Finding Wally

Old Goat and I traveled from Buncombe County, NC to Buck's County, PA to find a man who works very hard at not being found. After nine years with Old Goat, I had only gleaned a few details about Wally. I knew that he was a blacksmith and a hermit who liked black coffee, found four-leaf clovers everywhere, and hung his watch on a replica of his own fist that he carved when he was a teenager. Wally wasn't exactly Old Goat's grandfather, but he was married to Old Goat's grandmother, and the two of them were the closest thing Old Goat had to a loving family when he was a kid...until his grandmother died, and Old Goat's parents moved him to Florida. I knew enough to know that Wally was special to Old Goat when he needed it most, and this made him special to me.

Old Goat doesn't remember much from his childhood, but he remembers sitting on a stool and watching Wally hand-forge an extraordinary dragon door for a wealthy guy in New York City. We googled Wally once and found a Flickr account with pictures of that dragon and dozens of handmade gates, drawer pulls, and other phenomenal pieces of functional whimsy...

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...but no means of contact. Through Old Goat's mother, uncle, and a farm near Old Goat's childhood home, I tried to connect with Wally and fly him down to North Carolina from Pennsylvania as a surprise for Old Goat's thirtieth birthday, but I failed.

At that time, Old Goat and I were failing at just about everything. After my mother died, we bought too much house and filled it with two Basset hound puppies. Then, Old Goat went to jail 650 miles away and my father was diagnosed with cancer seven-hundred miles in the other direction. When Old Goat came back, we tried to organize the chaos into a mobile produce business. We named our truck Wally...

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...and shuttered the business on its first anniversary to try and save our relationship. My father died. My career collapsed. I collapsed. Old Goat and I separated so that maybe we could just save ourselves. 

And eventually, we did, and in 2016, on the eighth anniversary of the night we met, Old Goat and I got engaged. Even though we don't have any plans to actually get married, we exchanged rings and fully committed ourselves to living happily ever motherfucking after.

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We even helped ourselves to a honeymoon in Belize. It was our first vacation together ever.

This year, we decided to take an adventure a little less exotic and planned a road trip to attend my summer camp's 75th anniversary reunion. To thicken the syrup of nostalgia a bit further, we chose to incorporate a trip to eastern Pennsylvania to revisit Old Goat's roots. He had grown into a strong, gentle, clever man, and it was time to return with his head held high. In short, it was time to find Wally.

For months leading up to our trip, Old Goat poked around on Facebook and waded through his limited pool of relatives for information about what ever came of Wally, but he got very little. He dialed a few numbers that could have belonged to Wally, and he left messages that were never returned.

Nevertheless, we rolled into New Hope, PA on a Tuesday, our ninth anniversary, and began asking folks in the many craft and antique galleries, "Do you know a local blacksmith named Wally?" and much to our dismay, none of them did. To mask our disappointment, I followed up with, "How about a local yarn shop?" and received a few helpful tips for my separate pursuit.

Wednesday we drove to the house where Old Goat last lived with his grandmother and Wally. The windows were boarded up, the plants were overgrown, the forge was gone, and the neighbors had no information. We went to every address Old Goat could remember, doubled down on our internet searches, even paid for a subscription to one of those people-finding websites, and came up with nothing. We spent a few hours at Old Goat's grandmother's grave that day, and while I don't know what happens to us when we die, I couldn't resist entreating that grassy patch at the cemetery for help. A wind kicked up, and it began to rain.

On Thursday, our final full day in PA, we woke up weary. We weren't going to let our vacation be a wash, but what more could we do to find Wally? Making the best of a beautiful day, we got tickets for the open-air car on a scenic train and decided it was time to switch our focus from finding Wally to sniffing out some of that local yarn I'd been hearing about. This took us to Peddler's Village, and as we wandered closer to the yarn shop, we passed craft and antique galleries and pretended not to notice. We both saw a sign that said, "Psychic. Walk-ins welcome." and quietly tucked the information into the back of our minds. It was 2:00pm, we hadn't lunched, and we were counting on yarn to save the day.

As we approached the little shop, we saw a man sandblasting a lamppost behind a nondescript building on the edge of the village. "Should we ask him?" Old Goat mumbled without enthusiasm, but before I could finish sighing, my shy, reserved partner answered himself with a, "Fuck it!" and walked over to the man. "Excuse me, sir, I'm sorry to interrupt, and I know this might be a weird question, but do you happen to know a guy named Wally? A blacksmith?"

The man stopped what he was doing and said, "Wally? Maybe. The guys inside probably know him. Why don't you come on in." As we followed the man into the shop, we told him we'd been in town looking for Wally for almost three days, and he said, “Good thing it rained yesterday or else I wouldn't have even been out here. Storm just came up out of nowhere.” While Old Goat walked with him to the back, I wandered around looking at old farm equipment now meant to decorate country homes and forged steel chandeliers that looked too simple to be made by Wally, maker of the great dragon door. A yellowed $2000 price tag flailed at the top of a butter churn.

And then it caught my eye: an intricately sculpted hand-forged door knocker mounted on the wall that glared at me through the eyes of a beautiful dragon.

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Old Goat came back with the sand-blaster man and a scrap of paper scribbled with a phone number he had dialed regularly throughout the spring and early summer. We both knew this door knocker was Wally's work. It was clear that the guy was hedging, that he knew more than he was letting on about Wally. Oddly enough, this helped us feel like we were getting closer: if he knew well enough to protect Wally from strangers, he knew Wally well enough to know where he is.

