Walt’s life will be with us forever

I saw Walt again a couple of Sundays ago and he didn’t look too good. Check that. Maybe he actually looked great, considering his age.

Walt is 110. Or rather, if Walt really existed he would be 110.

But he does exist. Walt Wallet of Gasoline Alley has been real to millions of people around the world since he was created by a writer-artist genius named Frank King in 1918.

If you know of Gasoline Alley it’s probably for one reason, that its characters age in real time.

Yes, they have done that for the last 92 years. But there’s so much more to this beloved effort which has been carried through the decades by four men.

King drew Gasoline Alley from 1918-1959, Bill Perry drew the Sunday color strips between 1951-75, Dick Moores was the alley’s creator between 1956 and 1986 and Jim Scancarelli has been at the helm since 1986.

Not bad for 110 but I’m worried about Walt’s future. Not bad for 110 but I’m worried about Walt’s future. Alley fans call Scancarelli, who has now been drawing the strip for 24 years, “the new guy.”

What is Gasoline Alley about? Well, the characters have had their exciting adventures in exotic places but mostly it’s about living. About growing up, falling in love, getting married, having kids, those kids growing up, falling in love, getting married, having kids......get the idea?

We’re now in the Wallet family’s fourth generation. Or is it the fifth? I lose track.

Gasoline Alley was a single panel in the Chicago Tribune just after World War I. Its male residents met and talked about cars. One of the alley regulars was a rotund, decent but slightly dense, young man named Walt Wallet.

Capt. Joseph Patterson, the Tribune’s publisher suggested to King he might get a lot more feminine interest in the strip if he were to find a way to add a child.

So, on Valentine’s Day, 1921, Walt went to his front doorstep and found a baby boy, although the bumbling male didn’t realize the kid’s gender for several days.

Walt named the baby “Skeezix,” cowboy slang for “motherless calf.” History was made.

Eighty-nine years later, longer than the orbit of Halley’s Comet, Gasoline Alley is still on the same story line.

Walt married Phyllis Blossom and they had kids. Skeezix married Nina Clock and they had kids. Corky, Walt’s other son, married Hope Hassell and they had kids.

Many Alley fans feel the strip actually improved after King retired and Moores took over. It certainly became more contemporary but it wasn’t better.

Just recently I’ve been able to read, for the first time, Gasoline Alley’s 1920s strips, the years where Skeezix was a toddler.

Sure, some of the humor is dated. But, overall, I was unprepared for the depth of King’s portrayal of the every day tasks and joys a single father and son face.

The love in those years between Walt and Skeezix is palpable. It’s not overdone but it’s always there in the background, sometimes in the foreground.

Thinking about the upcoming marriage, Walt asks Skeezix if he wants to start calling him “daddy.” Skeezix thinks, then replies: “No, everyone can have a daddy; only I can have a Unca Walt.”

Walt turned 110 in March. His beloved Phyllis died April 26, 2004, at age 104, after 78 years of marriage.

Walt has a caretaker and a lot of Scancarelli’s strips seem to end with him looking out on sunsets.

I’m worried about Walt.

Which would be best, for Walt to die and the strip to continue or for the strip to just end with Walt still there? Only Jim Scancarelli knows and he’s not talking.

But I do know this. Skeezix, that baby left on a doorstep, is 89 and he and Walt still care for each other just as much as the day in 1926 when Skeezix imitated his “unca’s” stance, walk, and haircut, in all four panels, totally un-noticed by Walt.

It’s only a comic strip. But for nine decades Gasoline Alley has shown us how fathers and sons were meant to be.

That life which, ironically, was never actually lived, won’t ever go away, even if Walt does.

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2010-07-08 digital edition

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