DOUG KRIKORIAN: It has been a long, eventful journey for Long Beach’s Buck Lanier
Vietnam, sports, mule treks down into the Grand Canyon — he’s seen it all.
By Doug Krikorian, Sports Columnist
Long Beach Press Telegram
Posted: 06/24/2010 06:21:26 PM PDT
Buck Lanier has been a fixture around Long Beach sports for decades.
BUCK ON BUCK:
Folks who passed through his program evoke fond memories
He is a spry 84, and the stories of his eventful life come out of him in a frenetic gusher of words that paints a diverse collage of pictures of Vietnam, NATO, Antarctic, sports officiating, newspapers and the 27 mule rides he’s taken at the Grand Canyon.
“As far as can be determined, I don’t think anyone has taken more mule rides in the Grand Canyon than I have,” he says proudly, his hazel eyes glowing behind his glasses. “And, if everything goes right, I plan to do it one more time.”
Buck Lanier is seated in a restaurant booth on a recent morning, a memoirist dressed in a gray suit with a blue shirt and stripped tie, a Renaissance Man who delved into myriad pursuits, a journalistic critic given to leaving lengthy critiques on the voice mail of local columnists, a character not meek about conveying compelling opinions on any subject.
For 31 years, the byline of this fascinating individual graced the pages of the Press-Telegram, as he covered everything from a horseshoe tournament in South Gate to NATO exercises in Europe to crimes in the Long Beach area to the Vietnam War when he was the paper’s military affairs editor.
“Went over to Vietnam four times for a total of about 22 months,” he says. “A lot of reporters stayed in Saigon, and got their stories done by 5 p.m.
We called them the stay-at-home guys. I never did that.
“I went out in the field a lot, and was with the Marines several times. I was there in December of 1967 in Qui Nhon Harbor when a battle raged after a trained dolphin used to protect the minesweepers killed a Vietcong swimmer. They brought in the Swift Boats when the Vietcong started attacking the base in seeking revenge for the death of their comrade.
“I was in the Enlisted Men’s Club when it all started. It was incredible. I went outside, where one of our sailors was firing a .30 caliber machine gun. I immediately ducked down, and began helping out the guy who was feeding it bullets. And then they brought in Puff The Magic Dragon Gun Ship (C-47) that shot off 6,000 rounds a minute, and the battle soon ended.
“I saw a lot of stuff over in Vietnam, a lot of death and tragedy. I once saw the New Jersey’s 16-inch guns hit their targets, which is a very frightening sight. What I found sad about the whole situation was I estimate about half of the reporters covering the war were hoping America would lose it – and not all of them were foreign reporters.”
While certainly Buck Lanier’s experience in Vietnam was quite memorable — he did interviews with many officers including the top one, Gen. William S. Westmoreland, and also dropped in a couple of times on Bob Hope’s USO shows – there is nothing he enjoys discussing more than his 50-year career as an official.
“I started it in when I was going to the University of Florida, and worked football and basketball,” says Lanier, who was in the Army and was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. during World War II. “Did high school sports throughout the late 1940 s and 1950 s. Always liked it from the start.”
The lure of softball officiating
But after arriving in Long Beach in 1963, his work schedule curtailed such activities, until after the Vietnam War was over when he turned his officiating skills to softball.
“I did a lot of men’s fast-pitch softball including many Long Beach Nitehawks games and also did a lot of Navy and service ball stuff,” says Lanier. “It was around the mid 70 s when high school girls’ fast pitch started to take off, but I also moved heavily into men’s and women’s and coed’s slow pitch.”
That spurred Buck Lanier to start the Long Beach Officials Association (LBOA) in 1976, and he assigned games to such people as Chad Brown, who’s been an NFL official now for 16 seasons, and Violet Palmer, who’s been an NBA official now for 11 seasons, to softball games in the area.
“Buck’s hysterical,” Palmer was quoted in a Referee Magazine feature done on Lanier in 2005. “I was doing softball for him in Carson, working two or three times a week. When I got the phone call for my first major basketball game, I was nervous to call Buck because it would mean I’d have to turn back a game. Most assigners don’t want to hear that, but Buck was ecstatic – probably more excited than I was. My career took off from there, but Buck always called to check up on me. Mind you, Buck would always say, ‘You get some availability, you call me.”‘
Buck Lanier disbanded the LBOA in 2006, but still umpired high school softball games right up to March 15, 2005 when, as he was working the bases, he twisted around and broke the femur in his right leg.
