Oregon Magazine

       The Wild and Wooly Man
               Who Writes Kids' Books
                                   by Larry Leonard (original copyright 1986)

        The creator of Gentle Ben and Kavik the Wolf Dog  may be Oregon's least-known
    big-name writer, which is strange because Walt Morey is a genuine, certifiable character.

     It is winter in the western mountains.  A cold, brutal winter of a few years back.  The people of Oregon are either
buried in snow or staring in disbelief at a fairy world of jeweled, broken trees and downed power lines.  Some are reminded
of what cities look like after the bombers have gone.      But there are no power lines or buildings here.  Just hills
dusted with dry snow, dead, cheerless.  And a ribbon of highway that snakes between the cold mounds, leaves them and sets out across a 100-mile-wide depression truckers call "the stovepipe." 

     There's an arctic cold front brooding.  When it sends its breath cannonading down the depression, some of those crossing
will die.  It happens every year.
     There's a car leaving the hills now.  Some fool bent on crossing.
     He's a fast fool.  Driving a gigantic old gold Caddy and doing eighty on that sheet of ice.  As he passes, we see him.
He's a bear-faced man, a pug with a wild shock of graying hair, shoulders as wide as a Toyota and a voice like a goose in a grain elevator.
     He has one great paw on the Caddy's steering wheel and the other, incredibly, out the open window, pounding on the side of the car in time to his murderous rendition of "Wagon Wheels."
     There are books to the ceiling in the Caddy's back seat, all of them new with shiny jackets.  There are books in the front seat, too.  Books on the dashboard, books in the rear-window well, books on the floorboards, books falling out of the glove
compartment and books jammed in the little slots in the armrests. The trunk is full of books, too, weighing the car down until it slithers along inches from the ground like some fifties hot rod with three gunnysacks of rocks in the turtledeck.
     The cold front fires a blast down the stovepipe.  Trees shatter in the cold.  Animals die.  What does the man do?  He rolls up the window.      Not because of the cold.  He has a fine appreciation for the value of a good echo chamber.  He can get twice the volume out of his voice that way. 

     Walt Morey, seventy-five years old, is on his way to Wyoming to speak to some kids.  Walt speaks to a lot of kids because he's one of the world's most popular juvenile fiction authors.  Few other Oregon authors even approach his enviable record in that part of the publishing world.  Fewer approach his record as a man.
     Let's touch on that publishing record before getting back to the persona: seventeen published books from No Cheers, No Glory, in 1945 to Death Walk early in 1991.  Along the way, he has won the Dutton Junior Animal Book Award for Gentle Ben and Kavik the Wolf Dog, Captured the Sequoia Book Award, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award and five other national awards.
     His books have been published in England, Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Norway and many other countries.  He's been condensed in everything from the Toronto Star to Boy's Life.
     One book has been made into a theatrical-release movie and a famous TV series, three others (two to Disney) into TV movies and one sold to a Canadian film company for both a film and TV series package.
     It's little wonder that Walt Morey will cross the stovepipe for a schoolroom full of Wyoming kids.  They've made him a
wealthy man, and he knows it! 

     Walt Morey was born on February 3, 1907, in Hoquiam, Washington.  His father was a grocer, millhand, construction
worker and sailor.  His mother, he says, was a "home-oriented, practical woman with the special ability to dream."  She appears in Walt's books from time to time.  Both parents were no-nonsense people who were very disturbed about the sickly child they had begotten.
     For the first months of his life, Walt couldn't eat properly.  The doctors didn't know what it was.  There was
nothing they could do.
     The Moreys moved to Jasper, a small community south of Eugene, Oregon.  They fed Walt what clean food he would take and slept him out on a cold porch in the clean air.  What would be a fatal treatment for most people hit Walt like a tonic.  It is said that he remained outside many nights when the clothesline was a rope of ice.  And loved it.
     He grew stronger.  The family moved again, like so many others of the time, searching for work.  There were stops in
Washington and in the Peace River country of Alberta, Canada. Here, Walt discovered a fine way to avoid school, which he
despised.  Joining other truants, he would skate the frozen rivers, sometimes fighting ten miles of stiff winds so that he
could turn around, spread his jacket and sail with the icy gusts like a bird. 

