SI Vault
Dan Levin
December 15, 1975
Walter Stack swims San Francisco's waters, runs its roads and climbs its heights as does no other man of 67. That's for fun. For pay he carries 100-pound loads of cement up the sides of tall buildings
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December 15, 1975

The Old Man And The Bay

Walter Stack swims San Francisco's waters, runs its roads and climbs its heights as does no other man of 67. That's for fun. For pay he carries 100-pound loads of cement up the sides of tall buildings

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This is a story about San Francisco's Walter Stack. Call it the Secret of His Excess. On this typical morning Stack arises at 2:30. He is going for a bicycle ride and a swim. He puts on his fluorescent orange cap with the earflaps, and pedals off to his swimming club, five miles away, where he dons a scruffy old swimsuit and running shoes. He likes a little run before his swim, so he lopes off into the damp, 48� predawn with just his shoes, his swimsuit, his bare, tattooed torso. It is 4 a.m. Even in this city of joggers Stack is almost certainly the only one in the streets. He does not get back until 6:15, but he is a slow runner, and he has gone 17 miles.

At the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, a fisherman has a four-foot shark on the line, 30 feet or so from the swimming beach, and as Stack wades into the 55� water of San Francisco Bay he says, "When I'm out in the channel alone in the dark I know there might be some sharks, but I say, 'Oh, to hell with it.' " There are no other swimmers in the Bay, no lifeguards, no other movement but the fisherman on the beach, the shark, the tide and the blinking light on Alcatraz, a mile out in the Bay. Stack puts on a bathing cap because, he says, "The water's so cold I get headaches," and then, for 45 minutes, he is gone. When he reappears, the muscles of his thighs are twitching uncontrollably as he leaves the water, but 20 minutes in the club sauna does away with that, and by 7:30 Walter Stack is on his bike again, headed for...a psychiatrist? To be put on display at some medical school? Walter Stack, 67, cyclist, distance runner, swimmer and hod carrier is headed for work. For the next eight hours he will help to build San Francisco, mixing mortar and hauling bags of cement, shouldering 12-foot planks and building scaffolds with them and, finally, scaling ladders, 100-pound loads in his hod.

At the end of his day Stack is something to see. His face, caked with cement powder, is straight out of the New Guinea jungles. Cement is in his nostrils and mustache, in his eyes, in his ears and in his teeth. He grimaces as he works his way up the hills of his city on his ridiculous old three-speed bike, at least seven speeds too few for San Francisco, and he says, "I'm proud of my muscular strength."

What Stack obviously needs now, as dinnertime approaches, is a meal out of Adelle Davis by way of Bernarr Macfadden; his breakfast was coffee and doughnuts and his lunch was not much either. But what he gets is what he wants—three bourbons and Coke to start. He puts on an apron that announces LUST IS A MUST, and he prepares dinner for himself and his wife Marcie, who has not yet returned from her job as a secretary at the United Jewish Community Centers. He eats with her when she arrives—a little chicken and salad, a lot of ice cream and French bread. Later he visits friends, downing a glass of gin with orange juice and one of wine. The husband of one woman in his group arrives late, and Stack tells him, "It's a good thing you came. I was just about to seduce your wife." They all laugh uneasily. At nine Stack is in bed, 5� hours from the start of his next typical day.

A doctor friend says, "Walt probably drinks enough to ruin his liver if he didn't run, and he does have the slow pulse of all distance runners and the enlarged heart, but I don't think his physiology fully explains his remarkable nature."

Two years ago Stack was out running the hills near his home. It should be called climbing. He was with a group of young women from his running club, the Dolphin South End Runners, when suddenly, one of them recalls, "I heard a sharp crack. I looked back, and Walt was stretched out on the sidewalk, bleeding from a cut on the head. 'Walt, what happened?' I yelled.

" 'That's what comes from being a dirty old man,' he said. I dropped back to look at your legs, and I ran into an overhanging branch.' "

In 1968 Paxton Beale, then 38, a hospital administrator, ran in his first Boston Marathon. Stack was there, too, but it was one of the hottest days in the history of the race, and both were disappointed with their times. Beale decided what he needed was another marathon right away, so he flew all night to make an 8 a.m. start at Santa Rosa, Calif. "I got to the starting line," he recalls, "and there was Walter Stack. I figured there was no way I couldn't beat him. He has no form whatsoever. He looks like a collapsible beach chair when he runs, and I kept saying to myself, 'I'm gonna get that old man.' At 24 miles I was gaining on him, and I knew he was mine. I came up behind him, and it looked like he was drinking something, so when I caught him, I looked over. It was a can of beer. He flipped it away and said, 'Guess that ends the six-pack.' And then he ran away and left me."

"They told me I was nuts to drink beer in a marathon," Stack says, "but that's a crock." That is more or less what he actually said. Stack uses a lot of obscenity, much of it of an advanced nature or, as marathoner Elaine Pedersen terms it, "Walt's hard-core stuff." One member of Stack's running club, who likes him, gave him three chances to clean up his language, then barred him from his home. "It was too much for the kids," he says. Beale calls Stack "the Lenny Bruce of the Sweat Set," and it is fair to say that Stack does have an unusually filthy mouth. But as with everything in his life, he has trained long and hard to acquire it.

His parents were separated and, at 13, when his father was killed in a bicycle accident, Stack was put in Detroit's Henry Ford Trade School for vocational training. He stayed there nine months and then, as he tells it, quit to see the country by freight car. He worked on a goat ranch and in a Texas circus. When he tried to quit, they had him arrested for throwing stones at the elephants. At 15 he joined the Army. He told them he was 18, but after nine months he went AWOL, and "grabbed a handful of boxcars." His companions were not Boy Scouts and preppies. In Florida he got 60 days in jail for trespassing, but the jail was filthy, so he and the other inmates decided to burn it down. They charged him with arson and put him in another jail. In North Carolina he was picked up as a rape suspect, in Alabama in connection with a killing and in New Orleans for vagrancy. But nothing ever stuck, and they always let him go. He was still only 16. In the next couple of years, he figures, he was in a dozen jails and was always being beaten up by some jailer or sheriff's deputy. Finally he reenlisted in the Army, using a false name, but after 30 days of rain in the Philippines he was so depressed that he confessed and was sent to San Francisco's U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks, located on what is now Alcatraz, for 18 months.

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