I have a lot of river friends, and someday I’ll probably tell you about them, but today I want to focus on just one. Last summer, I met an elderly man named Walt and his Chesapeake Retriever, Salem, who was as old as Walt in dog years. They often came to the river in the mornings, but at that point I wasn’t yet feeding cheese to dogs and mostly only speaking to people who’d spoken to me first.
I always back my truck into the spot closest to the path, which makes it easier to unload my chairs and table. One day as I got out, this man commented that I could back up better than most men he knew. I thanked him and had a good chuckle over that. A few days later, when I saw him speaking to a mutual friend, Geoff, he mentioned it again. While I know some people would consider that sexist, I took into account his age and life experience, and I recognized it as the compliment he intended it to be. We quickly became river friends, greeting each other each time we met. We discussed all kinds of amazing things: the depth of the Willamette, the age of the basalt, Taoism, writing, and much more that I’ve forgotten. I learned he’d spent much of his life being his own boss and that he’d built many of the houseboats on the Willamette River. He was impressed that I was working for myself, and particularly that I was writing—following my passion. In fact, “impressed” doesn’t accurately describe it. To use a word that would suit him immensely, he was tickled by it, approving and supportive, like a grandpa who couldn’t be more proud.
Walt was soft-spoken and gentle. Thoughtful in the sense that he took the time to deeply consider the things you said. And he was respectful. Unlike most of my river friends, who will come up and engage me without thinking too much about interrupting my work, Walt would greet me with a brief hello then try to move along, saying he didn’t want to disturb me. I often had to tell him not to rush off, that I really wanted to visit with him.
When a couple of weeks passed without me seeing Walt, I asked Geoff about it, and he said Walt was recovering from a heart attack, and that he’d had many of them. Walt confirmed this a while later when he made it back to the river. As the good days dwindled and the rains returned, I knew Walt might not make it through the winter. But I had hope.
Last May, when the unrelenting rains finally relented, I thought of Walt as I backed into my favorite parking spot. (The truth is, I can never back that truck into my spot without thinking of him.) It took a few weeks for me to reconnect with my river friends, first Barbara and then Jim, who’s seventeen-year-old dog Katie was still going strong. Eventually, I saw Geoff. I wondered about Walt and hoped he was still around. Then a new friend, Joann, told me he’d died in his sleep, and that Salem had sensed it was coming, standing by his chair staring at him most of the day. According to his son, Walt had thought Salem was letting him know her own life was ending.
It was sad, knowing I’d never see Walt again, but it wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. Except there sort of was.
Those of you who’ve read The McCall Initiative know that Jefferson Cooper had a mentor, David Daskalov, who took the passionate young activist under his wing and shaped him into the successful leader of a secession movement. Dave died of what Jefferson thought was a heart attack, but later learned was murder. In Season 2, I wanted to explore a little more of that relationship. To do that, I needed to figure out who David Daskalov was. The one thing I knew about him was that he was a compassionate, nurturing, person whose friendship Jefferson deeply valued. So when I started mulling over Dave’s character, it seemed natural that Walt would be the perfect person to model him after. I wasn’t sure I knew Walt well enough to do this successfully, but then I realized it didn’t matter. The important thing was crafting a character who represented my experience of Walt—who Walt was to me.
I’ve now written two of those flashback scenes, and I’m sure there will be more. I’m happy with them, and three beta readers (including my “it works for me” husband) have given me the thumbs up. The people I’ve mentioned this to think it’s cool, that I’ve done a nice thing. But this was more than just a tribute. The truth is, knowing Walt was a gift and an honor. Writing him into my series is a way of preserving my memory of him. It’s a means of keeping a briefly known but very special friend alive in my heart.
“My Friend Walt,” copyright © 2017 by Lisa Nowak.
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