Monday, May 21, 2012

The Friendliest Town ...

I'm troubled and I have to address it.

Wine tourism is indeed a large part of our valley, but there is also real heart in this town and it is the people who reside here. What we recently discovered, or more like what we have recently been reminded of,  none of us are without our frailties - from the fifth generation of Walla Wallans to the newcomers who are raising their families here.

As long as I can remember, Walla Walla has always been "The City So Nice, They Named It Twice" and in fact, last year we were named, "The Friendliest Small Town in America" by Best of the Road contest — sponsored by Rand McNally in collaboration with USA TODAY.

I was born and raised in this idyllic little town. My father was a World War II veteran working a Monday through Friday 9-5 job to pay the VA insured mortgage. My mother was mostly a stay-at-home mom, a PTA Room Mother, active in her "Young Homemaker's Club" and hosted baby showers and "kaffee klatsches." Yes, we even owned two cars and had a picket fence around our house. The very worst that I knew about life was the penitentiary across the highway and even then, we went to school with the warden's daughters and attended birthday parties and play dates at the warden's house on the penitentiary grounds.

Summer vacations were often spent at my grandparent's house across town in the "country" where we rode horses, feed the chickens, read books and comics under the big maple trees, played in the "raging" Yellowhawk Creek, and picked strawberries at the Klicker farm.

Sure, you guessed it, I was one of those children of the 60-70's and I was all about "peace, love, and hippie beads" while my older brother was in Vietnam. I suppose my ignorance, and that of innocence, was all taken away when I became married to a "career" funeral director. For the majority of our 20 years together, we lived and worked at the funeral home. I soon discovered that the funeral business was more than "grandpa dying because he was old" as there was a whole another side to it; from deadly and horribly disfigured accidents than one could never imagine (or ever forget), removing bodies from the local penitentiary (from suicides to executions), being discreet about someone's husband having a heart attack in the girlfriend's bed, and unfortunately heinous and tragic murders of crime and passion.

After my divorce I continued with jobs that dealt with distraught people and emotional situations; from office manager at the local women and children's shelter for domestic violence, an assistant for a county defense attorney, and later 10 years with a firm of civil law attorneys. 

Finally, I am now employed in an agricultural industry that has the ability to enhance a healthy and happy lifestyle with friends, family and even co-workers. However, aside from this "new line of work" it still doesn't stop me from thinking, reaching deep down inside, and trying to understand humanity - - and at least feel some compassion for both sides of a story.

On May 4th we became a town rather divided when the authorities reported a young man by the name of Cesar was shot and killed after breaking and entering into a local store after hours and allegedly leaving with merchandise - silver belt buckles. 

John, the owner of the store is somewhat of a local icon. It's these colorful characters that remind us who we are and what small towns are all about. John probably fit most of us, and our children's children, in cowboy boots and hats during our rodeo and fair celebrations. It was not just a business for John, but it was also his lifestyle and his home. Yes, he and a few pet cats also lived in the same building as where John conducted business. 

As I have perused Walla Walla Facebook pages and local online news, emotions are high and sides have been formed. Comments have been written of racial slurs, taunts, accusations of prejudices and threats of retaliation. Accusations were even made that the shooting was racially motivated.

Once the shock of it all was over and my logic could finally kick in, something told me that John didn't take the time to ask if the burglar was Hispanic, Chinese or Anglo before he took the fateful shot in the dark. I understand the need to protect as I too had someone break into my house - not once, but on two occasions and I cannot begin to explain the terror that one feels deep in the belly - the feeling of the unknown.

I looked through Cesar's Facebook page and the photos didn't tell me about what kind of person he was other than showing a young man with twinkling blue eyes from Chihuahua, Mexico who came to live in Walla Walla. However, the photos on his Facebook wall told me more about the people in his life by their smiles, embraces and camaraderie as they posed by him. The photos told me how much he was loved.

Last week I just happened to drive by the cemetery where Cesar was being buried and by the crowds of people that filled the cemetery and the line up of cars parked blocks away, was once again a reminder of how many people loved this young man.

Several long-time Walla Wallans kept somewhat of a vigil in front of John's business making sure he was okay, from checking in on him, making a special trip to his store to buy merchandise they might not otherwise purchase,  and even sending him cards of support. A lot of people love this man with his deep Walla Walla roots,  and are worried for his safety.

Cesar was a young man of 22 years old and unfortunately, according to public record, he had seen his days in criminal court. However, as young as he was, he still had the potential to change and live a full and productive life.  John is 70 years old and has always been a private man and owner of a long running store of three generations of Walla Walla descendants.

