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Charly's Story ~ One Light at a Time

posted Nov 29, 2013, 3:35 PM by Judd Hadley   [ updated Dec 1, 2013, 9:04 AM ]
Charly Johnson..... Bio Stats

Had a 9th grade education and read voraciously.... not many subjects he didn't have some knowledge of.

He was 15 in 1943... Born  1928.

Died summer of 2009 aged 81, at the Cal Vet home.

Retired late 1970's on disability.

Shot in knee 196? aged early 30's by another drunken sailor. Resulted in a severe limp

Married a long beach bartender 1968 (age 40) "Peggy" about 10 years older than him (she was in her early 50's.... she died about 2003 and was in her late 80's They never had any kids.

His earliest recollections in life was his drunken father beating his mother...

Grew up on a farm in Southern Minnesota. (his story, though I suspect he was a city kid)

Remembered the Great Depression and no shoes.

Hated snow!

Ran away from home ....  left on a freight train and headed west in winter of '43.... Arrived San Pedro, CA and lived on streets doing odd jobs till he lied about his age and got on a ship as a Cabin Boy.

Cleaned sailors bunk room, head, helped the cook and did dishes, washed clothes,  did whatever the captain wanted.

Lied about his age again and joined the merchant marines.

Worked ships between pacific islands and LA till 1947.... then Panama Canal and South America till he retired (disability) as Third Mate (1970's)

Moved to the Mojave Desert with his wife Peg and bought a small 4 room homestead cabin.

Had lost his drivers license and hitchhiked everywhere (or walked) by the time I met him. Everyone knew him and would stop and give him a ride wherever he needed to go.

I met him in summer 2004 when I picked him up hitchhiking. A very grizzled, tired, old man with a severe limp and macular degeneration, but strong as an OX. His face had several deep scars he said were from steel cables that snapped while securing deck freight when he was in the Merchant Marines.

In 2005 he got a new steel knee compliments of VA.

Neighbors remember him as the guy who was always there to help.... cut firewood, clear brush, paint an outbuilding, help pull a well, watch the kids till the parents got home from work.... feed the dog and pick up the mail if you were gone.... and haul away your trash back when he could drive.....

We were sitting outside one afternoon when 2 young men in dark pants and white shirts with name tags drove up and began a short conversation with Charly and eventually ended with one of them asking him if he feared God.... Charly said no, he didn't fear god at all since he knew him quite well. He then paused and added, I only fear 'rattlesnakes, drunken sailors, and religious zealots'..... they got back in their car and drove away. Charly's bad knee was from being shot by a drunken sailor. He had gotten bitten by a rattlesnake some years before. But I'm not sure why he feared religious zealots.....

He would often say..... I consider myself an experienced judge of 'fine wines and fast women'... 'neither of which should cost more than 2 bucks'...... when women or children were present he would modify the expression and say .... an 'expert on fine wine and haircuts'... 'neither of which should cost more than 2 bucks'.

No one could mention any seaport anywhere in the world without Charly piping in.... yeah, I remember when I was there in 19XX...... and then some story about the location.

His 3 great pleasures were wine, reading, and his radio. He tended to listen to talk radio and classical music but would read almost any book that came his way... from trashy romance novels to owners manuals.

Though he didn't drive when I met him, the last three cars he did drive were behind the house.... a 60's ford pickup, an 80's dodge sedan, and his last car an early 70's ford ltd with no paint left.... the sun and sand had scraped it to bare metal. None of them ran and the tires were all flat and drifting sand had begun to almost completely cover the dodge.

His house (Shack) were last painted probably 20 yrs past. There was a lot of bare sandblasted wood showing. He had hit and knocked loose the front most post on the carport so the roof dipped about a foot lower at that corner. The carport had a "roll roof" which was ripped and pieces of it had blown away exposing a layer of older roll roofing of a different color underneath.... it leaked during the infrequent rains. And Yes..... it was a "Shack".