     Eventually, the family settled for a time in Great Falls, Montana.  Walt was an atrocious student there too.  Except for
mathematics and history, which for some reason he liked, he was a failure at all his studies.  Especially reading.  At the age of
thirteen he still hadn't read a single book from cover to cover.
     Then one day, a teacher came up with magic trick that turned a stone-minded boy's life around.  Realizing that Walt's next- door neighbor was one of Montana's (and later America's) greatest painters, she gave Walt a book called Chip of the Flying U, a biography of Charles M. Russell.
     Walt struggled though the first forty pages like a duck hunter in hip waders crossing Tillamook Bay at low tide.  It was
more than a job.
     Then his imagination got caught up.  He says it was like raising the flood gates on a dam: All Hell Broke Loose!  He read
incessantly from that day forth, devouring everything in the school and city libraries.  He swung through the jungles with
Tarzan (brand new, then) and scoured the seven seas with Captain Blood.  He rode the plains with Buffalo Bill and fought Indians with the Deerslayer.  He found he could be anybody he wanted to be, see any place he wanted to see as long as he found the right book.
     With such a rotten beginning, this surge was probably all that got him through high school.  He almost didn't make it as it
was.      "I backed out of high school," says Walt.  "Nobody said anything because they thought I was going in!  They had a diploma left over and gave it to me." 

     So there's Walt Morey, bare minimum student, wrinkling his last-minute-save of a diploma with one hand while scratching
his head with the other and wondering what the hell he's going to do with his life.
     Like his father, he began to knock about.  He worked in mills and on construction jobs.  He was a rough kid in rough
times.  One day he discovered prize fighting.
     "I was good at that.  Damn good.  I had twenty fights and won every one.  I beat some men who were better than me, in fact. That was because right away I saw what it looked like for a man to get knocked out.  The thought of that happening to me -- I couldn't have taken the shame.  So, the closer they got to knocking me down, the more scared I fought."
     Walt was what is known as a slashing puncher.  A fighter who cuts the other man.  When asked about that, Walt grins and admits he just missed real close a lot of the time.
     "It ain't how you win, just that you do!"
     He quit the ring when a close friend, another fighter, walked by him in the gym and didn't recognize him.  Walt didn't
want to end up like that.  He decided to find an occupation that wouldn't do that to a man.  He became a theater manager.  And he began hesitantly to try something new.  After work, while his wife, Rosiland, tried to sleep a few feet away, Walt set up a typewriter on the checkered kitchen tablecloth.
     He had read a lot of books in his time.  Now he would write one. 

     For ten years, working in movie houses, as a ship builder, in the mills and on the construction projects of the Northwest,
Walt wrote and rewrote that book.  He did it thirteen times.  In all, two million words.  It never sold, and lies in a box above a porch in a house he no longer visits.
     The night he faced it: "I sat down at the kitchen table, looked at that book and realized it was no damn good.  I sat
there and bawled for an hour."
     Then he picked up a piece of typewriter paper and began a new book.
     The breakthrough came in 1936 when he met John Hawkins, then secretary of the fledgling Oregon Freelance Writer's Club.  It was a very small breakthrough, though.  For years he went over to Hawkin's home, sat in a corner and listened to other writers discuss the art.  Not in all that time did he say more than hello and goodby.  Each time he would go home and tell is wife that he didn't understand a single word that had been said.
     It seemed that the one thing in his life he wanted to do was beyond his reach.
     But at last Hawkins suggested that Walt try writing about something he knew well,  Walt knew how to fight.  After that, he
published his first story, a boxing yarn, in Knockout Magazine. It was a pulp sale, and not a very profitable one, but Walt Morey was on his way. 

     In the next few years he published more than a hundred magazine articles, short stories and novelettes in the top
magazines of the day.  It was a grand time, a classic time, for writing and writers.  Then television came along, forever
changing the face of the publishing world.  The pulps died out completely.  Walt Morey, disillusioned, became a ship-building
foreman and filbert farmer.  He was disgusted with the way the market had dried up.  For a man who had managed to work right through the Depression, bottoms shouldn't fall out.
     He didn't write a word for twelve years.
     Sometimes his old friend (and another classic Oregon writer in his own right) Don James urged Walt to try again.  But Walt would have none of it.  Then another old friend, Virgil Burford, came back into his life.  Years before, an absolutely penniless Burford had gone to Alaska.  It wasn't long before he was in the money, though, earning as much as $100 for ten minutes' work. Stocky, round-faced, harmless-looking Virgil Burford now made his living in a diving suit, cutting killer whales out of Alaskan salmon traps, salvaging canneries that had fallen into the sea and retrieving carelessly dropped ten-ton ship anchors.
     It was a wonderful life, Virgil explained.  The weather was fantastically lousy, the seas ridiculously dangerous, there were
giant Kodiak bears all over the place and fish pirates behind every piling.  The diving suit weighed 200 pounds, it was cold
as death 100 feet down, the traps were full of sharp wires that could cut air compressor and telephone lines and there were
millions of sharks forever slashing at anything that moved near the traps.
     A great way to spend the summer.  Just Walt Morey's cup of tea. 

