From bomber planes to signal lights
by Tracy Press
Aug 26, 2006 | 790 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print

A few months before he died recently at the age of 88, Buck Wootten talked to me about the B-52 that had crashed east of Tracy in 1956. It was the 50th anniversary of the first crash of America’s primary nuclear-delivery airplane, and Buck was a Tracy motorcycle cop when the plane went down.

In recalling what it was like to see parts of the plane fall from the sky, Buck also told me how he became a traffic officer with the Tracy Police Department.

It was in 1951, soon after the Korean War had started in June 1950. Fred Paxson, a motorcycle cop who already was a legend in his own time (think an early-day Mike Reiter) had been called back into the U.S. Navy.

Buck was working as a lineman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. In his off-hours, he tooled around town on his motorcycle along with Gear Jammers like Willie Corso, Fred Hunt, Kenny Erlenbusch and Rich Mattos.

“Police Chief (Evan) Wyman called me on the phone one day and asked that I come down to his house (a block from Buck’s parents’ place on Berverdor Avenue). I thought, ‘What have I done now’”

At the Wyman home, he was greeted by the chief and his wife.

“Chief Wyman said he knew I could handle a motorcycle, and he needed someone to replace Fred Paxson. He asked me if I would be interested.”

Sure beats climbing utility poles, Buck quickly concluded, and within a few weeks he had a gun and badge and was riding a police motorcycle for a living. In those days, there were no long, drawn-out tests, interviews and training schools.

That started a 27-year career for Buck. He and the late John Dubitsky, the other motorcycle cop, became Tracy icons. They were highly visible, especially among the young hot-rod drivers and motorcycle riders, in what was then a much-smaller tank town. On Friday and Sunday afternoons, Buck and John could be seen operating the 11th Street signal lights manually to make sure weekend traffic on what was then a congested section of Highway 50 could make it through town as quickly as possible.

After a breather of several decades, following the completion in the 1970s of the interstate freeways encircling Tracy, that kind of congestion has returned to 11th Street, this time on weekdays, as more and more commuters take that route to avoid the Interstate 205 bottleneck.

If Buck and John were still around, they’d know how to get the traffic moving. But with all the signal lights on 11th Street nowadays, they’d need some reinforcements.

She’s back

Joan Sparks has returned to Tracy — more or less.

The former Tracy mayor and City Council member, who moved out of town a couple decades ago, moved to rural Tracy from Modesto in June to live with her son, Mike Sparks, and his wife, Chyanne, on Lammers Road west of town.

I talked to Joan on the phone a short time ago, and she told me she was really glad to be back in Tracy, a town that holds a special place for someone who has moved around the country so much. (After leaving here, she lived in Empire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and, finally, Modesto.)

But on Thursday when I called, her daughter-in-law reported that two days earlier Joan had been admitted to the hospital — Doctors Medical Center in Modesto — for treatment of a serious virus.

“Joan is very ill,” Chyanne told me.

I know there are a number of people in Tracy who have known Joan or have been affected by her work as council member and director of Good Samaritan Community Services. I’ll try to keep you informed on her progress.

Congrats are in order

Congratulations to members of Tracy High’s Class of 1951. They will gather tonight at the Elks Lodge for the class’ 55th anniversary reunion. (Last night, they got together at Betty and Louie Galli’s place on Platti Road north of town.)

While many Tracy High classes have periodic reunions, the Class of 1951 is unique for never missing one. They gather every five years — no matter what. The fact that the likes of Kathy Hariton, Betty Galli and Frank Lima (and others) work many months to plan the reunions and contact classmates guarantees their continuing, uninterrupted success. And Mike Erceg shows up from Colorado to make it official.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at

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