Off-Topic Thursday: Walt Disney, Disappointment, Pain, and a New Future
One of my favorite stories about Walt Disney has nothing whatsoever to do with Disneyland. Jim Korkis shares it in his book The Vault of Walt (a book I highly recommend, by the way), and was also kind enough to post it on MousePlanet. I would like to share a portion of that story now, but I encourage you to visit the MousePlanet article or pick up the book and read it in full for yourself.
Walt grew up in a fairly poor family. At the time they were living in Kansas City, MO, his father, Elias, bought a newspaper distributorship. He hired neighborhood boys to deliver the papers, and paid them $2.50 per week—except for his son. Walt started delivering papers at 8 years old, but didn’t get paid anything by his father. “Elias felt that since he provided clothing and food for his son that was payment enough.” I’ll let Jim pick up the story from here for a bit…
Young Walt’s route was in a fairly wealthy neighborhood. Those folks were certainly much better off financially than the Disney family at the time. Walt would start out at 3:30 a.m. Some of the kids in the neighborhood had wonderful toys and often they would leave them out on the porch after playing with them the previous evening.
Walt didn’t have any toys. If he got a top or marbles or something, it was a big deal. Everything his parents gave him was something practical like underwear or a winter jacket. His older brother Roy was the one who set aside some extra money from his job so that Walt and his younger sister Ruth would always get some small toy for Christmas.
Anyway, there would be kids’ toys out on these big porches. At 4 a.m., in the dark, Walt would put his paper bag down and go up and play with these wind-up trains and things. He’d sit there and play all alone with them. One time he came to a porch and there were some toys, as well as a box of half-eaten candy. So he sat there and ate some of the half-eaten candy and played with the toys.
When Walt told about this time in his life, he always insisted on saying that he left the toys in good shape and always carefully put them back in the exact same place so the families wouldn’t know he’d played with them. Then he’d have to hurry and finish his route before school started.
When Walt was about 13, there was a pair of boots that he really, really wanted. He knew that this gift was far too impractical for his father to agree to, though he did try to argue that it would be very practical for delivering the papers, but that didn’t work. He kept hoping he would get them for his birthday (December 5), but he didn’t.
What he didn’t know is that his mother, Flora, had been saving a little money each week and his brother Roy had been doing some extra work so that together they were able to get him the boots for Christmas! Again, I’ll hand the story over to Jim. This part is just too important to summarize:
He ran downtown and leaned against a drugstore near the intersection of 31st and Indiana showing off his new boots in hopes that some of his school friends might pass by and he could show off his new boots. It was a warmer winter and some of the ice had already started to melt a bit.
According to Walt, at about 6 p.m., it got dark at that time of year, and he decided to go back home. While he was walking across the street, he came up with a new game to kill time. There were hunks of ice frozen in the street because the street was where the ice would start to melt first. So with those new boots on Walt was kicking these hunks of ice. He’d kick them loose and they skid across the street and Walt was trying to figure what new variations he could create by kicking harder or softer or at an angle.
He came up to kick one large hunk of ice and got stuck. He tried to pull his foot out and he couldn’t. There was no leverage. There was a nail frozen in that block of ice. A big horseshoe nail. The nail had gone right through the boot into his foot.
There wasn’t anyone around. Everyone was home with their families at that time. Walt couldn’t break the hunk of ice loose. He couldn’t put any pressure on his foot and he started to panic and just yelled: “Help! Help!”
Walt said that streetcars went by as he waved and yelled, “Help!” The people just looked at him and went on by. Even people walking a block away didn’t stop. They thought he was a kid playing around. They didn’t realize he was stuck to that piece of ice.
Walt claimed he was stuck that way for a good 20 minutes or more before a horsedrawn delivery wagon came by. Walt yelled, “Help! I’m stuck! I’m stuck!” But the guy didn’t believe him. He started to go on. And Walt finally broke into tears. And the driver stopped.
He said suspiciously, “Are you kidding me?”
And Walt through his tears said, “No, I’m stuck!”
So the driver came back and looked and saw what had happened. He had to go and get a tool to chop the ice loose. And he carried the small frail boy down the corner where there was a doctor’s office. He took Walt up to the doctor’s office and the only thing the doctor could do was get a big pair of pliers and put two people holding the young boy’s legs down. He said, “Kid, I haven’t got anything to give you. Just hang on.”
So Walt had to grit his teeth as the doctor got these huge metal pliers to dig in and pull the nail out of his foot. In order to do that, the doctor had to cut the boot off. Then he went in and he had to open up the hole to get the dirt out and then, of course, came the tetanus shot.
Walt was laid up for two weeks. He had to lay on the couch in the living room with his foot elevated. He felt terrible. How could he have been so stupid as to kick blocks of ice? The Disney family would never be able to afford another pair of boots. The fear of being trapped alone on that street came back to haunt his dreams.
Unable to go to school and with no radio or other forms of entertainment, all Walt could do was read or sketch cartoons in a big pad given him by his aunt. At one time, he had seriously considered being a doctor or a lawyer but finally realized that he wasn’t an exceptional student. With all the work he was doing, he would sometimes try to catch a catnap in class and miss important information.
He didn’t have the grades necessary to go to a good college and his family would never be able to afford to send him to college even if he did. He thought about performing and while he had had some recognition with his various comedy acts, he really did lack the self confidence to pursue a career on the larger vaudeville circuit.
He realized that he loved cartooning. His drawings got chuckles from the people at the local barbershop as well as his fellow students at school. When his mother went to the school to pick up his homework, she would drop off those cartoons and then report back to him on the positive reactions they had gotten.
By the time his foot healed, he had made a firm decision to become a professional cartoonist.…
It’s an interesting story, but why do I share it here? Well, have you ever wanted something, got it, and then had it broken, lost, stolen, etc.? Have you ever had a dream and been completely derailed? Have you ever had a setback seemingly come out of nowhere and knock you completely off your feet?
All of this happened to Walt Disney on that day. At the time, he wasn’t the gung-ho, let’s-make-it-happen, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer businessman and visionary that we later came to see him as. He was a hurt, sad, miserable little boy who had got what he wanted, only to have it ruined by his own careless actions on the very day he got it.
Is this starting to sound familiar now? We get what we thought we wanted, only to ruin it. We have a setback that lays us out and we don’t know what to do next. We feel alone and helpless, and give in to boredom or depression or blaming. Our plans are ruined and we feel like life as we know it has come to an end.
But stop and think about what came of this apparent tragedy. Walt Disney was laid up long enough to realize that he really did love cartooning, and had time to practice it (nothing else to do, right?). He decided this would become his career. Out of that career came Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, then Mickey Mouse, then Snow White, and so on up to Disneyland and beyond. This setback changed the course of Walt Disney’s life…in a way he never could have anticipated. Just think of what we all might have lost had this day not happened as it did!
What setback, what tragedy are you facing in your life right now? Are you being forced to go in a new direction, one that you never asked for and may not even want? Remember this story from Walt Disney’s childhood. What could God be doing in your life right now that is working towards a future that you can’t see—though He can—and that may bless people in ways that you can’t even imagine?
Call to Action: As difficult as it may be, think about that last paragraph. Identify one circumstance or event in your life and pray that God will give you a peak at what He’s doing through it. If you’re willing, please share it in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.