I had been in San Francisco for about two weeks. Preacher and I had hitchhiked out from Virginia and were staying down on Chenery Street with some of my buddies from my days as a Hospital Corpsman. Preacher was the son of a Mennonite bishop and was only interested in seeing the seamy side of the City. I think he visited every seedy bar and strip joint from the Mission to North Beach. It took him about a week to get tired of that scene and head back to Virginia. He called me 56 hours later from Virginia Beach. He had gotten a single ride from San Francisco to Virginia Beach. I couldn’t believe it. God must have really been on his side. He seemed to pay considerably less attention to me, however. I was a capable cook and willing to work for relatively low wages, but I was having no luck finding a paying gig. I had no local references and no restaurant contacts. It soon became obvious that without help I would stay unemployed.
I joined Cooks, Pastry Cooks, and Assistants Local 44. I don’t remember how much it cost but they agreed to take the dues out of my first paycheck. I was happy because they had skin in the game to get me work. Two days later I was on my way to my new position; I was a hot dog cook at Candlestick Park. I would work every home game from 9AM to the end of the 7th inning. I would work until the 5th inning of the second game of any double-header. For this I got $46.10 per game. That was very good for 1973. If it had been a regular paycheck it would have been almost $12,000 per year. Garry Maddox hit .319 that year and only made $15,000.
My first day began in the kitchens well below street level where about 20 of us made and wrapped sandwiches for the concession stands. At t 11AM I reported to my kitchen to set up for hot dog cooking. In the kitchen was a pallet of plastic wrapped packs of hot dog buns. I remember thinking they must have been special made because they had no label and were very long. Not quite foot long, but bigger than a regular bun. There was a stainless steel chest style refrigerator that contained mesh bags of hot dogs. Nearby were four stainless steel kettles and above it all was an elaborate system of metal bars, counter weights, and hinges that allowed me to swing a hook over the fridge, fasten a mesh bag of dogs to the system, and swing the bag up and out of the box to a kettle, where there was a broth simmering. I would lower the dogs into the bath, time it for eight minutes, and lift the bag out. A vendor would approach, open his (they were all guys) bin, and I would pull a string opening the bag from the bottom and the dogs would cascade into the bin. The vendor hit the stands, returning when his bin was empty. They got paid a percentage of their take so no vendor wanted to waste time waiting. From the first bag to the last, there had to be hot product all the time. To insure a steady supply, there were two cooks in every satellite kitchen.
I met Buck on my first day. He was shorter than me, about 5’5. He walked with a limp and he was a little hunched over. He had skin like tanned leather and his hair was pure white. He was old. Not just a lot older than me, he was old. Like 85 old. There were three things about him that I will never forget. He had the clearest, bluest eyes I have ever seen. His constant smile made me think he found everything fresh, new, and amusing. And most of all… his hands. His hands were big, gnarled, and calloused. When he shook my hand his grip was not exceptionally firm, but I sensed almost unlimited strength and tremendous control. This was a man with a history.
His real name was Andrew Wesley. I found that out from his paycheck when we went together to get them cashed. I called him Andrew once.
“Buck.”He said quietly. “My name’s Buck.”
“Why Buck? “
“Been Buck all my life. Max your real name?”
“No, it’s John.”
“My dad named me John after his dad. Marines called me Max “
“My Mother named me Andrew. Dad was Buck. I was Little Buck ‘til he died, been Buck ever since.”
“Ok, Buck it is.” I smiled. “Where you from, Buck?”
“Canada, near Calgary.”
While we chatted we worked. A steady stream of hot dog vendors hurried in, got their dogs, and left to make money from the fans. My work station kept me busy. I was constantly dripping broth from the kettles onto the floor, on the outside of the kettles, and on the reefer box. The first day I went through all of Buck’s and my allotment of towels trying to keep the place clean. He worked faster, worked cleaner, and was able to serve twice the vendors I could. Once, I had gone into the stands to watch the game for a while. There was almost no crowd and Buck said he would cover. When I came back in it looked like every vendor in the stands had run out of dogs at the same time. Buck was working both systems and keeping the vendors happy. I took my place and I could hear the vendors complaining that now that Buck had help, it would take twice as long to get product.
