The Curtain Has Fallen

This is the last chapter. Oh sure, there are a few small details to wrap up but this is it. The End. The Conclusion. The Finish. The Curtain Has Fallen.

On Friday, November 26, 2021 I buried my wife of 30 years. A light dusting of snow fell the night before. It was overcast and gloomy. It was cold and some light snow flurries swirled in the frigid air. It was a good day for a burial. I had the honor of delivering the eulogy. It only took about 5 minutes.

Charlotte Wells came into this world on April 13th 1964 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the second of two children born to Nathaniel and Barbara Wells. 

I first met Charlotte at our workplace, a law firm, in Orlando, Florida in 1989. She was 25 years old and fresh out of Rollins College. She was an assistant in the firm’s law library and I was running a copy machine. I still have a vivid memory of her face on that day and how beautiful she was. 

She hardly knew me but one day out of the blue she walked into the copy room and looked right at me and asked, Do you know where there are any parties this weekend? That’s when we started dating. We moved into an apartment together in June 1990. We had almost nothing. Five years later we eloped to Las Vegas and got married in a church called The Little Church of the West. It was built in 1942 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Charlotte had every good quality that a person could have. She was kind, gentle, strong, caring, hard-working, reliable, honest, practical, loyal, creative, appreciative and sensitive. She was perceptive, thoughtful, willing, experienced, open-minded, intelligent, witty and much, much more. Charlotte had very few faults. She could be insecure at times. During those times I would remind her that she had great value and that she was a powerful woman. She could also be jealous and possessive – of me! And look at me. Can you really blame her?

Charlotte loved all animals but horses especially. She preferred the company of animals over people. I can’t say I blame her. She owned 4 horses and cared for many others. She rode her horses when she could but what she really enjoyed were the many hours of grooming, bathing, feeding, hoof care and training. She became an accomplished and knowledgeable horse woman. She also loved rock and roll – especially the blues. She enjoyed buying clothes and dressing to look good. She really enjoyed receiving gifts of expensive jewelry from me. 

I’d say that Charlotte and I had a relationship that was as close to perfect as any relationship could be. We loved each other very much and we were totally devoted to one another. Here’s why our relationship was perfect - Charlotte was a person who needed to be loved and cared for and I was a person who needed to show love and to care for someone. It was a perfect fit.

Now, when I look back on our 30 years together it seems like it was all a dream. I still can’t believe that a kind, wonderful, tall, beautiful girl with blonde hair married a caveman like me. It just doesn't seem real. 

Now, we wish Charlotte peace in Eternity. She has entered the last sleep free of pain and care and worry. But Charlotte’s spirit will live on in everyone who loved her. We’re here today to remember Charlotte and commit her ashes to this sacred ground. It won’t be long until I’ll return here to spend eternity with her. 

A lot of men refer to their wives as angels. But when I say my wife’s an angel it’s because now it’s true. Goodbye bunny. I’ll love you forever. 

And no, I didn't have someone else bury her. I literally buried her. The cemetery's gravediggers dug the grave. I placed the urn holding her ashes into the grave and I used my shovel to place the dirt on top of the urn. Being careful to not touch the urn, I used the shovel to break up the clodded Ohio clay into smaller pieces so it would better fit.  I packed the earth down with my foot.  Some friends helped me get the gravestone out of the bed of my pickup. We placed it upon the concrete foundation and sealed it with some special putty I got from the funeral home.  

This act was not horrible to me at all. I felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity. It gave me a true feeling of closure and relief. 

Charlotte died of cancer in November 2020 and was cremated. I was by Charlotte's side when she got her cancer diagnosis. I took her to all her doctors appointments and chemo treatments. I took her to the emergency room a number of times. I cooked healthy food for her. I took her on her last vacation to the Smoky Mountains. I was with her at the hospital when her oncologist advised us to go home and call hospice. Toward the end I helped her to the bathroom and cleaned her body. I placed her in the bed she died in. I held her hand as the life slowly ebbed from her body. I saw this whole horrible thing through from beginning to end. I did it and now it's done.

