I wonder if every family has an “Uncle Walter.” My Uncle Walter was my father’s father’s brother. He was born in Denmark and moved to the United States just in time to be conscripted into the United States Army – and shipped off to France – in World War I. When Uncle Walter finally got home, he behaved strangely. He only wore white clothes and he refused to sleep in a bed. He always slept on the floor. He was committed to a veterans’ hospital in Milwaukee. My father said Uncle Walter was “shell shocked” [PTSD] from the War. And that was that for Uncle Walter. My father’s family never talked about him and only once that I recall did anyone go to visit.
I’d heard about Uncle Walter but I’d never met him. So when I was in my late 20’s – rebel that I was – I decided to go find him. I called the Veteran’s Administration and learned that he was in a halfway house for veterans on South 27th Street in Milwaukee. And I drove up to see him. As I approached the address, there was an old man in white clothing walking slowly on the sidewalk. I stopped the car. Got out. “Are you Walter Petersen?” He looked at me. I said “I am Willy’s [my father] son.” And Uncle Walter began crying. . . . .
A few months later, I brought my father up to see Uncle Walter. And just about every week from my first visit, I sent him a care package of Copenhagen snuff [he loved it], some candy and a couple of dollar bills. When he died at the Veteran’s Home in King, Wisconsin, he left me “everything”: his large print Bible, his veterans benefit (about $1,700), the cross on his coffin and a brand new stuffed bunny for my daughter. The Bible remains on my shelf. The cross is on the wall in my den. The bunny is still in Lauren’s old room. And the money purchased a tree that sits in our yard. I’m glad I reached out to my Uncle Walter. Though I’d bet there are more than a few Uncle Walters out there. . . . . .