When I was in high school I worked as a waitress for ninety cents an hour plus tips. On top of going to school, I worked seven days a week at the Village Inn Pancake House. Monday through Friday it was just me and the cook from 3p – 10p. On the weekends, I worked the breakfast shift with several other waitresses (one being my older sister), serving eggs over easy and buttermilk pancakes to GI’s from the nearby Air Force Base. On a good Saturday I’d bring home $60 in tips. For a sixteen year old in 1976, that wasn’t too shabby.
On the occasional Sunday I’d work a double shift. After working from 6a – 2p, I’d pick up the 2p – 6p shift and literally work all day. One such Sunday, driving home from a double shift sent me through the windshield of a Volkswagon, but that’s a story for another day.
In the summertime, there was no school, and I didn’t have to be at work until 3p during the week so I could sleep in and still have a few hours of down time. I had recently gotten my driver’s license and had my own car – an orange 1973 Chevy Vega – and had been promising my younger sister that I’d take her and some friends to the lake. They wanted to swim and I wanted to lay out and get some sun, so we packed up the Vega and headed out one morning.
There was only one other car parked in the beach area when we arrived at around nine. There hadn’t been anyone at the guard gate to take our three dollars and I found that odd. The other car was a dark green Chevy Corvette. I’m pretty sure it was a ’72 because I noticed the two rectangular exhaust pipes and split bumper. Daddy taught me a few things about cars, including how to tell what make and model I’m looking at, fueling a lifelong admiration for design and details.
I zipped the Vega into a spot a decent distance from the Vette because there was a big burly dude standing next to the car with his arms crossed. I glanced around and saw one head bobbing in the water a short distance from the beach. I figured they were together and didn’t think too much about it.
My sister and her two friends piled out of the car, slipped out of their blue jean cut offs and ran, in their bikinis, straight for the water. I proceeded to lay out my blanket, took off my t-shirt and shorts I had thrown on over my bikini, and began rubbing suntan lotion on my arms and legs. It was 1976 – we hadn’t yet heard the terms SPF or sunscreen. It was suntan lotion and it was probably Coppertone.
I was just finishing up with the lotion when the man who had been in the water emerged and began walking toward me. He looked old. He looked scary. When he got close, he bent down, stuck out his hand and said “Hi, my friends call me Charlie.”
My hand looked like that of an infant in his gigantic meatloaf of a hand, but I shook it like I knew what I was doing. I was terrified, but said, “Hi, I’m Vanessa.” He had a mustache, some beard stubble, and many deep lines in his face. His longish hair was slicked back from being wet, and he was wearing cut-off blue jean shorts that were dripping water forming a puddle in the sand next to my blanket. His body was thick and bulky. I felt exposed and small.
His huge presence made me uneasy. I was suddenly aware that there were still no other people around. Usually, in the summer, Lake Benbrook was crowded from early in the morning until well after the sun had set. I glanced up at the big man still standing near the Vette, then out to the water where I could see and hear my passengers blissfully unaware, playing and splashing each other.
“Do you want me to rub some of that lotion on your back for you?” Charlie asked.
“No thanks, I’ve got it.” I replied.
“Are you sure?”
About that time, the large man who had been standing next to the Vette grunted very loudly.
“Well, I guess I better get going.” Charlie said.
“Ok, bye.” I waved.
Charlie stood up, turned and said, “It was nice to meet you Vanessa, I hope you have a great life.” And then he walked away. He got into the passenger seat and the other guy drove. It wasn’t until they had exited through the gate that I breathed a sigh of relief.
Later that day at work, a friend came in, very excited, asking if that had been my car at the lake earlier that day. “Yes, that was me,” I said.
“Did you meet him? Did you meet Charles Bronson?!” She asked.
I replayed the whole thing in my mind and said, “Oh, you mean Charlie?”
She said the gate had been locked and that no one was allowed in because Charles Bronson was there. I told her there had been no one at the gate, and it was open when we arrived. They must have closed it right behind us.
The restaurant wasn’t busy so we sat and talked for a while about Charlie and his body guard and the green Corvette. I remembered having seen Death Wish and Mr. Majestyk and marveled at having met a real live movie star!
I remember telling my friend how old and creepy he was and how big his hands were, and that he offered to rub suntan lotion on my back. “Did you let him?” She wanted to know.
Would you have?