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In one of the many delicious footnotes that he includes here, my uncle Reid notes that he has already had his tombstone carved and that it says, "Shut Up At Last." After reading this book, with which, he notes toward the end, "I have finished my oeuvre," I'm grateful that he wasn't silenced before he was able to finish it. While I can't predict whether the general reader will be as mesmerized as I was by Reid's account of our Buckley family, I can truthfully and flatly aver that it strikes me as some kind of masterpiece of the genre.
What genre exactly is harder to say, and this brings me back to the wonderful footnotes. Inevitably, after he has told some riveting story, generally about his father, my grandfather, William F. Buckley Sr. (note the "Sr."), there will be a footnote stating, "My sister Priscilla adamantly rejects this version of Father talking Pancho Villa out of shooting the train conductor." If I found these clarifications, such as they are, deflating at first, I soon began to look forward to the next one.
Reid does nothing conventionally -- which is why he is so beloved of his nine siblings (five of whom survive) and forty-five nieces and nephews. So why would any of us expect that he would produce a conventional family history? It was said of Edward Gibbon that he lived out his sex life in his footnotes. Mutatis mutandis -- as William F. Buckley Jr. might put it -- there is something of that in Reid's luxuriant footnotes.
Take this one, for instance, about the great elm tree in Sharon, Connecticut, which lent its name to the house my grandfather raised his family in:
It fell to the Dutch elm disease in the late 1950s; the four sugar maples planted in the gaping hole it left are now half a century old, and large, and serve in my eyes only to remind me of the grandeur of the old elm, one of whose gigantic branches, sprouting off the main trunk about twelve feet from the roots, three feet or more broad and almost horizontal until it swept upward, I could lie upon in perfect security on my back, as though on a garden bench -- gazing up at the sky through the elm's corona of bright green leaves, its canopy falling all about me and hiding me from view. It required seven adults holding hands to circle its base. In my mind, as a young man, I associated the Great Elm with my father -- and when it was stricken, I remember looking anxiously at him, whose absence would leave a corresponding hole in my existence; who was felled by the first stroke at just about the same time that Great Elm was diagnosed with the disease.
This book is substantially about the world that man, my grandfather, created for his children and other descendants. However qualifying some of the footnotes are, he was by any measure remarkable, and though I knew a great deal about him before picking up Reid's book, I didn't know the half of it.
He was born poor in Texas in 1881, the same year as the shootout at the OK Corral and Garfield's assassination, and died a wealthy man in New York City in 1958. His grandfather had been an Irish Protestant who married a Catholic girl from Limerick and, as a consequence, had to leave the country. A good thing, too, as he and my great-great-grandmother beat the Irish potato famine by just a few years. They debarked in Quebec and moved to Ontario, where their son, a future Texas sheriff, was born. The reason I am American -- this I learned from Reid -- is that he had asthma, which forced the family to get into a Conestoga wagon and trek south in search of drier climes. They ended up in the very dry clime of San Diego, Texas, a hardscrabble place northeast of Corpus Christi. Now I know why asthma has been such a part of my life. This may not be riveting to you, but I assure you it is to me. More interesting to you might be the detail that one of Sheriff John C. Buckley's closest friends was Pat Garrett, the lawman who shot Billy the Kid. He -- that is, Garrett, not The Kid -- was a frequent guest at my great-grandfather's home.
The story gets more interesting when Reid's father -- William F. Sr., the sheriff 's son -- goes to Mexico after getting out of law school and sets up shop as a lawyer and wildcat oilman. He lived in Mexico between 1908 and 1921, which would be like living in Paris, say, between 1789 and 1802. And he was in the thick of it; he knew everyone. It was to his house that U.S. Marines went after bombarding Veracruz in 1914, asking him to be governor civil. He indignantly refused. He detested Woodrow Wilson's interventionism -- as did another American of the time, Mark Twain -- and became a minor hero to Mexicans. The Huerta government paid him the great compliment of asking him to represent Mexico as its legal counsel at the ABC Conference in Niagara Falls. Later he was expelled from Mexico by the then-government-of-the-month. I'm out of here. Gracias for the memories.
You'll find my grandfather in the midst of great adventures. On one page, he's talking Pancho Villa out of shooting the conductor; on another page, he's escaping execution by bandits who have taken him and a colleague out into the desert to be killed. His fellow captive, a close friend, presented them with a laundry slip and told the illiterate would-be murderers that it was a note from the local chief granting permission for their prisoners to "stretch their legs." He and his colleague stretched their legs energetically that rain-swept night, through a jungle and across a swollen river. He later named his oil company Pantepec after that river. I never knew that until now.
He had guts, my grandfather, but my favorite Mexican anecdote -- again rendered in a footnote -- isn't about heroics but involves a nifty bit of one-upmanship on a train that will have you laughing out loud. I won't give it away.
I never knew him. I was only six when he died, but Reid has given him back to me and my forty-nine cousins and their umpteen children and grandchildren, and I'm humbled, not just by the man he was but also by his son's ability as a writer and a historian to re-create him.
He's only half the story. The other half is his wife, my universally adored grandmother, Aloïse Steiner Buckley. We grandchildren called her Mimi. Here I'll confess to being frustrated at a secret hope I've long nurtured.
