|| No matter what, keep dancing!
On the evening of May 1, 2000 nearly one hundred friends of the late Eugene Walter gathered beside Eugene’s Church Street Cemetery grave. The occasion?
To witness the unveiling of KaliOka Press’ new book,
Moments with Eugene...a collection of memories. To see editors Rebecca Barrett and Carolyn Haines dedicate their new book (posthumously) to Eugene. To throw a Church Street Graveyard party in Eugene’s honor.
For those of you who did not have the pleasure of knowing Eugene Walter, a brief synopsis of Eugene's résumé is in order. Eugene Walter was a novelist, poet, essayist, humorist, artist, stage designer, lyricist, actor, master of the culinary arts, botanist, philosopher, sociologist, radio personality, native of Mobile, resident of Rome and Paris, and most importantly a friend and inspiration to Mobile’s hometown artists and
writers. Inspiration, imagination, and encouragement were Eugene’s greatest gifts. Admiration was his greatest reward. Sadly, Eugene left us in March, 1998 at the age of seventy-six.
But Eugene Walter will never be forgotten. Mdlles. Barrett and Haines have seen to that. For the past two years, Rebecca and Carolyn have solicited, collected, and massaged an unusual menagerie of stories written by Eugene’s friends and acquaintances. The result is a delightful 310-page hardcover volume of photographs, squiggles, and mostly humorous, mostly true tales about Mobile’s anointed renaissance man. A colorful character Mr. Walter was, that’s for sure. The extent of that color is brought out in Rebecca and Carolyn's new book.
And what of the Church Street Cemetery party, you ask?
A grand time was had by all. Music by Les Kerr filled the cemetery's
grounds as Tallulah Bankhead and Federico Fellini look-alikes mingled leisurely beside Eugene’s grave. Chicken salad and Port wine (Eugene’s favorites) were clearly the food and drink of choice. At the end of the evening, a panel of judges (including Mobile Register food editor David Holloway) proclaimed Carolyn Haines’ chicken salad to be the evening’s tastiest (though a few whispering competitors begged to differ).
But above all, sentimentality, laughter, and shared recollections ruled the evening. Now and then, a weepy-eyed friend would kneel beside Eugene’s grave, mutter a few words, and pour a sip or two of port at the head of Eugene’s stone. A time or two, I thought I heard the words “more, please” come from below, but that may have been the Port affecting my own imagination (that has happened before). By the end of the evening, I'm confident that Eugene had as much fun as his guests.
Rest well, old friend. And congratulations on the new book. A lot of love is contained in those 310 pages. We’ll see you in the funny papers.
"The Santa Fe Oak"
- a true story by Joseph Sackett
- excerpt from Moments with Eugene
— in memory of the late Eugene Walter —
* * * * *
“My goodness, would you look at that.” Eugene pointed to the side of the
Glancing to my right, I spotted the subject of Eugene’s attention. A
middle-aged woman of fifty or so was about to cross Old Shell Road. Her long flaming red hair was a bit lascivious for her age. Her skirt decidedly
too tight and short.
Eugene wiggled a gnarled 75-year-old finger in the woman’s direction. “If I
were a few years younger, I should like to engage in a few moments of sociological research with her. She must be French.”
I repressed a grin as the woman faded in my rearview mirror. “We have
too much on today’s agenda, Eugene.”
“I know, I know.” He turned and smiled wickedly. “She was something,
though. She brought back memories of Europe. Ah, yes...” Eugene looked beyond the live oaks lining Old Shell Road. “That’s one thing that’s so
wonderful about Mobile. You turn a corner and a flash of Europe strikes you when you least expect it.”
“My sentiments exactly, Eugene.” We drove on.
For the next two hours, I transported Eugene to various commercial
establishments—the dry cleaner, the post office, the print shop, a trip to the
Eclectic Art Gallery for book and squiggle replenishment. After a leisurely
domestic resupply at Delchamps (before the Jitney Jungle scandal), Eugene announced his readiness for lunch. “What’ll it be? Chinese or Dew Drop?”
“Your choice, Eugene. I could do either.”
“Let’s be worldly then. Hong Kong Island! I’m paying, of course. It’s the
least I can do to repay you for your kindness. You’re the last of the Christian martyrs, you know. A model of patience.”
I grinned but said nothing as I steered the car west.
* * * *
“Heinekin, my dear. With a glass.”
The waitress smiled, then turned to me. “And you, sir?”
“Iced tea, please.”
The young woman smiled once more, then hustled away to fetch our
For the next hour, Eugene and I swapped stories, periodically agonizing
over the wickedness of the New York publishing world. Throughout our sitting, we consumed various bits of oriental buffet items, ending of course
with Eugene’s favorite part of the meal—soft ice cream and almond cookies. At the meal’s conclusion, our waitress presented the check. I
covertly slipped it to my lap.
“I saw that.”
I waved my hand. “I’ve got it, Eugene.”
“But you got it last time.” He shrugged. “I won’t argue. It’s not polite to
argue over food. French manners, you know.” Eugene paused for thought.
“In lieu of monetary restitution, I have something in my garden for you. I
want you to take it home with you. It’s getting too difficult for me to tend
my plants these days. I can’t bend like I used to. I have a rather unique lost
child who needs a home—and I’ve been saving it just for you.”
My eyes widened. Eugene knew I was a sucker for plants. “I can’t wait.”
