WHAT THIS IS ABOUT: “100 Portraits of My Father” is a series of interconnected short stories and vignettes co-written with Buck Callahan, Jr. They are 1-3 pages long each and written in the first person. Anyone who knows much about American culture knows that Russell Buckminster “Buck” Callahan was a famous, almost larger-than-life individual that people want and need to know everything about. This particular story consists of childhood memories culled with Buck Jr. to help answer the ever-present questions, “What was it like to live with the great man? To live in his shadow?”
The vignettes are emotionally based, as the facts are often mutually contradictory. He was an astronaut, a political appointee, itinerant preacher, counter-culture hero, and investigative reporter. At other times, an author, spy, comedian, and rancher. He was generous, petty, famous, wildly unsuccessful, venal, courageous, paranoid, laughable; all things human. To hear Buck Callahan Jr. tell it Buck Callahan Sr. was a human Rohrschach test in the background of US history from the late 50’s to the early 80’s.
The stories draw circumstances from Buck Jr.’s personal memories and daydreams, conversations overheard in waiting rooms through the fog of fever or a concussion. Snippets from talking to older relatives, hearing news clips in the background, plots from TV shows, and magazine articles. They give the reader a disjointed feeling of seeing the familiar slightly wrong, as if they have walked into their kitchen, and things are slightly out of place. They are at turns hopeful, wistful, disdainful, funny, frightening, and tragic. Overall, they sum up the love, respect, disappointment and hope of home. The effect could be likened to episodes of “Forrest Gump” told by Marco Polo in Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”.
GOOD POINTS: First draft done. More than 100 “portraits” available, so we can start sh1tcanning the bad ones and fixing the better ones.
BAD POINTS: Neither Buck nor I are in the same game, much less than same league, as Italo Calvino and Winston Groom. I just threw those books and authors in there to try to snap up some action from Google Analytics. Speaking of which; sex, drugs, anal, free, viagara, cats, lawyer joke, work from home, lol.
BACKGROUND: After getting chased out of perfectly good jobs teaching English in Japan and Thailand on charges of moral turpitude, I ended up in Greece picking oranges for a season. Having overslept and missed the ferry to leave Patmos, I was killing my hangover with a spot of ouzo in a cafe when up strolled Buck Callahan, Jr. We had a merry time, and he took me back to his place.
Before you get all crazy and start jumping to conclusions, let me assure you this was a bender thing, not some kind of gay thing. So his old man had this walled villa on Patmos they used to go to when hiding out from the media. Buck Jr. didn’t end up with a lot after Buck Sr. died, but he did get to use some of the properties. This place was loaded with whiskey and retsina, and when that was gone, this grocery store in town would send up crates of Amstel. So we spent the time drinking and talking, and out came this tape recorder, and Buck just sort of rambled into it for a few weeks while I prodded him for more information. Like I said, I was a bit of a journalist for a while, and can interview along with the best of them.
Well, I guess the experience was therapeutic for him, and once he had it all out of his system, he needed me out of there. I guess stuff got too deep. He ended up signing over everything to me; tapes, rights, everything. I’ve been editing this stuff on and off for over a decade. The lawyers have looked over the paperwork, and they say it’s all still official and binding.
101 PORTRAITS OF MY FATHER
People have always wanted to know about my father. How it was to grow up in his house, what it was like to be with him day in and day out. They want to know what it was like to hear him laugh, and what it was like to make him laugh. They want to know what he said and did in his unguarded moments. They want to know the backstory about everything my father did, no matter obscure. Things they gleaned from books or People Magazine or Readers’ Digest.
They ask what it was like to live with him, to grow up in his shadow, the shadow of the great man. To be able to sit there at the table as he talked, to hear words of wisdom for free that thousands would have paid a small fortune to hear. It was like living close to the sun, bathing in the pure glow of a light that everyone else could only see from afar. My every day experience was something that was envied far and wide.
Ever since his passing, so many people have gone back and looked at his entire body of work, what was printed by him and what was printed about him. Scholars, poets, popular authors, news anchors, solitary madmen and cranks. They write book after book, interpreting and re-interpreting events through every conceivable point of view until they no longer even resemble the truth. Scholars developed calendars from the journals he donated to the University, cross-referenced to open-source records. A semi-retired man from Rochester even developed a concordance of everything said by or about Dad. It sold nearly 5,000 copies. There are funded chairs at several universities devoted to his life. One dot-com billionaire bankrolled the translation of his work into every language and dialect covered by Rosetta Stone, and donated print copies to school kids from Albania to Zambia.
It’s never enough. People are left lacking, wanting to know more, to know just one additional fact about him. They are left with a great thirst that can never be slaked. So I agreed to sit down and go through it all in my head and then put it down to paper, starting with my earliest memories, and the questions I always face, “What was it like to live with the great man? To live in his shadow? What was it like growing up?”