“Don’t jerk that arm so fast. “ He scolded. “Works better if you don’t fight the bag. Like ridin’ a horse. Get to a place faster if the horse wants to go there too.”
With his help I learned to clean my kettles and start my stock in the morning before I went down to make sandwiches. When I got back to the kitchen, I was only 8 minutes from having hot product. I learned to use the weight of the bags to help move the dogs from the chest to the kettle and from the kettle to the vendor’s bin. By the third or fourth week, I was able to keep up with him, almost. In the process, he had learned everything there was to know about me. He was easy to like. I did not find out much about him though. He was an oyster, very hard to pry open, but every once in a while I would find a pearl.
“So you were born in Calgary?”
“Nope, near there. Place called Fort Mcloud.”
“Was your dad in the Army?”
See what I mean? There was a pearl there but it was going to take me some work to get to it. Over the next couple of games he let me in a bit. I’ve condensed it here, but this wasn’t pulling teeth, it was pulling molars.
“Old Buck was a bullwhacker up the Whoop it Up Trail. Hauled freight from Fort Benton, Montana to Fort McCleod. Mostly it was farm stuff, seed, wrought iron and carbon steel for blacksmiths, general merchandise for trading and such. And whiskey, lots of whiskey. Trail got its name from the whiskey. In 83 the railroad put the trail near out of business. Buck got work local haulin’ and punchin’ on a couple of the ranches. He made a few trips up and down the trail movin’ whiskey since the railroad wasn’t in that business. Did all right. He and my mother lived in a cabin near the Fort. She was Piegan. In 88 he got in a fight with her brother and they both spent a month in the Mountie jail. That was in September. That was the month I was born.”
I was right. He was 85.
“That must have been one helluva fight! A month in jail!”
“That was one mean Indian. Took six Mounties to stop the fight. Two got cut, one shot.”
“Far out, man.” I almost felt like I was intruding. But I couldn’t get enough. I kept prodding.
“So, your Mom was an Indian. I never heard of Piegan. They a Canadian tribe?”
“Piegan are Blackfoot. Part of First Nation. Blackfoot were on the Plains long before there was Canada or the US. Piegans lived in most of Montana and Alberta. Tribes called the border between the two the ‘Medicine Line’ because the Americans chasing them would stop at that line and Indians could stop runnin’.”
Once we got a little exchange going I could usually pry something out. But often we would get interrupted by vendors. Some games we were very busy; weekends, games against the Mets, special promotions. Willie McCovey, Tito Fuentese, Mathews, Maddox, and Bonds provided enough action to keep the stands full most of the time. But a few were much slower and on those days I had a little more luck with my pearl diving. We had ‘rescued’ two metal frame chairs from a storage room behind the kitchen and when there was a lull in the business we sat, leaning back against a wall, drinking Coca Cola and chatting. Our own version of the ‘Spit and Whittle Club’.
“Did you ever live on a Reservation?”
“Nope. we settled in at the Bar-U. ‘Smiling Woman’, that was my mother’s name, died when I was 8. Buck and I stayed on at the ranch. Rode roundup together ‘til o6 . That was the last of the big roundups. Everything changed then. The winter was bad. Lots of snow. Big freeze. Every outfit lost near half their stock. Buck froze up on the Red Deer River. Found him in April. The open range closed down after that. Everyone started fencing and winter feeding instead of range grazing. I rode for most of the ranches. Just a cowboy tryin’ to keep workin’.”
He said it just like that. Then he got up and moved a bag of dogs to the kettle.
Where does a conversation go after that?
The rest of that day I was pretty quiet. I started to think about my dad. I hadn’t seen him in several months. That wasn’t a particularly unusual circumstance. He had not been a significant physical presence in my early life and that had been an issue between us for many years. But to go from constant contact to complete absence as Buck had done; I was having real problems coming to grips with that. Curiosity got the best of me, though.
“Sounds like you’ve had a pretty hard life.”
“Life ain’t hard or easy. Just is. Bein’ a cowboy’s easy. Good horse, happy cows, fresh air and a wide open sky. After the freeze wasn’t much cowboyin’, though. Mostly ranchin’. Everything fenced in. Spent my time workin’ horses. Got pretty good, too. Rode in a couple of shows. Sometimes I was cowboy, sometimes Indian.”
