When I was a boy, one of the things I loved most was a collection of 45-records, passed on to my Grandma Ruth from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business based in Silverton, a small Oregon town in the Willamette valley an hour south of Portland. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grandma Ruth would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, diners, roller skating rinks), changing out records in jukeboxes and replacing broken flippers in the pinball machines, or delivering new machines and hauling away damaged ones, returning them to my great grandfather’s shop to be fixed by “mechanics”. That was years before I was born, but those records would become an important part of my childhood, creating memories that became tangled up with meeting my grandfather for the first time.
I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning. Growing up as an only child with a mother who refused to own a television, I learned to love reading, and read piles of books on rainy gray Oregon days, of which there are plenty. My love of stories and characters merged with the thrilling discovery of my grandma’s vast 45 record collection. A few were old jazz and disco, but the vast majority were outlaw songs, trucker songs, and story songs from the 60′s and 70′s, both popular and obscure. Often the songs would depict bad guys as heroes, involving cowboys, outlaws, gold prospectors, trains, truckers, knives, guns, booze, and women. To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘these are a few of my favorite things’.
The summer I turned eleven, my dad came and whisked me away on a summer vacation to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. “Get ready to meet Grandpa Buddy,” my dad told me. “He’ll tell you that ‘you gotta be tough’, and that ‘gettin’ old ain’t for sissies’.” For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying across America, I stared down in amazement at the Rockies, the circles, squares, and rectangles of the Midwest, the silver ribbons of rivers, the palms and cypress trees of Florida, all the while doted upon by stewardesses.
What kind of name is ‘Buddy’ anyway, I thought as I bounced around in the car, my dad navigating a sandy old pothole-riddled road that plunged us deeper into the tropical forest around the Withalacoochee River.
To my delight, grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of those characters in the songs I loved so much. He’d lived an adventurous life as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I idolized, though I was much too young to understand that. And so I came to idolize him, practically overnight. He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished them with the chops of a master storyteller. My dad and I would sit for hours listening to the syrupy accent of his deep Johnny Cash-like voice, going on about Key West, the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche, Veracruz, Matamoros. He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on the old 45’s: heroes, outlaws, tough guys, sailors, pirates, thieves, swashbuckling heartbreakers and unknown legends.
“You gotta be tough,” Buddy would say again and again. It was the takeaway, his mantra, the moral of every story he told. He continued to say it into his nineties until he passed away. He loved to lie back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, and think about all the different lives he had lived, all the chapters of his story. “Watching the re-runs”, as he called it.
In my overactive boy’s imagination, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the Florida jungle on a river full of alligators and snakes. He made shrimp nets and hammocks by hand out in his workshop, where an industrial fan – so large it looked like it should be in an airplane hangar – hummed. There was a hand carved out of wood in the window by the front door, giving all visitors the finger. He had tattoos, a topless jeep, nine machetes and an earring. Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my kid-mind it was definitely nine.
It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, do this or that for me”, or “Thanks buddy”, and the name stuck through the years until he had his own shrimp boat and was known as Captain Buddy.
After that trip, I returned to my familiar quiet life with my mom in our little house in rural Oregon. I stayed in bed all the next day, heartbroken, unable to stop the tears. My mom kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept telling her I wanted to go back to grandpa Buddy’s house and live with him in Florida. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination and a shortage of male role models in my life; I didn’t understand that he was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head and my heart, he was way larger than life.
I spent the rest of the summer loathing myself; I suspected I wasn’t tough by anyone’s standards – least of all, Buddy’s. And I figured that – when it came down to it – I probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value that I would carry with me from then on, though I wouldn’t identify it clearly for many years to come: through my grandfather, who I barely knew, a light had switched on inside me, a light that shined inside my mind. It was the light that comes from the magic of storytelling, sparked by all the books I’d read, kindled by the old 45’s, and fueled by the power of character – fiction or non.