Walt Easter doesn’t believe there’s much wrong with a man that a good day of work won’t fix. Which is a good thing, in his case.
Easter has had three heart attacks, gone through 40 chemotherapy treatments for prostate cancer, had major shoulder surgery and, just last winter, dealt with two bouts of pneumonia.
None of it kept him from working long.
The owner of American Fence in south King County since 1960, Easter works with a carpenter he hired last year, Paul Fessia. Mostly, Fessia said, he does whatever work his boss doesn’t do — which some days isn’t much.
“I don’t know what he was like before last year, but I see him hauling 60-pound bags of cement. And if I don’t get here first, he’ll dig all the post holes,” Fessia said. “He’s like a machine.”
Easter is 88.
“The last heart attack, I went into the hospital on a Sunday and was back on the job that Wednesday,” Easter said. “If I wasn’t working, what would I do?”
Has the Kent man slowed down?
“I’ve gotten into the habit of losing my hammer,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t find it because I’m holding it.”
Easter doesn’t consider himself a freak of nature, just a man who always knew hard work didn’t hurt. He was one of 10 children born to his parents in the Arkansas Ozarks. His folks lost everything to the Great Depression.
When World War II was declared, Easter joined the Army as an infantryman. When he came home, he headed north and west and wound up in Yakima.
“I fell in love with that valley, and I picked fruit there for 10 years,” he said. “Then, about 1958, I became a fence man. I worked for a company for two years, then started my own.”
When you talk fence building, Easter has done it all.
“These days, we do a lot of small fence repair, we fence yards — 300-400 feet or so,” he said. “In 1968, I was contracted to fence 11 miles. It was alongside the freeway from Bothell to I-5. We had a seven-man crew.”
In the ’70s, Easter ran into trouble of his own making: alcohol.
“At the time, I blamed other people for it all, but it was me,” he said. “I only drank for eight years, but I was an alcoholic. I started having what I thought were bad dreams, but they were hallucinations, and I was wide awake.
“I got three DUIs, and the last one probably saved my life. I got it on a Wednesday. On Thursday, one of my daughters talked to me, and on Friday I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“I haven’t had a drink in 35 years.”
The drinking cost him his wife. When he remarried, it was to a woman he met in AA, and they were together 28 years.
“I lost her five years ago,” Easter said. “We’d come home from my granddaughter’s wedding. I went to bed, and about 1:30 a.m. our little dog started barking. I thought someone was at the door, but Shirley was there in the recliner.
“A heart attack had killed her, and that little dog knew it.”
Last year, Easter worked about 50 jobs, all on his own terms.
“I don’t like working in the cold and wet, and I don’t do much of it anymore,” Easter said. “I had pneumonia twice last year, and it canceled my pheasant hunting.”
The office for American Fence has always been Easter’s home, which he now shares with a pair of dogs. Most every night he goes to an AA meeting.
“ I go to support the young people coming through. I go for the fellowship,” he said.
He doesn’t cook, so at night he stops by Sara’s Coffee Shop in downtown Kent for dinner. His favorite meal is chicken-fried steak.
“I’ve built fences in my dreams, but I’m never digging post holes. I’m driving nails,” he said. On a job this week, Fessia watched his boss dig the post holes, using an old-fashioned two-handled post-hole digger. Easter joked that if he let Fessia dig the holes, he’d steal his business.
And Easter isn’t ready to give it up, yet.
“When I can’t dig a hole, I’ll quit.”