This is my joyful mystery. I couldn’t have been older than 7. I noticed the Chrysler coming up the driveway earlier than usual. When Buck got out of the car he was not carrying a briefcase. He was holding a paper sack. He was smiling. Inside the sack were a baseball and three gloves. One for him, one for me and one for my brother Dave.
He put the glove on my left hand. He stood beside me to that side.
“This is how you catch the ball. You catch it in the web like this.” Boom! He threw the ball into his glove. “Then you take this hand,” he said showing me his right hand. “And you make sure you’ve got it. Both hands now.”
He walked over by the swing set by the fence of our back yard on Fair Park Boulevard.
“OK, here it comes!”
And with that he gently tossed the baseball to me. It hit me in the mouth. Buck put his glove under his left armpit as he came to inspect my fat lip. I was OK.
“Watch the ball, Son!” he said. “Don’t look at me. Watch the ball.”
Easier said than done. You see, my father was a sickly man during much of my childhood. I remember Dr. Busby came out to the house to give him an injection of something called gamma globulin. It must not have worked because they took him to St. Vincent’s after that. It was not until years later that I learned that Buck had contracted some sort of encephalitis while in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. Mother’s psychiatrist told me about it. Dr. Krulin called me on the phone. He asked me if I had ever heard about my father going to the Mayo Clinic. News to me. A kid doesn’t forget stuff like that.
So, yeah. I watched Buck, in his short sleeve shirt with a pocket protector graced by Teletype’s logo and clip-on tie, instead of the ball as he threw those first pitches. Because I could not have been more amazed if Bob Gibson himself had materialized in the back yard on that day.
He smiled as I started getting the hang of it. “Both hands, Son,” he said. “Both hands, now!” He seemed so young and vital for literally the first time in my life.
This is my second joyful mystery. My father gave me my first taste of alcohol. I was 13. We were in the big house on Chicot Road by then. Buck wasn’t a big drinker. He liked his beer and occasionally he would “build one” which was his term for making a martini. Buck made his martinis with Fleishman’s gin. I remember because I thought the bottle he kept stashed up in the high cabinet was kind of pretty.
Anyway, he had built himself a martini one afternoon. I asked him if I could have a sip. Mother must not have been around. Because Buck merely shrugged his shoulders at this request.
“Sure,” he said. “Just take a little sip.”
Buck handed me the jelly glass in which he had built his martini. I took a tiny sip. I immediately did a spit take. I handed the glass back to Buck.
“God that was awful!” I yelled in between coughing fits. “I don’t see how you can drink that. I’m never drinkin’ alcohol again!”
“Well, Son,” Buck said with a bemused look on his face. “I won’t hold you to that. But now you know that alcohol is not something you just fool around with.”
A kid doesn’t forget stuff like that.
Here is a sorrowful mystery. On a cold December day in 1977, Buck pretty much dropped dead from the heart attack that he always feared. His father had died of a coronary at 56. The combination of bad genes and an addiction to nicotine helped him beat Russ Bowen’s previous mark by 4 years. Wife and 4 sons.
I remember Uncle Bill coming up from Benton when he got the news. I met him in the driveway. He couldn’t bear to look at me. He crammed some Bull of the Woods into his mouth. He put his left arm on my shoulder as he turned away to spit.
“Damn it, Paul,” Uncle Bill said as he shook his head. “Damn it.”
I had never seen Bill Bivens cry before.
Buck was buried at the VA Cemetery over on the East side of town. They folded the flag that covered his coffin. The VA man handed it to my Mother with “on behalf of the United States of America with the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.” Mother didn’t say anything.
I sat next to Mother in the hearse as we headed home. She clutched the flag to her chest.
“Goodbye, Daddy,” she whispered as we drove past Buck’s grave.
You’re still pretty much a kid when you’re in college. A kid doesn’t forget stuff like that.
While this is apropos of nothing I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if Buck had been given the biblical “four score and twelve.” He was an engineer by profession. He said he was thinking about going to night law school when John got into high school. Wanted to be a patent lawyer. He also wanted to get a pilot’s license. But those pursuits are pretty impractical when you got mouths to feed and a roof to keep over their heads.
Buck and I didn’t get along particularly well towards what eventually turned out to be the end of his life. Looking back at him through the perspective of an adult, I see why things were as they were. Business at Teletype went through the floor after the geniuses at Bell Labs decided that this IBM thing would never catch on. Money was always tight. His marriage was not a happy one. That’s a lot of stress. And yet he persevered. He did his duty as husband and father. He did his duty as a man.
I would like to think we would have buried the hatchet eventually. I wished he could have seen that I turned out OK. I wished we could have played golf. He wouldn’t allow me to play left-handed “because it just isn’t done.” I wish he could have seen Phil Michelson and Mike Weir. I wished he could have seen me sworn in to the Bar. I wish we could have had a martini together. Hell, I would have built him one myself from better gin than he ever used.
And I wish I could give him a hug.
Both hands. Both hands, now.
A kid doesn’t forget stuff like that.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.