Life on the court with Walter.
Illustration by Mark Allen Miller
My tennis partner, Walter Lawrence, never ceases to amaze me. We play on the court in his backyard, which he blows clean beforehand and where he sets up a water cooler and cups and provides a Coke or cold beer afterwards. Whether it’s 95 degrees or 30, Walter plays a couple of times a week. In the winter, sometimes it’s so cold that we wear mittens and knit hats. More than once, I have broken a string, wondering why I agreed to play when we could see our breath frosting in the bitter night air.
What makes it impressive is that Walter, my next-door neighbor, turns 90 this May. An elegant and wry veteran of the Korean War with a mischievous twinkle in his eye—some say he was the model for Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H—Walter was a groundbreaking cancer surgeon and a teaching hospital head honcho. A past president of the American Cancer Society and father of four, he has never fully retired from his profession, but when he left VCU’s Medical College of Virginia, he took up some new things, like playing the accordion. He was 80.
He only quit skiing a few years ago, after he was shoveling snow off his roof (it was dripping onto his pool table) and broke through a rotten railing, falling 15 feet to the ground. Fortunately, another neighbor heard and called an ambulance.
When I got there, Walter was instructing the EMTs on how to load him onto the backboard. By the time Susie, his wife, and I made it to the hospital, he was cracking jokes with the staff in the place where he had clearly ruled for half a century. Sure, he had fractured a vertebra, but he was home from the hospital the next day, with a collar around his neck. We were playing tennis again in six weeks.
I spent my childhood in Richmond with Susie and Walter’s kids, moved away, and then eventually moved back from New York City with my new family to the house I grew up in. The Lawrence kids, who were roughly the same ages as my sisters and I, had all moved out of state to pursue their own successful careers. I never imagined that one of the coolest things about moving back into my childhood home would be hanging out with the parents of the kids I used to play with.
Back in those days, almost every house in the neighborhood had four or five kids. We all gathered on the Lawrences’ tennis court, which at the time was made of asphalt. I had perpetually skinned knees from three-on-three basketball games with the Macon brothers and other older boys. Sometimes a basketball game would be going on at the same time as a tennis match, which meant both sides had to watch out for the other.
We roller-bladed and skate-boarded, and our giant games of bike tag, involving 40 kids, began and ended at center court. Walter and Susie never complained or laid down rules to protect their property. They simply loved to be active and to share what they had.
Over the years—nay, decades—the court changed, sometimes in exciting ways, like when lights were added atop long green poles. The wooden backboard eventually gave way to a newer version that didn’t boom from dawn to dusk. The asphalt turned into a smooth green surface, one that took less of a toll on the knees. Later, a carpet was laid over the hard surface to make it even easier on Walter’s aging joints. For a while it felt like running on marshmallows. But Walter was always relaxed about it all.
Tree limbs cast shadows in the corners that required constant player adjustment. A rip in the carpet was part of the game. Ivy hid balls along the fence, and over the fence, fly balls were often devoured by a jungle of “indigenous” plants. If your lob hit the oak tree canopy, you lost the point. For a while, a hawk regularly dined on a limb above the net, leaving us a pile of squirrel bones and guano.
It wasn’t until I moved back that I started to play with Walter—when he was a spry 70 or so and I half his age—and his regular irregular assortment of players, a motley crew of neighbors, medical colleagues and oddballs that he had accumulated over time.
His game, like his court, is homespun. He has a nice collection of slices and angles, all very surgical. He has nerves of steel, and he’ll talk to you before a crucial point, slyly testing yours. But always with that twinkle in his eyes.
That’s another thing I like about playing with Walter. Even at 90-ish, he still likes to win. But he doesn’t mind losing either. As long as he is still on the court.