By Len Lear
Alexander (A.J.) James DeWalt, who marches to the beat of a different drummer, knows his true north and orbits in a galaxy all his own. “I was a troublemaker in high school,” A.J. said in an interview last week. “I stole my mom’s car. Drove her insane. I did not do drugs, but I did not apply myself at all. I knew college would not be a good thing for me.”
Recently our family had dinner at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Chestnut Hill, and A.J., whom we did not know before, waited on us. He was exceptional, charming, knowledgeable, always smiling, and my instincts told me that he punches above his weight class and had an interesting story to tell.
DeWalt, 23, has the look of an athlete. He is 6-foot-2 and extremely fit. (His hairstyle adds about another four inches.) In high school in Lancaster, A.J. played varsity soccer for two years (then was thrown off the team for rules violations), track and field for four years and football for two years as a wide receiver and special teams contributor.
He also played semi-professional football in New Mexico, scoring 10 touchdowns before hyperextending a knee. He chose not to have surgery, which essentially ended his football exploits because “I was never the same after that.” In high school he was tenth best long-jumper in Pennsylvania with 22 feet, 7 inches, and was outstanding in the 110-meter high hurdles and 300-meter hurdles, but he was not offered any college scholarships because of poor grades. “I definitely was not ready for college,” he admits.
DeWalt was born when his mother, Kara Ballas, was just 16. His father, Jeffrey DeWalt, was not in the picture for years, but today he and A.J. have a good relationship. Jeffrey lives near Lancaster with A.J.’s two half-sisters, Kylah, 17, and Amaya, 7. He works for Caterpillar. Ballas, 39, who has remarried, is a U.S. Navy nurse in San Diego.
A.J., who now lives in Chestnut Hill with his fiancée, Maria Picard, a Licensed Practical Nurse, entered the Air Force after high school, but his anti-authority individualism did not fit the zeitgeist. “My first commander said I would get kicked out of the Air Force. I almost did. My 9th grade principal had told me I would not graduate from high school. I don’t mind following orders if they make sense. That is both a strength and a weakness.”
A.J., who trained to be an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force, did not like it when a curfew was placed on the Airmen that required them to fill out a form when they wanted to leave the base. So he persuaded 50 other Airmen to keep filling out the forms almost non-stop.
“The officers got so sick and frustrated with all the paperwork that they did away with the curfew,” said A.J. “That goes along with my personality — stubborn and intuitive. Every one of the five commanders told me I was smart but stubborn. I was told I can do good things with this (smarts) or let it ruin my life.”
Regarding his opposition to rules “that don’t make sense,” A.J. maintains that the Airmen were told by a commander that if they witness an act of sexual abuse or assault, they must step in to stop it, even if that requires using physical force. He insists that his roommate did just that to stop his own best friend from abusing a young woman who was drunk.
“The guy would not stop,” said A.J., “so my roommate punched his best friend in the face to stop him (from taking advantage of the drunk girl). As a result, he was thrown out of the Air Force, even though he was doing what he was told to do by his superiors to protect the girl.”
While A.J. has had his problems with authority, he has definitely matured, in large measure because of his time in the military. He has learned that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. “The discipline was a good thing,” he said. “I now know how to manage my money and time. I am a professional at this (waiting on tables). But the reason I left the military was that I was not progressing. You should be learning something new every day, and I was not.”
A.J., who will be starting Philadelphia Community College in the fall on the G.I. Bill, left the Air Force in February of this year and started working at Iron Hill about one month later with python intensity.
What was his best experience as a server? “I had just one table left one night. We stop serving at 9, and these people walked in at 8:50. At first I thought ‘Oh, no. I have to stay an extra hour or so because of them.’ But then I found out they had just come from their grandmother’s funeral, and they apologized for being so late. I said, ‘Please take your time.’ I felt guilty, so I bought them the first round of drinks. I got really personal with them. One of them came in two weeks later and shook my hand. He said they really appreciated the experience at Iron Hill. That was a very good feeling.”
What was his worst experience? “I was only here a short time. A mother came in and said it was her daughter’s birthday, and she wanted a special dessert, which was going to be a surprise. I brought out the dessert but had not cleared all of the plates. The woman wrote on the receipt that what I did (not clearing all the plates) was ‘unprecedented’ and that I ruined her daughter’s birthday The daughter, who was about 13, looked like it did not bother her in the least. My manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Not a big thing.’”
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org