Author's Note: This one was tough. The Joe in question is one that doesn't get a lot of attention—and to be honest, what we do see in the comics sometimes makes me cringe, given the way he was written and depicted back in the '80s. This is my well-meaning, doubtless misguided attempt to unriddle a Joe who's interesting but chronically underused, and explain some of the weird stuff he was shown as doing. Honestly, anybody acting the way he was had to be at least partially pulling someone's leg.
It should be obvious, but I need to put this out there anyway, just in case. I am not racist. I'm not mocking this character's ethnicity or the now-positive public opinion regarding his race. I do think it kind of bizarrely humorous to see the shift in the perception of said race, though—from stock villains in the 50s and 60s to, with the rise of the Age of Aquarius, the gentle stewards of the earth that everything was taken from. This guy can, if written badly, read as Token Ethnic Good Guy (like Ma-Ti or something); I wanted to see if I could unwrap him a little and maybe find some extra dimensions.
Please note that there may be additional chapters to this. I have several ideas for Joe character studies, all focusing on different characters, and this will probably be my place to archive them; it'll be easier on everyone than dumping half-a-dozen separate oneshots into the Joe section. And after all, they all are the Best of the Best.
Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc, and I derive no profit from this. Please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from this intellectual property.
Best of the Best
by Totenkinder Madchen
Charlie was, in some ways, an all-American kid. Growing up in the fifties, he had played just like anyone else: going on the rampage with his siblings and the neighbors' kids, fighting and playing tag and waging wars over imaginary kingdoms-and occasionally, over very real booty, like a shooter marble with a flag in it or a single precious green army man. They played baseball, too: nobody could afford real baseball gear, so they played with a ratty old softball and a few fallen branches from the crappy thorn tree in the yard that nobody could seem to keep healthy. True, his father hit the bottle a little too hard and a little too often, but the whole family pulled together as best they could. Charlie didn't blame them for some of the hardships growing up: like everyone else, his folks were fallible, and times had been tough for all of them.
There were plenty of good memories mixed in with the bad, and bad with the good. That was life. He remembered his mom burning the overdue electric bill so she could claim they'd never received it, and he remembered his granddad taking him outside to sit and stare up at the stars while the old man recited stories of Coyote and Wolf. C'est la vie, as a jarhead he would meet in later years liked to say. Not quite the American dream, but things could've been worse. He was just another kid from New Mexico, and later on, just another recruit in the United States Army.
Usually, though, nobody took the time to figure out just how normal he could be. Charlie—Charles Iron-Knife, as his recruitment papers put it—had spent a lot of time getting sideways looks. He was an expert tracker by the age of eighteen, well-versed in natural healing, full of respect for life and keenly aware of the gifts his ancestors had passed down to him . . . and he was an Indian, which wrapped the whole thing up in one neat package and trumped everything else about him. And though he was naturally cool-tempered, that ate at him.
A jagoff in boot camp had tried to nickname him Cherokee Charlie, and Charlie had shown that he wasn't quite as respectful of some life as others when he kicked the guy's ass. Even six days of KP and exhaustive punishment detail couldn't quite dull the satisfaction of pushing Sanderson's face in the mud and forcing him to spell out "Taos Pueblo." He'd gotten through ten repetitions before the DIs had pulled Charlie off him.
Once he was allowed letter-writing privileges again, he'd written to his family about the incident. Their responses had been interesting: his mother worried that he'd get thrown out before he'd even graduated boot, and his father told him he should've broken Sanderson's fingers. His granddad had been in the final stages of lung cancer then, but he'd managed to write a few lines. "There are better ways," he'd scrawled, "to get revenge. Don't get a reputation for brawling. That way it will surprise them even more when they try to stick you in a box." Charlie had puzzled over those words for a long time, not quite certain what the old man had meant, but the letter was one of several that still lived at the bottom of his trunk.
For a long time, he'd done his best to escape the Indian label by acting like everyone else. He got occasionally shitfaced on whatever the barracks managed to dig up, placed bets on the baseball and games that everyone listened to on the one crappy transistor radio in the section, kept his hair well under the regulation length and eschewed his preferred solitude in favor of loud poker games and pickup football games in the scrub.
Eventually, though, Charlie discovered something. If he kept his calm—if he ignored the jokes, and if he tracked and camped and gathered herbs exactly as he damn well pleased—people began to have a harder and harder time making fun of him. This was in the '70s, when the nation as a whole was beginning to change its perception of him and his; "Indian" gave way to "Native American," and vicious scalper became oppressed natural nobility. Neither of the impressions was entirely correct, but the latter jived well with his even temperament, and Charlie figured out that he could use it. If he simply remained steady and made a show of his more "ethnic" behaviors, people would begin to see him as . . . well, to be fair, still as something not quite normal. Less than human? More than? It was tough to tell, but whatever it was, they laid off the snide remarks. Even better, they stopped contesting his reputation as one of the best trackers in the United States military: everybody knew that Ind—sorry, Native Americans—were in touch with nature, right? That made total sense. The more Native American he behaved, the less they could actually get on his case for it.
