Just about every week, Charlie Harris hitched a utility trailer to his 1974 Dodge pickup. He'd load his lawn mower on the trailer and drive a couple of miles to Dunn's Chapel United Methodist Church, in Leah, where he would cut the grass.
Long before it was pulling a trailer to church, that pickup, which now belongs to Harris' grandson, carried Harris to lifelong notoriety. Equal in fame to the truck James Brown was driving when he led police officers on a chase through Augusta in 1986, Harris' pickup crashed through the locked gates of the Augusta National Golf Club in 1983.
Harris, a man who deeply loved his country, was upset at having lost his job. His complaints now have an eerie echo of the past repeating itself: He blamed his ill fortune on uncontrolled immigration and the influx of foreign laborers.
Harris had been drinking that day, as he did most days then. At the time it seemed like a good idea to drive into the club on that October afternoon to take up his grievance with a particular visiting golfer: Then-president Ronald Reagan.
He never got to talk to Reagan. But thanks to the prison sentence that followed his hostage-taking stunt at the golf club, Charlie Harris had a lot of time to talk to God.
That time was just what he needed to make a U-turn with his life, says his daughter, Charlene Fulcher. Along with the rest of the family, she's grieving the loss of that changed life. Charlie Harris died of a heart attack July 4.
He went quickly. He'd been to his hunting club that morning, had chatted with his family about his plans for fishing this week, and later enjoyed an Independence Day barbecue. After lunch he settled into his easy chair in front of the TV, and never woke up.
The Charlie Harris everyone remembers is the good-ol' Columbia County boy who got drunk and rammed his pickup through the Augusta National gate. The Charlie Harris his family wishes everyone knew is the man who got saved in prison and drove his pickup to church every Sunday.
This is the Charlie Harris who, after serving his sentence, gave a neighborhood girl a ride to church each week because her parents couldn't. This is the Charlie Harris who started a Sunday school class for teens because he thought they could benefit most from the guidance of one who knew what it was like, literally and figuratively, to take the wrong road.
In addition to the quiet example he set with his changed life, Harris was eager to give his testimony of how that change took place, Charlene says. He never shied away from talking about the gate-crashing incident; it was, after all, the event that turned his life around.
"That gave him time. He had no choice," Charlene says. "He had to think, and got back into his Bible. He actually was baptized in prison."
The testimony resonated with those fortunate enough to hear it. "You wouldn't believe the number of people that have come to us in the past few days and told us what a difference Daddy made," Charlene says.
He didn't make that difference by crashing the National, though that's how everyone knows him. He made that difference by acknowledging his mistake, paying the price for it and coming out the other side a different man.
That's the man his family wants you to remember. "We just want people to see the other side of Charlie Harris: A good Daddy, a good father, a good husband, a good Granddaddy - good to everyone around him," Charlene says. "In the end, he made a difference where it mattered: In his own life."
His family and friends are confident that when the end came, Charlie Harris didn't have to crash the Pearly Gates. They opened wide for the man who drove into the depths of his own despair and found hope that he shared with others.
May he rest in peace.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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