I interviewed James Brazelton “Braz” Walker as one of my first assignments as a very young reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald. This was not the first time the Trib covered Braz — he was something of a local celebrity. Maybe by coincidence, we lived in the same neighborhood, so I walked over to meet him.

Trust me on this: Nothing prepares you for the sight of someone in an iron lung. Nothing. It filled a room in his house, the size of a very large coffin. This massive iron box had been his home since he contracted polio at school 25 years earlier. At age 19, he’d felt like he was coming down with a cold his first weekend in college, came home, went to bed and never got up again.

Braz, surrounded by aquariums, welcomed me with a big smile. Braz was a national expert on tropical fish. He wrote books on the subject, using a unique typewriter operated by his tongue and mouth. One letter at a time. He took the photographs, too.

Funny and bright, Braz was genuinely interested in everything. We talked a lot about rock music. We shared some LPs. He let me feed a grey grouper who had grown so large the creature could no longer turn around in his tank. The fish stuck his head out of the water and let you feed him oatmeal mush with a spoon.

After the article came out, I visited Braz several more times. He had a wicked sense of humor. Perhaps that was because, as he often said, “I’m just a single power failure away from meeting my Maker.”

Just months before he died, Braz spoke to the Waco Rotary Club, using a new, more portable iron lung. He told them his favorite quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress: “On this I am resolved: I will run when I can; go when I cannot run; crawl when I cannot go.”

When Braz died on March 27, 1982, he was only 47 years old.

His magnificent collection of tropical fish was donated to the Cameron Park Zoo where they became the heart of the Braz Walker River Encounter Building.

“Braz Walker is one of the most interesting people I ever met,” former Cameron Park Zoo director Tim Jones once told the Tribune-Herald. Tim recalled a time when Braz came to the zoo one day to speak:

“They brought him out in a station wagon with a portable iron lung and brought him up the steps. And as he came up the steps, he said, ‘Try to keep me sunny-side up, fellows!’”

I remember Braz today as I see thousands upon thousands of people gathering, shopping, playing — all without masks in this pandemic.

Polio killed and paralyzed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people like Braz until a vaccine was finally discovered. It was (and is) spread through direct contact with someone who is infected. Like the coronavirus, someone with polio may have no symptoms, yet has the potential to infect everyone he or she meets.

And that is at the heart of the heated debate over masks. There should be no politics involved.

Some might say the worst thing would be to contract the COVID-19 virus, become deathly ill, perhaps even die.

But the worst thing, I believe, would be to contract COVID-19 — or polio — and be the one who infects a loved one or even a total stranger and be forced to watch them become deathly ill, perhaps even die.

I don’t know if I could have lived with myself if I had been the one who infected loving, wonderful, brilliant Braz Walker with polio and consigned him to life in an iron lung.

And that is why I wear a mask.

Robert F. Darden is a professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. His books include “Nothing But Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.”

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