No matter how hard I try again this year, Charles Waldrum won’t have ham with all the fixings for Easter dinner, and I’m guessing that will be all right with him because his 2016 thus far has truly sucked.
After finishing last year in familiar fashion – appearing in as many local Christmas parades as he could possibly pedal to – and January and February proving generally kind weather-wise with cold-but-seldom-frigid temperatures and only a few snows accumulating more than a dusting, one could believe his life to be easy-peasy as of late.
But the Wheeling man you likely know more familiarly as “Moondog” has experienced much loss in the month of March. His sister, Charlotte, died at age 59 on March 14, and then his brother, Larry, passed away at 61 three days later. The Waldrum family learned of Larry’s death while awaiting his arrival at his sister’s funeral service, and only after a couple of concerned friends walked to his house did they discover his death.
“That’s where I found out about him,” the 57-year-old Charles said. “Bad. Maybe I’m next.”
I met Charles first when I was in college after hearing about him during my high school years in Wheeling. The legend was that there was this black man who always rode a bike and mostly at night; some said he was homeless; some said he was mean and violent; and others said he was some kind of creature that should be avoided at all costs.
“The only people who say those things are people who do not know him,” said Don Atkinson, a Wheeling city councilman who has worked the overnight shift for Ace Garage for nearly three decades. “If you do know Charlie, then you know he’s a good person, and I know him because I’ve always seen him all over Wheeling when something is going on.
“Over the years he used to show up at a lot of the car accidents that I’d get called for, and he always helped with the cleanup of the debris,” he continued. “I remember one night when I saw him at an accident in downtown, and an hour or two later there he was in Elm Grove at another wreck. If you saw his legs like I have, you’d swear they are Hershel Walker’s.”
I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again: He hates the damn nickname. “Moondog,” he says, came from punks he once despised.
Yeah, his nails are long, he doesn’t change his clothes much, and he rides a bike to see what he sees. Yet he sees a lot.
“People on those cell phones. They’re going to kill people like one almost killed me. Almost ran me over,” Charles told me. “Those people on those drugs. Making themselves stupid, that’s all. Or they die.”
A resident of East Wheeling, he’s not homeless as I’ve told you before. He’s got a home with furniture and a kitchen, and he helps others to find their own, and it doesn’t matter what color or creed or whatever.
He’ll help you.
“That’s all I’ve ever seen him be is helpful,” Atkinson said. “If I see him at the Convenient on 16th or at the 7/11 on Market or down by the post office in Centre Wheeling, I always say, ‘Hey Charlie,’ and he always replies, ‘How are you Mr. Ace?’
“If he sees me, he’ll give me a flash of his flashlight, and I always answer by flashing the yellow lights on the wrecker,” he said. “I guess it’s our thing.”
This Wheeling icon does not look welcoming, and that’s on purpose, if you must know. If he doesn’t know you, he may shy away unless you engage him with something other than, “Hey! You’re Moondog!” When you do that, you can expect one of two things – silence, or a reply like, “You don’t know me.”
And he means every word. Few people actually know Charles, one of 11 children raised by the late Charles and Marnie; who was once accused of being an arsonist but was cleared of all charges; who has assisted the city’s police and fire departments simply by reporting what he’s witnessed during his late-night bicycle cruises; and who has escorted-from-a-distance females walking home from work in the dark.
“They don’t know how to fight off those goofs,” he told me. “But I do.”
Charles Waldrum is my friend, you see. We wave, and we talk; he asks if I’m OK, and I make sure he is, too; he watches my house, and I see him doing so sometimes, and it gives me peace; and Charles is an ally, and not a single one of the disparaging references that have been sent his way is accurate.
He’s not stupid, he’s not homeless, and he’s not dangerous unless snow covers the parking lot of the 16th Street Convenient Mart. Then, those flakes don’t stand a chance.
“You’re my friend, Steve Novotney,” Charles said after I asked him if it was true. “You’re good. Not like some of these people.”
And when Mr. Waldrum makes those kinds of judgments, he does so using zero prejudice other than favoring good people over bad people. He has long disliked drug dealers, prostitutes, and wife beaters, but he’s also critical of the children who he says are following in their parents’ footsteps.
“Young teenage girls shouldn’t have babies,” Charles said. “Selling drugs on the corners like their daddies did? That’s stupid. You go to jail for that.
“Kids think they’re tough with those guns. Guns aren’t tough. They don’t make people tough,” he blurted, “but those boys think they do, and they’re wrong.”
Charles seemed to recognize me when he entered the Capitol Theatre lobby one day while I was hosting a cash-raiser for the victims of Hurricane Katrina soon after the storm struck the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and former congressional members Bob Ney and Alan Mollohan contributed $500 each during the broadcast. Then in walked Charles, and the whispers by those behind those brass doors echoed, “What’s Moondog doing here?”
Well, he was there to contribute.
“For those people,” Charles said to me as he handed a white envelope. “They need it more than me.”
Once he left the lobby, I opened it and there were three one dollar bills.
“That’s the man he is, I’m telling you. That story doesn’t surprise me at all,” Atkinson said. “He’s good people.”
What You May Not Know
He knows how to fall asleep while sitting on his bike, and yet he still appears to be alert and on patrol.
“So what? When I sleep is no one’s business.”
He hears what you say, and if he didn’t wave back it’s because he didn’t appreciate what you may have yelled in his direction.
“People can be mean, man.”
When he does stop pedaling, he does so only in areas where he can trust people.
“I have a lot of friends everywhere.”
He wears the firefighter’s jackets no matter what the temperature is.
“They gave it to me, and it keeps me safe.”
Charles travels far fewer bicycle miles these days.
“I’m getting’ old, man. I hate old.”
When his bike is stolen by, what he calls, “haters,” people are still quick – including me – to purchase new wheels for him.
“I love those people, but one of them had those round handlebars and those swing around and hit me sometimes in my stuff.”
The owners of the Wheeling Brewing Company are soon to purchase him a new bike in appreciation for permitting them to use his nickname for their “Moondog” IPA.
“I don’t drink that beer. Don’t need it like some do, but those people are real nice.”
His favorite food?
“I like wings but not that hot shit. You can keep those to yourself.”
His favorite question?
“Because I want to know.”
“Whatever I want to know.”
Can he read?
“I can read what I need to read, but books and stuff are for people like you.”
“You have a job. You gotta read.”
Can he count?
“I know you ask a lot of questions.”
Do you have one of the bobbleheads the Wheeling Nailers distributed at the game a few years ago?
“No one gave me one.”
Do you want one?
“Why would I?”
He was born in 1958 and has never lived anywhere but in East Wheeling.
“Don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Ever go on vacation?
He’s had a year so far that could make many crumble in sorrow and sadness, and though he is aware of the grief felt by his surviving siblings and friends of the family, Charles still is capable of separating those emotions from being Wheeling’s rambling man.
“Don’t want to think about that stuff.”
And then I told my friend Charles that I would pray for him and his family, and he shot back immediately, “Pray for them, not me.”
“Don’t need it. I got God.”
And then Charles touched his heart.
(Photos by Steve Novotney)
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