I truly met Walter Poirier for the first time in a van on the way to Indiana.
We were sophomores in high school, stupid beyond belief, and traveling to take
part in a national Mock Trial Competition.
If you want to get to know someone, ride in a van with them for 20 hours.
On the journey, Walter established himself as the mischievous center of the group.
About an hour before we arrived, he suddenly began speaking in a Norwegian
accent. He took on a pseudonym -- Sven Knapsack -- and remained in character
for the rest of the weeklong trip.
In the elevator, he asked a stranger if she had seen his yak. He told women
at the beach to join him at the yak festival in his hometown. He had no fear.
It was the stuff of high-school legend.
There were always the pranks -- flag-stealing, egg-throwing high school pranks.
But whenever anyone mentioned his mischievous side, he would always just
shrug it off. He wanted to show people a good time, but he also knew there
was a lot more to his personality than just a prankster.
Everyone at school called him "Wally," and that was the public persona he
emanated that garnered him all his popularity. But "Walter" existed too, and
that part of him was a little more insightful, more mature than the rest of us.
I remember walking with him in the tunnel connecting the two buildings of
Lowell High. We were walking side-by-side, and another student who had noted
behavioral problems was walking in front of us, slamming his book bag against
the glass of the walkway.
"He just wants attention," Walter said.
I asked him why he thought he knew everybody so well.
He didn't say anything, just smiled and nodded.
And it was true. He could see right through the high school masks all of
us put on in a desperate attempt to gain acceptance. He never said anything,
never used our flaws against us, but he knew. You could just tell in the way
he looked at you.
Yet that soul-piercing honesty didn't work both ways. Most graduates of
Lowell High -- myself included -- were often content to paint him into a
box as class clown.
I remember writing a peer recommendation for him when he was applying to
Dartmouth College. I focused on his sense of humor, his immense popularity,
his ability to make everyone laugh.
When I handed it to him, he seemed a little disappointed. He assured me
that it was fine, it was exactly what he wanted, but I could tell something
My downplay of his sense of adventure, love of life, intelligence, generosity,
unselfishness, and capacity for love disappointed him, I believe.
Now that I have a second opportunity to write the same letter, I will not
let him down.
Through the fuzzy clouds of memory, I see snippets of our high school youth
spent together -- driving the streets of Lowell on a Friday night, laughing
until our sides hurt, going to get ice cream during the summer. And then after
high school, when he went to the University of Notre Dame and I went to Holy
Cross, there were the passing moments where we would see each other:
Thanksgiving Day football games, spring breaks, Christmas vacation.
We lost touch during college, as tends to happen to high school friends. I
would send him an e-mail or receive one sporadically, but we were living
separate lives in separate states at separate schools.
I had heard through mutual friends that he was in the Peace Corps in Bolivia.
Then, one day, I got a message in my in-box.
Just from reading his words, I knew that something was different. This was
not the Sven Knapsack of our youth. This was Walter -- mature, insightful,
grown-up and happy.
He was enjoying his time in the Peace Corps, he said, doing interesting
things and meeting new people. He was learning the language, slowly but
surely. He was lonely in his remote post, but content.
He was on an adventure.
When I got the phone call yesterday morning, it was simply too much to
"Walter's missing," said our mutual friend Matt Steinberg.
"Missing? What do you mean missing?"
I thought he had been misplaced, or that Matt believed he was
supposed to be in Lowell, when I actually knew he was in Bolivia.
He wasn't missing at all. Just in another country.
But Matt was insistent.
"They put out an APB for him in Bolivia. Everyone's out looking for
him," he said.
The news slowly began to sink in. I got that sick feeling, nauseous,
wanting to throw up but trying to hold it all in at the same time.
I wandered aimlessly from room to room, bedroom to bathroom to kitchen
and back, looking for some kind of anchor.
After absorbing the shock of the news, I have come to realize that it is
impossible that anything horrible happened to Walter.
I firmly believe he is on an adventure still, wandering around in the
mountains of Bolivia, taking the time to watch a sunset or enjoy the
scent of the forest. Maybe he lost track of time or found a nice mountainside
village where he wanted to hang out for a while.
A few days from now, he'll wander out of the woods, look around and say
"What's the big deal?"
Walter Poirier would not be gone so easily.