Eulogy for Walter S. Mills, Jr.
Sunday, June 30, 1996 @ 3:00 PM
Friend’s Meeting House, Est. by the Quakers in 1753
Walt. The mere sound of the name evokes strong feelings in me. First of love. Second of enthusiasm. And as those two rush over me there is a third – excited anticipation. They all relate to the Walt we all knew. To me he was Uncle Walt for about half my life, until that enchanted trip to Bermuda when he became Butch and I became Sundance. And make no mistake, without Jinny’s great love and sense of humor, Walt couldn’t have been Butch and Skip couldn’t have been Sundance. There was a power and a mystery in those three.
Walt and Jinny invited me to come spend a week with in Bermuda. It was as fun filled a week as I have ever spent, and my life has not lacked for fun. About mid week it rained and we took refuge in Hamilton in a dark cool movie house. It was a holiday and all the young native Bermudans were out of school. The movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There was constant dialogue from a large youthful black audience. Right in the middle of the scene when the soundtrack played ‘raindrops keep falling on my head’ there was a loud sounding splat next me. I turned to see Walt grab his head. A large droplet had landed square. Another splat and Walt turned fiery with rage. A balcony overhung our seats and Walt was to going to kill whoever was spitting from the balcony. But the music continued and the drops continued to splat dead center on his bald head. The sound of thunder and rain on the roof was in almost equal volume to the music, Jinny and I lost it in convulsive laughter. Walt covered his head with a handkerchief, excepting his place as the recipient of the targeted leak and I even think I heard him humming ‘raindrops keep falling on my head’.
The next scene in the movie flashed to the trio’s arrival in Bolivia, a safe haven from the law and the promise of great riches. They stepped off the train, through the portico of what was once a house, and were surrounded by tumbleweed, sagebrush and pigs. Sundance looked at Butch and said, “What’s so great about Bolivia. There was a dramatic pause and eye contact. Then out of the balcony one of the young Bermudan boys screams, “Poke chops!” No one has ever laughed any harder than Walt. Jinny and I were a close second and third. But there it all was in that quintessential moment. Walt sharing his love for the moment, his enthusiasm for all of life’s quirks, and alive and boisterous in the instance of unexpected happening. The three of us left the movie house aglow, running through the downpour, jumping over retainer walls, and acting like the kids we would never let go.
The routine for the day would go something like this. Arise before the sun. Eat some breakfast and at barely the first light ride our motorbikes through the damp morning mist to Mid Ocean. Teddy would be ready with our bags and off we went. To play golf with Walt and Jinny was to experience true love. On reflection what I marvel at the most is how comfortable they were in the inevitable uncomfortableness we all feel within ourselves and with each other from time to time. And no other place than the golf course can expose those vulnerabilities so dramatically. They would cheer, console, coach, and concede. I never remember a time when there was an extended period without laughter and affection, though it often took some unusual form relative to my experience. With the round finished we would bike back to the house, refresh ourselves, and bike to one of the better restaurants for lunch. Same menu as dinner, half the price. Then we would tour or shop and return to the house where preparation would begin for the evening repast
At the bottom of the hill where the house sat, was a small shop that sold the wine. Inside its small room was this large cask of Portuguese red wine. Walt would say “Paissano” with a richness hung on every vowel and consonant. The game was this. Walt and I would get on our bikes and the last one inside the front door had to pay. Every afternoon Jinny stood in the front of the house as we started our race, explained what idiots we were and in her own way prayed for our healthy return. Walt and Skip were fast. Butch and Sundance were reckless.
On the evening of the leg of lamb and the cedar fire and the stories on the grassy lawn, and a later than usual bedtime – Walt reminded us of the banditos that came into the houses and took the money and that everything was going so well this trip, we should take our precautions. Always put the money and jewelry under the mattress. They intend no harm, they just want the money. Off to bed we went, with the scent of rosemary and cedar and earthen wine being kissed by the southern Atlantic breeze.
In the darkness of the next morning and Walt’s rustling I muddled to put myself together. Thick of body and mind. “Butch, the banditos have gotten us. My watch, money, its all gone.” Walt went to tell Jinny and a mad search of the house was underway. Anxiety was high. Jinny was the first to report nothing was missing of theirs. “Go back and check your room see what else is missing” I was instructed. We searched the room together. “My pants are gone. My shirt is gone.” Detective Walt pieced together all that had been said and all that had transpired and suggested I check under the mattress. Ahha! All there in one big clump. Safe from the banditos. Paissano. We laughed all the way to the golf course and through another glorious day.
There are so many wonderful Walt stories to be remembered,W.A.Hoo – the Chinese emissary, security systems at Hilltop, Steve’s cure for cancer and on and on. But when they are all told they simply underline what Walt was in life and in dying. Full of love, adventure, action and enthusiasm. What more fitting tribute could there be to a man’s life than to be surrounded in so many moments by a loving wife, four terrific children, and all these beautiful grandchildren. Walt lived and loved well and we will miss his presence.
And Butch, we’ll ride again together across other plains.