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Uncle Buck

By Gary Grenier

I have never been to a big city before. This is great fun and a little scary at the same time. I have seen the TV shows; NYPD, L.A. Law, and even Miami Vice, and I have thought how great it would be to go to these places, never expecting I would get a chance until I was grown up, but I am getting a week off from Mrs. Elston’s fifth grade classes and I am finally going to a big city.

Some of the larger High Schools take Senior trips to big cities. Last year the senior class went to the Vlasic pickle plant and the Pioneer Sugar Company in Bad Axe, and then they went to a concert in Midland, Michigan. I hope when I get to be a senior, we can do better than that, but even if we don’t, now I can always say that I have been to Chicago!

This is supposed to be a sad visit, a funeral. Uncle Boyd “Buck” Graham has passed to ‘The great Con Game in the Sky,’ as Grandma once called it. It seems that after all the years of fearing a violent death from playing ‘bait and switch’, ‘3 card Monty’, and the ‘Pigeon Drop’ on the general public, Uncle Buck got run over by a bus.

My father got the call on Monday, telling him that his oldest brother had challenged the ‘B Line Special’, and lost. By Tuesday morning we had left Willow Run on, of all things, a Greyhound bus, and by 4 PM, we were amongst the mourners at the Calahan Funeral Home in suburban Chicago. Dad was pretty quiet during the trip and his eyes looked like he might be getting the flu.

We are not in downtown Chicago, but in an Irish suburb called O’Shea. There are lot of churches, bars, restaurants that specialize in corned beef and cabbage, small manufacturing plants, but mostly houses make up O’Shea.

People everywhere, I never saw so many people in my life. Traffic lights, sirens, horns honking, crowded sidewalks, street vendors; it was fabulous and exciting, except dad kept reminding me that we are here for a funeral, not attending the circus.

We got off the bus at the O’Shea/Old Town terminal and my father walked across the street to Mike’s Tavern and found our welcoming committee; Uncle Connor, Aunt Kathleen, and Uncle Pat were having a brew and playing cards. We had to sit down and “take a load off” and “have something to clear away the road dust”, as Uncle Pat likes to say.

We were told the services were on Friday, the wake is Thursday night, and visitation is any time after 7 PM today. Dad wanted to get unpacked and settled in to Grandma’s house, but we stayed at Mike’s for nearly two hours, I played darts with Uncle Connor. A lot of people came up to us and expressed their sympathy, but mostly they wanted to know how Grandma was doing, and they didn’t say a lot about Uncle Buck. Several times I heard things like, “I’ll speak no evil of the dead” and “we’re all lambs in God’s eyes”.

Grandma Graham’s house was full of people. Some coming, some going, but at all times it was full of family and friends. I was introduced to everyone, “this is Gloria from Michigan,” and after a while, I did not remember anybody’s name. Cousins, nephews, nieces, neighbors, old neighbors, people from the Lodge, the Knights, the Elks, the Moose; all concerned about Grandma, nothing much mentioned about Uncle Buck.

I was excused and allowed to go outside and play with some of my Graham cousins, with a warning about ruining my good dress. They were all friendly and they told me about the O’Shea neighborhoods; the schools, churches, and the cool places to hang out. “Uncle Pat this” and “Uncle Connor that”, but again, nothing about Uncle Buck. I tried to get Buck’s name brought up, but everybody seemed to wander off when I mentioned him.

I knew he had a bad reputation; kind of a swindler, a con man, he had done his share of jail time, and words like “honest and hard work” were not in his vocabulary. Phrases like “never earned an honest dollar,” “keep your hand on your billfold,” and “Mr. Silver tongue” were heard when Uncle Buck’s name was finally mentioned.

I had my choice of things to eat, as the house was full of neighborhood offerings brought to Grandma. I went to bed that night extremely full and wondering just what a wake was, but I figured I would find out Thursday night. They were holding the wake at the Knight’s of Columbus Hall, just two blocks away from Grandma’s. I was told I could attend for a while, but the wake lasted all night and I would be in bed by 11 PM. It seems spooky to me because Uncle Buck will be there too!

