Kid Finds William F. Buckley’s Message in a Bottle
By: By TIM KELLEHER
His relationship with words was an enchantment, an abiding sense that words have power to draw order from chaos.
A few months ago, National Review graciously published something of mine, a meditation on growing up in working-class New York City .
I was over the moon. After long being warned off by friends to the tune of Forget NR — it’s an impossible gate to crash , I found my elation briefly tamped by the humbug of belonging to any club that’d have me for a member. But only briefly. Because, above all, the event completed a symmetry begun one Saturday, during the very time described in that piece.
My father and I had recently settled into an ordo made of three rituals. The first was a trip to the local bakery for a mix of fresh, white mountain and hard-seeded rolls. Next was a post-breakfast run-through of the upcoming college football games. My pops would descend through a long list of exotic names such as Wake Forest and Duke , Dartmouth and Yale , as I picked my favorite in each. The following morning we’d regroup to gauge my future as an oddsmaker.
The third was added the day my father turned on the TV and introduced me to a show called “Firing Line,” whose host was a charming sparkle of tics, grins, and cranio-ocular dilations. With a flurry of oboe and brass, he appeared — this Cheshire knight in Brooks Brothers armor, with clipboard shield and clickable sword, purring words long and supple as caterpillars. I was hooked.
We got a huge kick out of him, who in one respect was not unlike Jonathan Winters, Jerry Lewis, and the one or two others I was allowed to stay up late to watch on The Tonight Show . William F. Buckley Jr. was every bit as entertaining.
While the gulf between the creator of Blackford Oakes and the ten-year-old me was in many ways immense, to see him on that screen was like finding a message in a bottle on my spit of outer-borough beach. Looking back, I see that the scroll inside had been sent by a mentor who never knew he was one, to a kid who didn’t know what one was.
Mr. Buckley and I started out differently. Where his days included horseback riding and sailing, we rode buses and, allegedly, went subway surfing now and again. He, it is said, grew up in a home with five pianos. I took piano lessons but, lacking one in our apartment, was sent home to practice with an accordion. As I cut through the schoolyard, adrenaline would surge if the older guys were on the scene, as invariably they were. And invariably, the sight of me stealing across the asphalt with that big block of a box caused them to stop, stare, then start in.
Hey, kid — what’s in the box? . . .
Nothing, I’d reply as the object, no longer in my hand, was snapped open. Their encircling glee bordered on Pavlovian. We’d danced this dance before.
Whoa — an accordion! Then looking round in feigned confusion: Hey, kid — where’s your monkey?! Bwaahaahaaa! . . .
I suspect that Mr. Buckley would have appreciated that local flavor precisely because it was different, and he’d have been the perfect ally to join me in one of those schoolyard sorties. In a way, he did.
Opening the message in that bottle dovetailed with a budding love for words. Not infrequently, there’d be something that needed a word that none I knew could quite satisfy. Suddenly, one would form as it rose within. Reaching my lips, I’d mouth it silently. In almost every case I’d say, That must be a word! And going to the dictionary, I found, in almost every case, that it was! This may be a fairly common thing, but to me it was thrilling.
The dictionary became my constant companion. One day, I forget exactly how, I was given a slim, leatherbound volume that slid smartly into my back pocket. With its gilded pages, and place-marking ribbon, it had the look of a breviary. Hardly an hour passed that my beak wasn’t in it, if only for a moment.
Everywhere I went, it did too — including the schoolyard. In the middle of a basketball game one day, I went up in the air, came crashing down, and, sure enough, out flew the dictionary. This, of course, couldn’t pass without the older guys conducting an immediate inquest.
Whatta we got here? . . . What’s this, a dictionary? What are you, some kinda . . . professor? Nice to meet you, Professor . Bwaahaahaaa! . . .
Hilarious. But with William F. Buckley Jr. now at my side, I could rejoin, My heavens, your perspicacity is uncanny!
I didn’t. I liked having teeth. But I could have!
William Buckley’s relationship with words was an enchantment, and typically one of the first things that comes to mind at his mention. At the heart of it was surely the deep understanding that words have power to draw order from chaos.
After all, it’s the story told by the scriptures sovereign in his library — the entire cosmos, reality itself, is rooted in the Logos , the selfsame Word of God. The rest of what we call words are thus branches of an exquisite vine. In this the world is logical, and the languages that help unlock it, charged with sacred valence.
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon used the example of a mosaic to illustrate the dysfunction of his day. Specifically, the image of a king. By simply rearranging its tiles, he observed, those who wished could turn the noble image into that of a beast. Substitute words for tiles, and we identify a chief dysfunction of our own age. In a way, preventing such distortion describes the movement galvanized so luminously by William Buckley.
If words, indeed, have power to draw order from chaos, the noble from the bestial, they also draw prayer from yearning, and glory, as well, from gratitude. I’m confident Mr. Buckley would agree. I wonder then what he’d make of the resemblance of my beloved dictionary to a breviary. For it would seem that, by its nature, the vine from which words are sprung inclines them toward their fulfillment in a chanted tongue.
As Alexander Schmemann saw it, humans are eucharistic/doxological creatures . That is to say, never more fully themselves than when oriented in gratitude expressed in the key of praise.
At a conference established in Schmemann’s honor, Professor David Fagerberg spoke of the need he felt “ to pay a debt of gratitude to a man I never met .” This is my hope, too. And I attempt it awkwardly, aware that some reading this actually knew the man I experienced, from a distance, as an influence.
That Mr. Buckley, who shared with my father the first name, Bill, and joined him in a mentorship back when. In a symmetry now dear, I thank them both, and endlessly.