“Like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show?”
“Naw, he was over long time before. Miller Brothers big show came North in 08 and a lot of little shows happened every year. Came in second in the bronc riding in Fort McLeod in 1911. Tom Three Persons won that. Biggest show was in Calgary, 1912. Parades, trick shows, exhibitions. Lots of Indians. Tom was third there, beat me bad. Rodeo’d for a couple of years. Went in the Army in 1915.”
“My Grandpa fought in WWI. He was infantry, from New York.”
“I was cavalry. Lord Strathacona’s Horse. Sat in a trench getting foot rot and cooties most of 15. Finally got to horse in 1916. Rode good til’ March of ‘18. Got shot.”
I have only known two people who fought in World War I. Buck got shot and my Gramps got shrapnel and gas. That was a messy war. It seems like everyone who went over there wound up bleeding. I had my own dark memories of war and what it could do, but even though I knew a lot of Marines who wound up wounded or dead, I knew a lot who didn’t. My war was Vietnam. Not as big and deadly as his, but real messy just the same.
One day one of the vendors brought in a portable 8-track player. It was battery operated so he asked us to turn it on when he came in, and to turn it off when he left. Buck and I looked at each other and did everything we could to keep a straight face as we assured him we would. He had only brought one tape; ‘Behind Closed Doors’ by Charlie Rich. I liked, and still like, country music. I also like Rock and Roll, Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Jazz, Opera, and The Grateful Dead. So Charlie Rich was ok by me. As soon as the vendor left I popped the tape in and hit play. I looked up and watched as Buck put his hands out like he was holding a woman and began to two step around the kitchen. His limp was gone and he was stretched up tall.
“Whoo, Buck. Look at you!” He was movin’ easy to the soft, slow beat but didn’t seem to hear me. He was far, far away and a long time ago.“That must have been one special lady.” I said, presuming he was remembering a long ago love.
“Ain’t they all.”
When the song ended he turned off the player and we went back to work.
“Got to make that last all day.” He said.
A few days later, after a Sunday doubleheader, he and I went drinking. It was a beat up little spot in walking distance of the Park. The place was dark and smelled like stale beer. Even in the low light I could see places where the paint had peeled from the wall. There was a general dustiness and when we sat at the bar my arm stuck to the vinyl trim. I ordered a bourbon. Buck ordered rye. The crowd was thin, mostly older men huddled over their shots or beer. There were a couple of women in their 40’s or 50’s. We were both older and younger than anyone else in the place. The juke box was going when we came in, but I didn’t recognize the song. I didn’t recognize the next, or the next so I stopped paying attention and Buck and I started chatting. Then that same Charlie Rich song came on. Buck got up and went over to one of the women and held out his hand. She looked at him like he was crazy.
She might have thought he was crazy, but she got up. Buck and her slid around the bar, both of them remembering someone else. The song changed to another slow ballad and the two of them kept dancing. I was watching them and felt a tap on my shoulder. Buck’s partner’s friend took my arm and pulled me away from the bar. She was maybe 30 years older than me, a little chunky, and smelled of whiskey. She was wearing a flower print dress and her hair was very black. It looked like she put her make-up on in front of a dirty mirror because it was just a little off. Her face was a little too white, she had a little too much eye shade, her lipstick was too red and she seemed to have colored outside the lines. But she was a good dancer. She told me her name was Alice.
We danced most of the evening; me and Alice, Buck and Norma. Each time the record changed we all went to the bar and knocked down a shot and went back out for the next tune. As the night progressed I got a little slurry and stumbley, but Alice kept me upright. I don’t remember leaving the bar. When I got up late Monday I can remember thinking that it was a good thing there was no game that day. I saw Buck again that Wednesday at work.
“What time did we leave the bar the other night?”
“’Bout midnight, a little later maybe.”
“Thanks for getting me home. That must have been weird. It’s two buses from here to Chennery.”
“Alice drove. Dropped me and Norma then took you home.”
