It was on the eve of our national election that I ran upstairs to file a couple of things in my office. As I started to leave, a large storage box caught my eye. I had not noticed it before. I opened it and discovered that Charlie Tinker was wanting to talk again.
Charlie, you may recall, is the great-great-grandfather of my husband, Tink. I’ve written about him before in stories that captivated readers because of the extent that Charlie documented his life: his close friendship with a young attorney in Illinois named Abraham Lincoln; his years in service at the White House during the Civil War as a telegraph operator (Charlie was one of the first telegraphers in the nation, which led to his friendship with Lincoln; the president was fascinated by the invention); and the years that followed until his unexpected death of pneumonia while visiting his daughter in Canada. Charlie Tinker, one of the greatest patriots built by America, had died on foreign soil.
It was an enormous box of Charlie’s notes, diaries, photos, correspondence and books that his great-great-grandson, for some reason, put in my office rather than his. Though my schedule was packed, I couldn’t resist a few moments with the man whose White House portrait hangs in our living room.
Charlie. What a life. The stuff of which fiction is written and no one believes, yet it all happened to Charlie and he kept a painstaking account of it all. He befriended a man who became one of the nation’s most important presidents and worked with him in the White House. Charlie handed to Lincoln the surprise telegraph that informed him that, against all odds, he had been re-nominated by his party for a second term. Charlie watched the execution of the boarding house conspirators, then took home their hanging ropes and burned them in his fireplace. With tremendous conviction, he testified in the impeachment trial against Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Charlie never turned down an invitation or a summons.
On a day stuffed with commitments, I had to spend a few minutes with Charlie. The first notebook I picked up was entitled “Dinner At Washington Avenue Baptist Church, Hotel Mohawk, Brooklyn, May 19. 1910.” Preserved in typical Charlie style, there was the program engraved on very thick paper listing the speakers — Charlie was the toastmaster — the committee members and the menu which was quite elaborate. It included filet of beef, roast stuffed turkey, cherry bisque ice cream and demitasse.
There were newspaper clippings that explained that it had been a tribute to the church’s pastor, Dr. Robert MacDonald. Apparently, the good reverend had gotten sideways with part of the church. “There were a few absentees,” reported the news story, “as there still remain some members of the congregation whose views do not quite coincide with the statement of belief recently issued by Dr. MacDonald.”
Charlie, a church deacon and well-meaning mediator always, had apparently concocted the event as a “love feast” for the embattled minister. He kept everything from that evening including his reworked handwritten speech as well as a typed manuscript. The cost was $1.50 per person.
It was the handwritten addressed envelope to Charlie that he would be most anxious for me to share with you, noting that I discovered it on a day before our nation elected another president. The letter says, “Congress, after a long period of delay, has at last rightfully recognized the members of the United States Military Telegraph Corps who served in the army during the War of Rebellion as an integral part of that army, and by Act approved January 26, 1897, fixed its status as a corps of the United States Army.”
War of Rebellion? I’ll skip commentary for a moment in order to applaud Charlie Tinker, who 32 years after what we Southerners call the War of Northern Aggression ended became more than a patriot.
He became, officially, a military man.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.