A Week With Wally - The Silver Lining
Over the past six weeks, my travels have taken me from Arkansas across the United States deep into Northern California and very close to the devastating forest fires that destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres, thousands of homes, structures and sadly taken many innocent lives, pets, livestock, and livelihoods. Living most of my life in Arkansas and now witnessing the devastating impact of the fires in California brings a whole new perspective and my understanding of mandatory evacuation orders. One moment you are safe, and in a split second the fierce, unpredictable winds change directions, and you are in the direct line of an inferno coming down the mountain. It has been a sobering impact on me witnessing natures fury engulfing communities that have never been impacted by forest fires in almost a century. You can see the smoke and fire filled sky in the picture taken from from the RV.
I was blessed with the opportunity to camp for a month at a dear friends property in Ft Bragg, CA located four hours north of San Francisco, CA. Consuela, the RV, was happy to rest after a long haul of 3300 miles across the United States and twenty-one days straight on the road. It was nice to sit still in absolute quietness for a month nestled in a beautifully forested lot surrounded by sweeping tall pines, oaks, and giant redwoods. From a secluded hilltop location between the redwoods, I enjoyed a sliver of the Pacific ocean on several evening magical sunsets.
Unfortunately, most of July was damp with heavy sea fog which would tease me with only a few hours of the picturesque Pacific. For the most part, the wet, thick sea fog would hover around the coastline until about 2:00 pm and then drift back into the redwood forest like a scene from a mystic movie. Truthfully after the fifth day of no sunshine, I was ready to jump overboard and pack up the RV to warmer weather down south. One night I told my sweet girlfriend Kelsey, "Dammit we need to dig out the Alaska bag and put the flannel sheets on the bed I am freezing my ass off." I must admit leaving summer temperatures and dumping two sun bunnies into late fall weather was quite a shock on our emotional systems. I can handle one or two days of cloudy weather, but ten days in a row just about sent both us into the mental ward. One day I slept till noon as I had no motivation to even get out of the RV as the weather had sucked the spirit right out of my soul. I can feel the creep of depression crawling upon me when I am stuck indoors for long periods of time. My soul seeks the sunshine, and when I cannot feel the warmth of the sun on my face, my emotional gas tank heads straight to empty. I have always preferred outdoor occupations my entire life.
Over the past thirty-five years, I have lifeguarded, owned a lawn mowing company, worked as a mechanic for American Eagle Airlines, was a courier for FedEx, built and flipped seventeen houses, taught Physical Education and Outdoor Recreation, and now volunteer as park host for Santa Barbara County. I will explain in detail in my next blog how I captured this excellent park hosting gig- living in Santa Barbara, CA… for free!
Back to the Ft. Bragg story, I had an innate feeling there was a deeper reason to hang on and stay a little longer in the Ft Bragg area even though the weather was kicking my butt. I had a little voice chatting in my brain to have patience, breathe, and listen. Ft. Bragg indeed gifted me someone special who taught me a great lesson of humanity, bravery, compassion, service and a fantastic story of enough is enough share the good fortune with others.
Once again life reminds me when I am present the universe, God, and my angels align me in the perfect places to meet people who profoundly impact me in positive ways. One of the most incredible experiences of living in an RV and traveling across the United States is I often have the privilege to sit down over a cup of coffee and listen to the life stories of so many amazing people.
I would have completely missed out on one of the greatest moments of my life if I hadn’t taken the extra time to breathe in the salty sea mist of thick fog that surrounded Ft Bragg, CA. By “stopping” I was rewarded with a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a week with ninety seven-year-old CSM USN RET Wally Walling. Wally is one of the last living survivors stationed at Pearl Harbor and personally witnessed the horrific events of December 7th, 1941 while stranded in a signal tower 180 feet in the air.
My entire life I have been fascinated with WWII history, especially the attack on Pearl Harbor, including the events that unfolded an hour before the actual attack. On one of the first days of arriving in Ft Bragg, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor across the fence named, Bob. Somehow while we were chatting over the picket fence, the topic of aviation surfaced, as Bob mentioned to me he had a career at NASA. Bob was a former test engineer on several space shuttle missions and had a long career with aviation military contracting companies. Jackpot, once I heard the word NASA and aviation my ears perked up as big as the crazy big ass Jackrabbits, we encountered while boondocking in the middle of the Nevada desert at a fantastic off the grid Hot Springs six miles down a dirt road.
