When the mourners left Charley Eckman's funeral service last week and stepped into the muggy sunlight outside the Harundale Presbyterian Church, they found a Dixieland band at the front door, merrily tootling to the heavens. Charley would have loved it. It was his version of Beethoven's Fifth.
That's it, everybody said. End of an era. They broke the mold with Charley. And maybe they're right, and we can talk about such things in a minute, but I tell you the truth, I never laughed so much at a funeral. How do you like that, in the face of tragedy, laughter heals as nicely as tears.
Charley, Charley. He didn't speak English, Pat O'Malley told the mourners, he spoke Ecklish. Hello, Leader, he'd say. You can go to sleep on them cherries, he'd say. Chuck Thompson told everyone he had visions of Charley greeting God for the first time.
"Hello, Leader," he'll say. "What's the deal?"
The tone was just right for Charley, and maybe for his whole generation, and thus gets more difficult to find with each passing year. Time is always the great thief. The problem is, it keeps stealing our originals.
On Ritchie Highway outside the church, names of the famously departed were plucked randomly out of the air: Mimi DiPietro, who couldn't surround an idea with the English language without getting into trouble; Mr. Diz, rooting them home at the Pimlico finish line and living off the generosity of his financial angels; Balls Maggio fetching balls out of the Jones Falls for a living and Pigtown's Wild Man Joe O'Donnell who boxed a kangaroo and was doing fine until the kangaroo decided to get serious and Eddie Fenton, who once phoned in a radio bulletin from Annapolis that consisted entirely of the exultant cry, "The beer tax is dead! The beer tax is dead! This is Eddie Fenton, for WCBM news!"
Well, no, maybe they don't make them quite like that any more, although Nestor Aparicio, on WLG-radio the other night, made a pretty good case that some of the younger radio sports talkers are surely the spiritual children of Charley Eckman.
But the larger point always draws a sad shaking of the head, and you hear it often: The great old Bawlamer characters are dying out. (Yes, the standard list of characters tends mainly toward white men. That's not their fault, so much as history's. Until the last few decades, what were the chances for minority men, or women of any color, attaining some sort of public profile?)
So, why the disappearance? Barely 20 years ago, an exuberant freshman City Council member, Michael Mitchell, delivered his maiden speech, extolling all the great virtues of democracy and listing most of the founding fathers, such as James Madison.
When he was done, Mimi DiPietro approached him. "This guy Madison sounds pretty good," said Mimi. "Who is he?"
Chalk that one up to Mimi's history deficiencies, but note something else: Today's politicians have learned to keep such shortcomings and flaws to themselves. It's the Calvin Coolidge theory of life. Coolidge famously said, I notice I never got into trouble by anything I didn't say. Then he lapsed back into silence.
Today, a great self-consciousness afflicts the land. A couple of generations of public figures have come of age watching television, which is the great homogenizer. Everybody who watches it models himself on somebody he's watched. It's easier that way and safer than inventing an actual personality. If somebody else has done something, and gotten away with it, there's a track record. Imitation prevails, and then takes on a life of its own.
Political correctness also counts for something. For what it's worth, most of these guys never had it. Sometimes it got them into trouble, and sometimes it should have, but the rules were changing as they grew older, and sometimes they adapted and sometimes didn't.
But the thing to be admired is this: They went with their instincts.
We all have impulses, which we tend to check at the door. Should I do this? Can I say this? Those like Eckman never stopped to think about it, and thus enriched everyone around them by showing us who they really were. Who wants everybody to be exactly like everybody else? They widened the dialogue, and broadened everybody's experience.
That's why we're all here, isn't it? The secret to a happy life isn't just having a good time. It's having an interesting time.
At Eckman's funeral service, Chuck Thompson imagined Charley arriving at the pearly gates, where a couple of saints volunteer to talk to him about his track record down here.
"I'll handle this," says St. Peter. "This is a job for the varsity."
They get too many folks up there sounding like too many other folks. When Charley Eckman arrives, he deserves points just for sounding like nobody but himself.