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chance encounters


It’s all over the US papers today that Walter Cronkite, Mr. News himself, has died at 92. Enough is being and has been said elsewhere about his importance in defining how to communicate current events within a television format, his authority on screen and so on, that I won’t bother adding my own brand of blather. But in honor of a man I had the good luck to meet in unusual circumstances, I’ll share a true story with you.

In March of 1973, my mother, for what reasons I never knew, went nuts. She was bipolar, and it soon became all too apparent that she needed some kind of hospitalization. My stepfather was the total workaholic, with the hours to match. So that begged the question – what to do with the kid?

It was decided to pack the kid off to her maternal grandmother in Denmark for an extended stay. Since neither mother nor father would be travelling with me, they rolled out the red carpet.

I was packed off with a suitcase full of new clothes and a purple toy bull to keep me company. I was assured that a bevy of stewardesses would be waiting in transfer airports to make sure I got on the plane. This was in the bad old days before air travel had become all cattle herding, all the time, and travellers, especially well-behaved nine-year-old girls toting purple bulls, could expect to be treated like human beings. I dubbed the bull Ferdinand, because I was told it went with being a bull. I had never heard the story.

I was treated royally, on my way from Florida to Copenhagen. I was transferred from Newark to JFK by helicopter, and the pilot thought he’d give me a kick I’d never forget – by flying over Manhattan at sunset on a flawless day.

Wow.

At JFK, the stewardess was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with me. There was time to kill before my flight, and not many options for nine-year-olds. So she took me to the VIP departure lounge, where I sat quietly, dazed and confused, clutching Ferdinand. Ferdinand would look after me. He was a bull. I was a Taurus. We bovines should stick together.

After a while, there was a lot of hustle and bustle when a Very Important Person indeed arrived. It was Walter Cronkite, the men himself, as I remember, also on his way to Copenhagen to cover a fire at a luxury hotel where someone else important had died.

Now, I can’t claim I had any passionate relationship with news as a nine-year-old, but faces from TV, I knew. So I knew exactly who he was. What happened soon after was a surprise.

In a lull in those conversations that very important grown-ups have, he saw me, sitting there on my own, hanging on to Ferdinand for dear life. He walked over, looking precisely like himself.

“You’re Walter Cronkite,” I stated. In person, he looked like the kind of man any intelligent nine-year-old would wish for a grandfather. He kneeled down, so we were at eye level. “Who are you?”

I introduced myself. “And this is Ferdinand. He’s a bull, like me.”

“Have you ever heard the story of Ferdinand the Bull?” he asked.

“No.”

He sat down next to me on the Danish sofa, acting like the best kind of grandfather, the kind that had all the time in the world.

“Once upon a time, there lived a bull named Ferdinand in Spain.” he began.

HIs entourage was looking distinctly put out. He ignored them.

So I heard the story of Ferdinand the bull, and how he was stung out of his complacency and his pasture by a bee.

“Never forget the bee,” Mr. Cronkite admonished me. “If you don’t watch out, every flower has one!”

Words of the wise.

Ferdinand had, in the space of that half hour or so, grown infinitely more precious.

Once on the plane, I was spoiled rotten. (Those were the days!). I was given a tour of the cockpit, plied with food and sodas and whatever else I wanted, and every so often, my ideal grandfather came to check on me to see that I was OK.

He even came to tuck me in, and make sure that Ferdinand was close by.

We said goodbye in customs in Copenhagen, and I never saw him again. But I never forgot.

And now, yet another little chain link in my childhood has broken and passed on, leaving all sorts of obituaries and memories behind, great and small, and above all else, the memory of an exceptional man and an exceptional human being.

And the kind of grandfather I wished I had, but never did.

“That’s the way it is.”

That’s the way it was, for a rather frightened nine-year-old girl, who with the help of a purple bull and a fairy tale and a VIP with time to kill, overcame just a little of her fear of the unknown ahead.

Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.

May you rest in peace.

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