From the Desk of Pixley Arbuckle
Subject: Is That Your Real Name?
(Sure. Why Not?)
To explain how Pixley Arbuckle came to be a name, it might be closer to the truth to start out with a story of great grand father who was the illegitimate son of a British government bureaucrat who had attained knighthood for his service to Queen Victoria, and, along the way, a Victorian gentleman’s taste for house maids. But that theme, more fit for a forgotten novel, has been beaten down to an all beef patty and would contain about the same percentage of truth as the story I have decided to tell.
To clear up the origin of the name Pixley Arbuckle, I must first go into a little bit of history of and explanation (read ‘excuse for') California.
California is mostly populated by the descendants of discontented people looking for a new life and a quick buck. It is still a magnet for the same. From the Mexican rancheros to the gold-crazed 49ers to the drought refugees – “Dust Bowlers” - of the Great Depression, and now the economic refugees from Central and South America and Asia, who come here to mop up of whatever is left of it.
California started out as a paradise, became a promise of paradise and is now simply a myth of paradise, with more people cashing out and leaving, than poor suckers moving in to be raped and plundered by the lawyers and officials that together, make up the largest “industry” in the state. All that being said, it’s still one of the prettiest and gentlest places in the country, and once you get out of the major metropolitan areas, not half bad.
California has attracted and bred not a few characters. From bandits like Tiburcio Vásquez and the the semi-mythical Joaquin Murrieta, the boom town characters of Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s stories; all colorful but in reality nothing compared to the crooks that occupy the capitol or oddities that walk the streets of the major cities today.
There is however one character you’ll never read about, yet whose myth circulates among the farmers and folk of the still-rural areas and the San Joaquin/ Sacramento Valley. A man named Buck Buchanan.
Buchanan, so the story goes, was one of the hoard of Dust Bowl refugees which flooded here in the 1930s (Okies and Arkies as they were derisively called by the locals) to work as migrant labor in the fields and orchards of California. As many were, he was of both Scots/Irish and Cherokee decent, was a striking man, reported to be 6 feet 3 inches in height, with blond curly hair, strong manly build, winning smile and charm and wit by the truck load. Not only could he out-work and out fight most men, but he could sing well, played several instruments, was an excellent dancer could recite poetry and had a Rasputin-like power over women accompanied by an equally powerful sex drive and potency.
He made his way from one migrant camp to the next, following the crops, working hard, fighting hard and loving even harder. Women were his passion and obsession, married or not it was all the same to him, and evidently to them. It is even reported that he even made his way into some of the most famous boudoirs in Hollywood during orange season in Southern California. He rambled through the state, following the harvest and leaving a trail of satisfied smiles, broken hearts and swollen bellies if the rumors are true.
By the time Buck was 23 he’d already fathered several children on two “common law” wives; hasty marriages which were no doubt proposed at the business end of a shot gun held by an angry father of both severely blushing brides. And this brings us to one other distinct quality that Buck possessed, to wit, the resemblance of his offspring to their sire.
No matter the looks or genetic make up of the mothers of his children, they all looked like “Ol’ Buck”. This became even more apparent as the occasional tall, fair ‘guerro’ child was born to the families of Mexican migrant workers, Italians, Portuguese and short, stocky families of Northern European descent. Buck’s reputation began to take on mythical proportions when the evidence if his industry began popping up all over the state.
The morals of the day forbade any mention of these anomalies by observers or family members alike. One just didn’t talk about such things without suffering an immediate punishment. An occasional knowing glance and sly smiles traded was all that was required.
Buck being mostly well liked and admired (and as the result of a friendly warning) had been known in later years to make more than a few hasty departures when one of these families would show up for a harvest, headed by a father swearing revenge.
Fast forward to an almond picker’s tent camp in the 1950s where and when I, Pixley Arbuckle, entered the world as part of the then Smith family.
My mother, a woman as pretty and fertile as the land she worked on, had already burned through two husbands and four apostles in naming my older brothers, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. When I arrived on the scene she inexplicably decided to change things up when picking my name.
When in a fit of exasperation I finally asked her why she gave me a name that was certain to invite laughter and an ass kicking at any school I landed in, she smiled dreamily out the window over the sink where she was washing dishes and told me “a special boy needs a special name”. “You were planted when we were in Pixley picking cotton, and you were picked in Arbuckle for almonds (called “ammins” locally for some damned reason. )”. She looked at me serenely. “Pixley Arbuckle Smith, you are a special boy”. For that moment, despite all evidence to the contrary, I felt special. Then real life resumed.
My older brothers Matt and Mark had the last name of O’Dell from my mother’s first husband, who was beaten to death by a cop while organizing for some workers union. They were both dark, reflecting their Cherokee ancestors. Luke and John were red headed twins who looked like my mother’s second husband (and supposedly my father), Grady Smith, who died shortly before my birth from tetanus and lock jaw, the result of stepping on a rusty horseshoe nail.
As I grew and self-awareness crept over me I started to realize that something was amiss. I was taller than my all my brothers by age 12 and could make a good account of myself in the inevitable brotherly brawls.
I was puzzled when I was mistaken several times for one of the actual Buchannan kids when in an olive camp outside Red Bluff. The last time it happened I was working along side two of them who looked at me, then gave each other an inside-joke smile.
No point in dragging it out from here as I’m sure you know the point of the story. With a Buchanan ancestry and a handle like Pixley Arbuckle Smith you become either mean or philosophical. I tried the former and it didn’t suit me, so the latter was left and it has worked out to be a close fit.
As I have wandered through this life, I have occasionally run across my mirror image walking down the street or had some sweet little old lady come up to me and ask my last name, because her friend has a grandchild who looks a lot like me.
If (and there is little doubt that) Buck Buchannan is my sire, I never met the man nor even ran across him. He must have been crowding 60 years old when he did the deed and I am the evidence he was still going strong. My only acquaintance with him is through the stories told around the camps and an old Life Magazine photo my mother had of Buck, flashing a care-free smile at the camera from the middle of a group of pickers.
So here’s too you Buck. May all your descendants become as good at what they do as you were at what you did. May they love it as much, and do it for as long.
And live to tell the tale.
And again to quote the great Mark Twain: "Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true."