After a point, Charlie actually started pushing the limit, trying to see how much he could get away with. First he changed his grammar, speaking in slightly more archaic patterns; nobody noticed. When he found an eagle with a broken leg tangled in a wire fence, he'd brought it back to base for the medics to fix up. Objections? Nope, no problem, it was just something that mysterious guys like him did. Oh, he wanted to keep the eagle? They were posted out there for a while and nobody was going to object if the local wildlife took a shine to him. When he named the eagle Freedom he was sure that someone was going to say "Oh, come on . . " but nope, they never did.
Because the one thing nobody ever suspected of stoic, in-tune-with-nature Native Americans was that they had a sense of humor. Charlie might have been naturally calm, but that didn't mean he was a goddamn statue: if somebody decided to talk back to the sergeant in charge and wound up having to run five circuits of the barracks dressed in a nurse's uniform, then Charlie was as willing to laugh at the poor sap's fate as anybody else. So when he straightfacedly compared a target to "strong but foolish, like Trickster Coyote" and watched everyone else struggle not to say "Wait, seriously?" he was restraining a few snickers of his own. Not many, but hell, anybody who'd spent time in 'Nam was damn well entitled to enjoy a few laughs. And he wasn't above getting a bit of his own back for the years of scalp and firewater jokes.
That had been the game for several years. Then Charlie's commanding officer had been contacted by one Col. Clayton Abernathy, and that game had changed.
"I don't care who you are, where you come from, or what you like to do in your spare time," the colonel had told him straightforwardly. "But I hear you're one of the best, and the best is the only kind I want on my team. What do you say?"
Charlie had almost said no. Although he had kept busy for a while, his life was beginning to grow stale: the year was 1983, he was edging into his mid-thirties, and being seen as The Spooky Indian was no longer as appealing or entertaining as it used to be. Worse, it had created a reputation that he couldn't escape from. Going back to New Mexico and picking up work as a guide was sounding more and more appealing. Did he really want to reup his contract and join a new unit—especially a secret, inter-branch, black-ops unit where his every move would likely be recorded and reported to the Pentagon?
But . . . he liked Abernathy. There was a refreshing air of no-bullshit about the man, something that Charlie hadn't seen from his commanding officers in a long, long time. And to be fair, joining Special Counter-Terrorist Group Delta came with a generous pay and benefits package that a guy his age could really use. Charlie signed the paperwork, picked a code name off the top of his head, and was soon shipped out to Staten Island.
And promptly had his life rearranged. For the first time in years—hell, for almost the first time ever—he was the one staring at the outrageous, crazy people.
Nobody in Spec. Delta (otherwise known as G.I. Joe, possibly because the full name of the unit was impossible to say when you were running at full tilt across a battlefield while being chased by robots) gave a damn about how he wanted to dress or what his spiritual beliefs were. Did he feel more comfortable keeping his hair long, like he had when he was a kid back in Taos? No problem: it wasn't ignored because of his race, it was ignored because one of the squad members was a mute nightmare in a mask, and next to that braids on a man weren't such a big deal. Bring Freedom along with you? Okay! He can go in the coop with Polly the parrot. Use natural, herbal medicines? Well, the medics will get irritated, but if you can dodge them and aren't actively losing blood or organs you've got carte blanche. If a dodge attempt fails, though, prepare for a lot of forced medical leave until Doc cools down again.
For the first time, Charlie didn't have to put on an act. It was almost disorienting, in its way. He just wasn't used to talking to people from a position of full confidence and trust. Early on in his career, his attempts to fit in had let to him acting out in ways that were contrary to his calm nature; later, he'd gone in the other direction, exaggerating that same calmness to mess with the heads of people who were just waking up to the fact that might've been acting like assholes before. But in G.I. Joe, he found a whole unit composed of exactly the same kind of contradictions he specialized in.
Being a nature-loving, life-honoring sniper and soldier was nothing next to this bunch. Between their role as best-of-the-best soldiers who still broke half the rules that supposedly made the military more effective (uniform discipline, fraternization regulations, not handing an angry supermodel a tank and $3,000,000 worth of missiles) and the fact that he often found himself facing screeching faceless men in snake costumes, Charlie felt like he fit in for the first time in his life.
Or perhaps fitting in wasn't quite the right word. In a box of ten thousand unique marbles, nobody bats an eye at the 10,001st.
So he acted like he had always wanted. He was proud of his heritage and the traditions his granddad had passed down, but he was also a soldier and a citizen of the United States, and there was no need to choose between the two identities. His heirloom buckskin bag had a sniper scope in it, his field medical kit contained datura herb, and he would keep a pet eagle if he damn well felt like it and Freedom didn't shit on anybody important.