When I first met Charlie Mitchell, he seemed bigger than life. He was larger than life. He’d look people in the eye, size them up in a wink, extend his hand in friendship, find out how things were going. He drove a big truck with a shit-howdy smile and hat, and everyone in town knew who he was. Charlie, after suffering from a massive stroke several years ago, died at his home in Cayucos, Calif., March 17, 2016. He was born in San Luis Obispo in May 1931 and grew up in Gorda, Cambria, and Cayucos. Dell Franklin and I caught up with him in early 2006, and sat with him at his home to talk about his life. We ran his story as a Rogue of the Month feature in the February 2006 edition of The Rogue Voice. This is what he told us.
A marvelously happy, unspoiled and uncomplicated man
Charlie Mitchell, septuagenarian, in Western shirt, cowboy boots, and Levis®, has more ants in his pants than a row of teenagers in baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts lollygagging at the seawall in Cayucos. Old School? Not Charlie. Change is inevitable, he says, but he deals with it, like it or not, keeping his attitude, as always, positive, cheerful, exuberant, and youthful.
Charlie Mitchell is a rowdy, unapologetically profane, ass-kicking, barn-dancing, hay-bucking, pigskin-hauling kid in a 74-year-old body that has escaped eight close calls with death (he was nearly electrocuted), undergone a knee replacement, and owns a gizzard that finally, after sixty years of hell-fire social imbibing, has put a stop to his drinking.
“I started out when I was around twelve,” he says. “Haven’t had a drink in a month now. The old pancreas brought me to my knees, and the Doc said, no more. What the hell, if I can’t do it, I ain’t gonna miss it. No use letting it get me down. Nobody had more fun than I did. I can still go out to the bars and jaw with the boys and dance and flirt with the girls. Hell yes, I can!” he shouts, almost lunging at me, slamming me on the shoulder to make his point. “Hell yes!”
Charlie started out in a little shack with his family in Gorda on the Big Sur coastline. At six, they moved to Cambria, in those days no more than a cow town. At Coast Union High School, Charlie starred in all sports, stood out as a phenom in football, and ran a hundred-yard dash in 9.7 seconds. The world record at the time was 9.4.
Charlie’s athletic prowess landed him at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. At that time, Bay Area colleges like USF, Santa Clara and Cal Berkeley were hotbeds for great football players. Charlie played with NFL legend John Henry Johnson, an All-Pro San Francisco 49er running back and one of the roughest characters on the field, and one of the wildest, most colorful off the field. Both men became fast friends.
“John Henry was a black man from Pittsburg. He liked to party—a fueler and a chaser, always wanted to take me to those black bars in Oakland, rough places. Well, hell, I wanted to go, but if Henry found a woman, which he was bound to do, and left me by myself, a white boy like me, in those days, I was liable to get my throat cut. So I stayed in. John Henry, he was about as mean as they came — you try and tackle him and he’d whack you good with forearm shiver, no straight arm. Helluva ball player.”
“Pro ball wasn’t a big deal in those days. Hell, it wasn’t like now, with TV and all, where they were after you to turn pro. I just played to play. I quit St. Mary’s and played JC ball. I got married to Iona at twenty and went in the Navy and played some service ball before they sent me over to Korea on a destroyer escort.
“No big deal. I was no hero. I was just like a lotta guys. But those escorts, they really got bounced around. The seas got pretty rough and if you didn’t have a strong stomach you were in big trouble. Some of them boys were sick all the time. I didn’t like the service, but it didn’t hurt me, either. I’m glad I served.”
From working odd jobs all over the county, and for his dad, mostly on farms and ranches around Cayucos and Cambria, Charlie earned the reputation as a kick-ass worker. Later, he honed his skills as a heavy equipment operator/engineer, running loaders, scrapers, blades, etc. He worked for Madonna and various companies and helped build most of the county roads. He ran heavy equipment for 40 years.
