one before the war, one after.
Exactly what happened to the soldier in between -- what he saw or what he did that rendered him 100 percent disabled in the eyes of the Veterans Administration -- remains locked away forever now.
All his friends know is this: somewhere along the way Charlie McDaniel lost his dream.
Miller McDaniel turned on the 11 p.m. news that Tuesday night, Jan. 22. Television newscasters were heralding the bus stabbing as the crime of the day -- the first actual knifing death on a D.C. Metrobus. Miller McDaniel shrugged it off as another bit of inner-city nastiness and went to bed.
"I didn't think about it," he said.
Nor was he concerned about Charlie. He'd spent Saturday with his nephew, driving him to a cleaning job on Sixth Street SE. Charlie ran the upright vacuum and, later, pushed the grocery cart when they stopped at the Safeway.
He seemed just fine. The jack-knifing emotions that had jerked him in and out of St. Elizabeths had made it impossible for Charlie to hold a job. But he relished working part time with the uncle who had watched over him between hospital stays -- before Charlie got his own apartment two years back.
After the cleaning job, Miller McDaniel drove Charlie to his beige brick home at 203 Rhode Island Ave. NE for a late lunch of hot dogs and beer. Then he drove his nephew back to Southview, where he kept his apartment neat as a pin.
"He was no slouch," said Miller McDaniel. "It was always in tip-top shape."
In the car, Charlie was chattering about the Superbowl. He liked the Rams. They bet $5. No points.
"You change your mind, call me in the morning," said his uncle.
Charlie lost his bet. On Monday morning he phoned his uncle. He was headed for St. E's, he said. They usaully spoke at least once a week, his uncle figured they'd talk later.
On Thursday, two days after the bus stabbing, John Smothers a psychologist at St. Elizabeths, phoned to tell Miller McDaniel of a rumor floating about the hospital: the victim might be Charlie. D.C. homicide detectives would be calling.
Could Miller McDaniel drop by the morgue Friday at D.C. General? asked a detective.
"Sure," he said. "I thought I was just doing them a favor. I didn't hear from him every day, so I wasn't worried. I wasn't bothered about going there.
It was Charlie.
After 14 months at Walter Reed, Charlie McDaniel was transferred across town to the Veterans Administration Hospital on Irving Street. His principal symptoms: hallucinations. Doctors classified his condition as paranoid schizophrenic; he was discharged from the Army.
He spent six months on his own before he was hospitalized at St. Elizabeths in early 1974. He stayed one year. He got out for nine months. In late 1975, he went back to St. Elizabeths. He tried working on the outside, but he got nervous; he stuttered. He talked to himself. He was afraid. Once on a pass from the hospital, he slashed his wrists.
In December 1977, he rented a modest apartment in the 1,406-unit Southview complex. His uncle helped him fill out the questionnaire. He tacked a few pinups to the wall, threw a piece of carpet on the kitchen floor, plugged in his stereo. It wouldn't have been much for Charlie McDaniel, the dreamer, but for the disabled Charlie McDaniel, it was something.
He spent most nights in his basement apartment, at the end of a dimly lit hall in the six-story building. He watched a lot of television in the last month -- someone had stolen his stereo.
He smoked Trues, drawing the cigarette halfway down in one drag. Sometimes, he smoked a pack in 30 minutes. He shied away from drugs. He drank Schlitz malt liquor, quart bottles.
"He was a very quiet person, except when he'd been drinking," said Adrian Robinson, 20, a nightclub disc jockey who had been staying with him for six weeks. "Then he acted crazy."
He rarely cooked, preferring submarine sandwiches and chitterlings at Jake's carryout on Southern Avenue. He passed the time playing pool; he liked to bowl.
Residents and employees at the Southview remember two sides of Charlie McDaniel. One, the quiet, polite tenant who always paid his rent on time and rarely complained, even when his sliding door came off the track and the stove pilot light went out; the other, a veteran tormented by his experiences in Vietnam.
They say he was regularly known to have outbursts, to experience delusions, but he was never known to have actually hurt anyone.
Periodically, "he'd hear a sound down the hall. He'd say, 'Don't move,' run down the hall, kick the door a few times, return and say, 'You can move now,' recalled Robinson.
"If he thought he heard somebody at the door, he'd go and start kicking it. He'd thought he was a high command officer or Secret Service agent. He'd pull out his little black wallet it didn't have any identification or anything -- tell you he was holding you under suspicion.
'Don't move,' he'd say, I could kill you and I don't need nothing to do it.'"
In his letters home, he asked about the baseball team. He was homesick. "He wanted to come back to Rock Hill," said a sister, but he didn't want his friends to know how (sick) he was. He was embarrassed."
People were attracted to Charlie -- he had a regular check and he was generous to a fault, once he considered you a friend. In his generosity, he sometimes came up short, and had to borrow a few dollars from his uncle. But he always paid it back.
His rent was paid up when his uncle turned in the keys last Monday and carted off the furniture. "He didn't owe anybody a dime," said Miller McDaniel.
Charles McDaniel first came to Washington in 1970 to work his way through Federal City College. He had been working part time for his uncle and going to school -- keeping alive the dream -- when he was drafted.
After graduating from Rock Hill High School in 1968, McDaniel hung around the house, helped his father with the patch of kale and collards out back, fed the white pit bull and worked odd jobs. The elder McDaniel was happy to have him at home.
They were close, especially since the divorce 20 years back when he had hugged the five children together and raised them alone, poor but proud. He suggested Charles enroll at Friendship Junior College in town. But, as a 10th grader at Rock Hill, the boy had been regularly helping an older sister, a Friendship freshman, with her homework. He would wait until he could pay his own way to a four-year college, he said. Always, there was the dream.
