Walt W deserves better than I gave him in my Reader column. He’s the MP that pulled black men off Italian prostitutes. The operative word here is missing. Its “white” prostitutes.
I was wary of Walt when I first laid eyes on him as a little kid. Getting a real kick out of him would take time. It didn’t hurt that he once took me fishing perhaps because he no longer had a son to take out to the pretty little stream near Lake Wabaunsee.
Our families moved in next to each other just before I started second grade. Walt bought the house my Mother had grown up in and our family moved into the tiny house next door that her Aunt Verna once occupied. Getting used to Walt took some doing. I sized him up while he leaned on the fence between our houses chomping on a cigar and talking to my Dad.
He moved in with his wife and two daughters. The little one was the kindergartner mentioned in the column. Her older sister would later come to be an occasional babysitter for me and my siblings. The W’s used to have a son but he was electrocuted after a rainstorm when he walked through a puddle. The storm had brought down some badly maintained overhead lines. The grieving parents took the powerful Kansas Power and Light Company to court and discovered how vicious and stingy a big company could be in excusing its mistakes. Walt and his wife were accused by the KPL attorneys of trading on their son’s death to make a quick buck. That’s what my Mother told me. She and Joyce became very good friends and shared their life stories with each other.
I can picture Walt as a military policeman. I wouldn’t have wanted to tangle with him. He swore, he spit and he smoked cigars. One evening I told another new kid on our block about the tough guy next door as we sat in our yard within earshot of Walt’s daughters. I confided that our neighbor swore, spat and smoked cigars. That pretty well summed it up. Of course, Walt’s oldest daughter overheard me and indignantly told her Dad what the rotten little kid next door had said about him. Walt thought it was the funniest damned thing he’d ever heard.
For years afterward, when I would return to visit Topeka, we’d pay a call on the W’s and Walt would savor retelling that story; about how I had said he swore; and he spit; and he smoked cigars. Every time he’d get to that punchline he would chortle with delight.
I don’t blame Walt for his police work in Italy. He was just doing what he was ordered to do by his superior officers. It would have been unpleasant work no matter the race of the GI’s caught up in the sweep of a brothel. I know something of the history of our military and how badly it was infected by the racism, especially of its southern officer corps. Our military wouldn’t be integrated for another three years after World War II. Its officers generally did everything in their power to prevent black soldiers from fighting lest they earn respect, glory or medals. These officers seethed that European women didn’t know better than to fraternize with black men. The American black soldiers were equally amazed by this having been indoctrinated by a nation that lynched them for so much as staring at a white woman.
I also know this history because my Grandfather was an officer of black soldiers in the first World War. This is a history I have studied ardently. Whatever racial prejudices Walt, the Kansas boy, took to war with him his service in Italy only served to reinforce them.
As my Reader column pointed out the school I would attend with Walt’s children had just been integrated by order of the United States Supreme Court. I was there from second to sixth grade before our family moved to lilly-white Minnesota. Despite our departure we kept up with our old neighborhood. We knew that Loman Hill Elementary was taking in more and more black children. Then the School Board hired a black principal. To say that the white parents were unhappy about this is a considerable understatement. We all wondered how Walt would take this given his history. Perhaps, like our family did, you are gritting your teeth imagining a terrible outcome. Well, we got a pleasant surprise.
Walt W. contacted the principal and worked hard with him to make his transition a smooth one. That’s it. The end of the story. Walt grew and became a hero.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. There was that night during the Cuban Missile Crisis that my Mother had a nightmare about Fidel Castro stuffing people in a bag. She was, she told us, so frozen with fear that she couldn’t move even though she knew she had to do something to warn the poor people in her dream. She finally screwed up her courage and let out a scream so loud that she could be heard through the whole neighborhood. It sure as hell woke up Walt. Like the old MP he had been he scrambled out of bed,fetched his rifle and began patrolling our neighborhood while my Mother turned over and went back to sleep. It’s just what you would have expected from a tough guy who swore, who spat, and who smoked cigars.