LANCASTER, Calif.—One June Monday in the Mojave desert, before the day got too hot, Nancy Walker hopped into her son's little red Chevy pickup and began a journey fashioned from love and grief.
Though she'd peeled off the decals of the two naked women that her son had stuck on the back window, she'd left the two of the partially clad vixens holding martini glasses because they made her smile, not blush. She'd also left the Marines decal and the bold-lettered one that reads: Beast.
The Beast was the nickname of her son, Marine Staff Sgt. Allan Walker. He earned it as a 6-foot-2, 230-pound growling drill sergeant. The nickname followed him to Iraq, where he was killed in an ambush on April 6. He died three days shy of his 29th birthday.
Walker's funeral, his wake and a flagpole dedication at his former high school helped keep his mother, a schoolteacher, busy. Afterward, when things grew quiet, she started tapping away on her computer, reaching out to the parents of the other Echo Company Marines who were killed in Iraq.
Then she hatched her plan to drive her son's truck with her daughter, Lara, 27, from Lancaster, 60 miles north of Los Angeles, to Texas and up to Iowa and Minnesota and beyond to visit the mothers and fathers she'd contacted through e-mail and phone calls.
Her ex-husband, Kenneth Walker, started a journey inward to a resting place from his pain: the Hindu teachings he's embraced for decades. Those ancient teachings, Vedanta, tell him that because death is only part of something much larger, it need not be mourned.
"There is no such thing as death," he said at his home in a trailer park in Palmdale, Calif., a wide-open place where Allan played football and flipped burgers before he joined the Marines.
Allan wasn't easy to figure out. "He had all these little twists and turns," said his former football coach, Jim Root, who considered him a friend.
Allan was the high school jock who also hung with the drama kids. The rebellious teenager in punk rock T-shirts and spiked hair who loved poetry. The tough Guinness-drinking, rugby-loving Marine who surprised friends with obscure literary quotes.
He didn't graduate from high school on time, and when he finally got his diploma he took a minimum-wage job. Then, at 19, he signed up with the Marines.
He became a drill sergeant, grooming recruits. Then the war began.
"How can I teach a corporal how to take a hill if he's been there and I have never?" he asked his father a year ago. "How can I teach men to fight if I've never been to battle?"
Then Walker and his father had a falling-out. When he left for Iraq he didn't say goodbye.
"I have no doubt that in time we would have gotten past that and that old friendship could have been restored," his father said.
Weeks after Walker's death, a box arrived with his things, including a small scrap of yellow paper, a letter to his father that he'd started on March 25 but never finished.
The words weren't particularly sentimental, but they told Kenneth Walker that the door between his son and him hadn't been shut.
"Everything is fine," Allan wrote. "Most of the people here understand and accept. There are some people that don't want us here, but so what? This country is a sewer and these people who have been living in tyranny all these years don't realize how bad they have it. I like the kids even though they can be annoying. I give them peppermints."
Allan's father supports the war. His mother hates it, disagreed with it from the start. While fiercely proud of her son, she's also angry. She has no trouble speaking out against the war or President Bush because doing so honors the values her son was fighting for, she said.
Recently, she got into an argument with a stranger about Iraq while taking the truck to a mechanic so it would be ready for her trip. The stranger told her he hoped she would "never have someone she cared about over there."
She pulled herself up to her full 5 feet 4 inches, pointed at the truck and told him how she'd recently inherited it from her son, the Marine. And went on to give him a few more of her opinions about the war.
It helps sometimes to blow off steam like that, she said, just as it eases her heart to talk. She's making the trip in her son's truck so that perhaps, by being in the company of those who know how she feels, she'll find some peace.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+walker