I can’t remember the first time I saw Freeman Walker, but I’ll never forget our last conversation.
I guess it’s been 30 years or more since we had our first conversation, after a common friend (Bruce Butler) called me up to ask a favor.
“Can you pick up Freeman sometime today and take him to the store?” he asked. “I’m in Knoxville and can’t get away.”
I said I would. And I did.
I knew who he was and he knew a little about me because he was an avid reader of the newspaper and a friend of his friend, Bruce. And, in the 20 minutes we spent together that day, we got to know one another.
It was on that day I got the first installment of the life and times of Freeman Walker. There would be many more to come as we came to be friends.
He was still driving then, but both of his aging vehicles were inoperative. And they remained that way for awhile. Ultimately, it got to the point where they weren’t worth the effort to keep them running. So he started walking everywhere he needed to go.
I didn’t know it then, but later found out that Freeman didn’t have the money to get them fixed. He was subsisting on a very meager Social Security check and food stamps.
His expenses were minimal. Electricity, telephone, water and sewer, and natural gas. That took about 85% of his monthly income. The rest he squandered on beer and dog food.
He always had a minimum of four big Labradors in his fenced-in, rent-free compound just down the hill from Bill Ray’s office — the man he once worked for in the oil and gas business, and the man who provided Freeman with his rent-free home.
Freeman was a surveyor, who helped pinpoint locations for drilling.
“I helped him get rich,” Freeman said, explaining why he was living in a rent-free house. “He’s been good to me ‘cause I was good to him,” he added.
I guess it was a couple of years before I learned that Freeman had a family — a former wife and four grown children.
He said he hadn’t seen them in years, and the only one he remained in contact with was his son, Randy, who at that time lived in Hawaii.
Over the years, I would frequently take Freeman to and from the stores, bank and post office, and listened to what I first thought were nothing but tall tales of an old man growing older.
But I would soon learn they weren’t tall tales at all. They were memories of the 1930s through the 1960s — the time period he dwelled on the most, from the Great Depression to the space age.
His stories, of course, centered around Freeman Walker, who played football under General Neyland at UT. Freeman Walker, who once was a member of the country club set in Knoxville, who had a cabin in the Smokies, who rubbed shoulders with the movers and shakers in Knoxville, who ate regularly at Regis, and traveled hither and yon, usually on someone else’s tab.
He would recall his growing up years in Dayton, where he and his brother started their own business, and saved nearly every penny they had and eventually invested their savings in real estate — as teenagers!
He told of sustaining an injury and giving up football after just one year at UT . . . of hitching a ride from Knoxville to Dayton and being picked up by a second baseman who played for the St. Louis Cardinals . . . of being chosen as a stand-in for the star of a movie being filmed on the site of a TVA dam construction project near Chattanooga . . . of being one of the first customers of the first Krystal restaurant . . . of joining the Army Air Corps in World War II and being trained as a gunner on a B-17, where he was in the first wave of the bombing of Dresden, and later hobnobbed with some of the brass in the 8th Air Force in Europe.
And those are but a few of the stories I heard.
One by one, Bruce and I would research each of Freeman’s “tall tales,” only to discover that they were all true! Never, in all the years and all the stories, did we ever catch Freeman Walker in a lie.
We went fishing with Freeman, where we discovered that he made his own lures — from whittling out a piece of wood into the shape of a fish, followed by sanding, painting and polishing, and finally affixing the proper hooks and hardware in the proper place, and utilizing various and sundry feathers and streamers to make it attract the big fish. Hours upon hours for a single lure — and at one time he had scores of them.
He also had hand tools of all types, from tiny tweezers and screwdrivers, to implements only a blacksmith might possess.
He could fix just about anything that needed fixing, and craft everything from wooden mallets and walking sticks, to shelves and furniture from old wooden pallets.
When he lived in his compound on the hill, he always had a number of projects underway at the same time, and when he got bored with one he would move on to another. But he usually wound up finishing everything he started. And then gave it away.
He grew a garden and canned tomatoes, beans, corn and jelly.
Freeman kept meticulous records of mundane things — growing tomatoes, recording units of yield down to four decimal points, and the perfect recipe for sumac jelly. Who but Freeman would make sumac jelly?
He collected a little bit of everything, from fancy, high-class attire from a bygone era, to the little tube-like rolls for a player piano.
For years he rolled his little cart to and from the coin-operated laundry a couple of blocks from his home, but as walking became a challenge,
Bruce and I got him a used washer and dryer and hooked them up, which Freeman called a life-saver.
On two occasions over the past few years, when we hadn’t heard from Freeman for a couple days, we had to “break-in” to his house and find him in poor health, unable to get out of bed. In both instances, he wound up first in the hospital and later in a nursing home.
The second time marked the end of his chosen lifestyle.
He had lived alone in one place or another for at least 50 years, and all the while lived a full life — from his job in the great outdoors as well as love of hunting and fishing, to making do with whatever he had and learned to like it. (Bruce often said in the event of a national disaster he was moving in with Freeman because he knew how to survive with nothing).
He missed his dogs, his morning routine at the coffee table down the road, and his habit of constantly making lists of things he needed to do and the things he needed to complete those tasks.
In 2007 he predicted a long and difficult time for the local and national economy, telling me: “It just feels like it did just before the Depression hit,” Freeman said.
He, too, had a long and difficult time over the last few years. A long stay at the nursing home in Oneida, followed by a long stay at another facility in Campbell County.
He didn’t have many visitors, but cherished a week-long visit from his son, Randy, last summer, after he and his wife had moved from Hawaii to Colorado.
As his 90th birthday approached in May, on a whim I posted his Army photo on Facebook and requested those who knew him to send him a birthday card.
He got a whole stack of happy birthday wishes and was a happy camper for a few days.
A week or so later he wrote me a little note saying he had received “a total of 28 cards and letters on May 8 & 9,” and said that “further heart surgeries have been cancelled as unnecessary,” adding: ”My general health is excellent.”
Unbeknownst to me (and perhaps to Freeman, as well), that turned out to be the first lie I ever caught him telling.
It turned out the doctors had discovered he had an advanced case of cancer and were afraid to operate.
That was May 13. Two months to the day after posting that letter, Freeman passed away at the Cumberland Village nursing home in LaFollette.
Normally, after a visit with Freeman, his last words to me would be, “Wait a minute, I’m not through with you.”
The last time I talked with him face to face was different. He wanted to shake my hand before I left.
It wasn’t your typical handshake. He wouldn’t let go. He wasn’t finished with his story. It was an awkward moment for me, but I let him finish.
Now, I’m glad I did.
He will be missed.