Back in 1973 at the Shep’s household in the not so beachside side of Parkdale (east of Nepean Highway) we had an elderly guest at the table for Christmas lunch, someone we had never met and all the way from the United States of America. This would be the first time the condiment of cranberry was served with our turkey. A popular addition to the tradition.
At the time, our guest Mr. Walt Stack was sixty seven and was in Melbourne to compete in the inaugural Australian Veteran Track and Field Championships organised by my Uncle. The American visitors were billeted out for an Aussie style Christmas lunch (ours was probably not that different from an English one) after competing the previous weekend at the Box Hill Athletic Track in Melbourne. A large team of fifty one USA Masters, led by David Pain, participated in the championships alongside the athletes from Australia. It did have it’s share of controversy when David Pain didn’t compete in protest of Australia’s strict enforcement of the amateur rule on an American runner who had run professionally in the past. Uncle Wal later provided David with his support for a rule change to allow over forty athletes to compete in future events, even if they had obtained remuneration in days gone by.
Walt Stack, seated opposite to yours truly at the Sheppard Christmas table, was an engaging, enigmatic, entertaining, endearing guest, and to state the obvious a big hit with this young teenager. He even removed his shirt to display a tattoo on his chest which incorporated his nipple as the nose of a sailor (magnified in this picture). Neither Mum nor I could remember Walt swearing during his visit (apparently he could be quite colourful) – both our memories recollect that he was the perfect gentleman. A moment in time gone in a flash. Never again would our paths cross, but his name and visit would be tattooed on my grey matter till the end of time.
Uncle Wal (BEM) was a leading founder of what is now known as Masters Athletics, not only in this country, but also within the world movement. He was a highly respected administrator and an exceptional middle distance athlete. Wal was also quite adept at the 440 hurdles winning gold in the first World Championships held in Canada in 1975. In 1970 he ventured to San Diego to compete in the US Masters Championships where he ran amazing times of 2.03 in the half mile and 4.39 in the mile, not bad for a man fast approaching fifty. While in San Diego, David Pain, head of the USA Masters Athletics and organiser of the US Masters Championships invited Wal to organize an Australian team to compete in the upcoming U.S. Masters tour of Europe. A strong alliance was forged between the two men and their nations.
Now all this time later after researching my special uncle, Walter William Sheppard (pictured right) I stumbled across the name of Walt Stack once again. Who would have known? He was famous, I knew this known as he had a Wikipedia page. In 1988 at the age of eighty he was the man in the inaugural advertisement for Nike’s, ‘Just Do It’ slogan. A slogan that had it’s origins on the final words of a state executed prisoner. There, featured in the add, is eighty year old Walt shuffling bare chested across the Golden Gate Bridge on a run he did every morning at the crack of sparrows fart. Nike had been a long time sponsor of the veterans movement and an eighty year old running seventeen miles each morning epitomised the slogan. Walt even had an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson which had many of his expletives beeped over.
I would have loved to have had another meeting with Walt to chew the fat about the Streets of San Francisco (A Quinn Martin Production), one of two television shows I followed religiously in the seventies, the other, The Rockford Files starring James Garner and featuring the harmonica of Tommy ‘Hollywood’ Morgan. Streets of San Francisco may have been screening here in Australia at the time of Walt’s visit, but perhaps it was a little after as Walt never called me ‘Buddy Boy’. It showcased the great city of San Francisco with it’s cable cars, steep hills and the waterfront. Places I still recall to this day-The Embarcadero, Potrero Hill, Tarantino’s, Hyde Street Pier and Fisherman’s Wharf to name just a few. It still remains on my bucket list to visit. In fact, would you believe it, Walt lived on Potrero Hill.
Okay, I can hear you say what does this have to do with the harmonica? Not much. Did he play the ten hole tin can? That is an unknown unknown, but I do know you can purchase an Alcatraz harmonica. A venue that Walt spent eighteen months in when it was San Francisco’s U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks (in 1934 it became a Federal Penitentiary). The back cover plate of the Alcatraz harp has inscribed Where Music Was A Privilege. In fact one of the rocks most notorious captive’s Al Capone invoked Music Rules Regulation #46 by being an exemplary inmate and learning the banjo. He played in a prison band called the The Rock Islanders and in a letter penned to his son from Alcatraz, Capone proudly confirmed his new musical capabilities with, “First I learned a Tenor Guitar and then a Tenor Banjo, and now the Mandola, but for Solo work only.” The regulation number forty six is printed in its entirety at the end of the article.