Now that’s embarrassing. I was drinking with three people, all of them at least 30 years older than me, Buck more than 60 years older. And they got me home.
“I think she liked you,” Buck was smiling. “Wouldn’t be surprised if she called you.”
I’m sure he could see the fear on my face because he laughed out loud.
“You ever get married?” I had to change the subject.
“Close to a woman? Or close to married?”
“Close to a couple of ladies. Never looked to marryin’ anyone.”
“Who was she? Rancher’s daughter?”
“Dancer…Paris… after the War.”
“Wow, man. I gotta know more.”
“They mustered me out in England. After I got shot that’s where they sent me. Hospital in London. War ended in November, I got out of the hospital just after the New Year. When I could walk, went to Paris. Wanted to see it before I went home.”
“Where did they shoot you?”
“In the hip. Knocked me off my horse. Knew I couldn’t rodeo any more. Didn’t know what I was gonna do. Went to see ‘Gay Paree’.”
“That’s when you met her? What was her name?”
We were sitting in our chairs and he put his hands behind his head, looked kind of up and away, and smiled.
“Matilda.”He paused for a moment after he said it.
“Called her Mattie. She was a chorus girl at the Olympia. Met her in a jazz club on Rue Edward 7th. She lived over the club in a little apartment. Liked my uniform. Drank and danced till early morning. Leg hurt fierce, but she was fine. Wound up at her place.”
“You dog! First Mattie, last Sunday, Norma. You always work that fast?”
“Ain’t work. All about the dance. Every woman likes to dance. Finds a man who dances…opens her up to possibilities.”
Now, that’s a pearl.
“How long you stay in Paris?”
“’Bout three years. Leg got to feeling better. Read in the papers Calgary was holdin’ a Stampede in 23. Couldn’t work in Paris. Mattie bought me clothes. Dressed me like a cowboy. Took me dancin’ in all the clubs. Started to turn into a pet. Couldn’t bust broncs, but could ride. Left for Calgary in March of 23. Got to the Bar-U in May. Let me ride fence for a while. Paid me $20 dollars a month. Got 5 a day in the Stampede ridin as a cowboy. Paid 3 for Indians.”
My Birthday is August 13. The Giants finished a busy home series with the Mets on the 12th and the Phillies were coming in on the 14th. Buck and I went back to the bar where we met Norma and Alice to celebrate. I hadn’t seen Alice again. I don’t know whether Buck saw Norma, but I figured he did. The place looked even seedier than it had before and neither of us felt comfortable so Buck invited me to his place for a couple of drinks. He rented a room over on Gilman. It wasn’t really a rooming house, he rented one room from a woman who owned a beat up Victorian. It was big; four bedrooms, a big kitchen, and even a little yard out back. Buck had one room, the Lady of the house and two college kids filled out the ‘family’. I followed Buck to his room where he had his whiskey. There was nothing on the walls, no decoration, no memorabilia on tables or shelves. There was a narrow bed, wood framed, and a small table with a bowl and pitcher. It looked like an old western movie set. There was a small chest at the foot of his bed. He opened it and took out a bottle of Seagrams.
“Front room’s best for sittin’. Aint gonna sit on my bed and drink whiskey with you.”
We went downstairs and sat on two chairs near a large window looking out on the street. He had retrieved two glasses from the kitchen and poured us both a shot. Holding his glass up in my direction he toasted me.
“Happy Birthday.” And he tossed his down.
I sipped at mine. I was used to drinking Bourbon and my only experience with rye was with American Rye. This Canadian was much lighter and smoother.
“Sips easy, don’t it?”
“Yeah,”I answered with a little surprise. “It’s pretty good.” I tossed the rest of the whiskey down.
“So, how old are you today?”
“25, a quarter century.”
He smiled at that, and chuckled a little. He poured us both another shot and settled into his chair.
“25, my, my. You’re young, healthy; I seen you can dance. Why you sittin here sippin whiskey with a geezer like me?”
“Bad Karma, I guess. Remember what you did on your 25th?”
Buck looked up and out the window like he did sometimes. Seeing another time and another place.
“Don’t know the day. Sometime in the middle of September. But I bet I was with Bess. Spent most of that Fall and Winter with Bess.”
