Sunday, November 11, 2018

We Honor And Thank Them All

We honor and thank even those who never returned. Today is Veterans' Day set aside to  acknowledge all United States military veterans. The day was originally known as Armistice Day to mark the end of major hostilities of World War I, the war to end all wars. Those hostilities formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. The name was changed from Armistice day to Veterans Day in 1954 presumably, I'm thinking, because the war to end all wars didn't. Memorial Day, observed in May, honors those who died in military service.
My uncle Jerry Walker, pictured here with his father A. G. Walker, never returned from World War II. I honor his memory every Memorial Day and I'm sure no living Veteran would object to my honoring his memory today either. I never met my uncle Jerry but I understand from family lore he was quite a character.  "A Walker through and through," my Aunt Cassie often said.
My grandfather, Jerry's father, worked his way up through law enforcement until he finally became warden of the Arizona State prison in which I was born. While Papa was a deputy sheriff he got complaints from cattlemen and many others that kids were ditching school and swimming in the water tanks.  Papa decided to do something about this irritating situation and started checking out water tanks in the middle of the school day. He finally found the right water tank. It was full of kids splashing and laughing. He turned on his siren and his flashing lights and watched as children jumped from the tank, gathered their clothes and shoes and ran in all directions into the desert. Satisfied that he had sufficiently frightened the kids to keep them from ditching school and swimming in the water tanks again, he started driving away. Just ahead of him walked a naked boy with his clothes and shoes thrown over his shoulder. Papa honked and the boy turned around to stare into his father's furious face. Papa loved all of his children and grandchildren but Jerry held a special place in his heart.
Jerry was just 19 years old when he died not from wounds sustained in battle but from an accident in the South Pacific. My uncle Jerry was a belly gunner on a Flying Fortress--a particularly grotesque war machine. Returning from battle the crew was unloading weapons and ammo. Someone dropped a gun. As it hit the pavement it fired and the bullet hit young Jerry Walker in the forehead.
Eventually Jerry's body was returned. My grandfather wanted to make sure he was about to bury his son and so, against all advice, he opened the casket. He saw the bullet hole in the middle of his son's forehead and knew his son was dead. Jerry is buried next to what would become the grave of his father.
Papa never recovered from Jerry's death. I seriously doubt if any parent ever recovers from the death of a child. War is brutal and wastes so many precious lives. May the day come speedily when we all live in peace.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

My Amazing Aunt Cassie

She was named for her grandmother, Cassandra. We called her Cassie. She's on the left in this photograph. My Aunt Thelma is on the right. She also was a remarkable woman. Cassie was the first child born to my paternal grandparents, A. G. and Jesse. She was the strongest and the most unflappable person I have ever known. When she was 8 years old she prepared the bodies of her mother and newborn sister for burial. They were on the kitchen table and there was no one else to do this dreaded task and so my aunt took over. The baby never received a name. Years later Cassie buried her own infant daughter. Unlike her sister, Cassie's daughter had a name. It was Wilma.  I believe my aunt and I had a very special bond but then all of her many nieces and nephews and grandchildren and great grandchildren doubtless thought the same thing. Every Thanksgiving Cassie would tell me that all she wanted to do was make herself a sandwich, go out into the desert, sit on a rock and eat it. Of course she never was able to do that because she spent most Thanksgivings in the kitchen cooking for the multitudes of family and and friends gathered to spend time with her. She loved, though, to go out into the desert, build a fire, and cook over it either in a cast iron dutch oven or on the griddle made of boiler plate steel. We did that often. After one quite ordinary meal in the desert cooked over the campfire I decided to clean the still hot griddle. I picked up a large piece of material. The moment it touched the griddle it burst into flames. I stood transfixed by the flaming mass in my hands. After s few seconds Cassie's calm voice suggested that I might want to let go of the fire before I burned myself. So I did. I watched the burning bundle drop to the ground. I then stomped out the flames into the sand. Cassie looked up and said to me, "There must have been some polyester in that." There was no fussing over what might have happened because what might have happened didn't happen. There was no fussing over me, either, because anyone could clearly see that I was unharmed. We packed up the cook gear, made sure the camp fire was out and went home. Often we don't exactly know the source of our strength. I know mine is inherited.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Exploding Light Plants And Other Adventures

