Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Farewell to a Friend


Brigadier General William R. Charbonneau

I got the call the day after Christmas. It explained everything; and raised more questions than I could ever imagine. A friend for the past 40 years had passed away. Father Bill was home. We were blessed with a unique friendship. A Catholic Priest, a reformed Jew, a love of G-d and a desire to understand what we had in common.
 
Bill Charbonneau and I met accidently, if there is such a thing. I was an “all night” radio personality in Hartford, Connecticut. Occasionally, between songs, I would make brief comments on the politics of the time. Back in 1973, Watergate was the hot topic, and I recall the press attacking then President Nixon with a passion. I simply stated, “on-air,” that everyone, by our law, is innocent until proven guilty. And by that fundamental concept, President Nixon should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.  With open phones, listeners would call in and choose to agree or disagree. My first caller, clearly inebriated, blurted, “Nixon is as guilty as sin.” Why, I don’t know, but I responded with “you’re a f*ckin’ assh*le” and ended our brief interaction. Obviously, the call never made it on the air. The incident was forgotten.

Several weeks later, our radio station hosted an annual “Bridal Fair” at a local hotel. It was an event all the air personalities hated. We had to be fitted for tuxedos (most of us were single in those days and relatively averse to marriage) and then model the latest styles for the thousands of future brides in attendance. The brides weren’t there to see their favorite dj’s … but to see wedding gowns, florists, honeymoon planners, caterers, photographers, and jewelers.

One of the events at the Bridal Fair was an interfaith wedding panel. One of the panelists was a young priest. Someone introduced him to me as Father Bill, and I identified myself as Ed Mitchell (my air name in those days). A moment of confusion flashed across Bill’s face, then, a smile, a chuckle, and he said, “So you’re the SOB that called me a f*ckin’ assh*le?” My response still stuns me. “Well, Father, evidently I was right!” Father Bill laughed, slapped me on the shoulder, and said, “it must have been the scotch talking.” From that moment on, Father William R. Charbonneau and I were friends.

Bill loved hockey, so every now and then we would go to watch the Hartford Whalers play. He never mentioned he was the official Chaplain of the team. When he could get out of “uniform” Bill would enjoy a drink or two with his friends, and I was proud to be in that group. Father Bill also had a wicked sense of humor. He served as the Chaplain for the Waterbury, CT police department. More than happy to do Bill a favor, I once had a couple of officers show up at my door with a “warrant” and hand-cuffs. “Arrested” for some zoning disturbance for excessive volume on my stereo system, I had to answer questions for about 45 minutes before Bill couldn’t take it anymore and came in the interrogation room laughing hysterically.

On another occasion, my roommate and I hosted a Halloween Party. Bill’s costume? The Pope. Sacrilegious – absolutely. But it came in handy when the Police again arrived at my door to complain about the noise. Only this time, it wasn’t a prank. Bill’s connections helped settle the situation and I’m one of the few people in the world who can claim the “Pope” crashed at my house for a night. Over the next forty years, we kept in touch while my career took me to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and San Antonio.  Father Bill became a vicar of St. John of the Cross Church in Middlebury, Connecticut and the Principal of East Catholic High School, the school he attended as a youngster. Father Bill was a bit of a “rebel” in the structured church. In November 1974, Bill was called by his friends Ed & Lorraine Warren to a home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Warrens were the Founders of the New England Center for Psychic Research and the lead investigators into the now famous Amityville Horror. Recognized throughout the world as leaders in Psychic Phenomenon and Paranormal Activity, the Warrens called Father Bill to a home where a child was exhibiting supernatural abilities. In January of 1975, the National Enquirer quoted Father Bill as acknowledging poltergeist activity and psychic energy. Father Charbonneau, later told me, rather tactfully, that the Church frowned upon such admissions and he had been officially reprimanded.

Bill and I would often talk about why he joined the Priesthood. He admitted the part of the “job” he liked the least, was parish work. He didn’t feel comfortable working out marital problems, or getting caught in squabbles with church elders. What he loved, was working with the kids. He would say, “I’m not married, I don’t know any other relationship than the one I have with G-d and I question that from time to time, and I’m sure as heck not qualified to be giving advice to couples having problems. But I do know kids. I was one. I am one. And I know I can relate to them.” The Archdiocese put Bill into a school system and both Father Charbonneau and the schools thrived.

But that wasn’t enough for Bill.  In 1979, he was commissioned as a Chaplain for the Connecticut Air National Guard.  Soon, he was promoted to wing Chaplain.  In 1986, the Archdiocese “loaned” Father Bill to the Air National Guard and he moved to Washington, DC.    Bill was not one to wear his faith on his sleeve, his strength was within.  And he was not one to judge you for having doubts about your own faith.  He was the consummate listener; and by listening, he helped you find your own answers.  As part of his responsibilities he would fly to meet with aviators in Antarctica and Germany; and in his later years, meet with veterans of Desert Storm and the Iraqi War.  Rewarded for his good work, Pope John Paul II named Bill as “Monsignor” in 2002, while the Military recognized his efforts with the Meritorious Service Award, The Air Force Commendat5ion Medal, The Air Force Achievement Medal, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Air Force Organizational Force Achievement Medal, the Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Humanitarian Service Medal.  This was the guy I called a “f*ckin’ assh*le”.  This was my drinking buddy.  This was the “Pope” who crashed at my house.  This was someone I proudly called friend.
 
Father Bill with my dog Stash

Over the years, Father Bill and I connected every year around Christmas. He’d ask about my kids and career, and he would play down his adventures and accomplishments when I would ask. When spoke last Christmas he was looking forward to retiring. Bill would return to Connecticut to continue his commitment to the Archdiocese. He had sold his townhouse in Alexandria and purchased a new home in Connecticut. Typical of Bill, he was embarrassed by the address on “Lavender Lane,” so he chose to rent a P.O. Box to receive mail. I was surprised to learn he wouldn’t be released from the Guard until he fully recovered from a lung infection he developed on one of his overseas missions. And he had to complete his counseling program. He was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bill explained that Chaplains and Psychiatrists/Psychologists hear so many horrific stories from our returning troops that the nightmares are often transferred to the counselors. It had never occurred to me. The caregivers needed care, too.

I was going to call him in April when he would be settled into his new home; but chose to send an email allowing him to respond when he had time. And I reached out to him on Facebook. He must have been busy, he didn’t reply. The call Sunday explained why.

On May 1st, 2010; Colonel William R. Charbonneau was promoted to Brigadier General in the Connecticut Air National Guard. On May 5th, Father Bill Charbonneau, my friend, died of a heart attack at the age of 61. He served his Faith and his Country with honor. Bill taught me about service, integrity, and commitment.  Most of all, Bill Charbonneau taught me what it meant to be a friend. I would tell Bill to "rest in peace," but I know better.  I have no doubt Father William R. Charbonneau is still serving his Lord and I believe Bill has received the ultimate promotion from his true Commanding Officer.

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