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Walking with Willie

WILLIE was short, muscular, with stubby hands that could fix almost anything that needed fixing, from an alarm clock to balky automobile engines. Almost everybody in the small rural town where I grew up knew Willie. Townspeople would stop and chat with him, laughing at his folksy witticisms. Perhaps more than anything else he did, Willie liked to walk. He preferred almost forgotten roads that climbed into the hills or Indian trails in the thick woodlands beyond the town. When he wanted to be alone, he walked alone. At other times he liked to walk with someone he could talk with. Being very young and loving Willie's stories about the hills and the Indians who had once inhabited the region -- including Black-hawk, the wily chief known for his bravery -- I was his frequent companion.

Perhaps the high point in the week for most people in our town was Thursday, the day the weekly newspaper was distributed to subscribers. The more affluent citizens had their own post office box, others received their mail from the postmaster.

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Willie, dressed as usual in clean, neat overalls, blue workshirt, and freshly polished shoes, always came to the post office for his newspaper, his only reason for being there, since he never seemed to receive any other mail. He would go to the window, ask for his newspaper, tuck it into his hip pocket, and say, ``Looks like a good paper this week. I'm going home now and read every word of it.''

It was after one of these weekly excursions to the post office to get his newspaper that Willie and I went for a walk I'll never forget. We walked out along a weedy, never-used road through a stand of birch, balsam, and hard maple. We sat down to rest on thick grass in the shade of leafy maples, and Willie, more solemn than I had ever seen him before, said, ``We're friends, right? Close friends?'' I nodded. ``Will you promise never to tell anyone what I'm going to tell you . . . not anyone, even your folks?''

For a moment I wondered what Willie wanted to tell me that was so important but he was so serious, so quiet, and he hadn't talked much at all during our walk, so I said, ``I won't tell anyone, Willie. Cross my heart. It'll be our secret. Nobody else will know.''

``OK,'' Willie said. ``I never tell lies. I don't like people who do, but I've lied, a big lie, and I have to tell you. Maybe you can help me.''

He looked away into sun shadows dancing through the trees. ``I go to the post office every Thursday, get my newspaper, and tell people I'm going home and read it.'' He hesitated. ``You see, I never went to school. I worked at a lot of jobs, learned things. I finally came here to this town. I stayed. All of this isn't a lie. I lied about reading the newspaper.'' He seemed torn by some inward anguish. ``You see, I can't read nor write. The newsprint doesn't mean anything to me.''

I remember he looked at me then, pleading, it seemed. ``I can't go on lying. I want to learn to read and write. I have money. I can pay you. Will you teach me? I'll try real hard.''

I didn't know what to say. I was a boy just going into the eighth grade. What did I know about teaching someone to read and write? Where would I start, how would I begin? But Willie had shared a secret with me, and I wanted to help him. ``I'll help you if I can. My mother taught me to read and write even before I went to school. I'll try to do it the same way she did.''

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We started with the alphabet. I taught Willie to recognize letters, sound them out, put words together into sentences. He was a surprisingly quick learner. We walked and rested, and Willie began to write single words, his name, my name. He began to recognize words in the newspaper, put them together into sentences. We walked, rested, and worked through a hot summer, then through the cold winter, and began once more in the spring. It took two years of grinding work. I was in my second year of high school when Willie announced proudly that he could read the whole newspaper. He had also learned to write. ``I have money in the bank,'' he said. ``Now I don't have to ask for cash. I can write checks!''

When I graduated from high school, Willie attended the exercises wearing a new suit, a white shirt with a bow tie, and shoes that were polished brightly. He gave me a watch as a graduation present, but the best gift I received was the brief note that came with the watch. The note, written in somewhat labored long-hand, said, ``You helped me do something I always wanted to do . . . read and write. No doubt you will go away to college, to a big strange city and learn to be a doctor or a lawyer. I hope you will remember walking with Willie. I'll never forget walking with you.''

I did go away to college, but I did not become a doctor or lawyer. I became a teacher. In remembering Willie and our walks together, the words of Robert Frost in his poem ``The Road Not Taken,'' have a singular meaning: ``Two roads diverged in a wood . . . and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. . . .''

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