Wheatie Wallenburg was a junkie. At the time of the Mandolin Case he was middle aged, and on towards elderly. Demerol was his drug of choice, and all the Docs in town knew it. Wheatie got his name ’cause he loved the Breakfast of Champions cereal. His usual breakfast was a bowl of Wheaties, a bag of barbecued potato chips, and a cigar. Indie told him it was too many browns, but he couldn’t get Wheatie to change.
Indie was his Doc, and I took care of Wheatie what little bit of time Indie was gone. Wheatie was a house painter and yard man, and took pride in his work. No one trimmed shrubs as neat as Wheatie Wallenburg.
I don’t know how Wheatie got hooked on Demerol. It was a long time ago. I do know he was an ex-Marine and was in the first wave to land on Iwo Jima. He didn’t talk about it much, but one night I made rounds at the hospital and some old war movie was on. Wheatie just sat there and cried.
He only opened up to me on the subject once. When you hear a man talk about how he’d spread sand on a boat deck in anticipation of combat so he wouldn’t slip on the blood of his buddies….. well after those stories I never could find it in me to be too judgemental of Wheatie. He lived through hell so I could live in peace the way I saw it.
One time the State Board got after Indie and insisted he send Wheatie to rehab. Indie thought it was a mistake to do that, and I agreed, but the Board threatened to yank Indie’s license so he complied.
The second night there Wheatie asked for his Demerol. And the way he told me, he was polite about it. When the attendant refused, Wheatie hit the man over the head with a Thunderbird wine bottle. The guy had to have stitches, and filed assault charges. Ted David got it reduced to probation.
We knew rehab was a mistake from the get go. Wheatie had flash-backs and thought he was in a brig. When you’ve been stabbed in the shins with a machete for begging for water, I can see how a man would think that way.
Wheatie in rehab was a wild animal in a cage, and both Indie and I knew it’d be that way. It is hard for a guy who wears a suit and issues periodic pontifications to understand a cat like Wheatie Wallenburg.
Wheatie came home and life returned to normal. He’d check in the hospital twice a month for his Demerol, and Indie’d give it to him. At first the Medical Board complained every so often, but at Christmas Indie’d write and tell them of Wheatie’s troubles. He’d close and ask if any of them would kindly look after him. After a couple of years the letters were returned to sender.
Even though Wheatie drank cheap wine he couldn’t be bought for any price. He said me and Indie were the only folks from that side of town who paid him any mind, and he never forgot it. Mason Marley was on a fixed income but paid him for his yard work upon completion. At the end of the month, Indie’d find an odd job for Wheatie whether he needed it done or not. Wheat worked one day for Jim Olden years ago, but he stiffed him, so Wheatie didn’t go back. Olden was lucky Wheatie didn’t break his knees.
One time Wheatie saw they were gonna have a ballet at Sandhills. He begged me and Marfar to drive him over there, and we did. He sat in the back seat on the way home and never spoke till I pulled up in the driveway. “Thanks, Doc. That’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life.” At first I though Wheatie was just taken by the picture of the girl in the paper- she had quite a set of legs- but I’m sure he was touched by the performance. Poor Wheatie. I wonder how his life would have been if he’d grown up picking the mandolin intead of picking out machine gun nests full of young men to blow up.
Wheatie was 5’8″ and 165 pounds. I told him he would put on some weight if he quit smoking, but he didn’t buy into the idea. He wore 10 1/2 DD shoes. He lost a couple toes from frostbite one winter, and his feet were flat. He said they had been all his life, but somehow he hid it from the recruiters when he volunteered.
Indie taught Wheatie enough bass guitar to where he could get by, and he sat in on some jam sessions at the Cabin. His favorite was ‘That Good Old Mountain Dew,” and he was proud he could play or sing it in any key. He did not read much. His T.V show was ‘Mr. Ed.’ He thought a talking horse was hilarious. When someone said it was too silly Wheatie scowled and said he’d had all the serious he wanted in the Pacific. They didn’t bring it up again. He liked ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ He would leave the room if someone turned the channel to a war movie.
Indie said we should accept Wheatie for what he was, and besides that Wheatie left his life on Iwo Jima. Indie respected everyone for what they were, and I tried my best to be like Indie on that.
You will enjoy more on Wheatie in the Mandolin Case. He might only be a yard man and a Demerol junkie with no education, but he was a big help. I need to take him back to the Ballet. He liked that.
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