We had no plans for getting older. Charlotte was supposed to live into her 90s like her family and I was supposed to die young like my family. Charlotte was six years younger then me and was going to take care of me when I got old. We never had kids so I won't have children to rely on for help.  As my health wanes and the lights begin to flicker I'll have to leave our beloved farm. I won't be able to do the work needed to maintain the property. It's pretty unlikely I'll ever meet anyone who could love me as much as Charlotte did. 

Now my future is uncertain. I might be able to retire in a couple of years and travel a bit but after that I don't know.

When someone you love dies so quickly you realize how precious life is. It's a cliche but it's true. The confidence of  youth is replaced by fear and uncertainly and the knowledge that you could be the next to go at any time. I've been damaged by this experience but when my parents died 40 plus years ago I learned that there's nothing more we can do for those who have passed onto the next world. It's our job, our duty to continue living our lives right here in this world. The clock keeps ticking. Life goes on.

I still feel her presence. I see her in my dreams and I still cry. Caring for Charlotte, serving as her husband and burying her was the honor of my life. I'll never forget her and the love we shared as long as I live.


Who'll Stop The Rain


[click to view the wide-screen version on YouTube]

Long as I remember the rain been comin' down
Clouds of mystery pourin' confusion on the ground
Good men through the ages tryin' to find the sun
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?


I wanted to do a quick video to give folks a look at the progress on my airport shuttle bus to RV conversion project.

I haven’t provided any updates since June, and, no. I haven’t given up. – not yet anyway.

As you can see I’ve scrapped out all the interior. seats, overhead bins, wheelchair lift, ceiling panels, everything. when i did, it revealed quite a few water leaks. I was so excited to start designing and building the interior – but for the past three months I’ve been trying to find and plug the leaks.

I was lucky to be starting this project at the beginning of the rainy season here in Florida. the constant rain is showing me where the leaks are – and showing me where my repairs are holding and also where they’re not not holding.

My next step is removing and resealing all the windows. I just resealed this front window and it still leaked so i added some sealant. when the next big rain comes we’ll see if it holds. let’s go up on the roof.

I’m using this stuff called Eternabond seam sealing tape for RVs to seal all the seams.

I removed the emergency escape hatch and filled it in with an aluminum sheet. now it’s ready to install my rooftop r-v air conditioner. once I get my AC unit and my vent fan installed in the roof I’ll know how much room I have left over for solar panels.

I’ve been giving some thought to my interior layout. for me a queen sized bed is non-negotiable. I’m thinking about a 40 gallon fresh water tank. To make it easier to plumb, I want to keep the shower and the galley sink on the left side. over here on the other side I’m thinking about putting in a small booth-type dinette table with bench seating. it’s all preliminary right now. Still brainstorming ideas.

Of course, all this work is taking more time then I’d like. sometimes I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. I don’t want to be a thousand miles from home and have a water leak that damages my interior. if I can take some extra time now and put in the extra effort I hope it pays off in the future with a lot of good travel memories.

So that’s all for now. I hope to make some more progress and be back with another update soon. Until then, so long and happy trails. For The Howell Report, I’m Chris Howell.


Two Years Ago

Two years ago it was July 2019. 24 months.  It was hot and rainy. The usual summer weather.  The grass was bright green and shooting up every day.  I remember a certain Saturday. We lived on 10 acres and cutting the grass was a huge job. I usually took care of all of it but I thought it would be helpful to have my wife Charlotte help. She agreed to take on the front yard. Not a real big yard but with the heat and humidity in the summer it's still difficult. 

I rode the tractor around cutting the fields and she attacked the front yard with our push mower.  If Charlotte spent too much time in the sun she would overheat. After mowing the front yard she was flush and had a bit of a headache. I helped her into the house, cooled her off with a damp towel and a cold glass of water. I specifically remember looking at her face. 

I forget the details of the rest of the day but our Saturdays tended to all be the same. Work around the property. Gather up all the trash and drive it over to our local dump. Get cleaned up. Go to the grocery store. Saturdays were our only day to go out for dinner together. So we would go out to one of the handful of local restaurants we loved. This was our regular Saturday routine for the previous 18 years.

I'm sure we spent the whole day together. We spent almost every day together. Like a lot of older couples we were at that point in life were things were getting comfortable and secure. We were both happy in our jobs. We had saved a little money and weren't struggling to pay our bills. We had a modest home that we loved. I lived to make her happy.  I would try to do or say something to get her to smile. We were devoted to one another. We thoroughly enjoyed each others company. We didn't fight. We loved each other. 