Electricity can be pretty scary especially if you've never before had it. Such was the case when my father bought our first generator. It was a small thing with enough power for a couple of light bulbs. But what a miracle it was! We had light bulbs in three rooms of our very small house on our desert ranch. Of course the light bulbs only worked when and if the generator was running. We never called this miraculous thing a generator, which it was. We called it the light plant. On the evening my brother and I blew it up it hadn't gotten dark yet but the generator, nevertheless, was running. My father was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. I remember seeing his face through the window. Our bathroom was another modern miracle built because Daddy accidentally burned down the outhouse. But that's another story. Daddy, an amazingly responsible person, feared the light plant would run out of gas and leave us in darkness so he asked Tommy and me to fill it. What he neglected to tells us was to first shut it off. So there we were pouring gasoline into the running generator and, not too surprisingly, it exploded. That, apparently, is what happens when gasoline spills onto a hot engine. I remember my father's expression staring at this sudden conflagration through the bathroom window. He then shouted, "Tom. Get rid of the gas can." An equally responsible person, my brother handed the gas can to me and thus 'got rid of it'. Daddy, his toothbrush still in his mouth, ran out the back door, grabbed a shovel, stuck it into the flaming generator and dragged it into the wash in back of the house where he shoveled sand onto it. Once the fire was out he returned to the bathroom and finished brushing his teeth. My brother took the can of gasoline from me, placed the cap on it, and set it down next to the house. We slept outside that night because Daddy wasn't sure the house was safe. Fire can be as scary as electricity.  I still don't completely trust electricity and even though we have a back up generator for our house, power outages don't bother me.  When it's dark it's dark and there's nothing to be done about it.  When there's nothing to be done, that's it. However, sometimes it's important to do whatever can be done. Daddy dragged the burning generator away from the house, extinguished the fire, and made sure we were safe by having us sleep outside. He knew when to take action and what actions to take. Taking action is important but so is knowing when to take it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Living In A Land Of No Streets

I grew up on Arizona cattle ranches.  Aside from our Post Office boxes we had no addresses. If someone wanted to find us they had to know how to get to us.  And if they wanted to get to us the reason had to be pretty important. That's just the way it was. The first ranch I called home was about 35 sections of land in the desert. It was about 45 minutes on a dirt road outside of the little town where I attended school. The second ranch I called home was over 95 sections of land under Arizona's Mogollon Rim made famous by the novelist Zane Grey. It was about 4 hours of dirt road from the little town of Globe and then another two hours outside of the tiny town of Young.  The people living out in those Arizona Hills cared a lot about politics and they never missed an opportunity to vote.  Our home on the desert ranch was, in fact, the polling place.  Elections were incredibly exciting not only because we got to see people who we didn't even know existed but also because when our poll closed we got to keep the sample ballots and the pens and the ink and the little flags.  The only thing that left in its locked box were the ballots cast by the men and women whose only address was their Post Office boxes.  The only people for whom our polling place was convenient were my mother and my father.  All of the other folks had to brave roads in such disrepair as to be barely navigable. Mr. Kenny, who lived in a cave in the Buckhorn Mountains, had to crank his Model T and hope it made the trip and then hope that after he made his marks on the ballots it would get him back again to his cave.  Oscar and Lillian often walked to our house to cast their ballots. Mrs. Pickens and her son Bob, always in the throes of tuberculosis, coaxed their old pick up truck to our house to cast their votes. And John and Frank Goodwin and Florence married to one of the brothers rattled in through our gate in a cloud of dust which caked the constant chewing tobacco dribbles on their truck doors.  One Armed Joe generally came last hoping for an invitation to dinner after the polls closed. The invitation was always extended and always accepted. Those were the people my brother and I recognized.  So many more people wandered in to vote who we couldn't remember ever seeing.  Our father knew them all but always made sure they were on his list of registered voters.  These people were proud to cast their ballots. They were proud to be part of the great Democracy in which we lived. They were proud to have their vote counted. And my brother and I, always excused from school on election day, were proud to pretend to cast our ballots on the left over sample ballots. That's how we learned to never miss an election and a chance to vote.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