I probably looked as awkward as those freakishly strange rabbits with my tongue hanging out while listening to some remarkably cool NASA stories. As we finished up our friendly fence side conversation, Bob said to me, "Hey Deb, if you like airplanes and history then you should meet my friend Wally who will be here next week. He is a Pearl Harbor survivor and just recently wrote a book about his experiences." I immediately replied to Bob, "Oh yes, I certainly would be honored to meet Wally when he arrives in town."
After our conversation, I headed back over to Consuela our RV parked on a beautiful one-acre lot next to Bob's place along a long row of towering redwood cedars. I reminisced about my memorable years of friendship with another gentleman named Captian Calhoun who was a WWII Ace pilot who flew P51's off carriers during the war. While working through college with many odd jobs, I spent eight years mowing an incredible gentleman Captian Calhoun's lawn in addition to thirty other mowing accounts. Whenever I showed up to mow Captian Calhoun's yard which genuinely should have been a forty-five-minute job, I never spent less than three hours on that account. After I would finish up his yard, his wife would bring out some lemonade, and we would chat for hours about the seventy plus airplanes he flew as a Navy test pilot after serving in WWII.
I cherished my time with Captian Calhoun and indeed would have mowed his yard for free to listen to his stories of survival while flying the crazy and unconventional planes the military tested from the late 40's through 1968 when Captain Calhoun retired with 35 years in USN. After surviving being a test pilot for the Navy, Captain Calhoun went on to teach aeronautical engineering for Auburn University for another twenty years eventually retiring to Arkansas on Beaver Lake when I began to mow his lawn in 1993. As I sat in Consuela and stared through the window into the redwood forest, I reminisced upon the hundreds of hours I spent sitting with Captain Calhoun so many years ago I wondered what it would be like to meet someone who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Approximately a week later after my conversation with Bob, I was sitting on the couch in Consuela sipping on a late morning cup of coffee complete with fresh butter, heavy cream, and raw honey still dressed in my flannel pajamas when I heard a thumping on Consuela's door. I thought to myself, "Who the hell is walloping on my door at 10:00 am in the morning?" I hopped off the couch and over to the door sticking my head out of the screen slider. I immediately knew who was whacking on the door. It was Wally! As I swung open the door, Wally was standing two feet from the door, straight up with a metal cane wearing a blue and grey baseball cap with a Pearl Harbor Survivor patch in the front. He was wearing a pair of those light blue old man pants that my dad would wear with the elastic banded belt. His shirt was neatly tucked in, and he had a pair of those white velcro tennis shoes that my dad would wear too. I am sure my dad at least three pairs of the highly fashionable velcro shoes in several colors. I hopped out of the RV like a bouncing three-year-old and said, "Sir you must be Wally. I have been waiting to meet you. You are Bob's friend, correct?" Wally responded quickly, "I heard you wanted to hear some of my stories about the war." I said with no hesitation, "Oh yes sir, I would love to sit down and listen to anything you would like to share with me. Bob told me you flew airplanes too."
As you can well imagine, I spent the next two hours immersed in one great story after another standing outside on the grey wooden pallet deck we had temporally constructed while camping in Ft Bragg. Halfway through the conversation, I looked at what I was wearing standing on the wooden deck as I was modeling my striped winter flannel pajamas, a t-shirt with no bra, and my fluffy winter slippers. I said to Wally, "Geez I am still in my pajamas I guess I should take a shower and put on some real clothes for the day." Wally looked at me with a funny look and said, "I am not looking at your pajamas. Let's have tea tonight."
That was the beginning of a week-long conversation with Wally. After standing on the deck for two hours, we eventually made a tea date at 5:00 pm that night to continue the stories and sharing a lot of history I was thirsty to hear.
That evening I spent three more hours with Wally sitting on Bob's couch looking through hundreds of pictures on his Ipad. Yes, I said, Ipad! Wally swiped and flipped through an I-pad like a twelve-year-old on steroids. Wally did not have one of those old retiree prepaid flip phones. No, Wally had an iPhone, knew how to text, utilize the internet, and familiar with Google. He told me, "Deb if you will Google me tonight you will find me over sixty times on the web."
Did I mention that Wally is ninety-seven years old, still drives himself everywhere, flew over 150,000 miles last year on American Airlines giving presentations around the world on his war experiences, jumped out of an airplane on his 96th birthday, and has a girlfriend named Joan? During the next seven days, I was awestruck with watching Wally work all day in the yard with landscaping projects for Bob, trimming bushes, cleaning out brush, raking leaves, and even repaired a leaking sprinkler system.
