Day One. . .
I walked down a long corridor trying to notice everything. The halls were crowded with people coming and going; I only had time to smile and move on. I came around a final corner to the chapel. I could hear the sound of singing. It was a nice room and Nancy told me that it was group sing along.
“Erik, I will be right back. I see Wally in the corner over there,” commented Nancy as she walked into the room. As I stood in the doorway a million things rushed through my head. I tried to picture what Wally would be like. He could have been a teacher, an athlete, or a senator. As far as I was concerned, I was in for an interesting experience. Ten weeks later, I can say with compete confidence, Wally is someone very special. Embarking on this adventure, I didn’t know how I was going to write a life story. A life obviously enriched with adventure, love and triumphs. I didn’t want to leave anything out. Instead of trying to write everything, I decided to write the adventures Wally and I had together. We set out on a month's worth of journeys and this is where we went. . . .
As I stood in the doorway, I could see Nancy pushing a man in a wheelchair. As they came closer, I knew this had to be Wally. “This is Wally,” smiled Nancy. “It is nice to meet you sir,” I replied with a little hesitation. We walked down the hall to a little room. I found a place to sit, and before I could even lift my head, Wally said his first thing to me. “So, what do you want to know?” I looked up and just smiled. I knew this was going to be an interesting few weeks. This man sitting before me was going to tell me his life, and I was going to listen to every word. “I don’t know how this is going to go. Why don’t we just start with a few general questions.”
“I am seventy-nine years old and I worked on the railroad for forty-one years.” I think my eyes must have been the size of golf balls. I never thought my partner would have worked on the railroad. My attention heightened as I leaned closer to a perfect stranger. “Wow, I bet you have some great stories.” “You’re damn right I have good stories,” declared Wally with a cool confident look. He was going to take me on a trip and we were going to be riding the rails. As Wally started to talk, I could have sworn I was transported to the rail yard, and sure enough Wally was right in front of me. He was a strong gritty man. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t take nothin’ from nobody. “Take’em back. Come on bring it back.” You see Wally was the head brakeman on the 437. They were setting out at Fergus Falls and they needed to make it to Fargo on time.
“Come on bring it back,” cried Wally with a heightened sense of annoyance. Wally decided to walk up to the engine to find the problem. Sure enough they had a problem, and they would not be calling Houston for help.
“Call the coroner, we’ve got dead engineer on our hands.”
Just like that we were once again sitting in a little strange room and I was about to fall out of my chair. “The engineer was dead. What did you do?” I asked half astonished.
“Well, I called all the proper authorities. The police came and the coroner. We had everyone there. The problem was we still had to get the train to Fargo,” replied Wally with a coy look on his face. Just like that we were back in Fergus Falls.
“Who’s going to run the trail? Wally have you ever run an engine?” I can imagine Wally had a small smile, “No, an operator never gave me permission. When do you want the train in Fargo?”
“It has to be in by 7:15.”
“I can do better then that.” Just like that Wally was running a train to Fargo. He wound the thing up and headed for Fargo. As he got out of town, oh yea, sixty-five miles and hour. As he got outside of town a large corner appeared over the bend. “Watch for my hind end,” called Wally to his fireman.
“Just watch for it.” Sure enough, as his end pulled out of the corner, he wound the thing back up to full speed.
“Wally Johnson here. Are my switches all lined up?” asked Wally as he called ahead.
“Yea, take the engine back to the garage,” replied the man on the other end.
“I might need some help. I am all alone on this end.”
“We are here.” As Wally pulled in, a look of astonishment swept over the men like a dust storm.
“Where is the engineer?”
“He is dead,” commented Wally.
“Who brought it in?”
Just like that we were once again back in a small room at Country Manor. “Wow, that was an amazing story. I can’t believe you did it, but I have to ask. Did you make it.”
“Erik, I was fifteen minutes early.”
I got up and walked towards Wally. “Thank you sir. I had a good time. I can’t wait to get another story. I walked out to my car and a slight smile came over my face. “I can’t believe this guy worked on the railroads. How cool is this going to be.” I admitted to myself I was that looking forward to the up coming weeks.
A Day to Top All Others. . .
