A wayward Vietnam veteran reunites with family after disappearing for over 50 years.
Tamala Baker had just gotten home from her job as manager of the soup kitchen in Athens on May 14th when she noticed the incoming call from Denise. The last time she’d had contact with her cousin’s half-sister was five years ago when Denise said she and her siblings wanted nothing to do with their biological father Walter, or with Tamala’s family. So Tamala knew something must have happened for Denise to call her out of the blue.
“Hey, there’s a detective trying to get in touch with you,” Denise said. “Walter had a stroke.”
In 2001, Tamala had begun looking for her uncle, Walter Dukes, a US Air Force Vietnam veteran. She finally found a couple of addresses and a phone number through an online search, but her phone messages left at the number of the Salvation Army in San Francisco were never returned.
Finally, after he’d been missing for 45 years, Tamala’s daughter tracked Walter down at his residence on Maynard Street in San Francisco while on a business trip in 2015 and took a photo with him. He looked healthy and generally happy, but he wished to continue his reclusive life, and so they’d respectfully left him alone without any subsequent contact. That photo was the last connection to her uncle, and the phone call from Denise was now met with even more uncertainty.
Tamala immediately called the San Francisco police detective. He’d tracked down Walter’s children through items kept in his wallet—a laminated miniature copy of his DD257 detailing his honorable discharge from the Air Force, a Mississippi marriage certificate to his wife Geneva, and numerous wallet-worn black and white photos of his family. The detective had a road map straight to his children in Mississippi, who deferred to their half-sister Denise to let Tamala know. But the tell-tale evidence of Walter’s life for the last 50 years was a personal history dictated to his landlord’s daughter, Sandra, and printed on a folded crisp white paper that he also kept in his wallet.
Walter arrived at Travis Air Force Base just outside of San Francisco in 1970 from Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed at the end of his tour in Vietnam. Out of his 8 years and 3 months of service stateside in Mississippi, he spent 10 months in Vietnam where he was attached to the 376th Strategic Air Command that performed bombing and air refueling missions over Southeast Asia.
At the time, African-Americans represented 16.3 percent of all draftees in 1967 and 23 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam. In 1965, they accounted for nearly 25 percent of all combat deaths.
It’s not clear what he endured or witnessed, but whatever happened to Walter took its toll. He drank and used drugs to the point that he believed he was dishonorably discharged, although his DD257 clearly states he left the military in good standing.
Too ashamed to go home and face his wife and three children, he went straight from the bus depot and got drunk. He wound up on Fillmore Street where he ran out of money and made friends with the homeless who taught him how to live on the streets. Ten years later, he was taken to the Veterans Administration hospital where he was treated for 28 days with a swollen liver and a blood clot in his leg.
The VA hospital was Walter’s saving grace. He got help from the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center and received job training while living in their shelter. He worked first as a security guard, then as a trailer attendant in the Salvation Army stores, and earned enough money to rent a small enclosed front porch space. He’d been living off his Salvation Army retirement since then, earning extra money fixing small electronics from his bedroom.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Denise’s heartbreaking call propelled Tamala, 53, and her Aunt Annie Lou (aka, Queen B), 80, into action. The detective said they didn’t have much time if they wanted to see Walter, 81, before he passed. The medical staff at Sutter Hospital in San Francisco didn’t give them much hope. He wasn’t eating and they couldn’t make sense of anything he was trying to say, except mama. But the pair decided to take the chance and book the next available flight, even if only to make funeral arrangements. Tamala’s father Larinza, 77, elected to stay home and let his daughter and sister Annie Lou report back on his brother Walter.
When they walked into the hospital five days later, Tamala and Annie Lou were shocked to see a much different face than the one in the 2015 photo with her daughter. The hospital bed sheets swallowed Walter’s frail body, his drawn cheeks and dark, sunken eyes unresponsive. But when Walter, now 81, heard his sister Annie Lou, call, “Little B?” his eyelids parted slightly, his face lit up, and he whispered, “Mama?”
“Queen B looks just like my grandma,” Tamala explained. “The last time he’d seen his Mama, she was about the same age as Queen B is now. He followed my aunt’s voice every time while she was there.”
The medical staff were mesmerized by Walter’s sudden attentiveness. Before their arrival, he wasn’t eating. But Walter let Annie Lou feed and pamper him.
“She brushed his little hair. She just kept loving on him. And he was like a little kid.” Walter took to the attention as if Annie Lou was his mother. Later that night Tamala, Face Timed with her dad Larinza, an Army veteran of Vietnam.
“My brother, my brother. Oh, my goodness, it’s my brother,” he kept repeating.