“Who was Bess? Where did you meet her? She a dancer, too?”
“She could dance, but she wasn’t a dancer like Mattie. King George School opened in August that year. Bess was a teacher. Got in a fight. Don’t remember the fight so much. Judge told me to learn to read or spend 60 days in jail. Went to the new school. Bess taught me to read.”
“She take you home the first time you met, too?
“No, she was a real lady. She got me to church, though. Every Sunday. Spent near every day with her doin’ somethin’.Got snowed in at the school early November. Spent three days, just her and me. Was livin in a bunkhouse back then. Her bed was softer.”
“So what happened? You didn’t get married?”
“Naw. Come Spring went back to the ranch. Ran out of money, anyhow.”
“You just left and went back to ranchin’?”
“Not for long. Winter broke late March. Was at the Bar-U til May when the Dingman well came in up Turner Valley. Went workin’ the rigs. Paid real good. Got $12 sometimes $15 a day. Wells busted by August. Nothin’ left. Bummed around a couple of months. Went in the Army just after New Year.”
We drank most of that bottle of Rye while he told his stories. It had gotten a lot easier to get him to talk after the night of dancing. I was pretty serious when I said I would just as soon spend my Birthday with him. I felt kind of close to him. We were kind of alike. At least I liked him.
“When you got back from Paris, did you look Bess up?”
“Not really. Heard she married a banker. I turned into a clown.”
“What do you mean, a clown?”
“Stampede added Bull riding in 24. Rode as a Cowboy in the parade and in the circle between events. Bulls is real angry. Dangerous too. Near a ton of meanness. Cowboys ran down the bulls after riders got bucked. My leg was pretty much fixed so I tried that. Got all dressed up for it too. Baggy clothes, clown makeup. Rider hit the dirt, I teased the bull away from him. Did pretty good. Crowd liked me. Wasn’t no Wick Peth or nothing. But I worked the circuit; Cheyenne, Pendleton, Fort Worth. There was a rodeo, there was me. Lasted a long time, too. Clowned till 56. Got stupid, got stomped. Up at Fortuna.”
“That’s about 30 years running away from angry bulls! You only got hurt once?”
“Got hurt some. Only got stomped once. Big difference. Lots of cowboys tried to clown. Looks funny, crowds love it. But most try to herd a bull, or make it go someplace. Learned a long time ago. Things is easier if the bull wants to go where you want it to go. Like them hot dog bags, like ladies, like everything. Can’t force it. Got to dance with it.”
On Tuesday Buck didn’t show up for work. I managed to handle both systems ok. The vendors were patient. Everyone asked about Buck but I didn’t know anything. After the game I went over to his place. The landlady answered the door and I could tell she had been crying.
“Where’s Buck? He didn’t come to work today. Is he all right?”
“Buck didn’t wake up this morning. Died in his sleep. Gonna bury him Friday at Holy Cross. You want his things?”
I was stunned.
“Ugh, yea, I guess.” She led me up to Buck’s room and I got his chest. Carried it to my place and began to look through it. Wasn’t much in it. Some pictures, mostly women. I could pick out Mattie, dressed like a flapper. Beautiful and looked like a high energy gal. Bess, too I could pick out. There were a couple of pictures of cowboys, three were of horses. One was a Rodeo Clown with his arms around two cowgirls. There were a couple of medals, probably from the war but I didn’t recognize them. Mostly it was clothes; jeans, non-descript shirts, some underwear and socks, two pair of western boots. One pair looked well worn, the other looked new. I never saw him in boots. There was one large, white envelope with a promotional photo of Hoot Gibson, a silent movie cowboy, with Buck. They were both on rearing horses. There was lettering on the back that said “Hoot Gibson and his pal Buck Wesley, Calgary Exposition and Stampede 1925”. No letters, no papers, nothing a stranger could say “this was Buck”. He didn’t accumulate much in 85 years of living. Most of the photos were of people. None of Calgary, none of Paris, no evidence of place. Just the people. I wondered if we had gotten close enough for me to have wound up in his chest.
I asked around and found a stone mason who made a headstone for me. I let his landlady know I was taking care of it. It was in place on Friday when I went to say goodbye.