As I drove to our second meeting, my apprehensions disappeared, and my anticipation occupied the void. What was I going to hear today? Where is he going to take me? Will I be the same when I leave? Right as I walked through the door, I saw Wally.
“Hello sir, how are you doing today?” I smiled and went to shake his hand.
“Right on the button,” commented Wally with his patented little smile. It didn’t take long until we were once again in a strange rail yard. As Wally talked, I was able to see the rail yard. We were at the Union yard in Minneapolis. Wally told me that it was the fastest train to Fargo. I was standing next to him as he did the same job, which he had done for so long. However, this day was destined to be different. Wally heard a voice in the distance.
“Help me. Help me. My legs are cut off!” Wally turned to try to find the origin of the voice.
“Keep hollering, I’ll find you. Just keep hollering.” As he walked down the track, he found the man trapped under a car. Wally leaned down to assess the situation. Sure enough, the man was under the car with both legs sitting next to him.
“Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you,” commented Wally in a strong confident voice. Wally tore a piece from his shirt to form a tourniquet for the man’s legs. Once the tourniquets were in place, Wally pulled the man from under the train. He had to hurry before another car rolled along and did the same to him. Grabbing his radio, Wally put a call into the station.
“I found one of your riders with both legs. . .” Just then, the man started to fight with Wally, and he had to take action. So he knocked him one.
“Like I was saying before, I am coming in with a guy with both legs cut off.” Wally pulled the man up and over his shoulder, but he wasn’t about to leave a man’s legs lying on the tracks. Wally leaned back over and took the man’s legs under his left arm. Ready to go, Wally headed off down the tracks with a man, his legs and a radio. The sounds of the rail yard drowned out the hustle and bustle of the city; a Hercules-like figure walked the wounded man towards a waiting ambulance. As he approached the ambulance, we left the rail yard and returned to Country Manor. Wally sat in his chair looking down into his lap, almost as if he had yet to leave the rail yard we were just in.
“Wally, you must have saved his life.” Wally’s head slowly rose and we made eye contact.
“The story isn’t over yet.”
“How can’t it be over? You took the man to the ambulance. You saved his life. What else could you have possibly done?” Once again, he gives me that little smile.
“Well, I hopped off a car to hit a switch. I did indeed hit the switch–with my head. It was winter and there was an ice patch covered by water. When I jumped off the train, I hit the ice and slid head first into the switch. I knocked myself out cold. They took me to the hospital.” Wally was taken to the hospital wet, hurting, and above everything else–mad. Wally randomly started talking to a guy. He mentioned that an accident put him in the hospital.
“I was trapped under a car and someone pulled me out. Got both my legs cut off.” I can see it now, Wally once again bared his little smile.
“That guy who pulled you from under the train was me.” I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“You were next to the man you saved and just happened to start talking?”
“Yea. His wife and kid wrote me letters. He told me that if I wouldn’t have done what I did, he would have died. I got some Christmas cards, but eventually they stopped.”
“That is an amazing story. You pulled a man and his legs from under a train. I must say, I don’t think you are going to be able to top that one.”
“Fit for a Queen”
Wally and I had shared some intense moments in his life. We went from his day as an engineer to his day as a life saver. We had traveled to the rail yards and seen amazing things, but I knew there was more to Wally then the railroad. I wanted to know Wally, so we had to go deeper into his past. What is better than high school?
“Wally, what stands out as a positive experience during high school?” I asked the question just hoping to open a new door and find out more about my partner.
“In high school I drove for Mrs. B. She was great.” As I had hoped, we went directly to Wally’s high school days. Wally was recommended by the school to be Mrs. B.’s driver.
“I have good common sense. I got the job because I am clean, honest and I am not a jerk.” She looked around to find out what Wally was like. She found out he worked three jobs, played sports and went to school. It was now time for Wally to go in for his interview. He knew that she had three very specific criteria for her employees. They were not allowed to smoke, drink or have girls. Wally approached her door looking as new as the day he was born. I can see him now, getting spiffy to impress a hard to impress woman.
“Mrs. B., I fulfill all your stipulations except for one.”
“What’s that?,” Mrs. B. asked.
“I’ve got a girl and I won’t give her up.” Wally had been dating this girl for some time, and he wasn’t about to put her aside.
