Walter Cronkite has died at age 92. The newspapers are reporting the fact that during his decades anchoring the nightly news he was regularly voted “the most trusted man in America” in opinion polls, and the fact that after President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s reporting of the infamous Tet story, he apparently said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” and decided not to run for reelection. They also report that so synonymous with the news is “Uncle Walter” that in Sweden and the Netherlands news anchorpersons are called Kronkiters or Cronkiters.
Walter Cronkite’s voice and visage were certainly part of my daily childhood experience. He and Harry Reasoner and David Brinkley were the three names I knew practically before I knew any others. But Walter’s name meant something more than the news for me. And I mean literally, his name. I have a memory and it goes like this:
It’s summer, an evening just like tonight. Cool after a hot day. Or — whoosh, the memory alters, and maybe it’s very cold and I have a warm jacket on. At all events, it’s after dinner and I’m standing in the street in front of and a little north of my house. I’m waiting for Bill or Chris to come back out and resume playing, for lo, each child went unto his home and ate of the food there. I remember where I was in the street because in my mind I see the slightly humped band of smoother pavement that crossed the road in front of 1646. There were three of these bands on our street at about equal intervals of 150 feet or so. These oddities in the pavement were there through my early childhood but disappeared sometime in the ’70s when the street was repaved. Now that I think about it, they must have been the result of some digging for the addition or repair of sewer lines.
Anyway, I was standing in the street, on or near one of these little anomalous hillocks, and I was repeating two things out loud, the name Walter and the word “water”. I said them slowly several times, first one, then the other.
“Waaaaaaallllllter. Waaaahhhter. Waaaaallllllter. Waaaaahhhhhter.”
I had heard Walter Cronkite’s name for the milliionth time as we were finishing up dinner and now I was trying to figure out what made Walter and “water” sound different. I was having trouble doping it out. This was before I could read or write, and I could tell that the two words were differentiated only by something really small, but something very real, too. I remember probing my tongue up toward the back of my teeth while I said Walter, then saying “water” to see how the tongue behaved in that sound. Even preliterate, I could intuit what made a bilabial or a dental or a glottal stop, but the letter “l” is a sonorant and a liquid, and its essence was eluding me because it seemed relative. The sound was not absolute. I hadn’t experienced many things up until that time that were not absolute.
I think I was a pretty spazzy kid, and this memory is proof. Standing in the middle of a street in south Bellevue on a summer evening chanting the name and the element over and over again, trying to understand. If any neighbors were observing this, they must have just rolled their eyes. Again.