Thursday was spent getting more introductions; visiting Callahan’s Funeral Home again, and even more choices of food to snack on. Dad reminded me that I would need to take a shower, change clothes, and let him brush my hair out, so I would be presentable at the wake. I wanted to wear blue jeans, but dad said that was out of the question.

We waited for Grandma to come down stairs, and then we all walked to the K of C, going slow to give grandma comfort. Uncles’ Pat and Connor guided grandma and I trailed behind dad and Aunt Kathleen.

When we got inside the K of C, there were a lot of candles lit, and groups of people were talking at tables covered with even more food. In one corner, a keg of beer was sitting in a tub of ice, and most of the men were around the beer. Grandma was seated at a special table, with dad, his brothers, and sisters seated around her.

I noticed that there were no kids here, mostly old people. Everybody seemed to make it point to talk to the family, with lots of hugs, handshakes, and kisses. Around the keg, some of the men would break out in Irish songs, then everybody would laugh, but they soon would go back to being somber. Maybe an early bedtime wouldn’t be so bad, this was not too exciting or entertaining so far.

They had placed the casket at the far end of the hall, but nobody was anywhere near that area. I would see people sneaking quick glances toward Uncle Buck, but then they would act like they were involved with the activities around them. I started to amble toward Uncle Buck once, but my father asked me to get him a glass of beer. I don’t know why, he already had a glass of beer in front of him.

I wandered around the room and noticed some of the older people were nearly asleep, several of them nodding off from time to time. Then I spotted an older gentleman sitting alone in the shadows near Uncle buck’s casket. He said ‘Hello’ and he knew my name was Gloria. He said he had to come to see who and how many people would be attending a wake for the infamous Buck. I was embarrassed, knowing this man might be one of the hundreds of people that Uncle Buck had cheated or swindled.

I asked if he knew Uncle Buck well, and he just chuckled, then he said he knew him better than anybody in the room. He said he could tell me things about Buck that nobody else knew.

This was very strange. For two days, nobody would even mention Uncle Bucks name and here was a man who talked freely about Uncle Buck and knew him extremely well. I could not resist, and finally I asked if Uncle Buck was really as bad as everyone seemed to think. Everybody had some good points and surely Uncle Buck was no exception.

The old man took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. I noticed that the old gent must have been in a fire at one time, because his hands were all wrinkled with old burn scars.

“So you want to know if your Uncle Buck was bad? My Dear, it’s been said he was a Genius. They don’t hand out trophy’s or awards in Buck’s line of work, but he was a pure Master, a Rembrandt of the ‘Dip and Slip‘! He could run a roofing scam or a ‘green goods’ hustle cleaner and with such precision that most of the ‘Dupes’ would thank him. He worked boiler rooms and bucket shops just for the fun of it. He once pulled an ‘Ace Dip’ while in the middle of a ‘big store’ scam, both came off clean, a double header!

I slowly nodded, but I had no idea what this man had just said!

“He did a great single, but he was in constant demand to be the back half of a ‘Rube Shuffle’ or to set the hook in a ‘Mackerel Bake’. As a dealer, his hands possessed a nimbleness and agility that was unequaled. Fast or slow, he could float an ace every time you yelled ‘Now’.

“He had a soft ear and could duplicate any accent or dialect. He could speak like the Pope or a bum. He could dress any part and be what ever the ‘mark’ thought he should be. Bring on the Oscars”

These words were almost a foreign language, but the old gent was rolling along, so I just nodded in agreement. The old man reminded me that what one person thinks is acceptable or decent, the next person might think is a sin. “We often never give a fellow a second chance after they have made a mistake. They seem to be branded as bad, and they will always be looked at in that way.”

“Does that mean Uncle Buck was a good man?” I asked.