Mimi's maiden name was Steiner. Her mother was a Wassem. Looking at some old family photos one Thanksgiving, one of my cousins grinned and said, "Tell me we're not Jewish." When I mentioned this suspicion to my friend, the distinguished author and editor Walter Isaacson -- like my grandmother a native New Orleanian -- he laughed and said, "Most of the old German Catholic families I knew from New Orleans were Jewish." Alas, no such luck. Mimi's maternal grandfather, George Henry Wassem, fought (quite valiantly) for the Confederacy at Shiloh and other engagements. His father fought with -- oh, dear -- the Hessians, alongside the British in the Revolution. (We can only hope less valiantly than his son fought in his war.) George Wassem hung up his battlefield decorations and became a New Orleans barber.
As for Mimi's paternal side, the Steiners, they were Swiss, from the canton of Saint-Gallen and the city of Bergt -- as my uncle Jimmy relates here, "the only Swiss municipality I have ever seen that seemed totally devoid of charm." No wonder our forebear left there in 1845 and set up shop in New Orleans as a boot and shoemaker. So we descend from a barber, a shoemaker, and a sheriff. How did we end up Republican?
As I write, I have this creeping feeling that I'm sounding like that person on the bar stool next to you, droning on about matters of absolutely no interest to you. If I do, then I have truly failed and can only promise you that this book is far more interesting than I am making it out to be. So let me tell you now just a little bit about its author, my uncle Reid.
We Buckleys are a scribbly lot. My father has written fifty-five books and is now, at age eighty-two, at work on his fifty-sixth. (Never mind his other writings, which are voluminous enough to choke the Yale archives, where they reside in one thousand boxes.) Of the ten Buckley children of W.F.B. Sr. and A.S.B. seven wrote books, most of them more than one. Seven.
Reid is...how do I describe to you my uncle Reid? I, a professional writer, grope for words. Reid was the fun uncle. He'd turn up to visit his son and me at boarding school, ginger-bearded, dressed in plus-fours and Inverness cape (I'm not making this up) and smoking a calabash pipe. The monks didn't quite know what to make of him. He was a dashing expatriate who lived in Spain and wrote about bullfighting and knew all the great matadors and was close friends with Ava Gardner. He returned from Spain after fifteen years remarried to a glamorous, beautiful Spanish widow with five children of her own. He's spent the last thirty-five years in Camden, employing half the town at the Buckley School of Public Speaking and Written Expression. So Reid is...I revert to my prior statement, as we Washingtonians say: Reid is Reid.
But the Reid who concerns you is Reid the writer. His 1973 novel Servants and Their Masters, a family saga set in late-Franco Spain, is a considerable work of art. I was a Yale English major, and I know literature when I see it. It's the only eight hundred-page novel that I've read a half-dozen times and hope to read another half-dozen times before I die. It's a masterpiece. I was reminded of that book as I read this very different one. I don't quite know, as I mentioned earlier, how to classify this one. Life with Father meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre?
It is not a feel-good book. Of tragedy my family has deeply supped. Though you may not personally know the players, I doubt that you won't be moved by the image of my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother Mimi, herself less than months away from death, weeping alone in a limousine at the graveside of her eldest son; or of Reid, walking alongside the train platform as his father's train pulls away, tears streaming down Grandfather's face, knowing that this is their final parting. There are so many deaths told in this book, and so many left to come.
But there's happiness here, too, in abundance. My family's profound Catholic faith has allowed us, in the midst of these and other, worse griefs -- two of Reid's sisters were taken cruelly young, one leaving five children, the other ten -- if not a triumphalist note, at least an echo of Saint Paul's "Death, where is thy sting?"
And good times. Heavens, what great times, especially in the chapters about growing up in those teeming households in Sharon, Connecticut, and Camden, South Carolina. They tell of worlds gone now, perhaps all the sweeter for having vanished. Gone, as it were, with the wind, to quote another Southern writer.
Children will never again sled down almost two steep miles of ice-and-snow-crusted road, hitching their Flexible Flyers to milk wagons pulled by plow horses to get back up to the top of the hill. Nothing will ever replace or restore the elms of Sharon Green. Nothing will ever replace or restore the Sterling elm, our Great Elm. Nothing will ever restore or replace the America of the first years of her bursting upon history. Nothing will ever replace or restore our parents, Aloïse Steiner Buckley and Will Buckley, individually and bonded together one flesh, one body, one will, one devotion.
My grandfather and grandmother left behind ten children, fifty grandchildren, and Lord knows how many great-and great-greatgrandchildren -- enough, anyway, to swing a presidential election in Florida. Among those they left behind was a son, my uncle Reid, to tell their story. This is an elegy, but amidst its melancholy strains you'll catch the bagpipe notes of joy.
Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Buckley
Prefatory Remarks 1
Pt. 1 The Buckley Mystique 11
Pt. 2 Origins 39
Pt. 3 The Mexican Experience 107
Intermezzo I 185
Pt. 4 Great Elm, 1923-1939: The Desperate Years 191
Intermezzo II 263
Intermezzo III 271
Pt. 5 Kamschatka, 1939-1989: The Happy Years 279
Pt. 6 The Death of W.F.B. and After 347
Post Datum 427
Posted January 14, 2010
No text was provided for this review.