In September of 2005 he got the VA doctors to give him a new knee. This required he go to San Diego to the Naval Hospital for the surgery. Then on to a nursing home to recover and physical rehab since he had lost his wife and lived by himself. I had only known him for a year but had given him my phone # and he called me to ask if I would pick him up in San Diego when he got released in a week. I barely knew him but agreed as he sounded quite desperate. This was an all day ordeal as San Diego is 5 Hours from where I live and then 6 hours from there back to Charly's house.

When we arrived at his house there was plywood covering the front windows and the insides had been ransacked plus there was a 10 foot tall pile of scrap lumber in the front yard. Someone had nailed all the doors shut. So I called the sheriffs office on my cell phone and was informed one of the neighbors had reported the vandalism and burglary but no one knew how to contact Charly. Seems he had told the neighbors he would only be gone a few days and when he didn't return they didn't know what had happened to him.

I then called the closest neighbor who immediately came over and offered to help clean things up. We pried the front door open and the smell of ammonia almost knocked us down. Yes they had also shot his refrigerator and the coils inside had been punctured.

So I need to fill you in on his utilities.... when he bought the place in the 1980's it had a propane stove, propane water heater, and a propane refrigerator. Whomever shot out all the windows had managed to shoot through the coils in the propane fridge (which used ammonia as the coolant). They also shot about about 30 holes in his above ground 2,500 gallon water tank and most of the windows out of the three abandoned vehicles behind the house. The house had 4 white porcelain light fixtures (with pull chains) at the center of each room. (house was kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom) originally there was a shallow well on the property but it had gone dry after the 1992 Landers Earthquake. The water table in that area dropped some 20-30 feet and many wells went dry. So Charly & Peg (his wife) had opted to get a storage tank and small pressure pump which was cheaper than having a new well drilled. Though having water delivered every 2 weeks was expensive.... they just didn't have the 4 thousand dollars at the time to have the new well drilled. There was 2... count em... 2... electric outlets. one in the kitchen and one in the living room. An extension cord hung from an adapter in the bathroom ceiling light then ran over to a hook in the wall by the sink for Charly's electric razor. and that was it...... One additional electric circuit ran to a swamp cooler at the rear of the house and then to a small pump to pressurize his water. All of the wiring in the house was exposed (stapled to the walls and ceiling) circa the '50s. His heat was from a wood burning cast iron stove in the living room and when it was really cold he would light the oven in the kitchen for a couple of hours in the mornings to "warm it up".

After the arrival of the closest neighbor and the plywood had been removed from the front windows, all the other windows and doors were opened and we tried to turn on the swamp cooler to bring fresh air into the house. But.... no electric power... I went out back to the power meter and fuse box to find the power meter was gone..... Just an orange cover plate and a tag from the electric company..... Stating..... "Your service has been disconnected for non-payment, Please Call........ When I showed the tag to Charly he said.... "Yeah, I guess I forgot to pay it". It was at that moment Charly noticed the Drop wires from the Power line to a secondary pole to his house were gone. When they shut off his power they also had removed the supply lines. Both the 100' drop to the secondary pole and the 50' drop from there to Charly's house. This was one of the old three separate wire type service. Not like the twisted cable they use now.

Thus began an odyssey with the San Bernardino County Building Department and The Electric Company. It was getting dark and too late to call the Electric Company and Charly was offered a place to stay the night at a neighbors but he declined and drug his mattress outside to the carport where he spent the night. I left him my camping lantern and a he had several flashlights and was able to fix some canned soup on his propane stove. We discovered the small mountain of scrap lumber in front of the house was a "gift" from a neighbor for Charly to use as firewood. Sure looked like a pile of trash to me.

He had no phone service so the next morning a neighbor loaned Charly his cell phone and he called the Electric Company who informed him there would be a $90 reconnection fee and $120 in back bills + a $50 security deposit to get the power turned back on. No problem. Charly had the money in his checking account. I had arrived back at his house by then and drove Charly to the utility office where he paid the bill and was informed his service would be turned back on later in the day.

When we got back to his house several more neighbors were there and the small mountain of scrap lumber in the front yard had been moved to the back of the house and a generator was running to operate fans to air out the house and get rid of the ammonia smell. The defunct refrigerator and its rotting contents were outside and all the padded upholstered furniture was on the carport "airing out". While the neighbors cleaned his house I gathered up all the clothes, blankets, towels etc and headed for the laundromat in town to get them washed and dried.

