Death, fights and band nights. The Bucket’s ties to history

I like The Bucket. Although I’ve mixed emotions about the current slightly down-at-heels place, I loved the old one on the other side of the building, across from the main entrance to Henry Madden Library.

The old Bucket was roughly 60 feet long by about 20 feet wide. One wall was mostly floor to ceiling windows that looked out towards the library. An emergency exit door was next to the first window. The bar was in the southeast corner of the room. A doorway connected the bar area to the large cafeteria kitchen. Another door just to the left of the bar led to the cafeteria itself. The walls were bare except for a few posters advertising beer or athletics. There were three or four neon-lit beer logos hanging on the wall behind the bar. The floor was colored concrete squares that were easy to clean. The furniture was thoroughly trashed. My usual table was by the side exit door.

It was open between noon and midnight. Whenever I could, I’d have fish and chips at noon along with three half-liter carafes of wine, and then an evening nightcap of another three carafes of rose. I was such a steady customer that I almost never paid for the third carafe.

The bar was born after a bloody year in the mid-1970s. Within the space of a few months, three dormitory residents died in off-campus car crashes. Administrators looked at the carnage and decided it would be safer having a bar on campus so the “dormies” wouldn’t leave campus to drink alcohol. After a battle, it finally opened in late 1979 and enjoyed immediate popularity.

Why not? It had the cheapest beer and wine in town. It was always packed at lunch time and it wasn’t unusual for it to be full in the evenings. In the beginning, College Union Productions brought in live rock bands on Thursday nights.

Unfortunately, fights became a common occurrence on live band nights. Thankfully, they usually were out back in the parking lot. After a couple of years of unruliness, the live bands were replaced by the Sammy Schaeffer Memorial Swing Band.

Schaeffer was a lecturer in the music department who was immensely popular with students. He was, reputedly, as unpopular with the powers-that-be who fired him. Out of the ashes came the band. It played jazzed-up versions of popular swing tunes like “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “In The Mood.”

You had to get there early to get a chair and table. Standing-room only was the rule. My routine on band nights was first get my swim done and be on my way to the bar by eight o’clock. I’d walk in, say “hi” to everyone, grab a table and mark it with my gear bag, and then get a half-liter of tipple and a glass at the bar. Settling in my chair, I’d pop a book open and read until the music began.

The band’s playlist was a “What’s what” of swing from the World War II era. Songs like “In The Mood;” “American Patrol;” “Take The A Train;” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo;” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy;” “Begin The Beguine;” “One O’Clock Jump;” “Sentimental Journey;” just to name a few. It always felt like I was sitting in the officers’ club at an Eighth Air Force bomber airfield in England in 1944.

Sometimes, I imagined I’d hear a chorus of Pratt-Whitney aircraft engines ticking over outside. The band played two 45-minute sets and didn’t wrap the night up until well past 11 o’clock. I’d wander home to Bulldog Village afterwards.

I have lunch there occasionally when I have day classes. It’s an all-ages venue and the people I usually see drinking are Greeks. It doesn’t stay open late – it closes early unless there’s something special happening. That feeling of being back in 1944 sadly left a long time ago.

Dan Waterhouse writes The Collegian’s Campus Column, which prints on Wednesdays. Waterhouse  is a lifelong Fresnan. He has written for the Fresno City College and Fresno State student newspapers over the years, including other local publications. Follow him on Twitter:@WaterhouseDan

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