“Wally, you are an honest man. We will have to keep her then.” They settled the ground rules, and it was time for Wally to start driving Mrs. B. First, Wally had to look the part, so she sent him down to a local department store to dress the part.
“I went to the store and got twelve shirts and two suits. Mrs. B. bought them all. Oh, she also told me that I better buy some socks and ties. Wally was now ready to face the world looking like a million dollars. He rolled up to work on his first day, got out of the car, adjusted his tie and headed for the door. Wally rang the bell.
“Wow,” commented Mrs. B. “You are a good looking guy.” I don’t know where Wally developed his little smile, but I am sure it was in full force for a comment like that. Expecting a story involving sharks, tigers and bears, I asked Wally if anything out of the ordinary happened.
“No, we had a good time together, but she was a small lady. She had to sit on three pillows in order to see out of the windshield.” In order to remedy the situation, Wally headed down to the local upholstery shop.
“I knew the guys at the shop. So, I went down there and told them the story.”
“Alright, so what are her colors?” asked the guys.
“I don’t know. Let’s look at some patterns.” Just like that Wally had a new seat for
“I got the seat for nothing. Ok, I paid twenty-five dollars.”
"Wally you are definitely a good person. Did she like her new seat?”
“I showed her the seat and told her it was fit for a queen and that is who you are.” I am sure she liked the seat just fine.
“Driving Mrs. B. was an education in itself.
I was traveling along side Wally as he explored his past. It didn’t feel like he was merely telling me these stories; it was like I was right there with him. Maybe this reflects his ability to tell a great story, or maybe the stories are just that intriguing. One day in class, we started talking about World War II. A light bulb instantly came on in my mind. I wonder what Wally was doing during the war? I knew that he was the right age, but he had never mentioned anything about it. So as I walked into his room, a month into the partnership, I brought up the War. Wally started talking about his time working in a bowling alley. I wondered to myself what this could possibly have to do with the War, but to my surprise it connected quite well.
“I was setting pins at a bowling alley. One night a drunken guy came in; he was a big shot. Nobody said anything. I was in the back setting pins, when a guy started to bowl. I guess he made a bad shot and in his disgust, he quickly flung another ball.”
“Wally did you get hit by the ball?” I thought to myself that it had to be that way, because Wally was like no other person I have ever known.
“Right in the side of the head. Knocked me cold. Doctor said I would never hear again, because I burst my ear drum.” Wally’s luck had seemed to take a turn for the worst. I know I thought that when I heard it for the first time, but a short time later the ball may have saved his life.
“I got a call to go down and get my exam. You know for the service.” The look in Wally’s eye returned for the first time since the leg day. I had to wonder what was going on in his head. Where is he taking me? Just like that I was once again traveling the roads of Wally’s life. We ended up in an exam room. I can see Wally walking with a swagger. Almost as if he knew something that nobody else knew. Right off the bat, Wally caught the attention of the Sergeant.
“I own you kid. You’re mine,” screamed the man in the direction of Wally. I think Wally may have been the first to actually egg on the Sargent. He was playing a game.
“I have forgotten more in my life than you will ever know,” barked Wally back at the Sargent.
“Get in line, buddy,” returned the Sergeant.
“Get in your own damn line,” echoed Wally. He slowly got in line with the other recruits to start the examination process. His eyes were perfect. He was in great shape. This man was going to make an outstanding soldier, but there was a problem. He had a big red ‘X’ slicing through his examination sheet. He passed the tests and he was a physical specimen. Where was the problem? Wait one minute . . . The bowling ball . . . Wally knew the entire time he was going to fail the exam because he had a busted eardrum. Wally headed out of the area and sure enough he saw his good buddy Sarg. Their endearing conversation started like they had never left off.
“You look like a smart ass kid,” bellowed the agitated Sargent.
“You got that right,” interjected Wally as he showed the Sargent his big red ‘X’.
“I was going to nail your ass,” replied the dejected Sargent. He knew the entire time he was going to be rejected. I think Wally said it best, “I’ve always had a lot of guts, even if I get the heck beat out of me. You always have to be tough.” If it isn’t his stature, it sure is his wit.
From the Eagles Comes an Angel. . .