Old Goat might be shy and reserved, but I'm not, so when the fellow was ready to send us on our way and get back to his lamppost, I spoke up: "Sir, this is Wally's grandson--well, not by blood, but by marriage and by--whatever, anyway, we came a very long way to find him. We don't want anything from him, we just want to let him see what an extraordinary man he helped to raise," and with that, the sandblaster man softened. Did he remember the little boy who quietly watched Wally in his workshop? He looked at us with a warning not to make him regret it, but he said, "Wally's new shop is in a cluster of buildings near a farm where a bunch of artists work. If you go down that way and turn at the light, the road is by the school." We jotted it down as best we could, thanked him, and left.

We crossed the street to the yarn shop where instead of browsing for hours like I normally would, I targeted my search to just the local yarn, fell in love with a gigantic skein of handspun worsted Romney, and left in under ten minutes.

We couldn't walk across the village and back to the car fast enough. As we passed the nondescript shop and headed "down that way" toward "the light" where we were supposed to turn, neither Old Goat nor I could temper our excitement. We didn't even know if we were going the right "that way", if we'd turn the right way at "the light," but we were going for it, and when we passed a school, we both felt like we had struck gold. But there was no road on the far side of the school, so we had to turn around.

Undeterred, we doubled back and turned onto the road closest to the school and followed it for a mile or so until we saw what passed for a farm with a cluster of buildings. "Should we try it?" Old Goat asked, and I blurted out, "Yes! Yes, we should try it!" and when we got close to the first building, we noticed a sculpture of a ballerina with a valve for an arm.

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To me, this was as good as a sign that said, "This is a cluster of buildings near a farm where a bunch of artists work."

A carpenter was sandblasting something outside one of the studios, and before Old Goat could say anything, I blurted out again, "Yes! Yes you should ask him!" I waited in the car and watched Old Goat talk to the guy, and within a few seconds, they were walking toward a building at the back of the property and out of sight.

They were gone for only a few minutes, but the suspense chewed at my nerves until I saw them walking back...without Wally. Shit. So close.

The carpenter waved to Old Goat and went back to his workbench. Old Goat got in the car and said, "His shop is back there, but he's not here," and I heard the questions in his voice: what do we do now? Should we wait? What if he doesn't come back today? Should we come back in the morning?

We decided to leave Wally a note, get lunch, and come back until...until whenever. We used a piece of yarn to tie the note to the door the carpenter had pointed out to Old Goat, and we went back to the car. The sky had turned gray, and the wind began to blow.

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Neither Old Goat nor I really wanted to leave, but it was 3:30pm, we were hungry, and we felt awkward sitting in an open field at an artist colony just waiting for someone who might not arrive, so we began to drive toward the gate.

As we rolled forward, an old Chevy truck pulled in, and Old Goat moved to the side so it could pass. The gray sky reflected off of the windshield until the truck was close enough for us to see an older man in the driver's seat. Old Goat unbuckled his seat belt. "It's him," he said, and he slowly got out of the car. Old Goat is usually a broad-shouldered 6'3”, but when he lifted his hand to wave gently at Wally, he shrank down into a little boy.

As recognition washed over Wally's face, I could tell that Old Goat and I were not the only ones overcome with joy. And then, I got to witness one of the realest, most important hugs I've ever seen.

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The last time Wally and Old Goat saw each other was at Old Goat's father's funeral fifteen years ago, and the last time they spent any quality time, let alone quantity of time, together was years prior to that, but watching the two men greet and reacquaint themselves with each other instantly revealed their connection: the shy mannerisms, the humble charm, the quirky sense of humor, their quintessential goodness.

Wally showed us to his workshop where we quickly realized that the carpenter had shown Old Goat to the wrong door. “Nobody ever uses that door," Wally said. "If we hadn't run into each other out there, I never would have seen the note.” He untied it, folded it up, and put it in his pocket. “I'll read this later,” he said, and I heard, “I'll cherish this always.”

We spent hours in Wally's shop listening to his versions of Old Goat's stories: long versions, lush versions with tangents and names and dates and details that Old Goat had long forgotten. Blanks were filled in, tears welled, and more important hugs were given.

“How on earth...did you find me?” Wally asked, and we told him. Working against his emotions, his voice eventually escaped. “I can't believe...that...you were even looking for me.” And suddenly, all of our voices ran away. “Where are you living now?” Wally finally managed. “Western North Carolina,” Old Goat answered, and I could see the gears turning behind Wally's eyes as he reached back into the story chest.

He told us a circuitous tale about the two women he married, and the one he would marry soon. The first was his bride, Old Goat's grandmother. The second was a waitress who asked him if he would officiate at her wedding ceremony. He went online, became certified, and married her. The third woman, he explained, is the mother of his close friend and colleague who would be renewing her vows in a couple of months. “And you won't believe this, but the ceremony is about an hour from you.”

And so it is that Wally is coming to visit us soon in North Carolina.

Before we left, Old Goat asked, “Now that you're not over at the old place, do you ever find four-leaf clovers anymore?”

“Found one just today.”

We were as good as high by the time we said goodnight to Wally. We had skipped lunch and dinner, but we were so satisfied.

We met Wally again for lunch the next day before we headed for home, and again the hugs, tears, and sheer delight were abundant. “I just can't believe...you know...I just,” Wally struggled to say, “I mean, I've been sitting with this all night and morning and—” He paused to consider his words carefully, but then they spilled out anyway. “I never had my own children. I never realized that I might have had an impact on a kid, that anybody would look back on their life and see me as,” and Wally trailed off into thought again before looking Old Goat in the eye and saying, “I'm just so glad it was you.” Wally reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of folded wax paper. Inside, was the four-leaf clover he found the previous day. “This one's yours,” he said, and handed it to Old Goat.

As we await Wally's visit, I'm knitting him a balaclava from the yarn I bought the day we found him. I had Old Goat's four-leaf clover framed, and we're looking for the perfect place to put it. The two of us, the two of them, the three of us are a loving family when we need it most: right now and always.

Vara CooperComment