Just two years ago, on that Saturday in July 2019 Charlotte had no idea she had a cancerous tumor growing inside her. Two weeks later we would get the worst news of our lives. Just 15 months later she would be dead. It all happened so fast. 24 months. Life is short. Take care of your people. Cherish those you love.


Photo Gallery - The Platform

What do we have to work with?  2011 Chevrolet G4500, 6.6 L Duramax diesel/biodiesel. Let's take a look at the platform I'll be using to make my RV.


Two Fatal Errors

Where all the magic happens.
“There are two fatal errors that keep great projects from coming to life:
1) Not finishing
2) Not starting”
Buddha Gautama 

I stumbled upon the Skoolie community.  Those are folks who take old school buses and convert them into RVs. Some of them are fabulous. The idea was really appealing to me. I watched a hundred YouTube videos of people enjoying their decked-out buses with huge bedrooms and full-sized appliances. Some couples travel with their young children. Many of the Skoolie people have made the mistake of thinking you can make a living from Instagram. Anyway, you can pick up a good, retired school bus for cheap. Then I started considering the downsides.  Difficult and costly to convert. Costly to maintain. A set of tires can run nearly 3 thousand dollars. And again, a school bus, even the smaller 44 passenger versions, would be too large, too complex and, too costly for me to maintain. 

How about those small school buses?  The 15 passenger types for disabled or special needs students. A good compromise. But I learned most of those are barely 6 foot tall inside. I couldn't find one that's still in decent shape.

At this point I'm still researching but my options are running out. How about a cargo van, like a small U-Haul truck? Has the box on the back and the nose of a normal van. I found some locally with a 16 foot box on the back and a Ford van front end with about 150,000 miles. A good idea but the drawback? They all had the Ford V-10. Some say it's a good engine, others say it's junk. But everyone says it gets 9 or 10 MPG and that was a deal killer for me.

I found some other box vans at a truck sales lot here in Orlando. Ford's with the 5.4 liter Triton V-8. Some love this motor and some don't. I have one in my 2007 F-150 and I don't have confidence in it. I've heard about some cam gear failures and timing chain issues. It cost me 300 dollars just to change the spark plugs.

How about an old ambulance? Those are built like tanks. But the ones I found didn't have that much room in the back. And they have a lot of existing cubbyholes and cabinets that restrict your design.

I'm down to an airport shuttle bus. Small enough but also large enough. Good interior height. Many of those I found were Fords. But after searching and searching I finally found my new project. I bought a 2011 Chevrolet Express G4500, 15 passenger shuttle bus. It has the 6.6 liter Duramax diesel engine. Rated at 445 horsepower and 910 pound-feet of torque. They have been known to get 19 or more MPG on the highway. It runs on diesel or bio-diesel. It's not unusual for them to last 300,000 miles. Mine has 111,000 on it right now. It was owned by the U.S. Government. Retired from duty at the National Institutes of Health research campus in Durham, North Carolina. So, it's never seen salt. 

I'm avoiding the first fatal error. I'm starting. Since I bought it my mental health has improved 1000%. I've got a goal. This is going to be a huge job. I believe I'm up to the task. I'm so happy. I've got a project!

NEXT POST: Coming soon - Photo Gallery - The Platform



Wanting Something is Easy

Charlotte and Gavilinda 2014
“Everything is easier said than done. Wanting something is easy. Saying something is easy. The challenge and the reward are in the doing.”
Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience 

I'll be eligible for my full Social Security benefits at 661/2.  My three-year-plan is slowly coming into focus. If I can keep my job for the next three years, I'll be good.

A loose outline of my three-year-plan is:

  1. Elegantly unwind a 30 year marriage. Sell, donate or give away about 90 percent of the stuff we have accumulated. Be ready, if necessary, to easily sell my house in a 30 day window.
  2. Build a luxury, long-distance camper to my personal specifications.
  3. Maintain my job and health.
  4. All other things necessary to retire in April 2024.

