The Tao of Wally Cox

Wally Cox of Chesterton, Indiana during his morning ritual at McDonalds

I am fond of ending notes to friends with the line, “May you find grace in unexpected places,” and on this day I received my own personal slice of grace in the form of a chance meeting with Wally Cox.

There is living and dying and trembling membrane in-between and Wally has made it his mission to live on the edge of it his entire life. He is 78 going on 17, with no intention of slowing down any time soon.

I met Wally in a McDonalds in Chesterton, Indiana, a wide-spot in the road, home to little more than 13,000 people. I was hunkered down in the local Econo-Lodge for the weekend, out there to visit my daughter in nearby Valparaiso who had been granted a six-hour pass from the lockdown, residential mental health treatment facility she currently calls home.

Chesterton has a couple of notches in its belt, one famous, one infamous. The first electronic bike powered by Lithium-Ion batteries was created and patented there by Evan Murrs, while in shop class at Chesterton High School in 1958. In 1933 the first terrorist act against an airline took place over Chesterton when a nitroglycerine bomb blew up United Airlines flight 13304, killing all seven passengers and its three crew members.

I’d wandered over to the McDonalds for some coffee around 7am and sat a table away from where Wally was already holding court among a group of six or seven of his Chesterton compatriots. I am a sucker for a good story and Wally was spinning tale after tale. I was enthralled. Depressed and surly at the current conditions and constraints of my life, that hot Cup O’ Joe and Wally’s tall tales combined to act as a balm on my soul. I realized I’d even smiled a time or two while eavesdropping on Wally and I’ve had precious little to smile about in the past month.

My dad was the best storyteller I’ve ever heard, followed closely by his two brothers, my Uncle Jim and Uncle John. Added to that all-star trio I would count my friend Al Pennington, who has a righteous way with a story in his own right. After 10 minutes of listening to Wally, I elevated him into that small pantheon of storytellers.

I left that morning a little lighter and smiled a few more times later on recalling Wally’s way with words. The following morning, staring into the barrel of the brutal 10-hour drive I was facing to get back to Virginia, I again stopped into the McDonalds to grab a coffee for the road. Wally had beaten me there. Sitting in the same seat as the day before. I surmised this was morning ritual for him. And though I was anxious to get on the road, I again slid into a nearby seat, waiting and listening… Wally didn’t disappoint.

This morning he was talking to an old high school friend, a woman he was chatting with talked about some forthcoming ancient high school reunion. At the mention of one name Wally observed, “Have you seen him lately? He’s gotten big enough to butcher, my god he’s put on weight.” At the mention of yet another name he said, “you won’t have much luck with him, he’s got all those soybeans to bring in. He ain’t very sociable, but he’s a hard working sonofagun.”

I learned a lot about Wally from just listening to him. He was a rascal in high school. “Well, I’ve never been able to to outrun my reputation,” he told the woman. He loves adventure and driving fast. (“I always had red trucks — cops love that color — had one once that had two big four barrel carbs on it, man that sucker had some giddyup and go.”) Apparently he was no stranger to the local sheriff. For all his living on the edge, like most of us, he’s afraid of change. (“I was offered a lot of jobs overseas, never saw fit to take any of them.”)

He learned how to fly, bought himself a few different planes over the years and then bought the local single-runway airport as well. He sold off all his planes and doesn’t fly anymore because he got tired of having to go through the hassle of qualifying his pilot’s license every six months, necessary because of his age. “I still got the airport though,” he says with a slight twinkle in his eye …

As a young man he was stopped by a local cop for speeding. When the cop recognized him and noted that he had just given Wally a ticket the week before, he let him off with a warning. When Wally got back on the road a trucker who’d passed him as he was being questioned by the cop radioed him on the CB and said, “What did that cop want with you?” Wally replied, “Ah, he just wanted to get better acquainted.”

After a half dozen or more stories, my coffee drained, I had to tear myself away and get moving. I passed right by him and as my hand hit the door I abruptly stopped and turned around. I felt compelled to go back tell him how much I’d enjoyed listening to his stories and let him know they had brightened my day.

I walked over, briefly introduced myself and said that I hoped he wouldn’t be offended but that I’d sat nearby, both this morning and the day before, listening to him recount story after story of growing up in Chesterton. He smiled widely, shook my hand and promptly invited me to “sit down a spell.” It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. After all, it’s not every day you find such grace in unexpected places …