“All right then. You pay the check, then we’ll go home and have a finger of
Port. After that, I’ll fetch you something special from the garden.”
* * * *
After two Ports in the No-Cat-Room, Eugene escorted me through the
kitchen to the back yard. On the way, he grabbed a cardboard box, stuffing the bottom with damp newspaper signatures. “It’s over here
Joseph.” He waved me to his position. “You’ll need to grab a shovel to dig
it out. I’ll be keeping the pot.”
Soon I was standing before a rather odd looking potted tree. More than a
mere sapling, the thing stood four-feet tall with oversized, rather unhealthy
looking spotted leaves.
Eugene beamed. “It’s a Santa Fe oak. It’s very rare in these parts. Will
you take it?”
I concealed my uncertainty. If the oak was imported from Santa Fe (as the
name suggested), what chance would it have of surviving on Alabama’s Gulf Coast? Situated beside the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe’s
arid climate was totally unlike Mobile’s. I punted. “I didn’t know they had
oak trees in New Mexico.”
“Of course they do!” Eugene furrowed his brow, studying my reaction.
“Now, will you take it?”
I forced the look of a proud father. “Of course I will. I’d be honored.”
Eugene smiled and shook the cardboard box in an approving manner.
“Good!” He stroked a spotted leaf and spoke to the tree. “You’re about to
have a new home, young orphan. Joseph will take good care of you. I have utmost confidence in him.”
A guilted vision of dry lifeless branches snapping before Gulf Coast winds
and hurricane downpours flashed through my mind. I forced the scene away. “She’ll be in good hands, Eugene. You can count on me.”
An hour later, the sickly spotted Santa Fe oak stood transplanted in my
* * * *
The months passed. In November, Eugene’s oak shed all its leaves. By
December, all traces of suppleness and vitality had left the tree’s humble
branches. I worried that the oak had not survived the transplant or had rejected Mobile’s climate. I thought about confiding with Eugene and
asking for advice, but decided against it. Eugene’s own health was beginning to fail and his aged but honored cat, BW, had just passed away.
Eugene had given me the Santa Fe in good faith, that I might properly care
for it and relieve him of that small burden.
* * * *
By late February, Mobile saw the first signs of an early spring. Azaleas
bloomed early glories. Pin oaks sprouted greenery, challenging the splendor of Mobile’s celebrated live oaks. By early March, crepe myrtles
sprouted delicate sprigs and botany inspectors noted early evidence of furry pods forming amidst green waxy magnolia leaves. By mid-March, my
Japanese maple burst forth a coat of fiery red leaves. The last to leaf out,
the red maple had always defined the time-sequenced threshold of what was going to bloom and what was not. Clearly, the Santa Fe oak was not.
Not a sign of life. Nothing but dry brittle branches forming the exoskeleton
of a tragic soul lost to winter in a foreign land.
* * * *
In mid-March, I called on Eugene for our monthly tryst to the Regular
Readers’ Society. More so than the previous year, the winter of ’98 had
aged Eugene. Slow afoot, he was nonetheless in good spirits that day. We discussed Bob Bahr’s book on creative fiction. Eugene ate potato skins
and sipped a Heineken. After the meeting, I took Eugene home and, as usual, we adjourned to the No-Cat-Room for a Port and a few final
moments of lively discussion. It was the last discussion we would have.
* * * *
Eugene took ill and passed away two weeks later. My confidential friend
and supporter was no more. On April 2, a lively Excelsior funeral allayed the grief I had experienced while seeing him on his deathbed. Fittingly,
Eugene was laid to rest in Church Street Cemetery beside Judy Rayford and Joe Cain.
The day after the funeral, I sat on my back porch contemplating a weekly
routine without Eugene Walter. The thought was depressing. While staring at my rear garden, I was distracted by a squirrel scurrying down a tree to
investigate an unidentified morsel on the ground. I chuckled as I recalled
Eugene’s story of feeding dry figs to the squirrels—just to note their
reactions. That’s when I detected a faint bit of greenery where none had
been before. I rose from my wicker to investigate.
As I approached the source of my curiosity, the bit of greenery turned to
multiple tiny green buds on an otherwise barren silhouette. Closer evidence
confirmed my unlikely conclusion. Eugene’s Santa Fe oak was alive! Despite contrary indications, the tree had survived winter and had come
back to life! I looked towards Church Street Cemetery. In some magical way, Eugene’s passing provided the energy to boost a lifeless essence into
a modest springtime celebration—a sly squiggle of nature that only Eugene
* * * *
There is a homeless fellow who strolls Government Street, talking to the
trees. Many of you know who I mean. Most people say he’s crazy. They’re probably right. But I too must confess to talking to a Santa Fe oak
now and then. The oak still doesn’t look like much. It’s only five feet tall
and its leaves are disproportionately oversized for its modest branches. But
a friend gave it to me to care for it—and I’m doing my best. Thanks Eugene. Someday, I’ll see you again.
- Edited by Rebecca Barrett and
- KaliOka Press, 2000
Joseph Sackett < firstname.lastname@example.org
> is an author and a resident of Mobile Alabama's Oakleigh Garden Historic District.
A retired Marine Corps officer, Joseph is active in community affairs. His work keeps him involved in local and regional events and makes him an active participant in many of Mobile's diverse cultural activities.
Joseph holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona.
Joseph is the Mobile Guide