For the last 20 years or so Charlotte cared for her horses. The last one, the one she loved the most, Gavilinda, had to be put down February 25, 2020.  If we wanted to go on a vacation or even a weekend getaway for a few days we'd have to find someone to look after those big, dumb animals. It was almost impossible to find someone who was trustworthy and who could come out to our remote farm location twice a day to water, feed and muck stalls. So, in 20 years we almost never went on a vacation together. For 20 years we never left the house together for more then a day on maybe 3 or 4 occasions. 

So, after being cooped up here for so long, the first thing I'd like to do after I retire is travel. I'd like to see all my friends I've made over the years scattered all over the U.S. Many of them have come to visit me, some multiple times, so I owe everyone a visit. I'd like to explore all the natural beauty of our country. As I've seen from my friend's many Facebook posts, the national parks are lovely. As an automobile race fan, there are so many races and tracks I'd like to visit. I'm looking at you Road America.  I'm tired of watching the Indy 500 on TV.  And I need to see my family, who I love dearly. What I need is an RV.

Some of you may have read about my previous project. Why don't I just use the travel trailer I built out of a cargo trailer?  It was designed for 2 people so it's too big. I feel uncomfortable towing it. I just don't like it. Fills me with stress to have that thing behind me. It's OK for short trips but I wouldn't take it on an extended trip. Certainly not from Florida to any western states.

Since Charlotte is gone now, one big part of my three-year-plan is to scale down my life. Get rid of all the clutter. I'm selling, throwing away or giving away so many things now. I'm also getting rid of my camper trailer.

At first I thought I'd like a camper van. I looked at some that are already built out. They're called Class B RVs. Talk about clutter! They cram everything and the kitchen sink into such a tiny area. Then, I thought I might build my own camper van. A great idea because I could build to my own specifications. Make it custom with just the amenities I want. This year I camped at Sebring in my trailer and I realized I really like the room to stand up and move around. I would like a little more room than what you find in a regular van. I did consider those wheelchair vans with the extended roofs and even a box truck. 

I looked at the next size up. Class C RVs. Most of those are 28-31 feet long. Way too big for just one person. Unless you buy new and special order, you have to take the design, appliances, amenities and other details they come with. I even looked at a few Class A motorhomes.  Way too big with complicated infrastructure that would be a nightmare to maintain.  A lot of people bought RVs and took to the highway during the pandemic so there is a bit of an RV shortage now. I'm just not impressed with the build quality. For me the poor workmanship of many RVs is a deal breaker.

I have a pretty specific idea of what I want and nothing off the shelf will be a good fit. I have the skills and desire to make my own RV.  I'm doing it. This is probably the last major construction project I'll ever do.

NEXT POST: Coming soon - Two Fatal Errors


Hope and Planning

New Year's Eve 2018
“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

As one gets older the passage of time takes on divine and mysterious properties. One day you're in your 30s shopping for ceiling fans and you're working and struggling to get somewhere in life. It's easy to lose track of time. Suddenly, shockingly, it seems like two weeks later you look in the mirror and you're 50 years old and you're a bit offended when you get offered your first senior discount. Age is sneaky. It happens when you're not looking. Your first move: deny you're old. After all, 50 is the new 30. Hey, you're only as young as you feel. Up until December 2020, I knew I was getting older but I had given the least amount of thought to retirement.

My family are all notorious early-diers. All my grandparents, except one, died before I was born. My dad died at 56 years old. My mother died at 54. For years I thought I was paying into a Social Security system that I wouldn't live to benefit from.  By contrast my wife, Charlotte, comes from a family of long-livers.  Her father regularly biked and golfed until a few months before his death at 92. His siblings lived well into their mid-to-late 90s. Charlotte's mother, despite smoking and drinking, is still around in her late 80s.  

The only retirement "plans" I ever had were that at some point, if I lived long enough, I would stop working. Date undetermined. Charlotte, who was six years younger then me and in perfect health, would continue to work for 10-20 years while I keeled over dead. Then, suddenly in August 2019 Charlotte was diagnosed with stage four Colo-rectal cancer and 15 months later she was dead. To say I was shocked is the most unforgivable understatement. 