When I returned Charly told me the Electric Company had come and refused to turn back on his service because the secondary pole did not have adequate clearance over the road and it would have to be replaced.... costs?? $1,400. Seems the service was fine from 1952 till 2005 but wasn't now tall enough. There was nothing they could do about it till the pole was replaced. Since this was private property there would have to be a permit and utility right of way established before the service could be reconnected. This meant several hundreds of dollars additional in permit fees from the county. They utility company also informed Charly they could not re-install the power lines until the old 1950's fuse box was replaced by a "Breaker Panel with Integral Meter Base". And just to make things worse the Meter Location would have to be moved to the front of the house and a steel mast installed.

As it was getting dark I jury rigged a CFL bulb and a very old 40 Watt inverter I had with me to provide one working light. A neighbor brought a fully charged AGM marine battery. We connected it all up and a place for Charly to stay was proffered but he again declined and spent several more nights on the carport. Several neighbors brought food and helped with the cleanup over the next few days. I asked several neighbors if they would help out with all the electrical upgrades if I provided the tools and we could find used or free supplies. They of course agreed and even offered to help out on the financial side if things had to be purchased. I had by now figured out this was going to be a long term project.

I went back out to the Mojave a few days later and started the task to get some temporary power for Charly and begin the dealings with San Bernardino County building department so a material list could be drawn up and the job of removing the old wiring could start. In the meantime Charly needed new windows (4 of them) (remember they were shot out) and as we were talking about how to either repair or replace them one of the neighbors whom anybody barely knew instantly offered to buy Charly new replacements. Also, he and his two sons would help install them. Hmnn, that's interesting. Why would he do that? And then it hit me. It was possibly his two teenage sons may have been the culprits that vandalized Charly's house! I had seen them with 22 rifles walking on the road several months before. So I won't make any accusations, but it was interesting nevertheless.

I measured for the  4 windows to be replaced and went with the neighbor who purchased them at a local "big box" store. With help from many volunteers they were installed in the next two days and we repaired the broken locks on the doors and once again the house was secure. They next day I finished phase one of the temporary wiring to restore lights and helped Charly paint two rooms inside the house. His furniture was moved back in and life was returning to normal for him...... just no electric service. The big issues were no refrigerator, no running water, and no lights. I removed enough of the wiring inside to connect the old 40 watt inverter with the borrowed battery and as long as only one light was turned on.... it all worked. (See One Light at a Time technical  Click here: One Light at a Time ~ Technical     )

It was a week before I got back out to Charly's place and a Good Samaritan found a used gas refrigerator in an old RV at an auto salvage yard and had it installed and working. It had been determined that the water tank was not repairable and Charly hired the company that delivered his water to install a used one which Charly was to pay for monthly. He had to carry his water from the tank to the house for now but he had a source of water. Once the electric was back on it would be easy to reconnect the pressure pump and return the water system to it's original condition. I had a plan to help with the Lights and put small neon lamps by each switch making it easier for him to locate them (phase 2   Link  Click here: One Light at a Time ~ Technical  ).  Charly and myself drove to the County Building Department and started what would be a very difficult path to having his power turned back on. The permit fee was paid and an appointment setup for a couple of days later to have an initial inspection by the County which would give us the details of what would have to be done. When we got back to Charly's house the two teenage boys mentioned earlier were there cutting weeds in the yard and raking. I found out that any day there was no school the 2 of them were to work 3 hours at Charly's.... by order of their father. They did work hard the times when they were there and rarely complained even when I found disgusting, hard, jobs for them.

I drove back up to the high desert 2 days later and met the building inspector who turned out to be a nice guy. He helped me make a list of changes/upgrades and said we could reuse the existing secondary power pole if we filed for an exemption with the county planning commission. He said he would write a letter to recommend approval be given for the existing pole..... saving us $1,400! Great News! But, there was a caveat ..... it takes a month to get this approval! So back ten and punt since we weren't going to get all the work needed done for a couple of weeks anyway why not wait and go through the planning commission and save the money. Of course it took the planning commission 2 months to do the paperwork but they did finally approve re-use of the existing right of way and pole. Then it took the electric utility engineer 2 more weeks to figure out that we had approval and finally sign off for the installation.