Walt Stack (1908 – January 19, 1995)
On smart arses
Someone who can sit on an ice cream cone and tell you the flavor.
Start slow… and taper off.
Remember, it’s us turkeys in the back who make you hotshots look so good.
People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the winter-time. I leave them in my locker.
Well, I have a hot dog for breakfast.
Just keep on breathing.
They told me I was nuts to drink beer in a marathon, but that’s a crock. (It is said that he drank a six pack during a marathon)
On hitting the wall (when a long distance runner is overcome with fatigue due to the depletion of glycogen stores)
I’m going to sue the city for building the road too close to my ass.
On looking where your running when training with women
That’s what comes from being a dirty old man. I dropped back to look at your legs, and I ran into an overhanging branch.
All this work I’m doin’, it don’t mean shit. I’m going to croak, just like the rest of you.
Not bad for a guy with one foot in the UC pickling vat, and the other one on a banana peel. (Walt donated his organs to the University of California Medical School)
People in this country die in alphabetical order. I see them that way in the paper.
I’m a real bag a hell today, but tomorrow I may be a dead mackerel.
Has there ever been a prisoner of Alcatraz who survived a swim to shore? (Walt regularly swam in the San Francisco Bay swimming out to the island)
In the first World Association Of Veteran Athletics held in Toronto in 1975 Walt Stack (in the over 65 category of the marathon) finished third, just four minutes behind the winner in a time of 3:53:13. Walt appeared in this edition of Sports Illustrated in an article titled, ‘Old Man and the Bay’. Click on cover to read article.
Our family wasn’t great at taking photos to relive past memories, but Walt must have given Dad this photo of him competing in The Trails End Marathon held in Oregon on the 24th February 1973. Walt signed the back and inscribed, “SF (San Francisco) Hod carrier 65 years old. 10 marathons and two 50 mile races in 1973. Approximately 4,500 miles ran in 1973. Record holder in over 60 division for the 50 and 100 mile races also……(I can’t decipher)….for 5 years in that division.”
Just in closing, I was pleased to find some known unknowns of our Christmas guest of 1973 and it’s probably appropriate to revisit Donald Rumsfeld’s quote one more time just to reflect on its profoundness.
“…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know…..” (Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary Of Defense, February 12, 2002)
A photo of Walt coming to shore from a swim in the San Francisco Bay with a clearer view of the sailor tattoo and a favourite family picture of Uncle Wal clearing a hurdle for Richmond Harriers at Melbourne University Athletic Track. Not bad for a middle distance specialist.
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46. MUSIC RULES: Musical instruments may be purchased if approved by the Associate Warden.
Guitars and other stringed instruments may be played in the cellhouse in a QUIET manner only between the hours of 5:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report.
Wind instruments, drums and pianos will be played in the band or Orchestra Rooms on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. At no time will you play any wind instrument in the cellhouse.
Permission to play instruments in the Band, Orchestra or bathrooms may be granted by the Associate Warden to inmates in good standing. The Band room is a privilege and permission to play there must be requested from the Associate Warden.
A limited number of inmates may be allowed to take musical instruments to and from the recreation yard. Permission must first be obtained from the Associate Warden.
No inmate on “idle” status or on “report” or restricted will be allowed to use the Band Room, Orchestra Room or to take instruments to the yard.
An inmate whose musical privileges have been restricted or revoked shall be removed from all musical lists, and his instrument stored in “A” Block until otherwise authorized by the Associate Warden.
No inmate is allowed to give, sell, trade, exchange, gamble, loan or otherwise dispose of his personal or institutional instrument or to receive such from another inmate.
Institutional instruments may be loaned to inmates in good standing upon the approval of the Associate Warden.
All instruments will be listed on personal property cards. Institutional instruments shall be listed as “On Loan” from the institution, together with the date of the loan and the identification number of the instrument. Surplus parts for musical instruments together with and including extra sets of guitar strings shall be kept in “A” Block. Guitar strings shall be purchased in the regular manner and stored in “A” Block until needed. An old set of strings must be turned in to the cellhouse Officer to draw a new set.
2 thoughts on “Known Unknowns”
What interesting characters Walt and Wal were. Thanks HRR for giving us a glimpse of their colourful and adventurous lives. 🙂
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