Close Encounters: William F. Buckley, Jr

Americans everywhere were saddened today to learn of the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., inspiration for a generation of young conservatives and one of my earliest heroes. Buckley’s erudition and his obvious glee upon encountering real mordancy or wit (he’d skewer either, equitably) is what first drew me to the conservative mindset after a dissolute youth. He didn’t shout-down bad ideas with talking points as so many of today’s radio pundits do. He simply undermined them with an insight so wicked and quick that his victims could only smile at the beauty of their undressing.

I had the good fortune to meet the Chairman a couple of times, most notably at the conclusion of the 1986 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, when I found him holding court in the Gentlemen’s Bar at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton. The fleet had been trickling into port for more than a day and a raucous party was taking shape in a tent on the grounds above the host club’s docks. I couldn’t find elbow-room to freshen my glass, so I ducked indoors and encountered the Great Man and his shipmates, regaling the bartender with some salty story or another.

Just as I caught the bartender’s eye, all conversation stopped abruptly.

The most beautiful girl in the world had just entered the room and now stood between Buckley and I and the bartender, a dewy vision of girlish perfection in every aspect. I recognized her at once as a famous model whose young husband, a French count, had disappeared the year before in the China Strait while attempting a solo crossing by windsurfer. She blushed briefly at the attention, then fixing a vulnerable look upon the bartender, asked for a vodka and tonic.

The appalling quiet only grew deeper if that’s possible, and I became aware suddenly that the bartender, a genial islander with an obvious sense of protocol, had turned as white as a sheet.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but this is the Gentlemen’s Bar and I am not allowed to serve ladies in this room,” he stammered.

She appeared to have anticipated this possibility and turned up the charm with a heavy sigh, bosom heaving at the barbarity of such a custom, yet ripe with assurance that even men such as we would shortly yield to her elemental creature appeal. She’d clearly bettered better men and knew it. That was when I observed the faintest glow of damp rising at the base of her spine where a whole magnificent panoply of female flesh lay exposed above her cotton shorts and below a tank-top that even now haunts my dreams. Did I say this girl had it going on?

Buckley looked aghast, but he did that peculiar thing he always did with his tongue when relishing a potent riposte, and I sensed an ugly turn coming in our little tableaux. We’d all been at sea for three days and it was a truism that some men go ashore happy and some do not. Would he aid the barman or the maiden?

The barkeep stood his ground nervously, glancing at each of us in turn while wringing his hands limply, face pleading for a manly chorus to buck him up and enforce the old club’s orthodoxy. Buckley narrowed his eyes once or twice at the girl and toyed with his glass, as if measuring his words for maximum, visceral lethality.

I don’t to this day know why I did it or whether it was my rum speaking or some dumb, vestigial inclination to courtliness, but the next noise that I heard was my own voice saying, “Two drinks bartender: some of that dark rum, neat, and a vodka-tonic to go.”

“Yass, Suh! Coming right up,” he replied industriously, a sudden williwaw of liveried activity.

Buckley half-turned toward me, a mirthful smile lighting his famously reptilian eyes. “Touché, young friend.” He raised his glass in mock salute as I took up one the bartender had placed before me and handed it to the girl. She was pissed. I don’t know what I had expected from a stupidly gallant gesture that broke rules on every possible level. With a last gaze that bore right through me and into the polished mahogany paneling blocking my escape, she turned on her heel without so much as a thank-you and passed back into the rowdy yard, every eye in the room scrutinizing the last of her marvelous form, drinking her up and storing away for later reference—perhaps during a long, lonesome watch on the return voyage or, as in this recollection, many years later upon the death of a great American—our shared, momentary brush with something at once powerful, subversive and sublime.

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