Walter, Walter everywhere…

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.

Thanks Walter.


4 Responses to “Walter, Walter everywhere…”

  1. 1 Louis July 20, 2009 at 11:15

    “for lo, each child went unto his home and ate of the food there.”

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this passage. While reading it, I heard Linus’ voice as he explains the meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown.

    I left a reply to your comment on my blog (thanks for reading it, btw). Interestingly enough, it concerns Walter Cronkite. After I had written it, I came to visit your blog and saw that you had posted a piece on him.

    Thanks for sharing this tidbit of your Bellevue youth.

    • 2 jstwndrng July 20, 2009 at 16:28

      Gosh, I loved that speech by Linus. Growing up around the King James Bible, I learned to really cherish the peculiarities that emerged from the union of eastern thoughts and speaking rhythms with the very visual (I would almost say slapstick) qualities inherent in the middle English language.

      Somewhere there’s a line in the Old Testament where somebody, a human, I mean, has asked God a question, or challenged him, or complained about something (I thought it was in Job but it’s not), and God answers with a lengthy passage about how large his domain his. He names a bunch of places by way of noting how big he is and how little the world is to him, and I remember the line “and over Edom I will cast my shoe” or something like that. It may have been a slipper. And it may have been Moab. In any case, I howled at the picture of God doffing his sandal and pitching it across the sky to land with an earth-shaking flop in some hinterland of Palestine. I wish I could find that passage, and there are many other thumpers like that.

      Ian Frazier was apparently also charmed by Old Testament patois. His hilarious spoof, Laws Concerning Food and Drink;
      Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father, is here:

      • 3 Marni July 21, 2009 at 02:03

        Lamentations of the Father is the best!! Thanks for the link- it’s been a while since I’ve read and laughed simultaneously.

  2. 4 Kip July 24, 2009 at 04:30

    Edward R. Murrow, Walter, The Huntley/Brinkley Report, then Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, now Brian Williams. The News is not The News unless it’s delivered be someone on this list. Sorry Wolf, you lost me with The Situation Room!

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