One day we worked together in Bob's yard as Wally had pulled about seventy-five landscaping blocks before I poured my first cup of coffee. He was determined to repair an area by the house foundation that a scoundrel groundhog had uprooted and tipped over the stacked stone blocks. Wally would have no more of that groundhog, so he decided to set some underground traps for the little varmint. As the week progressed, we continued our backyard conversations.
Wally told me many incredible stories about his life after the war and the hugely profitable tree trimming service he started from scratch in about 1950 in the Ft Bragg, CA area. Wally made his fortune by the age of fifty and could have sold his business for several million dollars; however, Wally explained to me several times that he had made plenty of money and set for life. He said, "Deb how much money does it take to be happy? It makes me happy to help other people and see them smile." Wally decided after twenty years in the tree trimming business to share his good fortune and company with the eleven men that had helped him build the business. Instead of selling the business to a competitor company he divided his tree trimming company up into eleven equal shares and gifted these loyal men a piece of the company and walked away to his next adventure. Being enamored of hearing many of Wally's war stories left me speechless, however, I was more in awe of what Wally did with his life and for the lives of others after the war.
Wally shared a lifetime love of fishing, so after gifting his tree trimming company to his employees, he bought a full-time commercial fishing business. Wally continued to run two full-time commercial fishing boats for the next twenty years up and down the northern CA coast including the Ft Bragg, Coos Bay, OR, and even all the way down into Cabo San Lucas MX. Wally spent time fishing in the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea in Alaska. He shared several hair-raising stories of accidentally hanging his tuna line gear up in some old crab pots and almost lost his life in an unfortunate event that pulled him overboard. Thank goodness he was able to cut his way through the massive fishing line with a knife strapped on his belt. Over the years Wally lost a fishing vessel which now sits on the bottom of the Pacific and several good friends to the unforgiving and sometimes treacherous sea.
During one of our lunch conversations, we dined at an Ft Bragg harbor restaurant the local fisherman's favorite place called the Rough Bar. Wally reminded me serval times as we enjoyed some fantastic beer battered fresh cod, "Deb, be grateful whenever you purchase line caught wild fish at the market. I lost a few mates over the twenty years I ran commercial fishing boats. The fishing trade can be very lucrative and seduces the young at heart to come to fish the big waters, yet is a dangerous profession that does not bring home a body." Wally and I talked about so many of his fellow shipmates buried at sea during the attack on Pearl Harbor and throughout WWII.
A portion of Wally's responsibilities during the war was to assist with burials at sea. He told me about the thousands of men his ship respectfully laid to rest in the deep blue waters of the ocean. Personally, after talking with Wally and hearing the stories of all the men he witnessed buried at sea, I feel there might be a connection behind why he so loved the ocean and spent his entire life after the war fishing the big blue waters. Wally shared hundreds of pictures on his Ipad of fantastic fishing trips and some big catches over the years. One day while we were driving down the coast Wally explained in detail where his final resting place would be. He will be cremated and buried at sea next to his shipmates at Pearl Harbor as he desires the final rest to be close to the many friends he lost on that fateful day back on December 7, 1941.
I asked Wally during a dinner conversation, "Wally, what was the moment when you knew the world had changed forever during the war?" Wally shared the story of how he stood in horror staring into the eyes of Japanese kamikaze pilots screaming by his tower at 130 knots diving their fully loaded airplanes into the runway. Their sole mission was to blow giant holes in the airstrip, to prevent our fighter pilots from being able to take off and get their planes into the fight. Wally told me, "I watched a few planes get off the heavily damaged airfield, but not many, as the Japanese had practiced precision bombing runs for months. They knew exactly where to drive the knife to hurts us the worse. They knew precisely where to go in first to disable our guys. They hit the runway, the hangers full of fighters, and the fuel tanks. It was over in fifteen minutes!"
One of the harrowing stories that Wally shared with me was when he and other men from his ship witnesses the suicide of thousands of Japanese civilians holding their children jumping to their deaths in 1944 above Marpi Point Field located near the northern tip of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Wally told me the grim details on how he and his crewmates stood there watching the women jump from the cliff. Sadly they just turned their backs and stepped off the ledge with their babies in their arms, to avoid capture by the United States, as Japanese propaganda emphasized Americans would rape and devour Japanese women and children. Wally told me, "I still see their faces in my nightmares seventy-four years later."