     So, Walt's wife understood and he loaded up his gear and took off like a ten-year-old boy with a big barking dog and a
trout rod, grinning and heading for Alaska!
     It was that summer that got him going.  He was alive up there.  On the plane up, Virgil remained silent while Walt, who
had never dived, told the passengers all about hardhat diving. Then he slapped on the gear and did it!  Jumped right in the
middle of Prince William Sound and loved every minute of it.      He sang down there.  Those brass helmets make great
resonance chambers.  When the time was up, Virgil would hold a cup of coffee near the compressor's air intake and the smell
would drive Morey from the bottom.
     "One day," recalls Walt, "Virgil went down.  After a while he said, 'Walt, I'm on fire.'  He wasn't yelling.  He just said
     Walt just stared in disbelief at the telephone.
     "You can't be," he said to Virgil.  "You're a hundred feet under the water!"
     "Nevertheless," repeated Virgil, "I am on fire.  I'm coming up."
     When Virgil surfaced, Walt exploded into laughter.  Virgil, it seems, smoked big cigars.  He had been smoking one while
donning the diving suit and had forgotten to put it out.  Rather, he had just stuck it in his pocket.
     "You couldn't see his face through the plate.  When I opened it, he looked like a volcano!" 

     Then there was the time Virgil decided to enter them in an Alaskan winner-take-all boxing match celebrating the Fourth of
July.  After a month of training, beating each other half to death on lonely beaches, they showed up to an empty town.  The
salmon run had started.  In Alaska in those days, nothing took precedence over that.
     It was a glorious summer.  Walt sailed a hundred miles for a one-punch fight because Virgil was incensed with a comment a fisherman had made from another boat.  Walt nearly died during a desperate underwater entanglement.  He got to sing "Wagon Wheels" forty times in the helmet.  He saw whales and sharks and octopi and king crabs the size of double beds.
     When he came home, he was full of things to write.  He was fairly bursting.  But still he did not begin.  He fidgeted.
     This was because Walt, like many writers, is a person at once supremely confident and insecure.  Sort of spikey.  He had
so much to tell!  But the market had gone straight to hell after television.  Maybe he should just not waste his time.  What if he
had forgotten how to write?  What if he wrote it well, but nobody wanted his kind of story anymore?
     It was partly Don James and partly his wife who finally got him going.  Paradoxically, it was James who nagged and Walt's wife who bullied. 

     The books began to pour out.  Deep Trouble; Gentle Ben; Gloomy Gus; Home is the North; Kavik the Wolf Dog; Run Far, Run Fast; Scrub Dog of Alaska; Operation Blue Bear.  Every one had an Alaskan background.
     There have been other books since, featuring other backgrounds.  But there is no question that looking at Walt
Morey's career as a whole, Alaska is his place.  Certainly no other Oregon author, probably no other author from anywhere, has set so many fine tales in that grand state.
     There is something there to which his heart returns.  A vibrancy, a don't-give-a-damn, holler-at-the-bears feeling.
     He'll go back as long as his health holds out.  Virgil is gone, of course.  They found his boat turned turtle in Prince
William Sound years ago.  But they didn't find Virgil.  A storm, or pirates, or sharks or something got him.
     But if the fates allow, Walt will go back.  Just like he drove in the middle of the bloody winter, at age seventy-five,
through a stovepipe blizzard, singing at the joyful top of his lungs, his battered, beetle-browed face screwing up into great
grins, to go and speak to a little schoolroom full of Wyoming kids.
     Alaska is just like those kids for Walt.  It's the other half of what he is.

                             - 30 -

Walt Morey, a Friend in Autumn  (a personal reflection by Larry Leonard)

2011 Oregon Magazine