Phone Call for Mr. Pat Buttram*


Buck and one of the blue-collar unit organizers, who had been sent out to L.A. from Houston to help persuade city sanitation workers to vote for their union instead of SEIU, were eating lunch in the Brown Derby.

“Weather shore turned nice today,” Rodney said. He was fiddling with the telephone on the table, a Brown Derby feature so the movie people who frequented the place could keep on doing deals as they did lunch. “I should call Mama and tell her I’m callin’ her from my table in the Brown Derby.”

“Nah, better not. She’d have a stroke ‘bout a long-distance call all the way from California. You know how old folks are.”

Buck did. “You’re sure right about the weather. The sky was so blue this morning it was like that onshore wind had scrubbed it clean. The wind was puffing along so strong you could smell the ocean. The whole city seemed dry-cleaned.”

“Smitty told me this mornin’ that it was days like this made him move back out here from Ohio after th’ war,” his companion said. “He said the days all used to be like this before th’ smog got so bad.”

Smitty was a garbage truck driver who worked out of the yard Buck and Rodney had visited in the dark hours before the trucks went out on their collection runs. Each union was given fifteen minutes to make their pitch in the break room. Smitty was leaning strongly toward voting for their union, and he was a power in that yard. They had gone back later, when the trucks were coming back in, to get a read from Smitty on how the other drivers were leaning. A lot of them had started out favoring their union opponent, SEIU.

“Too many GIs who fought in the Pacific had the same idea as Smitty,” Buck said, talking about moving to California, not the union election. “That’s where the smog came from, when they all moved out here to lotus-land to clog up the freeways.”

“I reckon,” Rodney drawled. “Two days ago, you couldn’t see the buildings downtown if you was standin’ next to ’em. Thick as swamp fog on the Gulf of Mexico.”

“And smells a lot worse,” Buck said.

“Wonder where it all goes when that ocean wind comes in?”

“Guy at the office said it all gets pushed up into the San Gabriel Mountains and just sits there,” Buck said. “If we went over to Burbank it’d look as bad as downtown did a couple days ago.”

“I reckon. I’ve seen it layin’ offshore like fog banks when the wind’s in t’other direction. Except it’s brown. Yuck brown.”

Buck laughed. “Yuck brown. Good line.”

Rodney chuckled. “Gotta keep yore sense of humor out here, for shore.”

Buck thought he could never get tired of hearing that soft anomalous Texas drawl from the very put-together young black man across from him.

Somewhere in the restaurant there was a small burst of static and then an amplified voice spoke: “Phone call for Mr. Pat Buttram. Phone call for Mr. Buttram. Mr. Gene Autry is calling Mr. Pat Buttram.”

Rodney’s eyes opened almost comically wide. “Did you hear that?”

“I sure did. Hell, I knew Pat Buttram when I was a kid.”

“You did?”

“Yep. My whole family was big Gene Autry fans. Went to see every movie.”

“Us, too! How ‘bout that?” Rodney shook his head. “I grew up wantin’ to be Gene Autry and have a horse like Champion the Wonder Horse.” He was craning his neck. “I don’t see Pat Buttram. Do you?”

Buck looked around the dim restaurant. “No, but if he’s shaved those scraggly whiskers and left his hat at home, he’d be hard to spot in this light.”

“Huh,” Rodney said. “I s’ppose so. Shoot, I was gonna try to get his autograph.”

Rodney never ceased to amaze Buck — first his soft Texas drawl, then his reaction to the announcement, and now his stated wish for an autograph from Pat Buttram. He supposed it was a racial stereotype buried in his own lily-white past that accounted for his utter surprise at a black kid being a huge Gene Autry fan and wanting to be Gene Autry when he grew up.

“I bet you must have his autograph,” Rodney said. “Here I am sittin’ in the Brown Derby in Hollywood, California, with somebody who knows Pat Buttram. Gosh, who’d of ever thought somethin’ like that might happen?”

“You know,” Buck said slowly. “I don’t think I do have Pat’s autograph. My mother and grandmother dragged my brother and me all over the South to Gene’s shows when he was touring. I’ve got old Kodak snapshots of all of us with Gene, and Pat, and Smiley Burnett too. Sometimes both Pat and Smiley were on the same tour. We stayed at the same hotels the troupe did, and got to go backstage after the shows. Just never even thought about autographs. They were just people we got to know from seeing them year in and year out. Of course, I wasn’t even ten years old and my brother was even younger.”

“I’ll swan,” Rodney said, still talking in archaic Texan slang. “I’ll just be gosh-darned. I don’t think I ever knew Gene went on tour like a rock star.”

“Well, you’re a few years younger than me,” Buck said. “He probably had stopped by the time you would remember. But there was a time Gene Autry was bigger than rock stars. You should have seen the crowds.”

Rodney’s eyes were alight with imagining it. “I sure wish I had! Wow, you had some childhood there, Buck. Gene Autry! Pat Buttram!”

“I suppose I did. When I first got out here I went looking for Gene’s gold stars on the Hollywood sidewalks. He’s got five of ‘em.”

“Holy cow! Five?”

“One for records, one for acting in movies, one for — hell, I don’t remember the rest of them. But he’s got five.”

“I’m gonna have to go look before I leave here.”

“I suppose you will. I never knew you were a fan.”

“And I never knew you was either, Buck. Never would have, if we didn’t decide to have lunch here in the Brown Derby.” He looked around, wide-eyed as that boy who dreamed of being Gene Autry.

“Just imagine: here I sit in the Brown Derby when a phone call comes in for Mr. Pat Buttram from Mr. Gene Autry — and it turns out I’m eatin’ lunch with somebody who knows ‘em! Mama’s shore gonna be some surprised when I tell her. Her garbage-truck drivin’ son’s done gone and turned into a well-traveled gennelman.”


Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.