|Author: Cornish, Rick
|New Years Eve with Buck Owens' Bus Driver
Generally, I’ve been lucky in love. I say generally because there have been some, well, lonely periods in my life. Brief but painful. One such was my freshman year in college. The fall and winter of 1966 was a desolate year. A drought of a year girls-wise. So not-surprisingly, my life-long, self-imposed ban on blind dating was temporarily lifted when on December 30th, 1966, I received a call from a good friend at Fresno State.
“She’s cute, she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s…..”
“How smart?” I cut him off. “If she’s too smart, we got problems.” Larry Phillips, with whom I’d maintained a long-distance friendship through middle and high school, always knew exactly what to say. “She’s smart enough to carry on a conversation, but not such an egg head that she’s gonna want to talk Calculus all evening. And the party’s gonna be out ‘a sight. Lots of people. A live band. Beer a plenty. And besides, what are you going to do if you don’t drive down here?” He had me there.
“Alright right,” I said, “I’ll come, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” And I did, but even a stranger in Fresno was better than sitting home alone New Year’s Eve. And then, as an after thought, “Hey, if this girl is so great, why’s SHE interested in a blind date on New Years Eve?”
“Just broke up with her boyfriend. He’s an idiot. She hates him. Excellent re-bound action here.”
So I drove from San Jose to Fresno. Kelly was cute and she was smart, but no one would have described her as funny on New Years Eve, 1966. In a word, Kelly was miserable. In the space of the forty-five minutes we spent at my friends apartment before leaving for the party, she and Larry’s date, Kathy, disappeared into the bathroom three times, and each time Kelly came out, I could see she’d been crying.
“Hey, buddy”, said Larry during one of the girls’ disappearances, “don’t take this personally; she just broke up with her boyfriend. They were pretty serious. Engaged, actually.” Information he hadn’t shared on the phone the day before. I had a sinking feeling. But Kelly was good looking, and I had a date with a girl and it was New Years Eve. We left for the party.
Larry Phillips had lived in the Fresno area his whole life. “You gotta have radar to live here in the winter,” he said from the back seat, “fog can get pretty ugly.” The fog wasn’t ugly, it was claustrophobic. A blinding, frieghtening gray void. I'd never seen anything like it before. Leaning up with his chin on the back of the driver’s seat, Larry virtually drove the car by dictating instructions.
“Okay, a little further to the stop sign. Yeah, yeah. Okay. Stop. Now turn right. Turn, turn, turn….okay, straighten out.” This went on for about five miles. Larry and Kathy, stealing kisses between driving instructions, poor Kelly crying softly in the dark next to me. Five miles in forty-five minutes.
But once at the party, the evening began to look better. There was a live band like Larry had promised and, after a couple beers, Kelly and I were actually talking. I made her laugh and the bad feeling I’d had was beginning to fade. We danced a fast one. Another. Then a slow dance. Kelly felt good pressed against me….it had been a while. Then, mid way through the slow dance, a little tap on my shoulder, a slight turn of my head to the right, and then a brilliant white flash of light. Then darkness. When my eyes blinked open and I look up from the floor, I see that Kelly and her fiancé have patched things up. The marriage, I’m thinking, is on.
There was really only one honorable, intelligent thing to do, and that was to get the hell out of that house as quickly as possible. No protest to Kelly that she’d done me wrong. No retaliatory punch. No looking around for Larry and Kathy. My eye throbbing and my head still reeling, I just grabbed my coat, got in my car and drove away. Into the fog.
Three hours later, give or take a few minutes, it was like a miracle. There was Larry’s apartment building. I couldn’t see the number, but through the fog I recognized an old Dodge pick up parked out front and then I saw the torn screen door to his apartment. It had taken me from New Years eve, 1966 until well into 1967, but I’d managed to find my way the five miles in the fog. And yes, oh yes, the front door was unlocked. All I could think of was going to bed….I just wanted to sleep and make the evening go away. I went straight through the living room in the dark, bumping into furniture, and into the bedroom and flicked on the light. There, in the bed, lay an old man holding an immense shotgun with a long, black, double barrel, and it was pointed directly at my stomach.
“Sit down, boy”, he drawled,” sit down on the floor right where ya are and keep yer hands where I can see ‘em. And don’t say nothin’.” I couldn’t have spoken if I’d wanted to. My heart raced. I held my arms up in the air and almost lost my balance as I sat down on the floor cross-legged.
The old man, who wore stripped pajamas and had thin blotches of graying red hair on his otherwise bald head, balanced the gun’s barrel between his knees, the index finger of one hand on the trigger, the other index finger dialing 911.
“Okay,” he said, “pohlice is 'a commin'. Now you stand up, boy.” As I stood, arms still in the air, the old man got out of bed and motioned me into the other room. He followed and flipped on the light. This was not Larry’s apartment.
“There, sit down on that couch, and keep yer hands in sight. You understand?”
I nodded. We looked at one another….looked into one another’s eyes for a long moment.
“Boy, put them damned arms down, fold ‘em on your lap. Yer makin’ me tired just lookinin’ at ya.” I obeyed. The double-barreled shotgun was now pointed generally in my direction, not directly at my mid-section. Progress, I thought. But I was still shaking. I’d never had a gun, much less a canon, pointed at me before.
The old man stared at me a while longer in silence. “Ya ain’t here to rob me, or to kill me, are you?” I shook my head no. “Done come in here by mistake, I reckon. That right?” I nodded. “What’s a’ matter, boy, cain’t you talk?”
“Ah, you told me to, ah, keep quiet.”
The old man laughed. “Just what’s you doin’ here, boy?, he asked”
I told the old balding man in stripped pajamas my story, from arriving that afternoon in Fresno, to walking mistakenly into his apartment.
“Yup, he gotcha a good ‘un. Eye’s like to swell shut. You just sit there.” The old man un-cocked the shotgun, leaned it against the wall, and disappeared into the little kitchenette. “Here,” he said returning, “put this on yer eye.” It was an enormous piece of round steak and it felt good and cold and soothing on my face.
By now it was two a.m. “Want a pull of white?” the old man asked. “White?” I asked. He laughed.
The old man handed me a mason jar. “This’ll make that eye feel even better.”
And so there we sat, me on the old worn couch, him on an over-stuffed 50’s style rocker, passing the jar back and forth, till the sun came up.
His name was Jimmy Butane (pronounced "Bo-tan") and he told me that he worked for Buck Owens. He drove Buck’s bus when the band toured, did some mechanical work on it, and did pretty much nothing at all when the band wasn’t touring. “They’s down in Bakersfield tonight, at the palace, doin’ a big show,” he said. “Ol’ Buck he said I should go down there but, hell, a ol’ man like me, what would I be ‘a be doin’ down there at the Palace tonight?” Jimmy told me stories of being on the road with Buck and the Buckaroos. At the time I barely knew who Owens was, but even so, Jimmy’s stories were spellbinding. Jimmy had been there from the beginning of Buck's career….he knew everyone Buck knew, had been everywhere Buck had been. Oh, to be able to talk to him now, knowing what I know about the music.
When the sun came up and the fog started to burn away, Jimmy asked if I wanted to go to Denny’s for breakfast. “They put out a nice breakfas
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