I was excited. After all, Wallace kids were not exactly used to meeting celebrities. Not only was I going to get to meet some big stars, I was going to going to meet one of my idols, Ray Charles. It wasn't his singing I liked so much, but it was his piano playing that I loved. I started out as a music major in college, and piano was my thing. I had even wanted to be a concert pianist at one time, and although classical was one of my big loves, nothing thrilled me as much as jazz and blues. When I was very young, I had informed my mother that when I grew up I wanted to be blind and black. When she asked me why I would say such a thing, I replied that I would then be able to be a great blues and jazz pianist!
OK, I never reached either goal of being blind and black, but I tried my best to copy on the piano those that I admired. So, meeting Ray Charles would be an experience that I would savor for the rest of my life. I was excited.
The place that I would get to meet Ray was back to the hotel in Salem, Oregon. Salem hosted the Oregon State Fair every year, and the menu was delightfully peppered with some really big name stars. As the premier hotel in Salem, they were all slated to be guests at the hotel that I worked in. All of the preparations were done with the greatest of care as befitting stars of the caliber. Suites were deep cleaned, carpets shampooed, and the staff properly trained in how to handle the demands that were given in hosting the rich and famous. I was ready.
The day arrived for the opening of the Fair. I was in my second month of employment at this hotel, and I was the head night auditor, which meant that I worked from midnight until eight A.M. I wouldn't get to see the stars check in, but I would get to see them in the morning as they got up and checked out. And, I would make the personal wake-up calls to the rooms. Ah, the good old days before we took the personal service touch out of the hospitality industry. Sometimes I would have up to 150 calls to make each morning, and so a special clock was used that could be set precisely to the minute that the guest wanted up. The alarm would go off, and I would then proceed to make the calls. There were so many that one had to start about five minutes early to get them all in.
The first star that we had that year was to be Ray Charles. Jack pot! Per his manager's precise instructions, he was to be placed on the first floor only, and he was to be in suite 113/115. I was surprised to find out that he would be staying alone in the room. I need to explain something about the arrangement of the suite to fully convey what was about to happen. In the suites on the first floor, there were three rooms. There was a master bedroom with a king bed, there was a very tastefully decorated bathroom, and there was a very large living room with antique furniture. 113 was the living room and 115 was the bedroom. Both 113 and 115 had telephones, but they were long ways apart as the suites were very large.
Ray had left instructions to be awakened at exactly five in the morning after his show. I was excited because I would be able to actually hear his voice and say good morning to him. The alarm went off, and it was now five in the morning. I eagerly dialed the room number and let the phone ring. Hm, no answer. I let it ring some more. Still no answer. OK, I let it ring and ring and ring. Still no answer. I knew that he had a plane to catch and that he had to get up, so I rang again, and again, and again. It was well past five and still no answer. I tried again at five-thirty, and again at six. Still no answer. It was then I realized to my utter horror that I had been ringing the extension in the living room and not the bedroom.
I had this horrific image of this poor sightless man trying desperately to locate the phone and stop that annoying ringing. I then rang the proper extension, but there was no answer. I could just picture what Ray must have thought of the idiotic clerk who was ringing the wrong room. Maybe he thought I was some sort of sadist. Maybe the thought that I was getting some kind of kick out of a blind man stumbling all over an unfamiliar room grasping and grabbing for a phone. I ran down to the suite and knocked. No answer, so I inserted the key and with great trepidation entered the suite. No one in the living room, no one in the bedroom, and no one in the bathroom. He was gone, and the room was completely empty of all personal belongings.
I can only assume that his ride to the airport had come by and that he had made his flight on time. For several months, I had this fear that someone from his staff would call my boss and demand that I be fired. Fortunately, that never happened.
For years after whenever I saw or heard Ray Charles perform, I had this image in my head of what he must have thought of me. Ray Charles, a brave man, and a marvelous musician. May he rest in peace.