New Jersey Prison For Boys Will Soon Close

The New Jersey State Home For Boys opened in 1867 as a home for troubled youth. Its purpose evolved into a training school for boys and eventually into a prison for boys. It became know simply as 'Jamesburg'. Soon, due in part to public outcry, it will close its doors for good. Why the public outcry?  The Home or the School or the Prison apparently did little that was helpful either for its residents or for the community. Just before he left office New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced the reform of New Jersey's juvenile justice system with a $162 million bond to finance the closure of this Civil War-era youth prison. Two smaller state of the art juvenile rehabilitation centers were to be built — one in Ewing, Mercer County, the other in Winslow Township, Camden County. The facilities are supposed to house between 40 and 72 youth offenders. Christie’s plan to close the home, called the failed youth prison, was hailed by Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, as being one of the most significant youth justice reforms in 150 years. The State Of New Jersey tells us that the Jamesburg facility is the state's largest, housing about 200 male teenagers.  It is a secure facility with a state of the art perimeter fence and 24-hour armed, roving patrol.  The average age of the residents is between 16 and 18 years.  Once in awhile public opinion sways politicians to do the right thing.  This, apparently, was one of those times.


 


 




 





Wednesday, August 22, 2018

He was so organized!

Not only did he write his own obituary trusting others to fill in the dates of his death and funeral.  He has also asked me to give a eulogy.  Here it is.


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In my life my brother has never been out of my mind or out of my heart.  Since his death, though, I’ve been flooded with memories.  In this morning’s newspaper I read of the horrible brush fires ravaging California and more memories swept over me. Here’s the main one associated with those California fires. While he was in college my mild mannered, soft spoken brother jumped out of helicopters to fight forest fires.  He knew more about burning forests than most of us ever want or need to know.
         Tom and I grew up in isolation without electricity and sometimes without indoor plumbing.  Our father was a cowboy.  We lived on ranches too far away for friends to come visit. During summers we rarely saw anyone our own age. What we had was each other along with our parents, sections and sections of land, hundreds of cattle, horses, dogs and a lot of chores.  We were ranch hands and we worked hard. There was nothing unusual about our climbing on our horses before sunrise to round up cattle.
         Our parents had very little money and they certainly couldn’t afford luxuries. Toys were luxuries and so we had few. What we did have were our imaginations.  We made toys out of nails and sticks and bailing wire and created worlds in which those toys lived. We narrated and embellished their adventures.
         It is no accident that both my brother and I became writers. We lived childhoods fictionalized and made real by our imaginations. Tom read every word I wrote and responded with his serious edits and observations.  We also wrote stories and screenplays and novels together.
         Because we lived in such isolation, our bond was unique. Sometimes it seemed that we only needed each other. He became my protector and I became his number ONE fan.  Though based on today’s turnout I apparently wasn’t his only fan.  I still claim the number ONE title though.
         I don’t think losing a sibling is never easy nor should it be. My protector died. Life seems very different now and not quite as safe.
         In addition to being my protector, Tom was someone who, along with Linda, accepted and loved me for what I was regardless of what life and society might have expected me to be.
         You all know that Tom had a passion for writing.  He left two big projects unfinished. I don’t feel sad about those unfinished stories. Instead, I’m pleased and proud. Despite his health challenges, he died doing what he loved and holding the hand of the wife he loved. He never stopped writing and he never stopped loving. We should all be so lucky to die doing the work of our hearts and holding the hand of the person we love.
         I’ve lost my protector. However, I have my family and we will protect each other. In my mind and in my heart, though, I have NOT lost my big brother. Tom will always hold that position in my life now and forever.
         I’m honored he asked me to speak today. I’m honored to have been his little sister.
         I love you Tommy.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

My Brother's Last Article For The Arizona Daily Star


https://tucson.com/lifestyles/announcements/obituaries/walker-tom/article_d8976a0a-9889-11e8-b86b-d3cc8e3438f9.html

My brother, Tom Walker, died on July 27, 2018. He was a writer and a damned good one. He worked as an investigative reporter and eventually as an editor.  After he retired from working for Arizona newspapers he became a grant writer and created revenue for at least two non profits.  We wrote a novel together.  All my life he read everything I wrote and cared enough to make comments.  He even wrote the above obituary.  He just wanted to make sure it said what he wanted it to say.  And in tribute to him his old employer, The Arizona Daily Star, published his last piece. He was a good man.  I shall miss him all of my life and then some.