In between this time, in the hurly-burly days when Morro Bay was a major fishing harbor and a sort of last outpost secluded from civilized society in San Luis Obispo, Charlie bought the notorious Happy Jack’s Saloon, known by fishermen and roughnecks up and down the coast and throughout the Valley as a place to raise holy hell and engage in intense fisticuffs,
Having worked Happy Jack’s myself for eight years, I was interested in comparing notes with Charlie.
“Yeah, I had a few fights. Hell, you had to,” he says, shoulders straightening, eyes suddenly agleam, and he paces like a seasoned panther in his kitchen. “I had to park a few guys who got too fueled up and challenged me. I never looked for fights. But when you own a bar and work it, guys are gonna come after you just for the hell of it. Sooner or later you had to go outside with ‘em. That’s the way we did it—go outside and settle things. Well, this one guy, I think he was from the Valley, he kept pestering me, wanting to fight, and so we went outside, and I parked him pretty good, went back in the bar to wait on trade and have a drink, and he comes back in, not satisfied, so we went back out and this time I really parked him good, and he didn’t come back in, and one of his friends told everybody in the bar that you better not mess with ol’ Charlie. After that they pretty much left me alone. I loved that bar. Had more fun. Now my wife, Iona, she pretty much ran the bar. Did the bookkeepin’. Took care of everything. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do. Run a home. Run a business. Great wife and mother. Clear out a bar…”
“Kind of a pioneer woman, Charlie?”
He lunges at me, pounds my shoulder. “Damn right! Married fifty years to Iona. What a woman!”
“What was the lowest point in your life?”
“Losing Iona four years ago. A tough time. Hell, I miss her yet.”
“What was the highest point in your life?”
“Marryin’ Iona in 1952. She was my high school sweetheart. I think about her every day. But you gotta go on. I got a family and a ranch. I keep busy. We got forty, fifty cattle. I know a lotta people. You gotta keep living, and I aim to do so.”
“You’re known as a guy who likes to spice up his conversation with a little cussing…”
“Goddamn right! Now, when Iona was alive, she didn’t mind my cussing, but there were a couple words she wouldn’t let me say, and I tried not to say ‘em.”
“Local legend is, you could stand next to a bar and, with no run, leap up and land on the bar — a four-feet standing jump.”
“Goddamn right!” he smacks my shoulder. “I made more goddamn money jumping on bars. I made other people money. People from the coast and the Valley, they’d put up money that I couldn’t do it. I did it about ten years ago but I had to cheat a little, grabbing the bar. These days I can’t jump much more than a foot. That’s still a pretty good jump, considering I’ve had a knee replacement.”
He shrugs. “At this stage of the game, I gotta admit I can’t do things like I could. I can’t go parking a guy if he’s outta line. No more fueling. But I can still have a damn good time. I had a good time New Year’s Eve drinking straight soda.”
“Anything you missed out on in life?”
Charlie Mitchell roars through town in a shiny big pickup, wearing a cowboy hat, and a big smile. Lots of guys these days do the same, but most of it is show. Charlie’s the real thing, no drugstore cowboy. He is testimony to the kind of man who grew up with very little and made more than a lot out of his life. Though born into the Great Depression, he never considers it a big deal, just something that everybody dealt with. He thinks Cayucos and Cambria are too big these days and can’t stand driving to SLO. He was happiest when fishing and hunting in this area as a kid, when there was nothing, not even a freeway to link Cayucos with civilization. He was grateful for work, worked hard, and the hard work developed his already indestructible constitution and transformed him into a man’s man: a marvelously happy, unspoiled and uncomplicated man, who is possibly cagier than he puts on.
When you run into Charlie around town, he always shakes your hand right off, and if you’re not prepared, he might, without meaning to, break your hand with a grip that indicates inner adrenalin strength few men can match, whether they lift barbells or not.
“You a meat-eater, Charlie?”
“What if the Doc says no more meat?”
“Bullshit! He can go straight to hell. I eat meat every day. I LOVE meat. I’m goin’ down swingin’.” §
Graveside services were held for Charlie on Monday, March 21, at the Cayucos Cemetery. Dell Franklin continues to write from his home in Cayucos and posts original content at dellfranklin.com. Stacey Warde is publisher of TheRogueVoice.com