During our time together, Wally would now and then touch on his vast volunteering experience. He was a member of the Eagles of St. Cloud. They just happened to be the largest club in the state, and Wally was the first person to be named Eagle of the year. One night Wally was at a meeting and he wasn’t enjoying the speaker very much. So he decided to get up and go to the bar. Casually talking to the bartender, Wally noticed three girls walk in the front door. Wally knew two of the three, but the one in the middle especially caught his eye.
“Hey bartender, who is that little love muffin? You better get them a drink. Sure enough, Wally’s charm came out and the attractive young woman came over to investigate.
“What do I owe this occasion?” commented the apple of Wally’s eye.
“You owe me nothing,” remarked Wally. He had a little smile on his face as he recalled this first conversation.
“What do you do?”
“I am a conductor.”
“Oh, beep beep,” sniped this equal advisory.
“She might kid you a bit,” commented the bartender as he smiled at the two individuals. Wally and Louise seemed to be a perfect fit, and nothing showed it more than their ability to dance.
“If I get the right partner; I can do anything,” smiled Wally to this new found partner. “Do you have any boy friends, or do you just want to go with me.” Wally was sure pulling out the lines to win this one over, and it wasn’t over yet.
“I like you. And someday I might even love you.” He must have known what he was doing. They got married and had many wonderful experiences together. The little smile returned to Wally’s face, and we were ready to travel the world. Clear the floor. Wally and Louise are here.
“We could sure mix them up good. We would never step on each other’s feet. We loved music and dancing. We had a lot of good ones.” Seemingly simple statements say so much about the people involved. Wally went on to tell me of dance contests in London and cruise ship dance floors. I slowly raised my eyes towards her picture on the wall. “She sounded like a very special woman.”
“She was a doll, a real snappy woman. I will always remember her like she was. She was always too good for me, but we sure did get around.” As I got up to leave, I couldn’t help but think how lucky a woman she was as well. I walked to my car and couldn’t believe our time was almost over.
Where to Go from Here. . .
Earlier I questioned if I would be the same when I left. It is hard to foresee how a particular person can affect you. It is also difficult trying to rap up an experience of this nature. What do I say now? Where do I go from here? I started by saying that I wanted to depict our short time together. I wasn’t going to try to tell Wally’s life story. I am going to stick to that, but I want everyone else to benefit as I have. Wally told me a few things in our time together and I think they are worth while. A few pieces of advice:
On the Country Manor. . .
I am the kid in here at seventy-nine. I am always singing and humming. You have to make people smile. You have to practice a little everyday.”
On tipping. . .
“Don’t buy the bartender’s car for him. Let him buy it himself.”
On life. . .
“I enjoyed everything I ever did. I love being with people. Enjoy what you do, and do it for yourself.”
Friends. . .
“You’ve got a lot of friends. Who needs a lot of friends? All you need is a few close ones.
Getting ahead. . .
“It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” Wally is of course referring to his friend in the state legislature. I can see it now: Wally on capital hill.
Wally you have taken me on a first-class journey. We spanned thousands of miles and many decades. We started with a car and a flagpole. We moved with the trains, around the injuries, to your family. I have learned of your deep love for your son, and I can see how proud you are of him. I have seen first hand your gritty nature. I am sure it has gotten you into and out of some difficult situations. You took me to Europe and on cruise ships. You took me to the horse track to watch Louise bring in a few thousand. She must have been hot that day. We sat in your apartment and reminisced about the last fifty years and what it has meant to you. You have told me of your pen pal and the excellent poem she wrote, which picks you up when you feel down. I will never forget your stories about the children at Madison School--teaching phonics for ten years after more than forty years on the railroad. I truly can see your deep love for children. I think we both share the idea that the children are the most important. I have felt your pain from the heart attacks, crossing spikes, switches and most importantly, the bowling ball. You have introduced me to your high school buddies and showed me some of your more flamboyant tricks, but we will keep that on the unwritten side. Thank you for taking me on these adventures. Thank you for opening up your life and allowing me to write it. Wally Johnson has taken me places I will never be able to go, and for that I thank him. Besides, Wally says he reads people everyday. He tells me he is very good at reading people. Wally tells me that I am a good person. He is the pro so I will take his word for it. Thank you Wally.