From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

The Trophy

The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.

Victor Hugo

My dad had eight children, and Mama was pregnant again. Her labor had started. The hospital, in Lubbock, Texas, was about thirty-five miles away, and on the way to the hospital, my mother passed away. The baby inside her didn’t make it either. I was four years old.

After that, my financially strapped dad put me and two of my brothers in the Methodist orphanage in Waco. That was to be our “home” for the next five years. As dad and my five older brothers and sisters drove away, a simple question took form in my young mind: What will happen to me ? I can’t begin to describe my panic and fear at not knowing the answer to that question. Placed in the care of total strangers, my brothers and I were devastated.

The three of us were housed in the infirmary for the first six weeks—separated from the rest of the children. Of course, nobody bothered to explain to me or my brothers what was going on or what we could expect next. The three of us were overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and desolation, with no one to turn to for solace.

Later, my brother Jerry and I were placed in the same dormitory with about forty other kids. Delmar, my other brother who was about four years older than I, was sent to another dormitory. Each dormitory was under the supervision of an overworked matron with absolutely no time for nurturing her charges. At times, I’d sit alone in the dorm while billows of loneliness swept over me. It seemed as if nobody cared. It was like being in prison—or worse.

While we were in the orphanage, my brothers and I never really had anything we could call our own. If we got an apple or an orange at Christmas, we considered ourselves very lucky. But some say doing without is wonderful preparation for making someone glad for the “little things.” I’ll never forget Christmas at the orphanage when I was nine years old. A mystery friend gave me and my brothers a brand-new leather football. We were amazed to think that someone—anyone—had remembered us. That was one of the best Christmases of my entire life!

The following year, I moved back in with my dad. At the age of ten, I was old enough to “earn my keep.” And I did—in spades! I’ll never forget my thirteenth birthday, the day I picked 329 pounds of cotton on that West Texas farm. My dad gave me twenty-five cents. I’m still not sure whether the money was a birthday present or a reward for my labor!

Well, I took that twenty-five cents and went to see a movie, Public Cowboy #1, starring Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy.” Afterward, I remember thinking to myself, I could make a living doing that! All I needed to get started was money for a guitar. (I’ve still got the poster from that movie hanging on my office wall.)

The first chance I got to make real money—money I could keep and spend for myself—was plucking turkeys for three to eight cents a bird in Clovis, New Mexico, during summer vacations. I lived in Whiteface, Texas—about sixty miles from Clovis. Pretty soon, I racked up enough turkeys to buy myself a $6.25 guitar and a 25¢ instruction book. From then on, every spare minute, I practiced with my guitar and worked on songs. When I was fifteen, I won a contest sponsored by KICA, the Clovis radio station. As the winner, I was given a live fifteen-minute program that aired every Saturday afternoon. Just me and my guitar. ’Course, there wasn’t any money—the exposure and the experience were my pay. For the next three years, I hitchhiked back and forth between Whiteface and Clovis every Saturday just so I could do this free program. For some reason, I never had any trouble getting from Whiteface to Clovis, but on the way back I sometimes couldn’t get any closer to home than Morton—the nearest town on the main highway. From there, I’d have to walk the last ten miles. People tell me that’s called “paying your dues.” As I walked those long, lonely miles alongside the cotton fields of the Texas Panhandle, I can tell you, I felt like I was paying enough dues to last a lifetime!

After high school, I got gigs in a lot of clubs and even played rhythm guitar at several recording sessions for Columbia Records in Nashville. My first real break came when I was nineteen. Country star Hank Thompson hired me to be his opening act. That led to my first recording contract on Capitol Records.

In 1952, I started working on The Louisiana Hayride—a television show about equal in ratings with The Grand Ole Opry—where I stayed about three and a half years before moving on to The Ozark Jubilee for another three and a half years.

I had a memorable year in 1954 when “The Billy Walker Show” went on tour. One of our featured performers was a new face on the country music scene—Elvis Aron Presley. On Elvis’s birthday, January 8, 1955, I bought him a cupcake and put a candle in it.

In the years since then, I’ve been privileged to entertain millions of country music fans from the Hollywood Bowl to the Garden State Arts Center outside New York City and, as they say, around the world. In 1960, I was honored by induction as a member of The Grand Ole Opry.

Looking back—all things considered—I’ve had a wonderful life. In 1975, I came to understand that God has been looking after me all these years—even during those desperate times at the Methodist Home in Waco. Along the way, I’ve collected more than my fair share of trophies. But among all the certificates, banners, gold records, photographs and other prizes, there’s only one treasure that holds the place of honor on the mantel over my fireplace—that special football.

Billy Walker

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