“Your Uncle Buck had certainly made many mistakes during his life; he did some very foolish things. But he never once did any ‘Wet’ work, he had his limits, and not many people knew about the good things that he did. Buck left this world with very few possessions, but with a lot of joy in his heart, knowing that he had made many people better off.”

I mentioned that nobody wanted to talk about Uncle Buck. “Was he disliked by everybody?”

“In certain circles, Buck was the undisputed King of the Grifters, the Mozart of Yaks! He was famous, hell he was a legend in the surrounding six States. He would get calls from both coasts, he could have worked anywhere he wanted and could have pretty much named his own wage.

“But you see, for the average person, its easier to go along with the crowd and label a person as evil, even when they know nothing of the mans special talents and natural gifts.

“See the heavyset lady in the purple dress? She and Buck were the very best of friends for many years. They shared many secrets and ideals. She would have Buck stay at her place and then sneak him out during the middle of the night. Buck helped that lady pay her rent and utility bills for a number of years after her husband passed, but she would talk about Buck like he was a devil.

“Father Fred knew that if he mentioned to Buck that some kid was going to have a gift-less Christmas, or if one of the neighborhood widow ladies were short of rent money, miraculously, presents would appear and rents got paid. The good Father never asked how these things happened or how the money was earned for these good faith acts, but I think he knew.” Said the smiling older gent in a confident tone.

“It’s strange how Buck would just happen to be in the neighborhood when kids were about to get in trouble and break the law, or folks had thoughts of ending it all. He seemed like such a clown, that soon, different thoughts occupied these people’s minds. A number of youngsters are with us today because Buck fell in step with their mothers walking to the abortion clinic. His money was not always gained honorably, but it was nearly always used in a decent way.”

The old man slowly stood up, limping towards the men’s room and I thought about what he said. Maybe the things were true about Uncle Buck’s ill-gotten gains, but it sounds like he was not all-bad.

More and more people were arriving all the time. The old man came back and just stared at the growing crowd, shaking his head and grinning. He extended his hand, saying he’d seen enough, it was time to go, and I thanked him for his insight. He said it was his pleasure finally getting a chance to get to talk with me, and he mentioned it made him truly happy to see so many people in attendance.

Suddenly his eyes lit up and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a beautifully engraved watch. It had a gold chain, with the cover showing a bird dog on point with pheasants taking off. The back showed a fox standing behind some bushes. “I would like you to have this watch”, he said. “And every time you see the watch, think of Chicago and our talk about your infamous Uncle Buck.”

I explained that I never met Uncle Buck and I could not accept such a wonderful and expensive gift.

“I know you never met Buck, but now you have a clear insight to the real Buck, and this watch will remind you of our talk and of the honorable side of Buck’s life.”

I was embarrassed, but I asked him if it was true that Uncle Buck was ‘in his cups’ when the bus hit him?

He hesitated and then he smiled. “No, Buck had just received some very bad news, his medical test results, it was just time to move on.” The old man wiped a tear from his eyes, then he turned and limped towards the crowd, speaking to no one, and in just seconds he was out of sight. I sat for a moment and admired the watch and then I wondered if I would be in trouble for accepting it? I carefully wrapped the chain around my hand, putting the watch in my palm and went to show it to my dad.

As I walked up to the family table, I heard Uncle Connor mentioning that Father Fred and the Church had sent a huge floral arrangement to Callahan’s for Buck. He said he had never seen the church do anything like that, so extravagant. He guessed it cost well over three hundred dollars. Then I heard Aunt Kathleen saying, “Uncle Buck’s finest hour was when he saved that little boy. He shattered his left knee, jumping from the second story of the burning Jackson street tenement, but even with his burned hands, he hung on to that Alexander infant.

The beat cop said Buck ran into that burning building after Mrs. Alexander recovered from the smoke and yelled that her child was still in his crib. The roof caved in just seconds after Buck grabbed the baby and leaped. The boy didn’t even have a scratch and he owes his life to… Oh My Gloria, what are you doing with Uncle Buck’s gold pocket watch?”

(C)opyright 2007 Gary Grenier All Rights Reserved

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