He rode the bus to Washington.
After all, he hadn't braved all-white Rock Hill High school for nothing. He'd not only risked ostracism by friends at Emmett Scott, the black school, to reap the advantages of better teachers and a brighter future at Rock Hill. But he'd weathered racial taunts, too.
Once, in a snowball fight, several dozen white boys ganged up on Charles and seven blacks. A barrage of snowballs whizzed past his ear. "If one hits me, I'm going to smack one in the face," he told Robert Toatley, a friend.
The next one caught McDaniel square in the head. He was smaller than the others, but he didn't hesitate. He scooped up snow into a ball marched alone across the playground and whomped the snowball smack into the face of the enemy. Adversaries stared slack-jawed in disbelief, as Charles spun on his heel and marched back to his friends. His battles had just begun.
"He was a tough little fella," said Charles Williamson. "You could always depend on him when things got tight."
"You couldn't be bothered about what people said to you," recalled a former classmate, Evelyn Boykin, 28, a Thiel College graduate and speech therapisit for the Rock Hill School District. "You had to be quietly outspoken. We were alienated from the black students at Emmett Scott and the white students at Rock Hill.
"Charles kept us going. He was good for morale.
"It was hard trying to keep up with the white students, but Charles never seemed to have that problem."
When the older McDaniel first saw his son after Vietnam, he knew something had happened. A former World War II combat engineer with the 354th Engineering Service Regiment in France and Germany -- "we built the bridges and then swam across" -- he had seen men snap in another war, another time.
He'd spent his share of nights in a foxhole dodging machine-gun bullets. Once, two men in his outfit ran screaming into the night, after an enemy plane cut the legs out from under their bunks. They were found wading in a creek after roll call.
"I've seen some fellas who'd been up front go into spasms trying to shoot at something when there was nothing to shoot at," said McDaniel. "So when Charles came home and had a commotion, I knew what his problem was -- I'd been there. He went through the motions of guys I'd seen go through the motions. I seen a whole lot of that.
"It hurt me so bad because I knew what he was. It hurt me to know that a good person with personality and brains got disrupted for Vietnam -- and it wasn't his fault!"
"He just wanted to use his own brain and do something for himself. He could have been anything he wanted to be if it hadn't been for Vietnam."
And the short, sturdy black man with the salt and pepper curls slipped off the Naugahyde hassock in the living room and went about the task of putting on his black funeral clothes.
"Excuse me," he said, choking back tears. "I'm trying to keep myself together, but I'm all tore up."
Charles made his last visit home to Rock Hill on Jan. 1, his father's birthday. Only his sisters knew he was coming. It was a surprise.He rode all night and rapped on the door at 4 a.m. The old man woke with a start.
"Speak up or I'll blow the door down!" shouted the elder McDaniel.
"Aw, Daddy, open the door," said Charles. "What you doin', sleeping on your birthday?"
He gave his father a bear hug. He squeezed him hard.His father could feel him trembling. He got out of bed and fixed his son a hamburger, some greens, rice and a salad.
The next morning, he cooked his boy eggs, bacon and dried pear preserves. Charlie wanted grits with butter. His father cooked him grits.
"How about some homemade biscuits, Daddy?" But the best his father could do was Hungry Jack from a can. Charles soaked them with molasses.
He came home for the last time in a plain wood box last week ($121, (C.O.D.), arriving in York County, S.C. at Robinson Funeral Home on Hampton Street, one of five black funeral parlors here. And John Ramseur, 44, the manager, who handled about 15 funerals for black York County Vietnam Veterans during the course of the war, set about the task of triming McDaniel's goatee.
He was among 3,000 young men York County called up for greater glory in Vietnam. About one-third of those were black, and you will find many of those veterans -- black and white -- working long hours side by side in the mills, or cruising in Chevy pickups up and down Rock Hill's neon strip, past the Piggley Wiggley Grocery, Stars and Stripes Blue Jeans, Big Daddy's Tacos and O'Connor's Mobil Homes. Some pass the evening here, 23 miles south of Charlotte, N.C., at the American Legion Post, retelling war stories -- white veterans at one hall, black veterans at another. Others choose to forget the wars.
Of the 11,450 veterans in York County, many have tested their mettle in combat, said Earl B. Gregory, 61, York County's Veterans Administration affairs officer. Some are downright nervous, he said. "I feel like all combat veterans are nervous. Seems like they all want to get something off their minds and just can't get to it."
They dressed him in a natty,chocolate brown three-piece suit with a brown and white polka dot tie. They placed a yellow carnation in his lapel. He was displayed in the chapel inside a bright gold and bronze sealer casket draped with an American flag and flanked by plastic red carnations and styrofoam bibles.
Gentle sobbing wafted up from the front row and mingled with the scent of delicate purfumes; bowed heads and Sunday finery.
"He was an honest and clean-cut young man, before his nerves were wrecked in the service," the Rev. Robert Toatley, a family friend told the 250 mourners. They already knew that. "We considered him 'Exhibit A' -- a perfect gentlemen.
"The question comes back again and again: why? Why? Why has this happened? We live in the presence of mystery . . ."
Charles McDaniel Jr., 29, was buried here on a bone-chilling Thursday afternoon in muddy, windswept Grand View Cemetery, beside Theodore P. Dalakis (1897-1974), a stranger and veteran from another war.
John Ramseur, the funeral director, stood ramrod straight, rolled up the flag and handed it to McDaniel's father, compliments of the president: "On behalf of the president of the United States, I present you this flag as a token rememberance of the services rendered by your son during his tour with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam conflict.
"May God bless you and your family."