December 24, 1986
When I think of Christmases past, which I am inclined to do when I have to write a column for Christmas Eve, it isn’t long before I get around to thinking about an aunt we called Buel and her longtime employer and friend, Mr. Barnes.
The name “Buel” was a badly mangled version of Elizabeth, uttered by one of my brothers or cousins in an early attempt at speech, and it stuck. For the rest of her life, she wasn’t Aunt Elizabeth or Aunt Buel. She was just Buel.
She was my mother’s sister, one of the three Shively girls whose mother died when they were very young. They’re all gone now, and so is their only brother, who was in his 80s when he drowned in the Platte River in his hometown of Saratoga, Wyo. while fishing.
Buel never married. She worked for Mr. Barnes for maybe 30 years. They had a close relationship, so he became close to our family, too. Buel would bring him to our house often, and at Christmas he would share in the exchange of presents and in the big meal.
Mr. Barnes was officially E. A. Barnes, owner of the Oklahoma Concrete Pipe Co. and an investor in real estate. He was “Gene” to his friends, who included my dad, but he never was anything other than Mr. Barnes to the rest of us.
We looked up to him. Actually we were almost in awe of him. He was tall and dark, like he was part Indian, which he might have been. He was well-mannered and dignified. He always was well dressed, and drove a big car, usually a 12-cylinder, air-cooled Franklin.
The two of them, Buel and Mr. Barnes, were special, and they always helped make Christmas a special time.
At least part of the reason was their presents. Their always would be money – crisp new bills in a gift envelope with a window and some kind of big surprise. One Christmas it was a puppy, in a box with a big ribbon around it. He was a fox terrier, and we named him Sparky, and he became a sort of legend in our family.
One of the biggest surprises of my life, however, was Mr. Barnes himself. It came as I reached the age where I was reading the sports pages before I read the comics, and when going to games was much more important than going with girls.
The paper was running a series on the history of the Oklahoma City Indians, the city’s professional baseball team. At that time it was in the Texas League, along with Dallas, Fort Worth, Beaumont and Tulsa and so on.
One day the story said that Gene Barnes not only had been a fine lefthanded pitcher in the earlier days of the team, but also had later become its owner. There were two pictures with the story, one of Gene Barnes and his pitching days, the other as the owner.
I about fainted. There, smiling in the sports page, was Mr. Barnes. It was almost more than I could handle. I practically had been living with deity and hadn’t known it. In an instant my admiration for the man turned to all out hero-worship. From then on whenever I saw him, I would pump him so hard about his baseball days that my parents would tell me to leave him alone. But I don’t think he minded so much. Like all old jocks, he seemed to enjoy the adulation.
One of the finest moments of my young life came one day shooting baskets in our backyard. I made three straight long shots, something is rare than as making three straight putts would be today. I turned, and there was Mr. Barnes. He nodded, smiled and winked.
To me, it was a compliment comparable to a standing ovation in Yankee Stadium. He did it only one other time, years later, when I went to see him, suffering from some kind of heart trouble. Buel was there and told him I’d come into the room.
He mumbled something, and Buel told me he wanted me to stand near the foot of the bed so he could see me. I did, and he gave me nod, a faint smile, and a big wink.
Buel lived a long time after that, until she was almost 90, and every time I would see her, which was often, we would wind up talking about Mr. Barnes.
We were close. She could keep a secret, and she always would come to the rescue when I had a problem. She was more than just the perfect aunt. She was an interesting person who treated her young nephews like grown-ups, and she was enjoyable to be with.
When I was in grade school she took me on a train to Galveston, then on a boat around to Miami, and back the same way. That was tall cotton for a little sodbuster from Britton, Okla. And when, at a very tender age, I went off to Washington to work, she soon showed up to make sure I was getting along.
My wife, like my brothers’ wives before her, found my mother a little stern on their first meeting, but they all found an immediate, real and lasting friend in Buel. Having none of a mother’s reservations, Buel swept them into the family, saying that if these women were good enough for her nephews, they were good enough for her.
Buel was tall and slender, and I always thought she looked a little like Wallis Warfield Simpson. I have a picture, taken by a sidewalk photographer when she visited me in Washington. She has on a fur coat and fur hat, and I look like I am escorting visiting royalty.
That’s the way I remember her.