Remembering Walter the First
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A small domestic disturbance broke out in the supermarket checkout line the other day. As I was paying for a cartload of groceries, my eagle-eyed wife noticed that my wallet has grown a little worn at the seams. OK, it was falling apart.
"Gosh, honey," she said as if speaking to a small and not particularly bright child, "You need a new wallet. There's actually more money than leather left in yours. Why don't we buy you a nice new one?"
"Are you joking?" I said. "I love this wallet."
I pointed out to her that this particular billfold has been with me loyally holding my loot in since the end of the Jerry Ford years.
"Well, it's probably not going to make it to another presidency," she said, adopting the popular election theme of late. "But I have a great idea. Let's get you a brand-new billfold for Election Day!"
I briefly considered this possibility. Then a far more sensible idea came to me.
The housewares aisle wasn't far away. Moments later, I returned from there with a large plastic sack containing 250 industrial-size rubber bands.
One fit perfectly around my disintegrating wallet. It wouldn't be hard to find handy uses for the other 249 other rubber bands, either.
"I'm good to go for at least another two terms in office." I announced.
My wife laughed and shook her head.
"Oh my gosh," she said "You've become a true geezer."
Moroccan Leather Keepsake
Another man might have been wounded by this cheeky characterization of a thrifty old guy who simply hates to see things change or waste anything. But I wasn't the least bit offended and only wish she'd realized I'm actually becoming my grandfather
His middle name was Walter, and so is mine. Ironically, his wallet has sat on my office desk for more than a decade. Before that, it sat on my dad's desk in Greensboro for more than 20 years.
It's a handsome, old-fashioned jacket-style wallet made of beautiful Moroccan leather with a discreet golden zipper interior pocket and my grandfather's simple initials -- W.W.D -- embossed in gilt letters above the personal "card" slot. My dad had it custom-made for his father in a London leather goods shop in 1944, shortly before he shipped home from World War II.
My grandfather, a rural Carolina jack-of-all-trades who never went beyond the fifth grade, thought the wallet was much too valuable to actually use on a daily basis, so he saved it for special occasions only.
Evidently there weren't many special occasions in his life.
The wallet looks barely used, almost brand-new. I think Walter the First was about to be buried with it in 1970 when my dad "borrowed" it as keepsake of his father. As my dad was dying in 1995, he thoughtfully "loaned" it to me. Maybe someday not too distant, I'll pass it to my son Jack. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Walter the First.
In any case, I find myself thinking about my grandfather quite often these days -- perhaps because the first of the so-called Baby Boom Generation I belong to will officially begin to retire this year.
Perhaps, as the wallet episode at the grocery store suggests, I'm merely becoming a geezer just like him. If so, I could sure do worse.
An Old-School Gentleman
Walter the First immediately stood up when any lady walked into a room, removed his hat when coming in from out of doors, covered his heart during the national anthem, and never failed to patriotically stain his necktie with gravy during Thanksgiving dinner or fall asleep during the evening news.
The original Walter Dodson would never buy anything new if he could find a decent used one at half the price. "Waste not, want not" was his life's unspoken creed. He wore the same work pants until the seats or knees gave out, the same boots until their soles went to heaven.
If he borrowed something from a neighbor, he returned it in better shape than he found it.
If someone needed an extra hand, his was the first one offered. His hands were tough as boot leather, as I remember, but warm as the belly of a sleeping pup.
He never swore -- unless my grandmother was safely out of earshot. He loved reading the Saturday Evening Post, listening to Jack Benny on his workshop radio, and waiting in line for a Saturday-morning haircut.
He always kept a pack of Lifesavers in his buttoned shirt pocket, for passing out to kids. The pocket contained other useful stuff, too -- paper clips, fishing line, rubber bands, a tube of lubricating oil.
He dearly loved to fish for bass but never said much -- or cared for those who did. Most of the time he just watched and listened and smiled if something amused him.
"If your mouth is open," he once commented to me as I chattered away, "some big old fish will keep his shut and swim on by."
He always enjoyed a couple of neat knuckles of Old Granddad whiskey in the evening and a slowly smoked King Edward cigar on the porch from time to time, but never failed to rise before the sun.
My grandmother, a Southern Baptist from Raleigh, never missed a Sunday or Wednesday night church service. My grandfather, whose own grandfather founded 10 Methodist churches on a line from Haw River to Seagrove, never attended one unless somebody was getting buried or married or his Scripture-quoting wife made go.
On the other hand, he never missed a chance to vote in a national election or kiss a pretty girl, didn't trust vegetables unless they came from his own back garden, didn't trust TV preachers and thought little of fellas who wore loafers.
He loved a good, long drink of water from the garden hose and never owned anything but mutts.
During the Great Depression, according to my father, Walter the First never turned a drifter away from his door. His best friend was a black "hired" man known only as "Ed" who lived in a small shed on the family farm near Chapel Hill for more than a decade.
Though he was a registered Republican all his life, when his hero President Roosevelt died, I'm told, Walter the First and his best friend Ed went and stood by the railroad tracks somewhere near Asheboro with their hats in his hand, to pay his silent respects to the president's passing funeral train.
My granddad Walter was a true Abe Lincoln Republican, a Teddy Roosevelt kind of guy. I hate to think of what he'd make of a Grand Old Party full of loafer-wearers and TV preachers today.
As a young man he saw Buffalo Bill's final Wild West Show performance at the Raleigh fairgrounds. His favorite photograph was cheap picture post card of Chief Sitting Bull that sat on a shelf of his workshop forever -- not too surprising, I guess, since his own mother, my great-grandmother Emma, was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian lady.
A Whiff of Turpentine
The year my dad was born, 1915, his father helped raise some of some of the first rural electrification towers across this part of central North Carolina and later did much of the wiring of the state's first "skyscraper," the Jefferson-Standard Building in Greensboro.
He once bought a blueberry pie for my grandmother at a church raffle and won a free exhibition flight with barnstorming aviatrix Amelia Earhart. He let my grandmother go up with Earhart -- hooking her on the thrill of flight -- but so far as I know never flew in an airplane himself.
Four of his five sons, though, became pilots in the war.
He only made one trip to New York City -- to be on hand with my grandmother and mother when my dad arrived home from Europe on the Queen Mary. That evening, according to my mom, she and my dad took his parents to see Arthur Godfrey at Radio City Music Hall. Gazing around, my granddad's only comment was, "Good wiring job."
His favorite snack was "store-bought" lemon drops. He smelled faintly of turpentine and woodsmoke. He loved to carve small animals with a bone-handled knife my father gave me before I set off to college. Somewhere along the way, I stupidly lost Walter's carving knife.
My grandfather's birthday was this week. He would have been 115 years old.
My wallet from the Jerry Ford years is finally coming apart at the seams. But his, from a different kind of America, is doing just fine.
Contact Jim Dodson at email@example.com.
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