Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dan Walker and the legless Rodeo Clown gets Wheels

This story is about the unexpected generosity that happened when my older brother, Dan Walker was around.

SSgt Dan Walker was stationed in Mississippi while being trained to be a USAF air traffic controller, later to be deployed to Thailand during those heady days of the Viet Nam war in 1969. He had moved off base and found his neighbor was an ex-rodeo clown, who had lost both of his legs a decade earlier. Charlie had been depressed and home-bound for ten years. As Dan got to know Charlie over the months, he asked about the milk truck that was abandoned and disabled in Charlie’s driveway.

“You can have it, if you can fix it.” Charlie said.
“I don’t want it, Charlie! But, if I get it runnin,’ would you drive it?”
“Well, how are you gonna do that?”
“Leave that to me, Charlie.”

Dan explained to me later,
“Rusty, I reached into that engine and pulled out a fistful of wires- like spaghetti! I had to figure out where they went; rewire every single one of those. Then I had to convert the gas peddle and brake to a hand lever system, so Charlie could use one hand to steer and the other to accelerate or brake.”

Dan devoted his off-hours to this project and after several months he had it converted to a hand-driven vehicle, pumping on all cylinders.
On that day, Charlie was out on his front porch drinking a beer.
“ ready for a test drive?”
“Well, I don’t reckon I am!”
“Why not!”
“Well, I can’t get into it, and I don’t know how to drive anymore!”
“Charlie… I’ll show you how get in, it’s easy, and I got hand controls, so you can drive it.”
“Can’t do it, Dan!”
“Charlie, I spent all this time fixing it up, the least you can do is sit in it!
“…Well, I reckon I could do that.”

So, Charlie hoisted himself up into the driver’s seat using the handles Dan had welded on. Dan explained to him how to reach down using leverage, swing up the wheelchair into the back, using a hook, lever and pulley system that snapped into place that Dan had rigged up. After explaining the brake and acceleration mechanisms, Dan asked:

“Well, Charlie, you gonna fire it up?” Charlie turned the key and it started rumbling and rattling. Charlie broke out in a sweat. The truck was shaking, Charlie was shaking, and with a combination of fear and paralysis, he bellowed over the loud engine, “Dan, I can’t do this; I can’t do this!”

So, Dan reached over and slipped it into first gear; the truck lurched forward with a bang, and shimmied and groaned down the driveway for several feet, and then gave out just as suddenly. Charlie, now on the edge of panic, insisted they get out. So, turning off the engine, they dismounted and retired to the front porch. Dan found two cold beers and they settled in, both of them looking at that old milk truck. Sitting there in silence for a while, Charlie finally said:

“Dan, I’m sorry, you went and done all this work and now here I am worthless, and can’t drive it.”
“Charlie, it’s your first time out.”
“Dan, I am not getting back in that truck, I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it;”
“Look, Charlie, how ‘bout we just drive it in the driveway; that’s all…just drive it in the driveway?”
“It’s been too long, Dan, I’m sorry! It’s just too much for me.”

Okay, Charlie.

Dan went home figuring this might have been the biggest waste of time since he had gone turtle hunting all weekend, only to find out from the FBI who turned up at his front door, that turtles are a government-protected species in Mississippi - but, that’s another story.

Next morning, there’s Charlie sitting in the truck.
“Say, Dan, I reckon I could drive it …down this driveway!”
Dan got in with a smile, and off they went.
Explaining it to me later, Dan said,
“Rusty, he must have drove that truck 50 times up and down that driveway. Drive up, put it in reverse; drive it back. He was having the time of his life.”

After a few days, Charlie yelled over to Dan,
"Say, when are we going to drive this thing to the store?”
“The store? Well, Charlie WE aren’t going to drive it anywhere. You’re ready for a solo flight. YOU are going to drive it to the store. You know everything you need to know. How ‘bout you go off right now and I’ll be waitin’ here for you when you come back?”
“That’s it Dan! You fixed this thing up for me – I’m drivn' it to the store if it kills me. If I don’t make it back, it’s been a real joy!”

Off Charlie went.

Time went on; more time; way more time than it takes to get to the local grocery store. Dan starts to thinking, “here I went and fixed this truck up, what if it breaks down, or gets in a wreck?” Dan goes in to get his keys, only to look back; here comes Charlie, puttering and sputtering down the road in his Milk Truck; a load of groceries in the front seat.
He had taken the long way back.

Charlie was driving for the first time in ten years. He was no longer home-bound. Charlie had wheels.

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