Lessons From Walt

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Walt was an old man when I first met him in seventh grade. Oh, he was my age mathematically but a galling poverty had foreshortened his childhood, suffocated his dreams, and multiplied his years. He showed up dutifully for school each morning– he had to; that was the law – dressed in worn, pass-me-down broadcloth shirts, dirty jeans, scuffed heavy work boots, a bowl-chopped haircut, and large, calloused hands. He arose at four AM in order to finish morning chores before school.

These were not ‘take out the trash’ or ‘clean up your room’ kind of chores. They were dig postholes, bring in hay bails, unload the truck kind of chores. At the end of the day, same thing until after dark.

Study? Forget it. Why bother? I doubt Walt could read. He began learning to drive a truck when he was eight years old… his family needed all the help it could get. In my innocence, I asked him if he was poor. He looked steadily at me, and took no offense. “Ain’t got enough money to be poor.” A bitter jest.  ‘Poor’ would have been an improvement.

Walt was built slab-solid; he was a grave and taciturn youngster, keeping mostly to himself. Strangely though, he wasn’t the least bit shy. Spoken to, he would either nod or give a polite, mono-syllabic response, but he never once averted his eyes, staring directly at whoever had addressed him.

We had our bullies, I think most schools do; but although they were biggish young men, they never bothered Walt. He seemed to give off the knowing that abuse would be dealt with severely, and any victory over him would be dearly and painfully won. It just wasn’t worth it. They sensed it, and left him at peace in his confining world.

Towards the middle of the school year, he and I began speaking. Mostly me. What occasioned our friendship was, of all things, the Milk Program.  In those days, for the princely sum of two cents, you could purchase a small carton of milk to drink. Classes were suspended for fifteen minutes, snacks from home were bought out. During those periods, Walt sat and stared out the window trying not to notice the rest of us eating. No money; not even two cents.

One morning I begged two extra oatmeal cookies from mom, and purchased an extra milk. I sat down next to him. He looked first at me, then down as I pushed his snack towards him. He stared at me, nodded slightly and said, “Obliged.” Then he dug a work-stained thumbnail into the carton.

Walt seemed not to consider my gifts ‘charity’; we talked. After holiday break that December, I was fondly remembering my presents. I asked him, “Walt, what did you get for Christmas?”  Christmas had been good to them. Two bags of groceries; and a good breakfast: scrambled eggs, a strip of bacon, and a side order of flapjacks with butter and maple syrup. That was it. If he felt short-changed, it never showed on his face.

What will you do after school? “Well, next year I can drop out. Then I reckon I’ll dig ditches.”

“Dig ditches?! For the rest of your life?!”

He stared at me. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

I can no longer recall the details of what Walt looked like, but I will never forget how he bore a bone-crushing poverty with pride and with no complaint. I hope he rose up against what to him seemed a certain destiny…

When we would receive our report cards, we would open the envelopes and either moan or celebrate. But Walt just shoved his in a pocket unread. He didn’t have to look to know.

It was an oft-told story: all F’s;”Failed;” a piece of paper with his future penned on it. I doubt anyone in his family ever looked at it; no time, no matter; chores to do. “Get to work, son.”

They weren’t mean people, and it wasn’t that they didn’t love him; it’s just that surviving in their circumstance takes everything you’ve got.

Everything.

By Lucky Garvin
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