Walter is someone you probably don’t know. And the way I came to know him was in the unlikeliest of circumstances. But he’s certainly someone worth remembering.
In 1992, I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts and major in Biology. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that I was graduating without a single plan or care in the world. I had toyed with the idea of graduate school, with a strong desire to work in the field of animal behavior. I found plenty of schools with strong programs but when you enter under the umbrella of biology and not psychology, animal behavior is explained at the neurological and cellular level.
In other words, I’d be studying dead animals.
Because the idea of working with live animals was way more appealing, I opted to wait and see where the wind took me. And it took me to a nearly full-time job working in the Invertebrate Zoology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
It wasn’t an extremely natural fit. Animals in museums are typically dead, but at least I wouldn’t be doing the killing. And the Invertebrate Zoology department focused primarily on entomology, the study of insects. I hate insects.
But the experience opened my eyes. I learned more about and gained an extremely appreciation for moths and butterflies as I helped on both field and lab research on species diversity along the Grand River in Ohio.
I loved working in the field, when I didn’t encounter Extremely Large Spiders and the occasionally unsupervised Rottweiler in the woods. We’d head out twice a week to set up and collect moth samples and then bring them back to the lab.
The lab was staffed by a large array of volunteers, primarily made up of senior citizens. It was a colorful bunch.
Ron, the amateur lepidopterist who could talk for hours at a time and never take a breath.
Martha, the retired school teacher who gave me a miniature scarecrow because she said it was how I looked when I went into the field.
Jean, the former child psychologist who was probably analyzing everyone else in the lab.
And then there was Walter.
What I knew about Walter came in bits and pieces. He was around 75 or 76 years old, Polish (based on his last name), married, and had a girlfriend who was in her forties.
Yes, that was Walter. He was a no bullsh*t kind of guy and he made no apologies for his life. Since his wife had hit menopause, she had no interest in him so he went out and got a girlfriend. And he would often give me advice about my love life. When I would lament about “finding the one” and getting married, he’d tell me quite frankly to not be in such a hurry. I needed to worry more about going out and living my life instead of worrying about settling down.
But Walter was more than an entertaining senior citizen living out his golden years in the comfort of a insect lab. Walter was an American Hero.
I knew he made frequent visits to the VA hospital within walking distance of the museum. Again, his story came out in bits and pieces. Sometimes he’d go because he cancer that had to be removed (on his nose). More often, he’s go to get the pills that would keep him from going crazy, which is pretty much how he put it.
Walter was a Army Ranger during World War II and one of his tasks as a soldier was a frighteningly memorable one. On August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Three days later, the Army Rangers were sent into Nagasaki to assess the damage and Walter was one of them.
He never talked about what he saw but the statistics show that 60,000 to 90,000 citizens, mostly civilians, were killed in Nagasaki. Half of them were killed during the bombing while the other half died over the next few months from injuries and radiation-related sickness.
This is why Walter needed those crazy pills. This is why Walter had experienced cancer. Everyone else he knew from that time had long since died, usually from cancer. Why he survived, he never quite understood but I think it’s partly because he was a tough son of a bitch and partly because he had a story that needed to be told.
On Memorial Day, I’m grateful for men like Walter that do the job that nobody else would want and live with a lifetime of scars because of it. And I’m grateful for all the men and women who sacrifice mental health and physical health and sometimes even their lives so that our country may survive and thrive.
God bless you, Walter, wherever you may be!