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Tracking the life of a free spirit

Vietnam vet dealing with war's after-effects with his art – and maybe a little witchcraft

STERLING –  Charles Payne is a true child of the Sixties: He’s a Vietnam veteran still struggling with the after-effects of the war, a multimedia artist, and a witch (of the white, or good, variety).

It’s the latter two aspects of his life – the artistry and the spirituality – that have helped Payne cope the past 50 years with the former.

“I wasn’t wounded by bullets, but by Agent Orange,” the impish 73-year-old said. “And then here I am. Still plugging away. My eyes are deteriorating, but my spirit isn’t.”

The former California resident, who also battles PTSD, has been a free spirit all of his life, even before volunteering for the Army in October 1967.

“I’m an artist,” he said. “I’ve been all my life sketching. I lived on the streets of Freedom, California, and Watsonville. I’m a street kid. I started living on the streets when I was 14.”

He did his basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington, his advanced advanced infantry training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and by April 1968, he was on his way to Vietnam.

Before diving into his service, though, he was sent to Malaysia for 3 weeks, where Gurkhas – fierce Nepalese soldiers with the British Army – taught him how to find people – like the North Vietnamese – hiding in the jungle using visual tracking.

“When you walk into an area, anything that isn’t natural is a sign, like a footprint or a broken branch or a pushed-over tree or limb or a pushed-over bush,” he said. “Once you learn it, you never forget it.”

He was a tracker for the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 25th Infantry Division of the 27th Infantry Regiment – the Wolfhounds – in Cu Chi.

“My job was when a unit was in the jungle and they made contact with the enemy and the enemy would break and run, they’d call me out with my team and we’d track them down and establish contact. That was our job.

“I liked it.”

Typically there would be five men involved – one man on point tracking, one man on each flank to make sure the point was safe, a radio operator in the middle and one at the end, “covering our tail,” Payne said.

He didn’t mind the location or the danger.

He liked Vietnam, and “I loved the jungle,” he said. He also liked when the enemy would fire at him, “so I could find them.”

He was stationed at the Cu Chi base camp for a year, rising to the rank of E5, becoming a team leader and “a buck sergeant,” he said.

Payne was exposed to Agent Orange when he was moving through an area in the jungle that had just been sprayed. The potent herbicide was used to kill all the foliage, so the enemy would have no place to hide.

“It was dripping from the plants. It was everywhere. It had a real low toxic smell. We had to walk through. It got all over me.”

Symptoms developed shortly afterward.

He was sent home in 1969, assigned to Fort Ord, in Monterey Bay, California, as a clerk.

“I got into trouble,” he said. “I went AWOL. I couldn’t stand stateside duty. I’m not going to go into that.”

He spent his final 59 days in the Army in the stockade at Fort Riley, Kansas, busted back to an E-1.

After his release, he went to Santa Cruz, California, and became a “white witch.” It was, after all California in 1970.

“It was a big movement back in those days,” Payne said. “I’ve been one all my life.

“We call ourselves white witches because it makes the black witches mad. We protect God’s children, our brothers and sisters, from Satan and the followers of evil in the world taking over souls. It’s a spiritual thing.”

He moved to Missouri in the mid-70s, which is where his passion for art took hold.

He was making redwood burl tables and custom carved signs when he met a wood sculptor named Bob Robinson, and they worked out a deal. Payne gave Robinson a coffee table, Robinson gave him a wood-sculpting lesson: He carved half a face and told Payne to finish it.

That was the beginning.

Still a long way from the Sauk Valley, Payne became a wood carver at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri; got involved in the Catholic youth group Teens Encounter Christ; and became a veterans advocate through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Through it all, his exposure to Agent Orange dogged him.

“Fifteen, 16 years ago I started dealing with it,” Payne said. “I had all the symptoms in Vietnam. I have peripheral neuropathy all over my body. That’s why I can’t work very long without resting. ... I can work for maybe 5, 10 or 15 minutes, and then I have to rest for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, and then I go back and carve some more.

“I used to do 8 to 12 hours a day nonstop, but that was many moons ago.”

He’s also living easier with his post traumatic stress disorder.

“A Vietnam veteran straightened me out. Survival guilt: If my buddies could come out of the grave, they’d kick my butt up between my shoulder blades for letting their deaths screw my head up. They didn’t die for that.”

Payne, who’s been married three times, moved to Sterling 15 years ago, where two of his five children live.

He’s still carving, and also is a blacksmith, does clay sculpture, stained glass, pottery, macrame and makes candles, all from his home studio.

“My back porch is perfect for me, just the right size and everything.”

He sells his wood carvings and also does custom work, although “I’ll design it my way,” he said. “I take a concept and design it. I will not work for somebody who tells me how to do it.”

He’s willing to take on any kind of carving project – “anything, as long as it’s not risque.”​


Charles Payne, 73, of Sterling, is a wood carver, clay sculptor, and blacksmith; he does stained glass, pottery, and macrame and also makes candles.

Anyone interested in finding out more about Payne and his work can call him at 815-441-9173.

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