CHARLOTTE — At 5:12 p.m. Thursday, Ed Messer of Chester, South Carolina, United States of America, strode up to the podium. He used a walker, sure, and his steps were tiny, and he was tired after walking a half-mile in a protest parade a couple hours earlier that so wore him out that a cop had to give him a ride at the end, but Messer was not missing his first-ever speech. He walked slow. But he walked.
The scheduled speaker before him didn't show up. Messer was early. 76-year-olds do not show up late. Messer was supposed to speak at 5:30. The oldest protester at the Democratic National Convention, almost assuredly as almost all protesters are young with scraggly hair, is not one to tarry.
Cars, buses, a fire truck streamed by near to Messer, all heading to the Democratic National Convention events and speeches a few blocks away. The President, Obama, would speak a few hours later, he would accept the nomination to cheers, and some walkers headed toward the big arena where 20,000 would jam into seats to hear the words of America. The streets, blocks away, were packed. Bars thrummed with action and music and laughing, feet pounded pavement, claps filled the air.
Not at Brevard and Stonewall streets, though.
Ed Messer's audience was one.
Aside from Messer's son, his grandson and the grandson's girlfriend and her son, and Messer's nephew, and two workers for the tiny stage who do not count, only one guy heard the speech. A single guy, a bicycle messenger named Bill Fair, who stood outside the fence and said, Free speech. This country is about free speech and they put the free speech way out here. Is this what happened to free speech in America?
Since there was no other audience, nobody answered his question.
But the messenger stopped to watch Ed Messer, because to watch a man stride up to a podium in a walker in America, the man 76 and clearly struggling up even a slight incline, was to know what free speech is.
What a guy, the messenger said through the chain link fence that is the enduring legacy of this convention of fences and gates and bars and blockades, and he was right.
Messer started speaking, blasting imported goods from other countries, and the politicians who allow it, with the backdrop of the NASCAR Hall of Fame across the street from his spot at Brevard Street and Stonewall Street.
I love Jimmie Johnson, Messer had said before his big moment.
Ed Messer came to Charlotte in a motorcade of two pickup trucks. The group had hand-lettered signs. Some were on pink posterboard. They packed sandwiches for the trip, and had soft drinks, beef jerky.
The speech was written beforehand, over weeks, by this retired textile worker who worked almost 40 years in Springs mills as did so many tens of thousands in York and Chester and Lancaster counties. Then imports killed textiles. Rich mill owners killed textiles, too, by taking jobs overseas, and seeking laborers who would work for peanuts. Any business withers when owners want to keep all the money for themselves.
Politicians, they side with owners, more often than not. That is why Ed Messer, with steel rods in his back, with a walker, 76 years old and tired, gave his first speech.
Messer blasted all politicians, Democrats and Republicans, from the White House to Congress to state and local pols to dogcatchers. Anybody who doesn't want to stop imports, which took American jobs, must go, said Ed Messer.
We are all tired of this, Messer said, reading from his 19 pages of notes, hand-written, in a child's school notebook with a yellow cover.
We must have been him and the messenger.
Messer slammed anyone who would bring in Chinese goods, or any goods, when American workers could do make the goods better and then American workers could have decent lives. A helicopter swerved overhead and made noise. Messer kept on.
He may have rambled a bit, the speech had no ghost writer as politicians have, but it is hard to argue against good American jobs for good American workers.
But Messer never said anybody, or any party, is a rat or a snake. Just a block away, a group claiming to be Christians told passersby at the same time as Messer's speech that the Democrats were part of the Holocaust of American - abortion.
Holocaust means Hitler, and so many tens of millions dead from hate and evil. Those people who claimed to be Christians cause walkers to scurry by, and others to get mad, because the word Holocaust is always horrible.
Messer called nobody names. He hates nobody.
I respect everybody in America, any color anything, we are all Americans and equals, Messer said before his speech. We all want jobs.
Messer said he just wants Americans to have jobs and blames politicians for letting the jobs go overseas. His speech had a simple theme, without hate. He named Mexico and China, but Messer didn't say anything about Mexican people. He sure doesn't blame them.
Let's don't stop until we get the job done, Messer said near the end of the speech, using the plural because he had that audience of one.
Still, Messer did not quit. He finished, and was done.
The speech lasted about 13 minutes.
The son, the grandson and the girlfriend and her son, the nephew, all clapped.
If somebody hears this, reads about this, sees it on one of those computers, I did something here today, Messer said when he was finished.
Messer's son, Douglas, whose son died in car crash after he was wounded in Iraq in 2007, said he was proud of his father.
He made America proud today, Douglas Messer said.
The nephew, Carl Cope, who had come to Charlotte straight from the overnight shift at PPG in Chester, was dog-tired too but he clapped and said, In America you speak up. Even if you don't have people to hear you. It took guts for him to do this.
Ed Messer had overcome nervousness, exhaustion after walking a half-mile in a protest march earlier in the day, and weeks of preparation. He had given his speech, and he didn't care one bit that almost nobody heard it.
He didn't even care that this city and convention, supposedly the most open and inclusive in American history, placed this free speech platform so far from most of the action that almost nobody could see it or hear it, except by accident.
Americans try, said Ed Messer. This is one great country. The greatest. The only country in the world where you can get up and say what you want to say, believe what you want to believe. If I don't try, protest, who is gonna try and protest for America?
Nobody was there to answer Ed Messer's question. The bicycle messenger was gone.
VIDEO: Beginning of Messer's speech
VIDEO: Messer explains more on the protest