Charles Speight was born in Unadilla on April 2, 1922. He seems much younger than the 96th birthday he is about to celebrate. I asked him the secret to longevity, to which he replied, “Not dying.” His answer came with a mischievous grin, a look quite familiar to his many friends.
We began our recent visit at breakfast with The Coffee Club, a group of men who have been meeting five days a week since 1993. We only have one firm rule: If you use a bad word or tell a lie you’re required to put a dollar in the kitty. James Ray Irwin said most of the money comes from Cossie Brown. Mr. Cossie, however, whispered to me that he is the only sane member of the club.
I didn’t get a recipe for good health from Mr. Charles. He just says that he’s been greatly blessed. He drives wherever he wants to go. He sells onions for the Lions Club and serves as a director for the Chamber of Commerce. He’s a solid spoke in the leadership wheel at First Baptist Church of Unadilla.
He remembers U.S Hwy 41 before it was busy with motorized vehicles or tourists passing through. The traffic was mostly farm families who arrived in mule-drawn wagons. They would park in the alley on Saturdays and go to one of the six downtown grocery stores.
Front Street was packed with people shopping and visiting, or maybe watching Roy Rogers at the Dixie Theatre. Many of them stayed late into the night. When Mr. Charles was 15 he worked in one of those stores for Harry Hamrick. A 12-hour shift from noon to midnight earned him 75 cents.
The school he attended in Unadilla burned down when he was in the sixth grade. He had walked the short distance home for lunch but ran back when he heard the fire whistle. It was a two-story wooden building with an upstairs chapel. A brick school followed and was put into use in 1936.
The croup was a common illness during his childhood. Dr. Bishop told his mother, Ruth, that if she would take the shoes off her boys and keep them barefooted they would be fine. He and his older brother, Amory Jr., went shoeless in all four seasons. His feet became so tough he could stomp a pecan and crack it. He doesn’t remember ever having the croup again.
If he stepped on a rusty nail, his mother made a smoldering fire from woolen cloth stuffed in a tin can. He warmed his injured foot in the smoke to prevent infection. In the seventh grade he got a pair of tennis shoes, a step towards the footwear that was expected in high school.
He attended the University of Georgia for two years, then took a year off before joining the Naval Air Corps. He reported for duty in January of 1943. World War II was in progress and would later claim the life of Amory Jr. He was a soldier in the U.S. Army and died in France in 1945.
Mr. Charles’ flight training included eight months in Corpus Christi, TX. He left there for Melbourne, FL, but stopped by Unadilla and married his sweetheart, Pasty Holliman, on July 2, 1944. Their short honeymoon began a long marriage of 67 wonderful years until her death in 2011.
Mr. Charles’ pilot training only included one practice launch of his F6F Hellcat Fighter. His second launch was from the USS Lexington aircraft carrier. It was the first of 72 missions he flew over Japan and was the first time that fighter planes were sent to Tokyo. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals, and two Presidential Unit Citations.
“I did what I had to do,” he said modestly.Then he spoke of the shattered homes on both sides. “When it’s over you think more about the mothers and fathers. Some of those Japanese kamikazes were just kids.They were given funerals ahead of time, strapped in planes, and sent off to die.”
The atomic bomb was dropped while he was at home on a 30-day leave. It brought a quick end to the war. He and his younger brother, Joe, who was also in the Navy, took over the family grocery business in 1945. They worked together at Unadilla Wholesale Company for decades. With affection that is obvious, he said, “In all those years I don’t believe we ever had a cross word.”
I thought about titling this story “Guns, Groceries, & God.” Mr. Charles’ steadfast faith is reflected in many ways, but perhaps most notably in his service through the local church. Rev. A. B. Hosea organized a men’s Sunday School class in 1955. Mr. Charles has taught it since June of 1956.
Mr. Charles’ long years of capably leading that Sunday School class are amazing. But what I find most remarkable is his attitude. He’s teaching, visiting, and occasionally collecting a dollar from his friend Cossie Brown. He says that his life has been greatly blessed. Others say that his life is a great blessing. That’s two different things, I suppose, but they sure do seem to be closely connected.