Charlotte's death was the worse thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life. I also died a little inside. I went a little insane. Charlotte and I were together for 30 years and we had the happiest marriage. In those last 15 months we were especially close which made her loss seem unnecessarily cruel. The first couple of months after that tragedy I walked around in a fog filled with grief and depression. My journey through hell deserves it's own essay but that story will be told another time. Two important concepts that got me through my months of hell after her death was hope and planning for the future.

Having hope for the future was the only thing that got Charlotte and I through the months of chemotherapy and her other agonizing cancer treatments. If you don't have hope, you've got nothing. If you can think about and visualize where you want to be and how you might get there you have hope. Now I'm on my own again. Alone. Her death forced me to confront my own mortality. It's apparent I need to make and execute a plan for today, for retirement, and beyond.  

NEXT POST: Coming soon - Wanting Something Is Easy


Guys Like Him

2018 Kris Kristofferson - by 2eight - DSC5043 cropped
I dig Bobby Dylan
and I dig Johnny Cash
and I think Waylon Jennings
is a table-thumping smash
And hearing Joni Mitchell
feels as good as smoking grass
And if you don't like
Hank Williams, honey
You can kiss my ass.

Country music star Toby Keith accepted the Presidential Medal of Arts from Trump on January 13th.  Keith accepted the award one week after Trump incited a riot at the U.S. Capitol by his supporters that killed 5 people and injured at least 50 police officers. It's a weak argument to say Keith is just a singer and not political. He wrote a song glorifying military aggression. Keith writes patriotic songs but has never served in the military. He has done 11 tours with the USO between 2002 and 2013.

After the news of the award come out, a Music Director and Producer from Oregon Public Broadcasting (@jeradwalker) posted some text from a 2009 Rolling Stone profile of Kris Kristofferson on Twitter. I had never heard the story before but thought it was funny enough to write a post about.  I'm not going to write a bio of Kristofferson here but as far as military service no one can argue that Kristofferson hasn't paid his dues. A few highlights...

  • U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, attained the rank of Captain.
  • Professional helicopter pilot
  • Instructor at West Point
  • Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University where he studied Shakespeare and Blake
  • He wrote Me and Bobby McGee, a number one hit for Janis Joplin
  • Four-time Grammy winner
  • Academy award nominee
  • Golden Globe winner 

Actor and Director Ethan Hawke wrote a lengthy and detailed profile of Kristofferson in 2009 for Rolling Stone. In it Hawke tells a story about an event backstage at the Beacon Theater in New York in 2003. Present were Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Ray Charles.  A lot of other stars were there for Willie Nelson's 70th birthday celebration and concert.  Hawke wrote that a country music star walked by.  He doesn't reveal the star's name but says "...the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age.".  Obviously, it could only be Toby Keith. Hawke's story ...

As he (Keith) passed Kristofferson out of the corner of his mouth came “None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.”

“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Kris growled, stepping forward.

“Oh, no,” groaned Willie under his breath. “Don’t get Kris all riled up.”

“You heard me,” the Star said, walking away in the darkness.

“Don’t turn your back to me, boy,” Kristofferson shouted.

The Star turned around: “I don’t want any problems, Kris – I just want you to tone it down.”

“You ever worn your country’s uniform?” Kris asked rhetorically.

“Don’t ‘What?’ me, boy! You heard the question. You just don’t like the answer.” He paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. “I asked, ‘Have you ever served your country?’ The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!” I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”

“Whatever,” the young Star muttered.

Ray Charles stood motionless. Willie Nelson looked at me and shrugged mischievously like a kid in the back of the classroom.

Kristofferson took a deep inhale and leaned against the wall, still vibrating with adrenaline. He looked over at Willie as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” Then his eyes found me.

“You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?” he whispered.

I shook my head.

“They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’.” 

Toby Keith denied that it ever happened. Kristofferson, trying to be diplomatic, said he didn't remember it but his wife does. Kristofferson played with Willie and Waylon and was a big part of the original outlaw country movement. Kris Kristofferson is the real deal.

On a personal note, I'm always suspicious of someone who is a little too patriotic. Maybe they are trying to overcompensate?  And no, I've never served in the military but I'm not insecure about it like some people.


 Kris Kristofferson: The Last Outlaw Poet

Toby Keith livid about Rolling Stone story

 Foto: Stefan Brending, Lizenz: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons