It’s his favorite question, and he asks it with charmingly sincere curiosity.
That is why, if you see him and proclaim your love for him, he will ask you, “Why?”
At that exact moment, you possibly could develop countless reasons – he’s an icon, a mascot, a protector, the perpetual grand marshal, a survivor, a free spirit, a gentle soul, a bodyguard, a legend, and a tradition.
Some, however, choose to believe his impact on the “Friendly City” is a negative one. These people say they see an unkempt man with an overgrown beard, longer-than-usual finger nails, a menacing flashlight, a beat-up bike, and a rough appearance. They also question others’ fascination with him. One person, several years ago, even took a shot at him in the Warwood section of Wheeling.
“That didn’t scare me. It wasn’t even close,” he said with a smile. “Won’t go back there, though.”
What IS Charles “MoonDog” Waldrum to this city of nearly 30,000 residents? His friends believe he is the last pure, innocent soul in Wheeling, W.Va.
“I have never seen him hesitate to give a kid his leftover change to buy a piece of candy or a bag of chips,” said Jessica Yost, the daughter of the owner of the 16th Street Convenient Store in East Wheeling. “He always lends a hand at my dad’s store and never asks for anything in return.”
Jessica’s husband, Jeff, is also a former employee of the store and is currently battling cancer. “Charles, as he so eloquently says it every time I see him, is like a brother to me. He asks me every time he sees me how I’m feeling through all of my treatments and stuff,” he said. “He’s a great man, and he takes pride in his city and the citizens of it.”
Now, who IS he? That is a completely different story.
Waldrum is not homeless. He was born in Wheeling – one of 11 children – and raised in East Wheeling. The 56-year-old shaves twice a year, but never down to his bare face. He did not graduate from high school and has never held down a regular job. He lives in East Wheeling and has a record as a juvenile fire-setter, but he has not been suspected in a single fire investigation over the last four decades.
He pays his rent with the monthly Social Security check he has received since his father died more than 30 years ago. He has suffered his own health issues, too, yet he donates to charitable causes in which he believes.
And he does not like his nickname.
“They started calling me, ‘Moondog’ a long time ago,” Waldrum said, “because I go out at night a lot.
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“I go out at night because it’s cooler. That’s why,” he explained. “But I ain’t no dog. I look for stuff that ain’t right. I try to help because there are some bad people in this world.”
Former Wheeling fire chief Steve Johnston served as a firefighter for more than 30 years before his retirement in 2009, and he knows Waldrum better than most. “He looks homeless, but he’s not,” he explained. “People may think he’s a bad person, but he’s not a bad person. He looks the way he looks because that’s the way he wants to look, and he helps the (fire) department and the police when he sees something.
“His appearance allows people to think that he’s living on the streets or that he’s not mentally well. It’s hard to explain Charles – he’s not a genius who has decided to live this kind of life, but he’s also not helpless either. He does what he does because that’s what he wants to do, and you see what you see because that’s what he wants you to see. His bike tells a lot of his story.”
Although he assists others, there have been local citizens who have committed crimes against him. Most often, they involve that signature bicycle. “Someone stole my bike in July near Dairy Queen,” Waldrum said. “I reported it, but the police never find them when someone steals them.
“I think they throw them in the creek, and that’s stupid. That’s a waste,” he continued. “I don’t like those people, and I don’t like the people who call me names.”
Bum. Loser. Moron. Fool. Freak. Idiot. Scumbag. Weirdo. Retard. He says he’s been called that, “dirty n-word,” too.
“I don’t care what they call me. They don’t know me,” Waldrum said. “When they call me the ‘n-word,’ they’re being racist. Doesn’t matter who says it. They’re a racist.
“They hate … don’t know why,” Waldrum said. “They must hate themselves, too.”
Charles Waldrum roams many more neighborhoods than his native East Wheeling, and he also visits several cities, towns and villages during the course of each year. Last year alone he appeared in Christmas parades in Ohio, Marshall and Belmont counties, and he’s consistently met with smiles, waves and applause.
How does he get to each event?
“Ride my bike,” he explained. “Those places aren’t too far for me – even in the snow. The worst is going up and down that hill (along U.S. 40 near Blaine, Ohio). It’s hard going up it and it’s cold coming down.”
But does he own a clue as to how most folks feel about him in Wheeling? Or that several people have created fake Facebook pages and Twitter accounts using the nickname he loathes? Or that many have purchased his “Meet Me in the Alley” portrait from Wheeling photographer Bennett McKinley?
“There is a difference between the person and the (Moondog) character,” Johnston said. “But I don’t think he cares if people recognize him as any more than the guy on the bike with all the flags.”
So he doesn’t care the masses see him as iconic?
“Don’t even know what that means,” Waldrum admitted. “I’m me. Charles. That’s who I am.”