Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Remembering Charlie

February 13, 2010. I slid down into the comfy seat as I had done so many times before. My overnight bag rested on the luggage rack above me. Two precious contents—a small CVS bag filled with Valentine’s Day chocolates and a simply framed 8x10 photograph—were wrapped carefully in plastic bubble wrap to protect them for the nearly three-hour ride. My oversized purse, containing all the basic travel necessities of life—photo ID, some cash, iPod, Kindle, and Blackberry—was on the floor, stuffed between my left leg and the metal wall of the train. As Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Express pulled out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 6:12 p.m. on the dot, I already had my earbuds in, the music attempting to lull me into a temporary refuge from the events of not only the past week, but of the past few years. 

As the train chugged and rocked its way south through the Connecticut countryside toward Philadelphia, I gazed out the window at the blackness of night, unable to see anything but my reflection and tiny specks of light from street lamps and headlights. I draped my long, black, wool coat over me like a blanket, warding off the wintry chill that managed to force itself inside the heated compartment. How different from all of my other trips to Connecticut. How very different, indeed.

* * * 

Carol Ford with Charlie Zito
August 14, 2008
During the course of the last decade, I have met some wonderful people as the direct result of my involvement in researching Bob Crane's life and now writing his biography. I could never have predicted how many truly beautiful people I would meet and get to knowpeople who had known Bob either from school or radio or television or theatre or as a family member or even just in passing. Several have touched my heart and have become like family to me, and not the least of which was Bob's best friend from school, Charlie Zito. Born on February 16, 1928, Charlie had been in the same graduating class as Bob at Stamford High School. He and Bob had been "like brothers," and of their friendship. Charlie once told me: "Bob—what a guy. We were close. Really close friends. You know, he never gossiped or talked bad about anybody. Not if he thought it would hurt that person. He was a good guy. We would confide a lot in each other. I knew I could talk to him because I knew it wouldn't go any further. He would keep a confidence."

I first talked with Charlie in July 2008, and after careful consideration, he agreed to be interviewed for Bob's biography. Shortly after Charlie's interview, on August 14, 2008, I ventured to Stamford, Connecticut, to meet him. On that day, Charlie took me all around town, showing me his Stamford, as he had remembered it growing up in the 1930s and 1940sduring his and Bob's teenage years. On the tour were distinct landmarkswhere they, as kids, used to play baseball and football in Belltown Park; the houses they each grew up in; where they went to school; where they had marched in parades; where they used to hang out at the drugstore for a soda fountain; where they went to church and later were married; where they held their wedding receptions, and later, class reunions. Charlie's white 1980s Ford LTD with the bent antennae became a time machinea present-day Tardis or DeLoreanthat traveled back to a time long ago, to when Charlie and Bob were young and had their whole lives ahead of them.

Charlie in Belltown Park, Stamford, CT.
April 2009
I will never forget that first meeting. It had been a hot summer day, and I had taken the early morning train from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station up to Stamford. After arriving in town, I took a cab over to Charlie's house, and by the time I arrived, I looked like I had just run the marathon because of the blistering heat. Yet, Charlie did not seem to notice. Instead, he focused on my being so very tall, and he joked about our very opposite heights!

"You made it!" he said as I entered his home.

"I did. The train was right on time, my cabbie knew where he was going, and now I'm here. How are you?"

"Not nearly as tall as you!" Charlie gazed up at me in awe, as though looking up at the Washington Monument. "How tall are you?"

"Six-feet even. But I think I'm shrinking."

"I used to be five-ten. Do you believe it? I'll show you my driver's license if you don't."

Charlie and I became fast friends right from the start. After that first day of touring Stamford and seeing it like I had never seen it before, a lasting friendship was born. It was as if we had known each other our entire lives. We talked on the phone several times a week for hours on end. He would tell me of his Sicilian heritage and his wife's Canadian-French heritage, of his school days, of growing up during the Great Depression and the effect World War II had on him personally and on his generation as a whole, of his kids from the time they were born until the present day and how incredibly proud he was of all of them. Confidences were shared. Advice was offered. Serious discussions about life-changing events merged with light chatter about everyday things. There was never a lull in the conversation; there was always something to say.
Captain Zito after docking his boat, "The Coyote."
September 2008

When I ventured to Connecticut, I would always spend a full day with Charlie, whether it was just driving around town in his "time machine," cruising up and down Long Island Sound on his boat, having lunch at the diner, walking around Home Goods, shopping at United House Wrecking, Co.—one of the best antique stores I've ever been in—and laughing at "the ugly room," enjoying coffee and Linzer tarts at DiMare Pastry Shop (which makes Sicilian, not Italian patries, didn't you know); and most importantly, having ice cream from Cold Stone Creameryeven on the coldest, rainiest day in November.

On February 4, 2010, Charlie and I talked on the phone until about 11:00 that night. We made plans for my visit later in the month. One of the very last things he said to me on that call was, "Write the book," meaning Bob's biography. It meant the world to him to know his good friend was finally going to have his true story told. 

The next day, on February 5, 2010, I received an unexpected call from Charlie's daughter while I was at work. Charlie had suffered a heart attack and died suddenly that morning. I was stunned. Just like that, Charlie was gone. And when he left this world, he took a piece of me with him.

I attended Charlie's funeral, which was held on February 13, 2010, and afterward, his family gave me a little CVS bag containing a chocolate candy heart, which Charlie had bought in anticipation of my next visit, and it broke my own heart. They also gave me the framed photo of Charlie that had been placed in the sanctuary during the service. These precious treasures came home with me that night, resting comfortably in my travel bag on board the train.

Cruising on Long Island Sound with Charlie.
June 2009.
I still miss Charlie, and I will always miss Charlie. I knew him for eighteen monthssuch a short period of time in the grand scheme of things—and yet, it was a lifetime. Most people do not understand the friendship Charlie and I had. Charlie was 81 years of age when he passed away and would be 85 this year. I am half his age, coming up on my 44th birthday. Charlie used to say to me, "I don't know how to put into words what our friendship is. I don't think there is a word in the English language for it." He was right, and while there may not be a specific word or phrase for our unique friendship, there is a movie that comes pretty close—Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. It is the best way I think I can explain it.

This blog and all of the "Vote For Bob Crane" Internet presence exist as an awareness vehicle so people can learn about Bob Crane and his work. It is an extension of what his full biography will be, and it is a place where people can hear his radio work and see him in various productions other than Hogan's Heroes. However, without people like Charlie Zito, many stories about Bob's life would have been lost forever. Charlie's testimonies are some of the most poignant and heart-warming I have ever heard, not only about Bob, but about people and life in general.

Today, I want the world to know Charlie. He was much more than "Bob Crane's best friend from school," as he will be described in Bob's biography. Charlie was many wonderful thingsa devoted husband, father, brother, grandfather, and uncle; a hard worker and skilled dental technician who owned his own business; a fantastic cook; a knowledgable and entertaining boat captain; a tremendous pianist and musician; a gifted conversationalist; a humble man full of laughter, life, and love; and a very dear friend. He is greatly missed and remembered fondly by many.

Charlie used to tell me that he hated to see a person cry—that if a person cried in his presence, he just could not bear it. Somehow, even knowing that, it does not change the number of tears I have shed over his loss. And somehow, I also know that he would be scowling at each and every one of those tears, and that thought does, indeed, make me smile.

Remembering Charlie. 

Charlie Zito was truly one of the best, and it has been my absolute honor and privilege to have known him and called him one of "my favorite people in the whole universe."