Ch 3: Chasing Charlie Cain

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Words by Shannon Cain. Images & captions by Maureen Cain.

. . . in which Charlie Cain reveals his deepest fear, Maureen drinks hobo wine and we find 1500 pages of court documents.

SHANNON: Maureen and I need to get on the phone to talk some more about Charlie Cain. I open a bottle of red and sit on a step halfway up my first-floor staircase, the spot with the best internet, to give her a call. "Remember that embarrasing wine thing with Grandpa?" I say when she picks up. "That time on vacation in Ireland?"

"Which thing?" Maureen says. "There were so many things."

"At the table, in a restaurant? The waiter asked if he wanted red or white and he said he'd like some of each, and to bring him an empty glass."

"And he mixed himself up a nice little rosé," Maureen says.

"C'était très gauche. I was mortified."

"What I remember," Maureen says, "is that wine he carried around in a paper bag."

MAUREEN: While Shannon sips wine in the South of France, I hunt for a bottle of Thunderbird, the hobo wine my grandfather used to drink. On the left is the vintage bottle I remember him carrying inside a brown paper bag. Curious about how it tastes, I visit all the sketchiest liquor stores in Seattle, but cannot find a bottle. Several shop owners are offended I even asked. I special order a bottle and wait a week before the Gallo distributor delivers it. The bottle on the right is the one I make my friends and family taste. We mostly agree that it's not as disgusting as we thought it would be, but none of us ever want to drink it again. My nephew said, "It kinda tastes a little like wine, I guess."

"I've been psychoanalizing Grandpa via his memoir," I tell Maureen.

"How entertaining," she observes.

Three weeks before he died on September 20, 1984, our grandfather wrote a very long letter to Nancy Reagan. It’s unclear whether Charlie Cain was a literary experimentalist and had fully intended to craft his memoir in the form of a memorandum to the First Lady of the United States (clever!), or whether he simply sat down with his legal pad to mansplain the air traffic controllers’ strike to her and instead wound up five thousand words later having recounted his life story.

Charlie Cain was an aggressive storyteller and a product of the patriarchy, so one suspects the latter. In any case, this memo has surfaced and it’s a goldmine of information into the brain and psyche of our grandfather.

Page 1 of the 11-page letter my grandfather wrote to Nancy Reagan

An aside: Grandpa's rambling letter reminds me of one I sent to US Senator Barry Goldwater in 1979. My 10-year-old self thought we could solve what I saw as the national crisis of lighthouse operator shortages by filling the positions with "boat people" who were arriving from Cuba and needed jobs. Goldwater's office sent me the above reply, thanking me for my brilliant problem solving skills.

Attached to this newly uncovered document (never sent to the White House, according to my grandmother’s cover note) is an outline for the book he never wrote. Titled “Chapter Headings and Ideas,” it was typed by my grandmother and contains blank spots throughout where she evidently couldn’t decipher his handwriting. Some of the notes are cryptic.

An idea for Chapter 5 reads: Toastmasters I have known. Review Baltimore Catechism -- Morman sugar vs. love BYU were not afraid to play Regis.

Other entries are comic: I outlived all the rotten bastards.

And a note for chapter 15: Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel...speak up for loquacity!

Great news! The National Archives calls me back to tell me they found records of my grandfather's court case. To find the case number, we start with this 1956 handwritten docket from the US District Court. With this number written in pencil on a slip of paper (pens are not allowed in the research room at the National Archives), the archivist goes into the warehouse to retrieve the records. She returns lugging a big box and says, "It must have been a huge case and a long trial."

Bad news! There are 1500 pages of court transcripts that are too fragile to send through the rollers of a scanner so I'll have to photograph them one by one. But first I skim over the table of contents. The archivist is right. It was a big case. The trial went on for 12 days. The jury heard from two dozen witnesses. Hundreds of pieces of paper were provided as evidence that my grandfather swindled money from innocent folks.

But mostly it’s a memoir that leans heavily upon good salesmanship as a metaphor for a successful life. He wants to tell the reader all about his experiences selling insurance, advertising, encyclopedias and newspapers. About his salesmen heroes. About why salesmen are the best sort of men you’ll ever meet.

However the bombshell is the opening sentence of this memoir outline, a phrase I can’t help put together with his earlier reference to “keeping my nose clean,” not to mention those 1500 pages of court transcripts. His intentions for Chapter One add to the pile of evidence that Grandpa was guilty as hell. The chapter was to be titled Some con men I have known. Followed by a parenthetical: (super salesmen).

Yep. Guilty as hell. I haven't read all 1500 pages yet, but this gem at the bottom of the stack confirms my grandfather's guilt. "We the jury in the above entitled cause find the defendant CHARLES P. CAIN guilty." Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Five counts.

"I found some snippets at the end of his outline," I say to Maureen on the phone.

"Snippets?" she repeats. Our wifi connection is failing. The stones in this village are thick.

I read her these scraps of his words: my bout with mental illness; the manic side, the depression side -- probably a nutritional deficiency. Lithium carbonate history, etc.

Basic fears, my dying Grandpa continues, on his last page: poverty, ill health, loss of love of someone.

Loss of love of someone.

"Who was Someone?" I ask Maureen, but the line has gone dead.

Grandpa wrote these words three weeks before his death, just days before he got in his car, leaving his wife in Denver, to say goodbye to the woman in Texas. He died along the way, in Tucson. I think of my grandmother at the typewriter, transcribing those words after his funeral, understanding her husband’s final and most basic fear was losing the love of this other Someone.

I'm getting closer to learning who that "someone" might be. In my late father's pop-up address book from his days an IBM executive, I find an entry for "Dad - Dallas" with a phone number. This means my grandfather gave the phone number of his mistress to his son. This makes me sad for my grandmother - her husband and her son conspired against her. My next step: find the name attached to this phone number and give them a call.

Next chapter: Maureen photographs 1500 pages of court documents. Shannon attempts to tell the stories of the people Grandpa swindled.

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