By Sam Wilson
Wally Holland wanted to get his lifetime’s worth of remarkable stories on print. Good thing he had a writer for a son.
The product of many hours on the phone between Wally Sr., in Ellicottville, and his son, Wally Jr., in Cambridge, Mass., “Dear God, What’s on the Second Floor?: A Memoir” went for sale on Amazon on July 5 and is currently listed at $13 in paperback.
At 282 pages, it’s a brisk read through Holland Sr.’s 84 years on earth, from growing up in Manchester, England and evacuating during World War II to his life in Ellicottville, where he resides and currently works as the oldest soccer official in New York State.
“I don’t remember much of the city before the war,” Holland writes early in the book. “I was five when the war began, and six when the bombings began in Manchester — by the time I was old enough to remember home, I’d left.”
In between Manchester and Ellicottville, well, a lot happened.
The book’s back page summary reads:
“In the last eighty-four years, Wally Holland has learned a trade, tended bar, masqueraded as a horseman, dodged the occasional wedding engagement and stray bullet, appeared to no great acclaim in film, tangled with a handful of belly dancers, compared jumpsuits with a Beatle, became implicated in at least one tavern brawl with a wee man named Tichy, flaunted (and then lost) a marvelous head of black curly hair, semi-befriended an astronaut, been evacuated from one war and volunteered for a second, come quickly to terms with more than one armed and hostile British subject, and disagreed with a swan over a baguette.
“He has two sons, three grandsons, and no complaints.
“He is presently the oldest soccer official in New York State.
“This is his memoir, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated literary work of the last hundred years.”
As cheeky as that last line sounds, Holland Sr. insists he never approached the project seeking fame or recognition.
“It was never a blown-up affair like ‘Please pay attention to me,’” he said. “It was none of that crap. It was just something that I never realized and even now it’s just dawning on me, I never realized that when I consider the people I have met, for instance working with the top comedians in England in the ‘60s and I was just a waiter in Cabaret. But they would use me as a foil, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Yes, sir.’”
From volunteering to fight in Korea (he never saw conflict while stationed in Japan), appearing in a movie with Alan Ladd, working for British European Airways (BEA), going on the Love Boat, meeting George Harrison and Pattie Boyd and meeting his wife, Kathleen, who passed away in 2002, Holland had so many stories that acquaintances often suggested he write his life story.
“It’s so much, what has happened to me,” he said. “Getting into why I wanted to do the book, (it’s that) so many people in the bars had said, ‘Wally, you’ve got to do a book, because it’s so interesting if you’re telling the truth.’”
But Holland, having evacuated home at a young age, had only four years of school growing up. His sons, however, work as a writer and attorney, respectively.
After starting work on the project, Holland turned to his son to help complete between 18 and 24 months ago, Wally Jr. said.
“He had been working with a writer in Ellicottville and for a variety of reasons, they weren’t able to complete the project,” said Holland Jr. “We’d been talking about it and he was expressing (that he was) upset and he was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to (go forward) and I offered. I’d finished working on my last book and had had a bit of time and I thought, oh, I could take a couple of months and finish this for him. And uh, that turned out to be a grotesque underestimate of the amount of time it would take.”
An MIT alum, Wally Jr. has written several fiction and non-fiction books, including one for the 33 1/3 music series on Phish’s A Live One. He said the writing process started with recording hours of phone calls of his father’s life recollections in storytelling form.
“The first thing I told him was I wanted it to be in his voice and not mine,” Holland Jr. said. “My writing style is very, very different certainly from my dad’s speaking style and you know, the same as my own speaking style, is very different than his.
“So the idea was I wanted to get as close to his way of telling stories as possible, both in terms of the structure of individual sentences, even the voice, but also in terms of how he connects stories.
“The book is in roughly chronological order but at some point it started to make sense to present them at times not so much disconnected as kind of meandering. They meander because his memory meanders. He’s remembering being a boy and my dad, he’s 84 but he has unbelievably vivid memories of almost 80 years ago and memories that are clearly very present for him, but they’re also connected up with a lot of other memories from between now and then.”
The son recorded stories he may have heard growing up, but never in such detail, if at all.
“I haven’t lived home for more than 20 years, so I see my dad at most a couple weeks a year,” he said. “So I didn’t realize this when I took the job, but the most wonderful thing about it was getting to finally hear in detail these stories that will let me understand my dad as an adult instead of, you know, when I was a boy.”
Holland Jr. said he particularly enjoyed hearing his father’s recollections of his mother as “the belle of the ball.”
“She was funny and sparkling and she’s the center of every party,” Holland Jr. said. “And I just think of my mom as an English teacher who played the organ in church, and read every book in the public library and kept the family afloat financially.
“So that experience is so distant from my experience of her. It’s been … it’s been an extraordinary opportunity, a real gift to be able to work on it.”
The book is dedicated to Kathleen.
“Lucky is a word that should be on my tombstone, even to be this age now,” Holland Sr. said. “I’ll be 85 next birthday (April 8), it’s very fortunate to be that way.”
Likewise, Wally Jr. is thankful for the opportunity to help his father relive his vivid memories.
“Everyone who can do a project like this with their older relatives, it is a gift to be able to do so,” Wally Jr. said. “I’m so grateful and I wish everybody had a chance to do something like this with a parent.”