Finding Joy on an Outing with Walker

March 12, 2000

`I loved the sound of the garbage truck in the morning.’

I was talking to my autistic son, Walker, as we strolled one Saturday in summer through George Williams College Camp in Lake Geneva, Wis.

“When I was a kid,” I told him, “I’d lie in my bed in our tent and listen to the truck far away and the garbage men yelling and banging the cans. I could hear them get closer and closer and louder and louder.”

Even a normal 13-year-old boy would grow restless listening to this gripping trip down memory lane, but Walker seemed to be repelling it with his entire body. Walking along next to me, his left hand in mine, he managed to angle his left shoulder up to his ear and plant his right index finger in his other ear. If not for the big grin on his face, he’d look like a refugee trying to block the sound of artillery fire.

“I liked to pretend it was an enemy tank coming to get me,” I went on, “so I’d hide under the covers where the bad guys in the truck couldn’t see me.”

I always try to plow ahead like an obsessed monologist when I’m with him. Although Walker seldom utters a complete sentence and has never held what one could call a “conversation,” he understands much that is spoken to him. I’m just never certain how much.

As a “low-functioning” autistic, Walker is burdened with a daunting list of things he can’t do: He can’t leave the house alone, can’t play a simple game, can’t call 911, can’t reliably answer “yes” or “no” to questions.

Compared to Walker, the “high-functioning” autistic character in the film “Rain Man” was a smooth operator, a man about town.

But Walker is also blessed with a sense of humor, a big heart and an ability to mystify his parents with rare, maddeningly brief, signs of intelligence.

On this excursion, unfortunately, the smart, responsive Walker was not my companion. A half-hour before this, we had stopped at the nearby Yerkes Observatory, a beautiful Victorian edifice that had represented to me as a kid the romance and adventure of my future life as a world-famous scientist.

One late summer night in the ’50s, I had looked through a telescope parked on the golf course next to this observatory and peered at a comet. The telescope belonged to a friend of my father’s, a tall thin man named Mr. Petersen who smoked a pipe, and I listened eagerly to his little lecture on what a comet was and how lucky we were to actually see one.

But this day, in 1999, Walker showed no more interest in the story of my astronomical moment and the sight of the giant, strange-looking domed building than he did in anything else around Lake Geneva — or the state of Wisconsin, for that matter.

Walking down the road with him past the spot where my family’s vacation tent used to be (and where a cabin is now), I drifted off into memories of the place.

Everything about “college camp,” as my parents called it, was excitingly different from our life in Oak Lawn. Our tent was perched on a wooden platform a few feet above the ground. It had no electrical connection and was lighted by a single oil lamp on a table. The buildings at the camp were gorgeous, sprawling, turn-of-the-century frame structures with vast porches. You could sit on these porches in wicker chairs, play cards, gaze at the sparkling lake and feel the breeze through the trees. We ate in a big refectory where we were served by college students, and chocolate milk could be had at every meal.

This was living.

Walker jerked on my hand and I snapped out of dreamland. “Let’s go over to the ice cream parlor,” I said, and Walker suddenly came to life. “I used to come here every night with Aunt Pat, Uncle Larry and Uncle Pete,” I added.

The experience was just as I hoped it would be. Walker sat in an almost relaxed position (though his shoulder never left his ear for very long) and devoured a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in chocolate sauce.

When we stepped out and I looked down the road, I was hit by another nostalgia attack.

“You know, Walker, every time I left this place to go back to our tent, I ran down this hill. Boy, I was just crazy about running down this hill.”

Just at that moment Walker grinned, looked up at me and tore off down the slope yelling “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”

For once, instead of chasing after him, I just watched him go, skipping and running freely with his arms raised, laughing and shouting all the way down and up the rise in the road a short way. He suddenly stopped, turned around and smiled back at me.

It was a small thing, a very small thing, but it was very nice.

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