For years and years if you showed up to ride at the Manhattan Beach Pier any time after about 7:00 AM, you’d see Joe Charles working his boot camp.
The MB moms, dads, youngsters, and adepts of all ages would be spread out on the sand grunting and groaning as G.I. Joe put them through the wringer. His voice was unmistakable, deep, resonant, authoritative, encouraging, challenging, always friendly.
Sometimes, if you were there early for the Wednesday ride, he’d be taking a break and would always chat you up. “Why don’t you come on down and take my push-up challenge?” he’d ask with a grin.
“It looks too hard,” you’d say.
“It is hard,” he’d shoot back. “And then some!”
“Not today, Joe,” you’d say.
“All right, then, what about tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, Joe, looks like a pretty tough boot camp down there.”
“It is,” he’d say. “And then some!”
G.I. Joe wasn’t a fixture, he was an installation. Never missed a day, and never anything but a kind word and a handshake or a fist bump.
Joe wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t short, either. He was a little on the heavy side with a bald head, a broad chest, powerful legs, and massive forearms capped by thick, muscled hands. “See ya, Joe,” I’d say as I rolled off down the bike path.
“Yes, sir!” he’d say with a big yell and a wave. He probably never knew who I was; we club cyclists all looked alike with the helmets and glasses and orange clown suits.
Then one day Joe was gone. I figured he’d moved or was doing something else. People come and go, after all.
A long while later I saw him again. He was leaning on a cane over by the railing and a woman was helping him try to walk. He could barely put one foot in front of the other and the entire right side of his body looked like it wasn’t connected to anything at all.
I rolled over. “Hey, Joe,” I said. “What happened to you?”
He looked at me, confused, and tried to talk, a task made more difficult because he had never really known me to start off with. The massive stroke had pulverized everything.
“I’m hurt,” he finally said.
With my one foot on the ground and the other clipped in, I didn’t know what to say. “Heal up, man,” I said, or something stupid like that. I was stricken as we looked at each other for a few moments, him trying to figure out who I was and me disbelieving. I rode off.
Another long time went by.
Then yesterday I was drinking a cup of coffee and I heard Joe’s voice behind me. He was by himself, picking up a burrito.
“Hey, Joe,” I said. “How are you doing?”
He walked over to my table, slowly, trying to figure out who I was. “I’m doing good, man, trying hard every day, every day.”
“Sit down if you have a minute,” I said. He did. “How have you been?” I asked.
“Every day I gotta try,” he said. “I had to let the lady go,” he said.
“The lady who was helping you?”
“Yes,” he said. “She didn’t want me doing things by myself. Kept telling me I can’t do this I can’t do that, don’t go here, don’t go there. I kept telling her I gotta do it myself. I gotta do it myself. I can’t have her be doing it for me. I was too much for her.”
“You look so much better, Joe,” I said. “You’re walking, man, no cane or anything.”
His eyes flickered for a minute. “Yes, every day I’m doing it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot going on, getting my boot camp going again, walking every day, I’m doing it. I have to do it myself. I’m going down to the pier right now.”
“Can I go with you?”
“Sure,” he said.
We walked slowly, so slowly, and as we passed the shops he’d wave and shout hello to all the people he knew, which, it seemed, was everyone. “I do this four times a day when I can,” he said, “try to walk up to Valley and back.”
We were at the bottom of the hill and were both sweating. “That’s some hard walking, Joe.”
He nodded his agreement, his brow wrinkled. He looked at me and it went deep. “Yes, it is hard. And then some.”
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