Despite his sudden responsiveness, the doctors and nurses prepared Tamala and Annie Lou for the inevitable: he was never going home and they should make arrangements for hospice. Then they took an Uber to Walter’s home a few miles away. The route took them past the Salvation Army where Walter had worked for 30 years, a couple of blocks from Mark Zuckerburg’s multi-million dollar townhouse, and under the 280 Southern Freeway to 87 Maynard Street. Tamala was finally going to see where her uncle had lived for nearly 30 years.
Remembering Where He Came From
Three small bed sheets threaded by a green rope extended across one end of the enclosed porch, fastened together with black binder clips for privacy. Tamala peered behind the makeshift curtain, taking a moment to absorb the scene. Her uncle’s makeshift room in the one-story clapboard structure, squeezed in between two large brick houses, told the story of Carlton, Ga. native Walter Dukes’ last 50 years.
Walter’s living space was no more than 10 x 10 ft., barely enough room for the twin bed and the boxes of electronic equipment packed neatly into a tall bookshelf and all along the back wall. A full-sized dresser with mirror was covered in light bulbs, medicine bottles, an old boom box, personal hygiene items, a water pitcher and a VCR. Calculators, electronic chargers and iPads spilled out of the bottom drawer, packs of crackers and canned meat were stuffed in another drawer. Rolls of paper towels, room deodorizer and a box of trash bags obfuscated two flat screen computer monitors and a printer on a modest stand, sitting next to a worn yellow metal chair with a ragged white vinyl seat cushion. The stained azure blue carpet was covered in dirt stains and tiny bits of trash.
This was Walter’s home, a humble front porch space he rented from a kind Ecuadoran couple, for over 35 years in San Francisco, more than 2,500 miles from Georgia. And now across town, he lay in a hospital bed getting ready to take his last breath.
The scene was a lot to take in. It seemed impossible that Tamala’s uncle lived in such a small, primitive space for all those years. But perhaps the most shocking discovery of all is what they found between the mattress and box spring: large sheets of dirty, tattered, flattened cardboard, remnants of his life on the streets more than 30 years ago.
“It was like he never wanted to forget where he came from,” she said.
“I Think It’s Time”
After Tamala and Annie Lou cleaned Walter’s space and arranged for his things to be donated, they situated Walter in a hospice facility to live out the rest of his days. They didn’t want to leave him, but Tamala had to get back to work after being gone for almost a week. They maintained contact with Walter once they were home.
“My aunt called and talked to him every day. The nurses would put the phone to his ear, and he would make gestures or make sounds,” Tamala said.
On June 19, thirty-two days after Tamala found out about her uncle’s stroke and the day before Father’s Day, Walter died peacefully in his sleep. His remains were sent to Carlton where his family would figure out his final resting place.
Annie Lou and Larinza were finally at peace after finding the brother they’d not seen in over 50 years. The week after Walter died, Larinza called every single person on his friends and family contact list scribbled on an envelope that he kept by his chair, according to Tamala’s sister who lived with him. On Saturday, June 26, after he spoke with everyone on the list, except for one son who didn’t answer his phone, he headed toward the stairs.
Tamala’s sister said, “Papa, you going to bed?”
“Yep, I think it’s about time,” he replied.
Upstairs in his room, Larinza folded his pants neatly on the chair, then got into bed, rolled over to face the window, and pulled the covers up around him. And that’s exactly how his granddaughters found him the next morning when they brought his breakfast to his room. He’d passed in the night, like his brother Walter, with a peaceful smile on his face.
A Repast for Heroes
On July 10, Walter and Larinza’s family gave them a joint military funeral and a heartwarming repast, a gathering to celebrate the lives of two brothers who’d spent more than half a century apart and finally reunited in death. Around 100 family and friends gathered for the home-going, in which Annie Lou was presented with a military flag for each brother for their service.
The family is arranging with Wreaths Across America to tag two trees with the Duke brothers’ names in the Veterans Remembrance Tree Program. In December, the family will lay wreaths made from the balsam trees at the military cemetery in Milledgeville where Walter and Larinza’s ashes will be interred.
The Vietnam veteran who endured lifelong repercussions of war will finally receive the welcome and recognition he so deserved 51 years ago. At long last, Walter Dukes has come home to his family.
Thanks to our readers for doing their own investigative work. 87 Maynard Street has undergone some major renovations since this summer and is now for sale. Here are a couple of updated photos from the Zillow sales page taken of the front of the house and where Walter stayed. It’s a bargain price of $668,000 (for San Francisco prices), originally built in 1909.