EDITORIAL NOTE: These are the facts *as I heard them*, but any opinions or errors are mine. A better way of putting it is that this is a story, not word-for-word reporting. As with all writing of stories, there is no such thing as absolute fact and objectivity, as much as we may strive for it or fool ourselves into thinking there is. Not only was there no way to check many of the facts, and I took the subject at his word, there is the passage of time, choice of words, fading of memory and downright embellishment. The story as told by the interviewee is filtered through the lens, bias and experience of the interviewer. So is it true? Who knows? Everyone knows David’s a big fat liar. But we hope you’re entertained and inspired anyway.
A Dude Abikes Meets David
It was mid-April 2016, a warm day for spring, on a country road outside Kerrville, Texas. He was sitting at a picnic table at a rest stop with his bicycle, waiting for a SAG (support and gear) car to come by and help him with a flat tire. He was a tall man with brown hair, nice bike, and impish grin. We were both there as part of Bike Austin’s annual Hill Country Easter Ride. I had just flown by on a little downhill and noticed him stopped there, looking somewhat forlorn.
I turned around to stop and asked if he was OK, see if he needed food or water. He was fine, but he couldn’t fix the flat and neither could I, for some reason I now forget. But “SAG is coming,” he told me with a smile, and encouraged me to “have a good ride!” I remember thinking at the time, “What a guy. He’s the one broken down here, but he’s smiling at me.” Little did I know the depths of courage behind those eyes.
The Early Years
David Crittenden Walker is one of the disappearing rare breed of people who was actually born in Austin and still lives here. His parents were Texans, too, and his father was a traveling Methodist preacher. What we call a PK – a preacher’s kid. David had three siblings, and the family traveled so his dad could do missionary work: throughout Texas, the Philippines, Uruguay and Lebanon. It was at the latter he had a lot of fun at the American University of Beirut, having the run of campus as a young boy, wild and free in an exotic land.
After seeing the world, the family was back home in Austin in 11th grade. David didn’t know it at the time, but he met his future wife the first day of school. He adopted bicycling as his primary mode of transportation. No helmets, padded shorts or anything fancy, just a utilitarian Schwinn Suburban with a book rack. He could get three other kids on it, but it was only for going somewhere. He was a happy kid, and maybe once or twice did he ever go on a joy ride. His spirit of adventure and love of travel would stay with him.
High School Hijinks
As a bright student and junior in high school, David had the opportunity to skip ahead a year (just like A Dude). He could have graduated early, but he didn’t want to make his sister feel bad since she was a year older. He worked the system and still got A’s, but like most teens, he started to act up. And like all 17 year-olds, he thought he was immortal; he wasn’t. It was laid-back liberal Austin in the 80’s: big hair, New Wave and rock music, Ronald Reagan, the MTV and “me generation.” Good times.
It was October of 1981. One beautiful fall day his dad and sister were gone, so he had use of the car he and she shared. He and a friend got a hold of two six-packs of beer and headed to the iconic but long-gone music venue Liberty Lunch. A veritable who’s-who played there from Nirvana to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dolly Parton to Alan Ginsburg. David and the friend climbed in a roof window, but they had timed it poorly. They were early for the show so there was no crowd to blend into. They got ID’d and were forced to leave. The beer didn’t make it with them, so they got more.
David suggested they instead go jump trains, and his friend was game. They’d done it before off a street named, appropriately enough, Great Northern. It’s still there near Mo-Pac Highway, itself named for the Missouri-Pacific rail line. A Dude has biked it many times. It’s a long, steady and deceitful incline that makes for a very challenging sprint, even downhill. Whizzing by on a bike, one doesn’t think much of the train tracks hidden from view up the embankment.
But they weren’t biking that day, they were train jumping. This is never a good idea, even if the trains were moving slowly, especially with alcohol involved. Day became night. They would hop on a train, ride a few minutes, then jump off. Walk back and do it again. Drink more beer. But at one point, David was knocked off somehow and was thrown 20 feet. He got up and did it again. That’s what tough teenage guys do, right?
“No Soccer This Year”
The last time David Crittenden Walker jumped on a train, something went horribly wrong. He was knocked off but this time when he looked down, most of his right leg was gone. He saw what had happened immediately, but he didn’t know why, if there was a ladder or wheel or what caused it. David was in shock so mercifully he felt no pain. His friend ran for help and then returned. Seconds ticked by. Minutes.
It was a 20-minute, grueling wait for the ambulance. It felt like forever. Finally the medics came and got him to Brackenridge Hospital. Once in surgery, the doctors quickly discovered that the severed leg was too traumatized to attempt reattachment. Microsurgery being what it was 36 years ago, they did their best to clean the stump and save his life. He had lost a lot of blood. David remembered having the bizarre thought, “Well, no soccer this year.”
David survived. He was in the hospital for five weeks and missed Halloween and Thanksgiving. The doctors transferred skin from his left leg to cover the wound. He healed, slowly. Because he didn’t really need the credits to graduate, he didn’t have to return to school. After returning home on crutches, he then went to regular outpatient physical therapy. David couldn’t put any weight on a prosthetic leg immediately, but he got one fitted in time for graduation and even went to prom. He’s still friends with his therapists to this day.
A lesser man, who was still a 17-year old kid, might have given up. But he did not give up. He had good medical care, his family, his friends and his faith. So he fought.
Life Goes On. Somehow. Miraculously.
David somehow made a full recovery – well, as much as one can when you’re missing a lot of your right leg. He went on to college at the University of Texas at Austin. There he got a new prosthetist and a new prosthetic leg, but it wasn’t as well-done, and it damaged his stump, especially the skin and tissue. He had to spend most of college on crutches. Got pretty good on them too. Carried his own books, and when not walking with crutches, he drove a mo-ped he got special permission to use on campus. even though he fell a few times.
In 1987, he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He then discovered a procedure that would take skin and muscle from his back to preserve the knee. He wanted a well-paying job after college to pay for it. He and his girlfriend he had been dating since 1986, and they decided to move to San Diego where the best doctor was. He took a job with Hewlett-Packard and the company’s insurance paid for a lot of the plastic and reconstructive surgery. The operation took nine hours and he was out for six weeks, but it was a success. His girlfriend took care of him as he healed, and in 1990 they got married.
The Walkers had set three other goals. First was to travel, so they did just that, through Europe, African and Asia. Then they attended graduate school, and then they had children. Back in Austin in 1982, David was jobless for two years. But he came through that tough time as well. After what he’d been through, unemployment was a piece of cake.
He’s been in a variety of positions for a number of corporations, and now works for one that deals with drilling machinery. He is a manufacturing engineer, so he solves problems with products in the factory. Dealing with parts, making sure the tools fit, and testing. Not too unlike the series of problems he had to solve with his own devastating injury.
David Crittenden Walker had engineered a remarkable comeback from a life-changing event. But he wasn’t done yet.
TO BE CONTINUED… Part 2 is available at this link.
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