Later that evening Wally said, "Deb do you want to get a bite to eat downtown by the harbor. I said, "That sounds awesome let me go grab my purse next door." As I hopped into the car with Wally, he leaned over and said, "Hey Deb you do have insurance right? I am a ninety-seven-year-old driver." I was not sure if he was serious or trying to be funny. I figured if he had survived WWII, falling sixty feet out of a tree, drug by a boat in the ocean for a mile, and ninety-seven years of life, then the angels would protect me in the car driving with Wally.
I was in pretty good hands the five times we went on outings in his car, several dinners and cruising up and down beautiful Mendocino coast. I must admit Wally drifted the center line drifter on a few occasions, but I relaxed, and he corrected the situation pretty quick. I did gently mention to him several times that his blinkers were on. Wally would laugh and say, "Yes, I forget to turn them off sometimes, and people get mad and honk at me." The only time I was a little worried was during the evening hours as he admitted that his eyesight was poor after dark. Thank goodness there is not much traffic in Ft Bragg on a Tuesday night.
We drove home on a very foggy night at twenty mph on a fifty-five mph road with a long line of impatient Ft. Bragg locals passing us on the double yellow line. The only time I heard Wally cuss was when an idiot flew by us at over seventy mph. Wally said, "What the hell, that guy must want to die tonight." We spent several days meandering the coast as I was honored to have a historian of the area give me a first-class tour of the old fishing village. Wally drove me by his old stomping grounds and where he kept his two commercial fishing vessels and had a home by the marina for twenty years. Everyone in town knew and respected Wally Walling, as each time we would get out of the car someone would walk over and shake his hand. Each restaurant we went dined at Wally's meal was free. I was so privileged to spend a week with Wally as I was blessed to hear incredible behind the scenes stories of WWII. There are only four or five of the Pearl Harbor men still alive today, and Wally told me they are in pretty bad shape. Wally's body is finally coming to the end of its service. Nonetheless, his mind and cognitive abilities are off the chart and sharp as a tack.
Wally's ashes will be buried at sea with full military honors with his shipmates at the Arizona Pearl Harbor Memorial. Wally has outlived all his family, most friends, two wives, but still has the last love of his life Joan, who unfortunately is struggling with dementia. Wally told me, "It is hard sometimes as I want to take care of Joan, but sometimes she needs extra help." He has a few extraordinary friends who look out for him and an executor of his estate that takes care of all his finances.
Wally disclosed to me on one of our last conversations that he has advanced bone cancer and is very close to the end of this life. Wally said, "I have a plan when the time comes, and the pain is too severe. I have had a great life and made many people smile, “I look forward to seeing my old shipmates and many good friends lost in this lifetime."
You may be asking, "Deb how in the world did you meet Wally?" By staying present and listening to my inner voice that kept telling me to stop rushing ahead into tomorrow, breathe, and sit still for a few more weeks. I met Wally through a neighborly fence chat with Bob, the next door neighbor who introduced me because I listened to his story as he heard mine. We discovered through a human conversation over a fence that we had many common interests even though our ages were over fifty years apart.
Everyone has heard the old saying of every cloud has a silver lining. Well, I believe this old motto to be true with my entire heart, as my life aligns with innate internal wisdom that the Heavenly Father placed me on this earth for a particular reason. I have always believed that the intense personal struggles, losses, heartbreaks, financial losses, and trials I have overcome over the past ten years have given me true GRIT. I believe God wants us to be earthly examples of resilience in times of struggle by being strong, brave, and exemplify humbleness. One area I strive daily to improve upon is my desire to be graceful with an appreciation of pure joy.
After a month in the Ft Bragg, and a week with with Wally, I packed up Consulea and chased a fancy Prevost thirty-eight foot bus pulling an RV Geo tracker through the smoky fire filled mountains on a thirty-eight-mile trek to the 101. For me, the Ft Bragg fog, fires, heavy sea mist, cold temperatures, and a week with Wally reminded me to trust that the sun will eventually come out and the right destination will reveal itself.
I have dreamed of living in Santa Barbara, CA for twenty-five years and am ready to make that dream my reality. I have had my years of fog, tears, fears, fire, and lonely nights; however, I never let those circumstances extinguish the dream. I continue to believe in my journey and not the path of others.
As Wally told me, "Deb, share your good fortune with others, as you are making a difference by telling your story of survival too." My hope is my stories will help one person and bring a smile and some laughter in someone's day.
May the Journey Begin Within You Deb
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