“That was the end of my officiating career,” says Lanier, who says the cane he now uses is a memento from that injury. “Had a lot of great, memorable moments and a lot of fun.”
Buck Lanier also has had a lot of fun in another characteristically unique manner.
Some people like jumping out of airplanes, others enjoy rock climbing and still others opt for bungee jumping.
But Buck Lanier, he savors riding mules from the south rim of the Grand Canyon on a 10-mile descent to the Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River and then making the 7.7 mile return trip up a steeper but straighter trail.
“A long time ago, a friend of a friend of mine said how great it was to ride a mule in the Grand Canyon, and I became intrigued by the idea,” says Lanier. “And so I tried it. And liked it. Eleven times I did it with the same mule — Shiloh. The last time was in 1999.”
William Buck Lanier was born in Philadelphia on April 17, 1924, but grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., in a family that included three sisters and a brother.
He was quite a tennis player in high school, but the strapping 6-foot-2 youngster also was smitten with the newspaper business.
A life-long Gator
After concluding his college studies at Florida, he worked at dailies in Jacksonville and Tallahassee before going out to New Mexico where he was employed in such hamlets as Clovis, Carlsbad and Roswell.
He was in the latter locale in 1954 when a player for the local minor league team, the Roswell Rockets, named Joe Bauman established a professional baseball home run record with 72 that stood until Barry Bonds crashed 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.
“I was actually working and at the ballpark the evening Joe Bauman hit his 72 nd home run,” relates Lanier. “We became good friends.”
Buck Lanier eventually departed New Mexico, and hooked on with the El Paso Times, where he remained for seven years.
It was during this time that he began drinking heavily when he’d get off his shift at 11 p.m., going over the Mexican border to Juarez where he often stayed in bars until 5 in the morning.
“Did a lot of drinking in those days,” he says “Loved Jack Daniel’s. But one morning I woke up with a terrible pain in the side of my stomach. I knew it wasn’t my appendix because I already had it taken out. Went to the doctor, and his diagnosis wasn’t promising. He said, ‘Buck, you’re going to have cirrhosis of the liver in six months, and be dead within a year if you continue your drinking.’ And so I stopped drinking.”
Buck Lanier had his last taste of alcohol on Oct. 24, 1962.
“Forty-six years I’ve been clean,” he says proudly. “And never had a serious urge to go back to it.”
He soon would depart El Paso, and would wind up in Long Beach.
“Started work at the P-T on July 15, 1963,” he says. “Had a great time during my stint with the paper. Retired in 1994. There are so many great stories I can tell you like the time I was covering a NATO operation in the North Atlantic.
“I went to introduce myself to Joseph Luns, who was Secretary-General of NATO at the time. This was the height of the Cold War, and I said, ‘You know Mr. Secretary-General, we’re going to have to go nuke if they come across the Kola Peninsula.’ And he responded, ‘Just remember, you’re the one who said that.’ I didn’t even know a guy from BBC was there shooting it.
“Well, that BBC feed goes through CBS back to America and they have on the screen ‘Buck Lanier of the Long Beach Press-Telegram interviews Secretary-General of NATO Jose Luns. It all took place in about 14 seconds.”
One would need to tear down all the trees in the Sequoia National Park – incidentally, Lanier has visited 35 of this country’s national parks – to get enough paper to write down all of Lanier’s anecdotes.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life,” he says with a smile.
But what Buck Lanier did best was his work as a reporter.
The true professional
“Buck was a stalwart here, a veteran newsman and true professional who could handle every assignment,” says the Press-Telegram’s executive editor, Rich Archbold. “What stands out especially is his reporting from Vietnam, especially about bringing stories about the local soldiers to the homefront.”
Buck Lanier lives a more tranquil existence these days — among many other things, he twice went to the South Pole and endured 57 below zero temperatures — at the Brethren Manor senior citizens residence in Long Beach where he lives in a one bedroom apartment.
He says his overseas traveling days might not be finished.
“I’d still like to go on a photo safari in South Africa,” he says.
He keeps busy reading newspapers daily, gabbing with old journalistic and officiating friends and attending the monthly Oldtimers Baseball luncheons at the Petroleum Club.
“I’ve had a great life,” he says. “It certainly hasn’t been boring. I’ve always been doing something, and that’s not going to stop. I want to be, for sure, the oldest person ever to ride a mule in the Grand Canyon.”
doug.krikorian (at) presstelegram.com
Editor’s note: For my own personal anecdote about Buck Lanier, see the bottom of The Editor’s Page.