The Cranky Columnist

Charlie Brown, 75, of Costa Mesa, enjoys his Orange Cream Shake from Carl's Jr. at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach in early April.

In the end, kindness won for ‘cranky’ columnist for disabled veterans

Everyone on the hospital floor knew this month that naval veteran Charlie Brown only had a few more days left.

Brown, 75, a white-haired, white-goateed curmudgeon with the green-ink-bleeding Navy Seabee tattoo on his forearm, was in hospice at the Veterans Affairs Long Beach hospital.

Cancer had whittled him thin. Further treatment, he declined. He couldn’t keep down his favorite steak sandwiches or any solid food any longer. It hurt to swallow, so nutrition came through liquids.

A 1962 traffic accident had broken his C-5 vertebra in his spine four years after he served three years in the Navy in Korea. He has been a quadriplegic since he was 24.

He couldn’t open his hands but he could move his forearms and use his thumbs to type and write a column, “Say It the Way It Is,” for the California chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).

Brown relied on a wheelchair for mobility. He learned to drive an adaptive late 1990s van. His last drive was from his Costa Mesa home to the hospital in his “baby,” that white van that blasted ’60s rock and carried stickers of the Peanuts character that shared his name.

He had spent much of the past year in the hospital’s spinal cord injury ward. In his final weeks in hospice, Brown was too weak to sit in the chair. So the nurses and orderlies pushed him in his rolling bed outdoors so he could get some fresh air.

The whole situation left him notoriously cranky. He complained often. He never married, had no children, no relatives living closer than Ohio and no visitors until the end.

He relished few pleasures: his van, his music and the sunshine.

But there was one more thing that the hospital staff learned he craved:

An Orange Cream Shake from Carl’s Jr.

So, three weeks ago, Enrique Chavez, a PVA service worker, set out to get the shake. He figured he would dash through a drive-through on his way to work and pick one up.

“But Carl’s Jr. didn’t make them anymore,” recalled Chavez, who called 10 Carl’s Jr. restaurants and the corporate office to learn of the menu item’s discontinued status.

Chavez scoured the Internet for recipes and teamed with a volunteer, Bruce Riddell, a World War II veteran and renowned chef, thinking they could make their shake by blending orange sherbet or melting down orange-flavored Creamsicles.

But the consistency wasn’t right. They knew they needed the syrup from Carl’s Jr., which no area restaurants had, not even stashed away in a storage closet. Chavez had asked.

Chavez decided to reach out to the family of the hamburger chain’s founder, Carl Karcher. Like Chavez, Karcher, who died in 2008, lived in Anaheim.

To the members of an Anaheim colony website, Chavez posted a message about Brown and his love of the Orange Cream Shake, soliciting a connection to the Karcher family and the shake’s key ingredient.

Chavez got a response. Soon he was in contact with a Carl’s Jr. representative who found the syrup and would be sending it their way.

“Charlie only has a few more days,” Chavez told the representative.

The syrup was an overnight delivery to the hospital’s closest Carl’s Jr. on Bellflower near PCH.

“Just go to the restaurant and tell them you want a ‘shake for Charlie,’” the representative said. “They’ll make it. He can have as much as he wants. No charge.”

So, two weeks ago, Chavez told Brown he had a surprise. Into the hospital room walked Carmen Estrada, manager of the Bellflower restaurant, delivering a frosty Orange Cream Shake in one of those clear plastic, dome-topped cups just like those empty ones that littered the back of his van.

“His eyes got big. He took a sip. And the smile on his face was incredible,” recalled Chavez, never forgetting how Brown raised the cup with both hands, fingers fixed in fists, and put the straw to his mouth.

“I think I saw the tears start.”

Brown treated himself to five shakes in his final week. He couldn’t swallow the dessert. He just let its sugary taste linger in his mouth as long as possible before he had to spit it out.

Then he would take another sip. And another. And another. Savoring and smiling each time.

He died April 22. Happy.

The last “shake for Charlie” was in the hospital freezer waiting for him when his body was taken down the corridor, an American flag draped over him.

This story was more than about one man tracking down a $3 shake for a fellow veteran. It was about giving a dying man a sip of what used to be normal.

It was also a trade for Chavez, 42, who served in the Marine Corps and was a Los Angeles police officer before he was accidentally shot and paralyzed in 2006. His 3-year-old son had gotten hold of his service handgun in the backseat of the family’s pickup at a traffic light near their Anaheim home and fired a single round that hit Chavez in the upper back.

“Charlie was an inspiration to me because he had lived more than 50 years in his wheelchair,” Chavez said. “There have been days when I’ve been down, been tired, wondering how long a life I could have in my chair.”

Brown, living until he was 75, had given Chavez hope. And in a simple, fast-food restaurant-churned Orange Cream Shake, Chavez gave Brown a final taste of happiness.

Originally published by Orange County Register. All rights reserved.


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