ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Many have traversed Mobility's Hometown to train, fly, or take part in what local leaders say is the foundation of Air Force rapid global mobility. Several of these Airmen, if asked, are quick to mention one name in particular when asked what gives Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, its hometown feel. That name is "Charlie" of Charlie's Lounge, who has been a staple of the base community for more than 39 years.
Vacharin Panboon Bedesem, known locally as "Charlie," was born in Ayutta, Thailand. She grew up working long hours on her family's farm, caring for her nine siblings and going to school.
As a child, Charlie would wake up around 3 a.m. to help prepare breakfast for her family and harvest rice or collect fruit. By the time it was 8 a.m., Charlie would be off to school. When she was old enough, she began working as a waitress to help support her family, making only enough money to get by.
Charlie eventually married and moved to New York, where she had three children, but it was not until she moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey, that she discovered her passion for interior decorating.
While still working at the Officer’s Club on base, Charlie became known for her flower arrangements. In addition to her job on base, Charlie worked another full-time job as a bartender in town, where she met the local mayor. It was he who encouraged Charlie to pursue her passion for flowers.
Faced with a new purpose, Charlie got to work. In addition to working two full-time jobs, studying for her GED and pursuing her Master Florist Certification, Charlie eventually opened her own flower shop in New Jersey in the 1970's.
“It was hard to balance it all, but I did it so I could take care of my children,” she said. “I watched my mom and dad work so hard growing up. I'm happy to have grown up that way because it pushes me further.”
Charlie moved to Altus in 1982 and began working at the O-Club, a bar on base that was headed for closure. Faced with many challenges, Charlie stepped up by creating a place where Airmen could rely on her to provide a space where they could eat, drink and have a home away from home.
Eventually, Charlie’s manager began calling her in to assist with whatever was needed, whether it be waitressing, hosting, or working the cash register.
“Whatever they wanted me to do, I did it for them,” she said. “The next thing I know, I’m working seven days a week, and I loved it. I care about where I work, and I want to present something that makes people happy.”
While Charlie’s work ethic drove her, so did her desire to take care of every Airman who walked through her door. She would regularly stay at the bar after it closed to serve aircrew members from all over the world who arrived at the base late and did not have any other place to go.
“I'm a foreigner, too, and I knew a lot of foreigners at the time,” she said. “We'd have people from Canada, England … people came from all over the world. When they’d fly in, they’d talk to me and tell me they had nothing to eat, and they were tired. They would ask me to stay open for them, and I always said yes. I wanted to be there for them and take care of them.”
Charlie was constantly thinking of ways to make quality of life better for Airmen. A unique feature that Charlie’s is fondly known for today is its self-service grill - an idea Charlie had to provide a simple solution for a common problem.
At the time, the lounge had a cook who would leave at 10 p.m. Patrons were still hungry after he left, so as the sole bartender, Charlie would run between the kitchen and the bar, cooking up whatever she could find for Airmen to eat while still serving drinks.
“Finally, I realized I couldn’t keep running back and forth when the bar was packed,” Charlie said. “We had a small grill in the corner, and I thought, ‘We could do something with that. What if the customers cooked for themselves?’”
The idea was an instant success; the lounge sold 130 steaks in one night. If Airmen did not know how to cook, Charlie went out of her way to teach them to cook for themselves, exemplifying her care for those who came to the lounge.
“One time, a young lieutenant came in and wanted to cook, but she said, 'I've never cooked before in my life. I lived with my grandma, and she always cooked for me.' I said, 'Baby, come over here, let me show you,’” Charlie said. “She came in a couple more times, and I told her, 'When you go home, you can cook for your grandma.' The next time she came, she said, 'Mrs. Charlie! I cook for my grandma now, and she's so happy. Thank you so much!' It just made me so happy. The Airmen here are my family.”
The customers Charlie served collectively pushed to get the club named after her in 1988. Charlie was soon promoted to assistant manager because of her work ethic and determination.
“Charlie is what we call a national treasure,” said Melissa Arnold, 97th Force Support Squadron club manager. “She has devoted her life to servicing the men and women of the Altus community.”
In 1994, the wing won the Air Force Installation Excellence Award. Charlie was invited by the wing commander to be part of the team that accepted the award in Washington D.C., a testament to the integral role she played in making the wing so special.
As a focal gathering place, aircrew still enjoy the things that made Charlie’s successful back then. As for Charlie, she plans to stay here in Altus and continue to serve the men and women of Mobility’s Hometown until she “physically can’t anymore.”
“I've known Charlie for a little over 15 years now, and I would say that she's just as important to the mission here as the pilots flying airplanes,” said Master Sgt. Thomas January, 730th KC-46 Pegasus operations superintendent. “It's very rare for anybody in the mobility world to not have heard of or met Charlie. She's a really warm and inviting person, and everybody just thinks the world of her.”