It’s mid-winter of 1893 when he first sees her in Rock Creek Park, that huge green swath of paths, gardens, parkland, and wilderness that runs like a backbone through the center of the city. This particular Saturday afternoon, enjoying the unseasonably mild February weather that has coaxed early narcissus to poke up through the leaf litter, he finds himself near the stables. Here are some other folks taking in the lovely day. A party of five or six people appears to be readying for a trail ride: men in boots and jodhpurs, women in long black skirts and riding hats. Charley folds his arms on the top of the rail fence to watch as the men joke among themselves and the women fuss about in preparation for mounting.
Then he notices one other woman, who holds herself separate from the others. While the rest of the party has clearly left the dirty work of preparation to the stable hands, this woman is doing her own final checks of the saddle, bridle, and stirrups. He smiles to himself when he sees that she knows the trick the horses like to play on an unsuspecting rider, of taking in air as he buckles the saddle strap, then exhaling after the rider mounts to loosen the saddle. Charley has seen novices slide completely underneath their horses after falling for that trick. This woman knows to wait until the very end of her preparation, after the horse has relaxed, to do a final quick cinch on the strap, catching the horse unawares.
It is not until the larger party is finally mounted and sauntering out of the fenced barn area that he’s sure she isn’t with them. Though she has done her own tack work, he senses that she is somehow of a higher social status and breeding than the rest of the riders, as though she has been raised to know the intrinsic value of doing some things for herself, a trait he sometimes observes in people who come from old money. She carries herself with a self-assuredness that gives her movements both grace and focus, but with a firm and unsmiling expression that makes her fully unapproachable. Finally, in one smooth motion, she fixes her foot in the stirrup and swings herself up unassisted, and arranges her sidesaddle position. Without any noticeable signal on her part, the horse takes two or three steps and then breaks into a slow trot out of the yard. He watches as the horse and rider gain speed across the grassy field, break into a full gallop, and disappear into the woods.A slightly built, sinewy man with a permanent walrus mustache, he is both quick and surprisingly strong, his grip impressive even in an affable handshake. Charley is everyone’s friend and nobody’s enemy, and he is a wizard when it comes to building and fixing things. There is nothing he can’t make out of concrete, and the house and yard at 741 is the proof of it: ponds, fountains, retaining walls, the foundations for the pump house and barn, the floor for the garages he rents out to the apartment dwellers across the road who have no other place to park their cars. At home, if Charley Beck isn’t reading the newspaper, he is working in the garden; if he’s not in the garden, he’s building something new or fixing something that’s broken. If he is doing none of these things, he is rubbing under his battered fedora at the hole in the back of his neck, considering what to do next. A born farmer, a natural mechanic, and a modern-day homesteader, Charley Beck is a self-taught Renaissance man. Wednesday, May 6th, 1896: I had baby’s pictures taken; she is just nine months and eight days old. Such a time as we had; she was just as good as could be. She is always good, especially when she is out. The artist tried to keep her perfectly still, but that was impossible for baby. She would put her little finger in her mouth, and draw her little face up so funny, as she always does when she sees strangers, and we could not get her to smile. She would not smile no matter what we did, so we had to take her with her serious little face. After she had her picture taken, we took her down to the office. The folks took her around everywhere and thought she was just as cute and as sweet as could be. She was very good and never cried once. Sunday Dec 13th, 1896: A friend came out to take baby’s picture, and Oh! such a time as we had trying to keep baby quiet for just a second. She would not keep still, so I guess we did not get a good one of her. We wanted to have the cats picture taken, but Tom was nowhere to be found, but just as Mr. Heilman was getting ready, here comes Tom up the road. We hustled him up on the porch by the side of the baby, then baby began hugging Tom, well that would not do, so we gave baby a graham cracker to eat to keep her quiet. When Tom saw the cracker he wanted it so we gave him a piece, then baby would stoop down and get the cats cracker and so between the baby and the cat we had a perfect show. The cat would sit still a minute, then the baby would move, when the baby was still the cat would move, we laughed and laughed, and it was about an hour before we had the picture taken. The weather has been beautiful. Just think of baby standing on the porch, with a while mull dress on, with short sleeves in the middle of December.