Bill Walker is 93 and as quick as a Rhodes scholar. He can reach back through the dim light of seven decades and flash names and dates at you without a quaver to his voice or a doubt in his mind. If I had asked, I'm sure he could have remembered the details of his birth, including the temperature of the day and who it was that slapped him on the bottom.
The kinds of stories he likes to tell are about his career in the Army in World War I and his life as a character actor in about a hundred films and television shows. He's the kind of guy who, if you saw him on the street, you'd recognize in a minute but wouldn't know why.
I got that feeling when I first met him the other day in his Westside home. He was wearing tinted aviator sunglasses, a sweater vest, cravat, slacks and slippers as he crossed the room looking more 63 than 93, smiling the way he did in "Porgy and Bess" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
I wasn't there to talk about his 65 years in show biz, but you can't be around Walker without hearing some of it. Anyhow, how he was sometimes treated as an actor emphasizes the point he was trying to make in the first place, that point being the mistreatment of America's blacks.
Bill is black, you see, and he's got some bad memories crammed in there with all the good ones, and he feels maybe it's time the country addresses at least one of the bad ones by letting him serve as a symbol.
Come Veterans Day Saturday, Bill Walker, the grandson of a slave, wants to represent the black soldiers who fought in the war to end wars more than 70 years and three wars ago.
"Every year on Armistice Day they wheel somebody out who was in the first World War," Walker said, "but he's never Negro. We put our butts on the line just like the white people, fighting for democracy, but they never include us. Hell, we're still fighting for democracy!"
Bill is of that generation, as you might have noticed, when Veterans Day was Armistice Day, and when black people were called Negros or colored, or a lot worse.
"I bought a house in 1943 from a kindly white lady who did me a big favor by selling it to me," Walker said. "But you know what she said? She said, 'I know how hard it is for niggers to get anything.' Niggers. That's the way she put it."
It hadn't been much better in the Army, which was racially segregated in those days. The greatest democracy the world has ever seen didn't want to taint the white soldiers by putting them together with black soldiers.
Bill remembers an all-out battle in France not with Germans but with American whites of the famed 42nd Rainbow Division. Walker's all-black 351st Field Artillery unit was bivouaced near them.
The fight broke out because a black soldier was having an affair with a white French girl, and guys from the Rainbow, who resented the racially mixed alliance, went around saying the black soldiers had tails.
"When our commander, Col. Carpenter from South Carolina, heard about it, he said, 'By God, if we've got to fight for democracy, we might as well do it here,' " Bill said. "Forty-eight hours after the fight, the Rainbow Division was gone."
Show biz had its bad moments too. Walker recalls with a tight smile how he had to pose as an African potentate to stay in a white hotel in Wilmington, Del.
"The producer outfitted me and told me to just click my heels and say thank you," he said, shaking his head. "As long as I was an African potentate they'd let me stay. I could be anything but an American Negro."
You get the idea. They were bittersweet times. Bill survived the war and went on to a glorious career. As I said, you'd recognize the face instantly.
Now he figures he's paid his dues in a lot of ways and wants to be a part of that day of drums and bugles Saturday.
He wants his country to say thanks, Bill. He wants recognition for all the black soldiers who have fought for America, anywhere and at any time. And maybe an "I'm sorry" wouldn't hurt either.
"I don't know how that's going to happen," he said, uncomfortable with the rejection his idea could face. "I doubt that the American Legion will include me. They wouldn't even let me join once because I was Negro."
At 93, Bill hasn't got a lot of days left. Saturday is as good a time as any to show appreciation not only for his wartime service, but also for all the good times he brought us on the screen and on the tube.
But if it doesn't happen on Veterans Day, at least I'll say it now. Thanks, Bill, for everything . . . and forgive us for all the other things.