It was during this period I hit on the idea of a lighting system to require one light being on anytime the inverter was running. My circuit would also never allow more than one at a time to be illuminated. Since there were only 4 lights in the house and 4 switch locations I devised a setup that proved to be a perfect match to Charly's lifestyle. After I finished phase three setup he got used to it and wanted me to leave it as the permanent solution. Of course it was stapled on the outside of walls and ceiling and was not code but I did leave it until the new meter box was wired and the power from the utility restored. The 80 amp hour battery had to be recharged every 3 to 4 days and the closest neighbor would pick it up in the morning, recharge it, and drop it off after work a couple of days a week.(which he did for 3 months) I may someday write the story of the Deadman Switch I designed and built for Charly at that time. While we waited for the county to approve his variance I did a final re-work of his temporary battery lighting system (phase 3 Link  Click here: One Light at a Time ~ Technical  )

Since I had not yet paid for any major projects on Charly's house I bought new plywood sheeting and roll roof for his carport. Over the 4 day Thanksgiving Holiday I had the help of the 2 teenage boys and the three of us removed and re-roofed the carport. I worked those two boys hard playing the role of the tyrant boss. However, I did give them a few carpentry lessons using only hand tools (remember, no power). They learned how sticky tar is and how heavy lumber is when carrying it up a step ladder to place on a roof. They also learned how much work it is to undo damage created by some mindless vandals...... enough said.   BTW the two of them and their parents moved out of the area shortly after without letting anyone know they were leaving.

I was by then camping in Charly's yard in my tent and working almost full time on all the little projects and repairs he needed. I found a large amount of the material for the electric upgrade on Craigslist and by careful shopping managed to keep the final bill at $700. The neighbors pitched in some and I managed to sell one of the abandoned vehicles behind the house and pitched in $80 and all was paid for. The problem with re-wiring a 1950's era house is the almost impossible task of putting the wiring inside the walls and ceiling. The original frame was not conventional studs but done with dimension lumber..... meaning big beams 4 feet apart and cross beams on top. The roof was a shed type so there was no attic or crawl space above the ceiling. The floor was a concrete slab so no wires could go under the floor. Running each set of wires was a real pain and I usually spent more time patching holes than I did in running wires.  I did mess up a couple of places and had to have a second final inspection from the county but within another week it was done.

I spent a lot of time up there with Charly during that period and found him a unique and interesting person. We became very good friends. Not much bothered him but he was growing more isolated and very lonely by himself, not able to drive and many miles to the nearest shopping. He had obviously endeared himself to all the neighbors and had lived there for many years before most of them moved to the area. They would always give him a ride and drop by to offer help. Some came by every other day or so and always brought food, clothes, or reading materials.

And so with chilly nights and Christmas lights beginning to appear everywhere, the day we had all waited for arrived and the power company came with an installation crew. Within a couple of hours Charly was back on the electric grid. A day for celebration...... He could now have all the lights on if he wanted and after the re-wire there were 15 outlets in his house. His water pump was reconnected and the water heater turned back on. So life didn't get much better as far as he was concerned.

I didn't get back up to see him for a month or so and when I arrived found he had actually painted 2 sides of his house..... the 2 sides visible from the road..... over the next year he always said he was going to "finish up the painting outside" so that everything was "ship-shape". Of course he never quite got around to finishing the job.

I was gone all the next summer on a trip and when I dropped in on Charly I could tell he was having some problems. I had brought him several bottles of his favorite wine and he was very grateful. After sitting for a few hours and sharing a glass of wine he finally confided in me the VA had told him he had lung cancer. It was his decision to not do a radical treatment routine but to let it run its course. He said when things got bad towards the end he would check himself into the Cal Vet home and let them take care of him. He asked me to not tell any of the neighbors because he didn't want them to worry about him. He asked me to take some photos and mementos he had saved to mail to his brother in law. He told me the VA would take care of his final arrangements (burial at sea) and he was leaving the house and land to his buddy he served in the Merchant Marines with. He then said " now lets change the subject and talk about something else"...... As I was leaving that night he asked me to not bring up the subject of his health again, and I never did. He lived 3 more years but he spent most of his last year in the Cal Vet home in Northern CA.