Those who loved Cesar are claiming that he was chased out of the store by John and shot outside the store. Those of us who know John, or the last time I saw John, he was walking with a cane, had a bent posture and he was moving very slow. As of the date of this publishing, the authorities have yet to release their findings.

Some of the locals are furious at the local newspaper for publishing a photo of a memorial of where the authorities found the deceased. The photo of the memorial showed tributes of flowers, candles and other meaningful trinkets to those who are grieving. Those upset at the photo have accused the paper for being "biased" instead of understanding that publishing the photo is the job of the newspaper. They are reporting the "news" and it was certainly news for those of us who do not travel up and down this street on a daily basis where the memorial had been laid.

Last week, friends and family of Cesar held a candle light vigil, a protest of sorts, in front of the John's store. The Sheriff's Department, who were stationed nearby, stated that several-hundred people involved in the protest over all remained peaceful. Family and friends have formed a petition for justice to be done on behalf of the deceased. Many people opposed the protest and told those in the protest to "move on and get over it." 

There is truly no designated time for when the bereaved needs to quit grieving nor is there a certain way to grieve, and the protest was exactly that - people were grieving and needed to be with others who felt their same loss.

A new local organization, Take Back Walla Walla, planned a rally in support of John. On behalf of John, his attorney indicated John is a not a member of the group or rally and does not support the group or their efforts, as he feels it is not beneficial and will only harm the healing process. The Chief of Police and the County Sheriff requested that people honor John's wishes and not attend the rally. A few people showed up anyway, but there were more cops than there were protestors. 

Several of the protestors from both sides are protesting each others protests.
The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble ...
The Second Amendment (Amendment II) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment  protects the right of people to keep and bear arms, unconnected to service in a militia,  and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home ...
Crazy thing about those amendments that we hold so dear, as we have one group condemning a man for exercising the Second Amendment and both groups condemning each other for exercising the First Amendment due to actions and the results of the Second Amendment. 

The biblical quotes and the Ten Commandments, yet selective, have been preached to each other: 6) Thou shalt not kill. 8) Thou shalt not steal. 

Somewhere in all of this, and to both sides, I am reminded by the quote from Mahatma Gandhi, "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

Who is wrong and who is right? I believe we have now gone past the point of who is right and who is wrong as a young man's life is gone and another man will be haunted as long as he lives. Everyone who had ever been involved with Cesar or John is hurting or troubled by the events that shook our town - that is one thing that we can all agree upon. It is a tragedy for all of us.  

Are we still the friendliest town of America?  Are we still the city so nice they named it twice?  I think we are or we wouldn't care so much.

Walla Walla is rich in history from our people to our agriculture. We are rich in agriculture from wheat, onions, and especially wine grapes. Wine grapes are nothing new in Walla Walla as there were vineyards and wineries decades ago as French and Italian immigrants planted wine grapes and made their wine.*

We are rich with a history of immigrants settling in the valley. French, Italians, Chinese, (by 1880, Walla Walla had a Chinese population of 600, which is now depleted**) and a few decades ago; now a large community of Hispanics have been added to our history of immigrants.

This community of people need each other for our town to survive - - we always have. If we look past the emotions and sentiment, it's really true. We depend on the farmers to manage and grow the crops from our fertile Walla Walla soil and we depend on the laborers to assist in managing and harvesting the fruits and most of all, we need tourists (and the locals) to buy our wine and other crops so that we can depend on the farmers to manage and grow the crops and the laborers to harvest ...

In joy and in sadness, it is an ongoing circle for the "Friendliest Small Town of America."


* A Brief History of Winemaking in the Walla Walla Valley - by Myles Anderson.

** Chinese Americans in the Columbia Basin - by Mario Compean.


Jeanette said...

This is really well written and expresses a lot of my own family's sentiments as well. We too are torn up about this very sad situation and grieve for all that are hurting.

God grant us all peace is my prayer!

Stephanie S. said...

Nicely done. This emphasizes the importance of not placing blame, but rather, finding a way to heal. Thank you...

kimberly said...

I have purchased many many pairs of boots for my children there. My daughter also wears a belt buckle that Mr. Saul donated to the fairgrounds for the mutton busting, as he does this every year ... Hopefully Walla Walla will get back on track. I truly believed this was the place for my family. I pray that does not change.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Thank you Jeanette and Stephanie for the kind words.

Kimberly, I especially enjoyed reading your comment about your daughter and her belt buckle.

I believe that Walla Walla will get back on track - it's what we are known for.

Many thanks again to all of you for your comments.

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