The Three Walters

(written 7/20/2009)

My memory of the convergence of the three Walters emerges from a lower perspective, both literally and figuratively looking up at adults as oaks of wisdom and disapproval. It was summer, 1961, and I was 10. My folks--Pete and Katie--had saved up to take me on a long-daydreamed trip to Disneyland, a place that always lived up to the promise of magic, joy, and a rush to the senses.

My dad, Pete, was pure working class--a farm boy turned drill sergeant in the "China Marines" (assigned to protect the walled city against the Japanese) and, later, a cabinetmaker. His given name was Walter, but like all the members of his huge North Dakota family he was assigned a nickname: Pete. It never occurred to him (outside of his signature) that he was anyone but "Pete."

He and Katie had pinched a lot of nickels to save up for this visit to the Magic Kingdom, but of course I was oblivious to the sacrifice. I was just ready to be swept up into the fantasy, and I was not disappointed.

Some time near the end of that long, hot day of exploring forts and submarines and houses of tomorrow, we ended up on Main Street for the early evening's parade, and as the crowd pressed in around us, I found myself caught in a tide of much bigger people, able only to hear the loud celebration moving through the street. Pete jockeyed to get me closer to the action, but there was only so far we could go. Struggling to get some bearing in the orderly mob, I bumped into a man on my left who put a steadying hand on my shoulder. My father, I thought. I looked up at him and my jaw dropped, for it was not my father at all, not by a Sputnik launch.

There among the rest of the merely mortal stood a man whose visage ignited every cell of my imagination and curiosity. I couldn't believe who I was staring at, and vigorously elbowed my father.

"Dad," I said in my lowest crowd voice, jerking my head in the man's direction. My father looked over and, as he caught the distinguished fellow's friendly gaze, they exchanged amused smiles. Then Pete turned back to the parade. Oblivious, I thought.

"Dad--do you know who that is? I insisted. He nodded, clearly not wanting to invade the man's own moment enjoying the parade with his kids. I persisted.

"That's Walt Disney." My dad's smile got wider and he shook his head ever so slightly. The man heard me and chuckled. He and Pete shrugged. "Yes it is!" My parents ignored my urgent pleadings and continued to watch the end of the parade, which I had missed in my agitated sense of awe. Soon the crowd began to shuffle away. My dad looked over at the man as he moved into the crowd. "That was Walt Disney!" I persisted, mightily exasperated as I watched "Walt" disappear into the throng. "I was standing right next to Walt Disney. Did you see him?"

My father leaned down and sweetly corrected me. "That was Walter Cronkite."

I could tell from his voice that he was as surprised and amazed as I was but for different (and wrong) reasons. But I was sure he was mistaken, and for weeks I told anyone in my ten-year-old circle that I had stood next to Walt Disney right on Main Street in Disneyland. For years the story held, until I gradually relaxed my grip on it as I began to actually watch The CBS Evening News. No matter how often I saw Walter Cronkite, I automatically squinted in an effort to recreate the moment of believing he was Walt Disney. Two kinds of storytellers, one who told the truth with magic, and one who told it with assuring but unvarnished frankness.

The world shifted on its axis in the years after this encounter, with assassinations and turmoil and walks on the moon, and it took a long time for me to fully "get" the magnitude of the moment--a touch on the shoulder from a great man and my father's quietly dignified reaction to him. And today, upon reading of Mr. Cronkite's passing, I deeply appreciate the instant passing between three great fellows---two present in the flesh, and one in the hope of a kid--all of them entrusted to tell the truth about the world to vastly different audiences, and one no doubt grateful that his afternoon as a father at Disneyland hadn't been interrupted; the other, as I know today, startled and awed to be looking into the smiling eyes of a giant.

It was the only time in my life that I would stand at the intersection of three great Walters, and I wish for such a moment of exquisite happiness--mistaken or not--for my own little boy.


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