I made several trips up to visit Charly in the next 2 years and there was always a new story to tell. Always some news about the various neighbors whom I had gotten to know since I met him. Weather permitting, we spent a lot of hours on those old kitchen chairs on the carport sharing a glass of wine and discovering just how evil a sailor can be to his superior officers. If even a small fraction of Charly's stories were true I have to wonder how any freight ever gets shipped on the oceans of the world. I also found it fascinating that a man who spent over twenty years of his life on the high seas could be so content in the Mojave Desert.  We never again discussed his health but the deterioration gradually became more obvious. Towards the end he had Hospice nurses visiting several times a week and there were prescription bottles all over the house. 

On a trip up to visit him in the fall of 2008 I found his house empty and a for sale sign. I went to the neighbors house and was told he had gone to the Cal Vet home and his house was being sold to pay his bills. He had a social worker and they gave me the name and phone #. It had been a couple of months since my last visit as I had been on a long driving/camping trip to the Pacific Northwest. I was mad at myself for not having made the effort to get out for a visit before I left. I called his social worker and got the name of the home where Charly had been sent. I called and he had a phone in the room, but our conversation was short and he was having a difficult time breathing and was obviously on heavy medication to relieve his pain. I called more times in next several months but he never improved and finally was no longer able to take my calls.

I left the next spring (2009) to work in Alaska for the summer. I got my mail forwarded once a month and mid summer there was a letter from the VA informing me Charly Johnson had passed away and giving the date and time of his memorial service. In the letter was a note from Charly that he had asked to be sent to me upon his death. He thanked me for all I had done for him and all the good times we shared on has "porch" (carport). He said my "one light at a time" would be the highlight of my career (I hope he was joking). Even in his delirium he remembered the primitive setup we had to get him temporary lighting. He closed his note with "....and we'll meet again on the high seas..."  The handwriting was not in his script but he had obviously signed it himself with very shaky hands. 

RIP Charly......

It has taken me 2 years to write this but I wanted to tell Charly's story from my point of view. It's now Dec. 2013.... I drove by Charly's place last week just to see what was going on. His house, carport, water tank, propane tank and abandoned cars are all gone. The desert sands have begun to fill in the scars we leave when we build on mother earth. A few piles of old lumber, some trash, a concrete slab, and not much else. You have to wonder who owns it/? who lived there? what was their life like? and why oh why would anyone want to live that far out in the middle of 'nowhere'? I can't speak for Charly but I know why I love the Mojave so much. The solitude, crisp clear nights, starry skies, sunrise over the mountains, sunny dry days and low humidity. I may have my roots in the Midwest but know my heart is definitely in the Mojave.

I got a bottle of the cheap wine Charly liked so much and went back the next afternoon as the sun was getting low in the sky. I took the folding camp chair I carry in my truck and sat on the concrete slab that was once Charly's carport. (he always called it his porch) . I sipped a small glass and consecrated the ground with the rest of the bottle in his memory. For awhile, I relived the stories he told, if only in my mind. The sun was warm on my skin but as it got lower in the sky the evening breeze picked up and chill of desert night was in the air. As I drove the hour back to the low desert I was listening to our oldie-goldie radio station and what should they play but..... "A Horse With No Name" by America circa the 70's. Part of the lyrics are:

"On the first part of the journey,
I was looking at all the life.
There were plants and birds. and rocks and things,
There was sand and hills and rings.
The first thing I met, was a fly with a buzz,
And the sky, with no clouds.
The heat was hot, and the ground was dry,
But the air was full of sound.

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name,
It felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert you can remember your name,
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.
La, la, la la la la, la la la, la, la......."

Second Part ~ Technical Details