For the past several weeks, I have been reading a collection of newspaper columns that my grandpa, Charles “Bucky” Neely, wrote in the late ‘90s for a now-defunct hometown newspaper. The stories, recollections of his life published in The Sublette County Journal in Sublette County, Wyo., are bound neatly into a collection he titled, “Stories with Bucky.” He gave copies to each of his kids and his grandkids when he produced the book. Back then I was a teenager, and not much interested in reading stories about the so-called “old-timers.”
How the world changes when you grow up a little.
My grandpa is gone now, and I treasure this book of his as if it’s a beloved teddy bear. Tears spring to my eyes in the quiet moments I spend reading his words at the kitchen table. In this book I am discovering so many things about my grandpa I never knew. For example:
I read that he was accepted into the Navy, but never reported for duty.
I never knew his family raised sheep for a time.
I read about how, at age 17, he took a bus from Rock Springs, Wyo., to San Diego by himself – a boy who had never been to a city and did not even know how to read stop lights – to track down his parents (he had been living with his uncle in Wyoming) and ask their permission to enlist in the service before he turned 18.
Here’s the story, in his words:
My folks had sold their sheep by now and had moved to San Diego, California and I decided to travel down there and see if I could get permission from them to join the service.
It was quite a trip for a country boy who had never been in The Big City. I rode the train from Rock Springs and that was quite an experience.
When I finally arrived in San Diego I was scared half to death. I had my folks’ address in my pocket and they lived in Ocean Beach on Del Monte Avenue. From the Union Depot, Broadway Street looked a quarter of a mile wide to me and people and vehicles all over and I could see a building across the street that had a big sign saying ‘Travel Information.’
I sat on a bench there for quite some time figuring out how to get across the street and didn’t savvy the red and green lights and didn’t know how to use the pay phone to call my folks to come and get me.
It looked darned dangerous to me to try to cross the street so I talked to a Yellow Cab driver and had him haul me around the block and finally got to the Travel Information place. He assumed I was nuts. The ride cost a dollar.
At the Travel Information they told me it was simple – just catch the Ocean Beach bus that would be along in a few minutes.
I got on the bus and went to a rear seat. I wasn’t sharp enough to know when to get off and rode the complete route two times. On the third trip the driver noticed I was still there and had me sit in the front seat right behind him and said, ‘I will tell you when to get off.’
He dropped me off on Del Monte Avenue. He didn’t tell me which way to walk to find the right address so I walked a few blocks the wrong way and came to the Pacific Ocean. I stood there with my mouth open for a while and decided I would have to walk back the other way. After about four blocks back the other way I came to house #4821.
I walked in the door and spoke to Mom and was really tickled to death to get there.
Mom said, ‘Son, did you have any trouble finding us?’
I said, ‘No Mom, not a bit.’”
My heart pounds as I read his recollection. It pounds out of sheer amazement at this boy, who to me had all the gall and innocence in the world. It pounds out of disbelief: How could I have never known these details of his life?
Because I never asked. Because, until now, I have not taken the time to invest in his memories.
Yet, I’m glad I waited to steep in his words. I think that, had I read these stories when I was 16, they would not have mattered – at least not nearly to the degree they do now.
Now, living a thousand miles away from my own parents, I call my dad in the middle of the work week, interrupting him at Bucky’s Outdoors, the small engine repair and retail shop that still bears my grandpa’s name.
“Did Grandpa ever tell you the story of the hot rooster?” I ask.
The story goes that Grandpa’s mom had the pressure cooker going on a cold, rainy day, “doing up an old red legged rooster that was declared surplus.” Grandpa’s brother was in the corner, cleaning an old 30.06 rifle that had gotten wet.
Jeff Bills had his back turned to the old Monarch cook stove sharpening his pocket knife when all of a sudden a loud “Pow!” as the lid blew off the pressure cooker, a drumstick glanced off the ridge log and hit Jeff in the back. He let out a loud squall, and yelled, “Oh, God! I’m shot in the back!” He assumed the old 30.06 had went off and it scared us all to death until we figured out it was just the piece of hot rooster.”
My dad laughs like a little kid. “Yes,” he says. “I remember that one.”