PATOKA – In his 95 years on Earth, Paul Walden has seen a lot.
He can recall first-hand what Generations X through Z have only read about in their history books.
Born in Lyles Station in 1923, one in a set of twins, he grew up, mostly in Southern Indiana, during the Jim-Crow era — a period of time when laws kept African Americans and other people of color segregated from their white counterparts in America. African Americans in Southern Indiana were not immune to this treatment, even though Southern Indiana is not technically included in the region of the United States commonly referred to as "The South."
Walden considers his skin lighter than many "white" people, but because of his ethnicity, he was discriminated against in his childhood and beyond, even having to ride his bicycle to school instead of the school bus (a wagon pulled by horses at the time). When he was eventually allowed to ride the school bus wagon, he remembers traveling through high water in the spring with the water so high, everyone's lunch buckets floated near their feet.
Walden has strong opinions on race and mostly about how it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. "I love everybody," he said.
During the Great Depression, Walden recalls shoes as a scarce resource, only used when it was too cold to walk on bare feet. He said everyone in his family had one pair of shoes they only wore during the winter months. That one pair of shoes were removed for all of the warm months of the year, when all of the children would walk around with no footwear, commonplace for the time period.
"We come up through a rough time," Walden recalled. "A dollar is worth a dollar, but we couldn't get the dollar."
Walden remembers the day the Great Depression began. One day, the banks were open and in business. The next, they were closed.
His family raised much of their food, raising crops and livestock, mainly pigs, for sustenance. Food was canned rather than loaded into a refrigerator. Walden remembers the first version of a refrigerator his family acquired, called an icebox. The contraption was a more robust version of what's now commonly known as a "cooler." A truck delivered ice blocks sold for use within the boxes to keep food cold. Salt was not something to avoid for dietary reasons back then, but a substance that helped to preserve meat. Skim milk was not desired for human consumption, Walden explained. "We gave that to the hogs," he said.
His family farmed 40 acres with horses and one 10-inch plow. When his family acquired a tractor to help with the farm, they bought a Fordson, which ran using a magneto. The operator turned the crank on the magneto to create the spark needed for combustion. Nowadays, this is accomplished with a battery, which were not readily available when tractors first came on the scene.
One peculiar event Walden remembers: His father traveled for various reasons to US 41 on a mule, then turned the mule loose for it to walk back home on its own.
The Wabash Bridge was not finished until 1932, meaning people had to use other means to get across the river. Walden vividly remembers the Cunningham Ferry moving passengers and horses across the Wabash River. "It held two teams on wagons," he said.
He recalls hearing stories of his grandfather pulling logs across a frozen Wabash River, using horses.
Walden remembers the flood of 1937, and his time trying to help keep the family farm afloat. The land was so inundated, he said, that the 20 hogs his family raised had to be moved to a mound, with water lapping against it.
Walden remembers that his father, grandfather and uncle were aboard a boat that capsized at night during the flood. Walden's uncle packed his father home on his shoulders, through the water. His father's hip-high boots had ice inside them, and some whiskey saved his life, to hear Walden tell it.
As a young adult, Walden joined the U.S. Navy. He was nearly shipped off to fight in Japan, but he never saw combat because the war ended before his unit was sent across the Pacific. Hawaii is as close as he made it to war-torn Okinawa. "I was proud that it was over," Walden said, and although he was ready to join the effort, he was relieved he didn't have to fight. Before he was sent to Hawaii, Walden was twice deferred because he worked on his family's farm and had one child with his wife Nancy, with a second on the way.
Walden worked various factory jobs as an adult. He worked a year at Emge, but quit when asked to perform the most dangerous task in the facility — hooking hogs onto a cable system that moved them from one room to the next within the facility. Walden feared one of the hogs falling from its hook and hurting him. "It could break your neck," Walden recalled telling his boss at the time.
For a brief stint, Walden shoveled manure on a cattle farm, using a truck he borrowed from his father. He soon found he would rather work on his family's farm, and so he returned to the homestead for a while.
In 1948, he began nine years of working at International Harvester, then took a job at Whirlpool in Evansville that lasted 31 years. He would often hitchhike to and from work and his home in Gibson County.
He said he experienced more staples of Jim Crow-era segregation in his working life. While at Emge, he remembers being made to sit at the back of the bus to and from work. He said that at Whirlpool, white workers were given more easy, manageable work and people of color were given the tougher jobs.
Walden proudly recalls that he exacted change during his tenure at Whirlpool. He complained to his supervisors about the fumes in the plant, and although there was some pushback from them at first, eventually a ventilation duct was installed in the ceiling of that section of the plant. Walden believe his COPD is from his years of breathing fumes. He recalls having to pour water on his head just to get to sleep some nights. To Walden, the condition of the man who he took over for was a warning as to the dangers of the work. "The guy before me looked like a walking skeleton," he recalled.
Once he retired in 1987, Walden moved to Patoka and bought what he calls "the prettiest place in Patoka." The house, at the time it was purchased, had no indoor plumbing and until about five years ago, he heated with wood he chopped himself.
One log per day is what Walden could manage up until he was 89 years old, heating his house on his own labor. He trimmed his own fence line until just last year. Son John, one of his eight children, said he took a lot of breaks, but he would get it done in an afternoon.
Now, most of his exercise comes from pedaling an exercise bike an hour each morning and evening while listening to Christian tapes or watching Christian Broadcasting Network. Walden dedicated his life to God in 1967, giving up alcohol and gambling for good at the time. "I changed my life," he said.
Walden became a family man, and has a large one: Eight children, 16 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild are his living legacy.