Walter wanted to be a farmer in the worst way but it would not be permitted. His father was a preacher
, as was his grandfather so his path was preordained. They immigrated to Iowa from Germany by way of New Zealand
to spread the word. They were stern German Lutheran
s and though he lacked their religious zeal, he could not defy his father's wishes for him to follow in their footsteps.
The night before his graduation from the seminary, Walt and his roommate stayed up all night drinking beer and spinning grand dreams of how they might save the world. Walt vowed to go to India, his roommate to China. The comfort of their dorm room at the Midwestern seminary and their ironic Christian optimism compelled them to seek out those less fortunate.
Foreign missions were not highly regarded by most of the seminary students. Some said they would flatly decline such a call. "It's one thing to be drafted, it's quite another to volunteer." Their ridicule would insinuate that a volunteer must have some ulterior motive, perhaps a selfish desire to see the world. Walt was undeterred by the loose talk but it caused him to probe his own motives.
A couple from his father's congregation in Fort Dodge, Iowa offered to drive his folks down to St. Louis for his graduation. Following the ceremony, Walt joined his parents for the ride back to Fort Dodge. As they passed through a suburb of Des Moines, their Packard was struck head-on by a driver who was accelerating around a city bus.
Walt managed to climb out the back door of the demolished car and tried to open the driver's door from the outside but it was jammed. The couple who had offered them the ride suffered the worst of it. The husband was inert with his head resting on the steering wheel. His wife leaned motionless against him with a terrible injury to her scalp. He saw that his father, also in the front seat, had been thrown into the windshield and he rushed around the car to his aid.
As his father flopped back onto the seat, jagged pieces of glass cut gashes in his neck and blood streamed over his clerical collar. Walt completed a Red Cross emergency first aid class only two weeks before, in preparation for his mission to India, but he knew that his training was not equal to the current crisis.
His dad's head wounds seemed minor, thanks to a stiff hat that he wore, but Walt worried about the blood flowing from the wounds in his neck. He struggled to remove his father's collar to no avail. The collar was buttoned tight and his own badly gashed and broken finger hindered Walt’s efforts. He pulled at the stiff white collar with both hands but it would not give.
It became apparent that his wounds were superficial when his father regained consciousness and gave Walt an irritated look for tugging at his neck. Walt helped to load the injured into the cars of benevolent witnesses who gathered around the crash. His mother was only winded by the collision. His father's legs were badly injured and he spent several weeks on crutches before graduating to the life-long use of a cane. Walt emerged with a game knee, a badly mangled finger and a new determination to serve the God who had spared his parents.
Any weakness in his missionary zeal was eliminated by his father's stubborn clerical collar. He saw poetry in it that cemented his faith and affirmed his calling. He saw God's hand in the Red Cross training he had completed only weeks before the accident. Although he hadn't the means to do anything tangible for the accident victims, he felt that his training kept him from succumbing to helpless panic. He was told later that dispatching the victims to the hospital by private car rather than waiting for an ambulance might well have saved their lives.
Walt knew in his heart that his life had been spared in the accident so that he could serve his God in India.
The mission in India lasted about twenty-three years. The hopelessness of the famine-ravaged country was not resolved during his tenure but I know it wasn't for lack of effort on his part. I once asked him if he was over there whacking those poor people with the Bible
and he told me, with moist eyes, that he never had the time.
He built schools to teach them to read and write Tamil, the local language and used the meager mission allowance to keep a handful of the sad millions fed. A mother and her children would routinely make a days walk for the often empty promise of a coconut shell full of milk. The hungry masses gathered around his family's compound while his own children enjoyed an idyllic, well nourished Rudyard Kipling childhood.
His mission was futile, thankless and depressing.
We were with him in his Minnesota home several years before his death when he showed us a Christmas card he received from a stranger in Texas. The stranger's name was Benjamin and he was studying civil engineering at the University of Texas. He sent Walt the card to thank him for his efforts in India fifty years after the fact.
Benjamin wrote that he was the grandchild of an "untouchable" who, without Walt's intervention, would have sired another untouchable and then another. He said that fifty years before, Walt provided his grandfather with the means to acquire a bicycle. The bicycle gave him the ability to cross great distances to find work and food. The work and food broke the cycle of poverty in his lineage, which in turn allowed Benjamin to take an advanced degree at one of the best Universities on Earth.
My grandfather drew his last breath in a nursing home in the happy land of Minnesota. He was halfway through his 92nd year when he was finally "called home." Mary and I smuggled in brandy to toast him on a life well lived and he reacted as if we'd brought the cure for old age.
In his last days he believed the nursing home was a steam ship heading for exotic locales and we saw no reason to correct him.