It took many false starts. It seemed normal to have a famous father, because that’s all I ever knew. I must admit though, everyone was deferential. Even at a young age, I did notice that. Men wanted to be him, and women tittered at his every joke, at everything he said. Kids crept up to sit by him. Even dogs and cats would come and curl at his feet. There was always a circle of people around Dad, sometimes even three and four deep, all jostling to be closer and to get a word in, and maybe get a word back. That was my paradigm growing up. All focus was on Dad.
So I started going back through the family photo albums, reading family diaries, diving into everything that I could find. Even a horrible journal of poetry that I kept in the ninth grade, a blue spiral notebook that I portentously called “The Blue Book”. I resurrected memories that were long lost, or might have just been shadows of dreams I had, fever dreams, misunderstandings, anything. Anything to let the world know just who Russell Buckminster “Buck” Callahan was, and perhaps who he still is.
First, please bear in mind that few if any of these things written down or documented at the time. My recollections could be faulty. Father, being such a great man, left a strong impression on me, and these were impressions upon the mind of a child. While the facts may be slightly off, I assure you that everything is in its most primal sense and essence true. The feelings that were generated certainly were, although the specific circumstances could be slightly exaggerated or distorted by the strength of Dad’s personality or the passage of time.
To whom it may concern,
I am writing this letter in care of my lawyers, Husker Boone, for them to release without prejudice if certain conditions have been met. I am writing this letter not knowing exactly what is being said about me, but knowing full well that my sons have never been able to stand on their own and are probably going to try to cash in on my memory, saying absurd things.
I don’t know if they’re going to invent sexual escapades, abuse, cruelty, a story like “Mommy Dearest”. Whatever the case may be, they say you can’t slander the dead. But I think it’s a really crappy thing to do, to sit there and talk about your father, someone who raised you and took care of you in the good times and bad. The man who took you through your youth, saw you through college, PAID for your college, tried to give good advice and raise you right…and to cash in on that memory.
I thought I left adequate funds for both the maintenance of my wife and my kids, and even a little bit for the grandkids, discharge family debts and leave an adequate legacy at the University in my memory to carry on my ideas. But it was after all MY MONEY, and I’m sorry if that was not enough for everyone. Let me just state the old saw that there are two sides to every story, and I’m not getting my chance to say mine.
I just want you to think about that whenever you read what is said in this book.
Russell Buckminster Callahan, Sr.
CHAPTER 1: Lift Off
I remember that last year together. We could feel the excitement building, with Dad gone more and more. There were hushed conversations between my parents after us kids went to bed. We could hear them talking about Mars, about these stars with planetary systems around them. We heard names of people high up in the government and the names of famous scientists. They all sounded German or Russian. It was all part of his work.
Some time in summer, my parents announced that we were taking a long vacation to New Mexico. This didn’t surprise me. Dad was always going there on travel, and Mom started leaving brochures and travel guides around the house. I could not read, but Andy could, and he told me they were about New Mexico. I still have them, old and dog-eared. There was information on the culture and history of the Indians and the natural wonders of the state. Back then I just remember the pictures of bright red rocks and the noble face of an Indian chief.
So we went all together as a family to New Mexico. We had first class tickets on an airplane back when people dressed up to fly. People seemed to recognize my father. You could see them discreetly pointing, the hushed whispers and wide eyes as he passed. There were some stops, I think in Chicago and then Dallas. We had beef barbecue in Dallas, and some people took pictures of Dad with this slab of ribs in his hand, the bulbs just going flash-flash-flash. Then we went on to New Mexico in a gray plane. This bus or van met us on the tarmac. We got off the plane first, and they took us right over to it. There was a long drive, out into scrub land where there were no people.
We stayed in a special hotel where everyone was in the military. The desk clerks, janitors and cooks were all in crisp uniforms with various stripes and bars on them. I remember watching them work around the property. They had a tutor for Andy, and I would hang around front of the hotel while he was in school. One of the soldiers would always play catch with me, this Filipino guy named Angel. That confused me, because he didn’t have wings. He told me he even had a brother named Jesus and a sister named Mary, and he was serious. Everyone but me and my Mom called him Gunny, and the other soldiers laughed when I called him Angel.
Dad would come back and have dinner with us, but every day he was more and more distracted. On the weekends and some days he still found the time to play ball with me. He had brought a bat, ball and gloves. Angel always kept them behind the hotel desk when we weren’t playing. As Dad and Andy and I threw the ball back and forth we talked about anything and everything except his work and the flight and what was going to happen.
Eventually the day was set. They gave him some time off and we did things as a family. The vacation was long but we were not ready for it to end when it did. We woke up early, which made me think of fishing since that was the only time we were up that early. Mom and Dad had stayed up all night, quiet tears and quiet conversation intruding into my dreams.
