FLINT — “Start from the beginning,” someone says. “When did the boy come into your life?”
Charles leans back in his chair, crosses his arms. “I was going with his mom. She come up pregnant. She said it was mine. But when I went to the hospital and seen him, he wasn’t mine. And I told her so.”
“Did she admit it?”
Charles sighs. “Eventually,” he says.
He scratches his cheek. On his head is a blue baseball cap, on his feet, a pair of open-toed slippers. His eyes look tired. His whole face looks tired. His back is bad now, and he isn’t able to work.
On the wall is a photo of the boy, James, now a junior college basketball player, the one Charles calls “son.”
“Did you know his real father?” he is asked.
“Yes, I did. His name was C. J. We had our troubles.”
“He came at me with a knife once. If not for my dogs, he’d a killed me. Another time, he had a gun. Dogs saved me then, too.”
Charles shrugs. “I got tired of that. Wanted to get away from him and her. So I moved out of Michigan. Went to Texas.
“A few weeks later, lo and behold, they came down there, too.”
In Texas, Charles became involved with James’ mother again. But, he says, she got deep into drugs and was out most nights, leaving Charles to take care of the boy. He didn’t mind. In fact, he sort of liked it. He fed the child. Bathed him. Amused him.
But there were troubles with the mother. And then C. J. came around, and there were more fights and more confrontations, just the thing Charles had moved to Texas to get away from.
“So why did you stay?” he is asked.
“Because,” he says, “one morning, James was making noise the way babies do, crying or something, he was only 1 year old — and James’ mother got irritated. She didn’t want to deal with him.
“So she threw him up against the wall.”
He shakes his head sadly. “It scared him real bad.”
“What did you do?”
“I took him outside. I calmed him down. And I made him a promise.”
“Yes. I said I would not leave him until he was old enough to take care of himself.
“And that’s why I stayed.”
What makes a family? Is it blood, or something even thicker? Charles Kelso is 50 years old, the younger brother of Ben Kelso, a former college star and NBA player who went on to become a legendary coach at Detroit’s Cooley High. Ben and Charles, along with nine brothers and sisters, grew up in Tennessee, without a dad. Their house was a two-room shack with planks on the floor. They scrambled for everything, even food.
Through basketball, Ben was able to grab the rare lifeline out of there. He got a degree, a good job, a wife and kids.
Charles was not so lucky.
He quit school before he learned to read and write. He cannot read or write today. He cobbled together a working life, construction, cutting lawns, borrowing here and there, getting by.
But Charles was not without his skills, and one of them was patience with children. So, in keeping his promise, he stayed in Texas and raised young James. He taught him to swim. He taught him to ride a bicycle. He helped develop the athletic skill that would later make James a starting high school basketball player. In the evenings, they would go fishing, Charles putting worms on the hook, dropping their lines. Together they would sit, under the clouds, waiting for a bite.
Finally, when James was nearly 5 years old, things got bad again between Charles and James’ mother, and Charles figured he needed to leave Texas and get his life back. He had already taught James how to stand up for himself against his older cousins, even if he was so young. And so, reluctantly, Charles kissed the boy good-bye, promising to return if he ever needed him.
And then C. J. showed up.
“I figured, oh, no, he’s gonna fight me again,” Charles says. “But he said he just wanted to talk. That was the first conversation we ever had. He was into drugs bad, shooting up, heroin, whatever, and he said to me that day, ‘If something ever happens to me, I know you’ll take care of James.’
“Anyhow, I left the next morning. I drove back to Flint. When I got home, there was a phone call. They said they found C. J. with a needle in his arm, sitting on the toilet.
“He was dead.”
And lo and behold, as Charles puts it, a few days later, James and his mother were back in Michigan — once again, just a few miles from Charles — for C. J.’s funeral.
At the church, James’ mother walked the boy up to the casket.
“That’s your daddy,” she said.
“That’s not my daddy,” James said. “I don’t know that man. Charles is my daddy.”
Dad and son come together
Here is James now, 18 years old, all grown up, his hair braided back over a gentle young face. He sits a few feet from Charles in their small house in Burton, just outside Flint.
James does not look like Charles. He does not speak like Charles. But he calls Charles “Dad” and Charles calls him “son” and a thousand blood tests will never change that fact.
James is a basketball player. For three years, he was a point guard at Flint Northwestern High School, starting much of that time, averaging 17 points per game as a senior while earning all-state honorable mention honors from the Free Press. He shared the backcourt with Kelvin Torbert, one of the nation’s top players, who now stars for Michigan State.
