I first met Charles Olaf Johnson, or Chuck as friends call him, at my writing critique group run by Jedwin Smith. Chuck was in his mid-seventies, but that didn’t stop him from flirting. I remember thinking, “Dang, Chuck, if you were younger…holy cow, I would be in trouble.” And he knew I was thinking that.
Chuck was awesomely male and had no problem with letting his appreciation of women show. Women took it as a compliment.
You might be reading this and thinking Chuck died and Angela’s getting ready to write an old man’s obit. He didn’t. I’m not. Chuck is still very much alive, but he’s now living in a memory care unit of an assisted living home somewhere in Ohio. His ex-wife has become his caregiver and his memory. You see, Chuck has an aggressive form of dementia which, if you think about it, is a form of death so, yeah, this could be his obit.
I saw it coming with Chuck but didn’t know what I was seeing. We went from having brilliantly witty conversations to him getting mad at me because of…
Exactly. He didn’t know. I didn’t know. But nobody was having much fun any more.
According to what Chuck told me when we first met, he wanted to be a Broadway star. So in the late 50s and early 60s, he worked hard at. He was very good at acting, singing, dancing. He was getting noticed. But the more success he had, the less happy he was. When he was offered the big chance from the big Broadway producer, he stood on the sidewalks of New York and told the surprised man no.
Chuck promptly joined the Navy just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then proceeded to see the world. It was sometime in the mid-to-late 60s that Chuck began to form some opinions on politics, religion, and love.
Being a creative sort, Chuck’s opinions began to take the form of a book — none of which he wrote down. The book lived and morphed, was written and edited — all in his head for 35 years until around 2000 when he began to put it to paper. He wanted to get a critique, met Jedwin, and joined his newly formed author group, the same group I would join a few months later just before I left my husband.
I confess right here: I don’t understand science fiction that’s way out there. Star Trek, Star Wars…I’m good. Even I, Robot. But any more and my eyes glaze over.
That’s a short way of saying that it took me a while to begin to appreciate the absolute brilliant genius of Chuck’s book.
Even the title — about a rainbow in a lemon fizz tin — made no sense to me. What’s a lemon fizz tin? Yeah, I’m that clueless sometimes.
But, Chuck was part of the group. He wanted feedback. We followed along each week as he read his pages. And then one day it clicked.
I said, “Chuck, this isn’t just science fiction. This is…satire.”
He grinned big, winked at me, nodded sagely — very over the top and Broadway-ish — and said, “Yeeeessss.”
Now I had a framework to understand the characters. I will not even begin to tell you what the book is about other than to say this:
Put time-travel, humans, a ghost squirrel and Civil War officer, and shape-shifters into a bowl.
Have them all hunting for a lemon fizz tin holding the secret to the energy crisis.
Mix well with politics, religion, business, and big oil all manipulating the public.
Throw in two brothers fighting, and cynically witty sarcasm and opinion.
Bake a while with evil fighting against good.
Frost with a dash of love true love and a some dang good sex and…well, you too will have a rollicking good time in the White House, Outer Space, and a few other locations around the world.
The book (the cover you see here) is not available for sale…and probably never will be. Another good friend of his, Clayton Ramsey, decided to help Chuck see his book in print before he totally lost his mind, and had someone put together a cover and interior layout and got 20 copies printed. I have one of those.
Chuck wanted the members of his critique group to have a copy because, as he says in the acknowledgements, “I especially appreciate the encouragement and guidance Jedwin Smith’s writing class offered as I floated chapter after chapter past them.”
It was our pleasure, definitely.
So when Chuck took a break for about a year because he was working on a new book, we were excited to see what he was coming up with. I had been in contact with Chuck during that year and was becoming more and more worried, and said as much to him. When he showed back up at the group with his new chapters for the new book, it was more than painfully obvious to me that it would never get written.
Before, where Chuck’s reading was smooth, he was now stumbling over words as if sentence structure was an unknown entity to him.
Before, where he acted out all his characters as he read their dialogue, he now couldn’t remember much about any of those people.
Before, where the sex scenes were politely and deliciously bawdy, now the new sex scenes were crude and lewd and nasty.
Before, he wrote the theme song for a character’s political campaign and sang it, the plot had a purpose, he put together an opera for it, and critique was graciously noted.
Now, when he finished reading his new stuff and we began to give feedback, he was furious and almost childlike in his pitching of a fit that we didn’t like his work and we didn’t like him!
We all tried to comfort him and explain and said, “Oh, no, Chuck. NO! We love you. We’re just asking about…”
But it didn’t matter because, you see, that is the sad horror of dementia. Two years later I would go through this firsthand with my Awesome Aunt Number One, Pearl, when I became her caregiver and, by extension, her memory.
In any case, I have fond memories of Charles Olaf “Chuck” Johnson and will treasure my copy of his one and only book that, by all rights, is his opus. An opus that could not have been written when he was a younger man because it took the long view of years to bring clarity — and a dash of hope — to the forces bringing his world to the brink of hell.