And then it happened. We were all brought to a concrete building in the middle of a big field and there were important men talking and saying things. There were photographers and people scribbling madly in notebooks. Mom was crying and Dad looked so stiff in a strange rubber suit. Then Dad kissed and hugged us goodbye, telling us it would be all right. I remember him looking bewildered, first staring down at some notes on a piece of paper, and then jamming them into his pocket. His eyes were red, and he finally said “I guess that’s it,” and climbed up into a special cart that left immediately. No one talked to us or said anything for hours, until the countdown began, and we realized that he had only ten seconds left on this earth. We watched in hushed silence, and saw the rocket rising up in the sky, the shaking us even through the thick glass of the concrete bunker.
CHAPTER 2: Revolutionary
My father was an architect of the sexual revolution. There are those who even called him the Robespierre of the Sexual Revolution. But I tell you, he didn’t start it; he stepped into the stream, and it carried him along. Even early on, well before the end, he was a victim of it. The children of the revolution always end up killing the fathers of the revolution.
We lived in a block of row houses in San Francisco. It was on a quiet street with a pretty view of the Bay. My mother was my father’s first and favorite wife. We had the biggest and nicest apartment in the building. Leading down towards the other end of the building were other wives picked up over time, and my brothers and sisters. We had over half the building when we moved in back in 1959, and we occupied the whole thing by 1965. Dad used to sleep in different apartments on different nights. But he had the office out of the first floor of the apartment where Mom, Andy and I lived. People would come and go, and the door was never locked when he was there.
I have no idea how the family earned a living. I think some of the Moms had small jobs, and others collected welfare. Auntie Kelly was a nurse, but she couldn’t have earned enough to feed and house 60 people. Dad made some money selling souvenirs. I would help him out in the garage, melting down lead. He would strike his own coins and pass them out to the art houses around San Francisco, mocking the French Revolution, with his motto of “Depravite’, Debaucherie, Polygamie”. Sometimes the guys from Mother Jones or Rolling Stone would come by and pass him some money for an interview, or drop off a bag of weed he could sell. Stu from the Catalogica Terra Firma would bring us crates and crates full of Mason jars with pickled fruits and vegetables. For a guy running the counterculture world, he seemed to have a lot of time to talk to Dad.
Our life was domestic beyond belief. I remember Mom always serving the other wives tea. Having all the kids over for a big Sunday dinner. Big Sunday brunches, with dozens of eggs, loaves and loaves of bread, spaghetti and meatballs. Auntie Corinne used to make the best jambalaya, and Auntie Flavia could make dozens of fluffy pancakes in no time flat. Once we had eaten, everyone sat around, some playing cards, people playing bocce out back, drinking Dad’s home-made wine. Neal Cassady or some of the other Merry Pranksters would drop by to visit and get a free meal, which pissed Dad off to no end. One time, I remember him smacking Neal about the head and shoulders with an old fedora, yelling, “The least you can do is bring a box of noodles next time!!”
Other times, Hunter S. Thompson would take some of us kids for a spin on the back of his motorcycle. He was never as drunk or high as he always claimed to be in his books, and he was genuinely nice to all of us. That whole gonzo persona was just a façade to help sales. It made me sad to read how he killed himself.
It was always a lively party, but a good part show. Once everyone left, there was Dad, playing catch with us in a big circle, several of the Moms hanging up laundry out back, cars of groceries being unloaded by the older boys. All the regular domestic scenes of the 60s played out, out of sight of the press and public.
They say Dad was trying to change the world, but the whole polygamy thing never caught on. I guess you could say the experience changed him more than it changed anyone else, especially us kids. The lion, he knows his time as head of the pride is limited. So for us boys, Dad always made sure we had outside interests. He tried to cultivate them so we didn’t become too manly or too much of a threat. He would build us up for the future but undercut us in the short term. For a long term education, he would send us to the military, if you can believe that.
I guess he succeeded all too well in driving us away so he could keep his position as alpha male. Bill became a Baptist preacher, Archie a Republican political strategist. Jenny is a cloistered nun. There are several bankers, two real estate agents, a plumber, an electrician, three beauticians, school teachers. He and the Moms must have done right by us, since none of us ended up in prison or unemployed. Most of us joined fraternities or sororities if we went to college; maybe to become anti-rebels, maybe just because we were used to living in close quarters with many other people and we couldn’t stand having just one roommate in a dorm.
Jerome changed his last name and joined the Special Forces, later joining a private security company that dealt nearly exclusively with US and European militaries. He went country to country on shoot-and-bury missions throughout Africa and Asia against the Communists and later against Al Qaeda. But we all made it back for the funeral, every last one of us. We had to wear name tags, with our names in big bold letters up top, and our mothers’ names below. Archie made those up for us.