Charles, like any father, encouraged James in his sports and took pride in his success. James would hear his voice during those crazy loud evenings in the high school gym, Charles screaming, “Bear down!” or “Shoot it!” or “Get back on defense!” James didn’t even need to look up.
“I always knew he was there,” he says.
This is not a sentence to be taken lightly. Because James, like too many children today, couldn’t count on his real father to be anywhere. To make matters worse, James was often a pawn in his mother’s stormy relationships. Although he lived much of his life under Charles’ roof, James was bounced back and forth to his mother in Ann Arbor “whenever she’d get mad with my dad.”
In Ann Arbor, James lived a different life. There was no guidance. Little discipline. His mother, he says, was still heavy into drugs.
“We lived in a dope house, basically,” he says. “People slept there at night, all around, on the floor. For a stretch, when I was like 12 or 13, I got into it, too. I was smoking marijuana, running a few things. You know, when you’re a kid and you’re in a house with nothing but dope dealers, and you can take something somewhere and make a few hundred bucks — I figured, why not?
“I was 12 years old with $300 in my pocket.”
Left alone, who knows where he’d be? But Charles would come and get him, take him back to Flint, try to keep him straight. He’d tell him he had to go to school. He’d warn him about what drugs had done to so many other people he’d known.
Then, one night, when James was in the ninth grade, the police, he says, raided his mother’s house.
“They came upstairs and kicked in my door,” James says, “I had been sleeping. I thought someone was robbing us.
“But then people started running through my room. Two guys jumped out my window. And then the police busted in and I threw the cover over me and they put a gun to my head.”
“That’s when I knew my dad was right. I came back here. And I been with him ever since.”
Protect them, and they’ll protect you
Now understand. Charles has no legal obligation to James. He never adopted him. He could have walked away at any point, said, “It’s not my responsibility.”
Instead, Charles fed James, clothed him, bought him school books and winter coats, bought a hoop for the driveway and asked his nephew to work with James until he was so good, he had to make the high school team.
He got James away from drugs, kept him away from danger, saw him through to his high school diploma, a diploma that Charles is extremely proud of — even though he cannot read the words on the document.
“He’s loved me all my life,” James says, looking over at Charles, who simply smiles from his chair. “If not for him, I might be in jail somewhere. Or dead.”
Instead, he is in junior college, and when he comes home he reads the newspaper to his father, or he reads the mail, or if they are driving, the street signs. He helps his father train dogs, a task for which Charles has an uncanny talent.
“The trick to training dogs,” Charles says, “is to let them know early on that you’re gonna protect them. And then, when they get older, they protect you.”
Kind of like children, right?
“Yeah,” he says. “Kind of like children.”
On another day, this might be the end of the story; a man, who could have hated a child for not being his, instead chooses to love him, to raise him, to make him educated and athletic.
But there is one more twist. James, a few years ago, began asking Charles if he could take in two of James’ cousins, Kiama and Jasmine, two more kids cast adrift, their father out of the picture.
James remembered playing with the girls when he was a child, remembered they were good kids then, only now their mother had died and one of the girls had been in all kinds of legal trouble, stealing, running the streets, she had been “locked up” in a juvenile home and James had gone to see her and he felt so bad that he kept asking Charles, please, please, and so now, cut to the chase, the two girls — Kiama is 17, Jasmine is 16 — live with Charles, too.
And just like that, he is a father of three.
He has no money for such a household. Injuries have left him unable to work. He scrapes by with the help of his brother, Ben, and his nephew, Aaron. He lives week to week. Hand to mouth. Things are tough now, and there is not even enough cash for a Christmas tree, let alone any presents.
Still, Charles does what he can. He provides a roof. He provides food and warmth. Most importantly, he provides a heart that cares, and something the two girls have rarely known, someone who will be there when they come home from school.
“What does it mean to be a father?” Charles is asked.
“To be a father?” He removes his baseball cap, and scratches his balding head.
“Well, to me it means you can’t imagine walking away from a child in need.
“I didn’t ask for all this. But God does things for a reason. I was dropped into it. And now me and these kids are connected at the hip.”
Today is Christmas, a family holiday. But there are too many biological fathers who don’t deserve the honor. Things are not perfect in the house in Burton. But James is playing ball and studying secondary education. Jasmine is a budding hoops star. Kiama is getting good grades.
And Charles Kelso, who never fathered any kids of his own, has a family. A child knocks. Your heart makes room.
That’s a Christmas story, isn’t it?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).