By BILL ARCHER
The first really bad reprimand I received in elementary school was when I was in second grade. I was scolded for sliding in the snow on the sidewalk beside the West Alexander School gymnasium after a visit to Stout’s Confectionery.
When I was in second grade, I thought I was the king of the universe. On the day that some of the high school kids found out I could mimic Elvis Presley’s moves and sing all the lyrics to “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” the kids carried me down the hallway on their shoulders for an unscheduled happening. That reprimand from Mr. Aloe brought me back down to earth.
As it turned out, I had peaked too early and my scholastic career was a downhill slide after my second grade zenith. I found the moment of my coming-out party to be exhilarating, but nothing else I did in school equaled that level of excitement. I didn’t have any special talents outside of being able to remember the words to songs and being able to imitate the moves I saw Elvis perform on television. Getting sent to the principal’s office for sliding on a snow-covered sidewalk was a wake-up call for me. My dreams of fame, glory and all the trappings that go along with notoriety were shattered before I reached my eighth birthday.
I don’t know why Mr. Aloe’s name popped into my mind last Sunday when I read the death notice in the paper for Detective Lt. Charlie Smothers. I guess he just reminded me of Mr. Aloe. Charlie reminded me of a whole lot of people. He had been a deputy sheriff almost as long as I have been a reporter, but I got to know him in so many different contexts that I never knew which Charlie I was going to see at any given moment. Charlie Smothers was such a unique individual that he absolutely blended in almost everywhere. He did not look like a policeman, but he was one of the best I ever knew.
Charlie wasn’t bashful about asking for something if he needed it, but that was part of his charm. He talked slowly as though he was measuring every word before he shared it with you. It would be a mistake to judge his intellect or skills as an investigator based on his appearance or demeanor at any given moment. He knew his stuff and he knew about everyone in the community that he loved and served. He was the same to everyone — black, white, male or female. I envied that about Charlie.
He hated drugs, but he didn’t hate people. As we got to know each other through the years, he would tell me about kids he hoped he could help. I knew some of those kids and wanted to help them too. I often wondered how a guy who looked as old as Charlie sometimes looked could really get to know a teenager who was headed down the wrong path. Charlie tried to save kids before it was too late. It didn’t take me long to realize that he always seemed to know when people weren’t doing right.
That was what reminded me about Mr. Aloe. I was sliding down a steep snow-covered sidewalk, and I was violating a safety rule. I didn’t think anyone had seen me do it, but Mr. Aloe had been watching out the window. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but I could have hurt myself. Mr. Aloe was a caring teacher, although all I could think about at the time was that I was being sent to the principal’s office for what I considered to be a very minor infraction.
Charlie had an incredible ability to blend into the scenery. A few years ago, my wife and I were at some event where there were a lot of people. It must have been something like the Hillsville Flea Market & Gun Show or maybe something else. At one point, I saw Charlie walking along in a crowd of people. I had one of those exciting recognition moments, started to call out his name, but remembered that he worked undercover and that if I identified him in a crowd, I might compromise his work. I looked him in the eye and nodded my head. He looked back at me and didn’t respond. I knew he was working.
During his funeral service, a pastor said Charlie told him that he lived the life of the 23rd Psalm and recited the part about being led beside still waters, but I immediately thought about having a table prepared for me before my enemies. When I mentioned my observation to my wife, she said that as Charlie walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he feared no evil, because God was with him.
Charlie was direct and while both of us honored the barriers that separate the press from the people we report on, I believe I earned Charlie’s respect, and I know he had mine. Sgt. Jose Centeno pointed out that the public rarely sees the work of undercover officers and as a result, the public doesn’t get to know them like they get to know uniformed officers. Because of my work, I got to know Charlie Smothers, and I came to admire his commitment to serving the people of the region. When I saw him, regardless of the disguise he was in at any given time, it always made me smile.
I knew he tried to help with all of his heart.
Bill Archer is a senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.