Fat Bob, Patriot

Memorial Day remembrance of a friend, by L. E. Taylor

By 1965, the J. P. McCarthy drive-time radio shows were the highest rated in the Midwest. Boomed from WJR-Detroit (“The Great Voice of the Great Lakes”), they were part ‘platter’ with a lot of chatter. The afternoon “Focus” show was also call-in. One afternoon, as a novelty, J.P. played part of a recording by Robert Merrill, power-tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Merrill had begun to get visibility as an occasional National Anthem performer for the Yankees.

McCarthy’s phone lines lit up and he took the oddest of the listeners, a plumber calling from a job site. Bob Taylor had a Master Plumber’s license, but singing was his passion. He informed a disbelieving J.P. McCarthy that Merrill had not sung the aria properly. With a hint of patronizing amusement, McCarthy asked, so how should he have sung it?

Taylor took a chest-full of wind and sent the needles on the control panel flying, along with the producer’s headset. With Bob’s credibility established, the conversation resumed. This was the beginning of what’s known in showbiz as the Big Break. Call-ins by “The Singing Plumber” became frequent, and he quickly became a regular, over the years, booking the show’s most appearances of any celebrity.

By summer, Fat Bob, the Singing Plumber had become the star National Anthem guy for the Detroit Tigers, then special guest performer at Lions and Red Wing events. The new descriptor, “Fat,” was Bob’s own invention. He was blessed with a handsome photogenic mug, adorned with trimmed black Van Dyke, and a full head of well barbered hair. He could sing both tenor and baritone, each clear and strong. And sensual. He was judged more romantic than Robert Goulet, more elegant than John Gary, and even more robust than Merrill of the Met.

But Bob Taylor was five-foot-three. Furthermore, he had a hard, muscular 52-inch waistline that brought to mind not Sir Lancelot, but the Vernor’s Gnome. So, with good humor and fearless brio, a great singer re-packaged himself and got on with his own American dream.

When my Dad and I took my son Christopher to his first game at Tiger Stadium in 1970, the place was SRO and we sat in the second deck, well down the left field line. The field cleared of player warm ups, and presently a tiny, round speck of a fellow strode across the infield and up onto the pitcher’s mound. The spectators were still; we stood at attention and faced the flag. He adjusted the mike downward and, a cappella, Bob Taylor did his thing. Instantly, we saw the rockets’ red glare as never before. Our hearts pounded with the peril of the nightlong bombardment. When Bob completed his magic before 55,000 citizens in “the home of the brave,” the cry of “Play ball!” jolted us back to reality. I looked at Dad. Eyes moist, he choked out, “Nobody does it better than that.”

It happened that Bob Taylor lived in Ann Arbor. Not only that, he lived in a modest house just one block from mine. We’d never met. One September afternoon in 1976 I walked up to his front door. From inside came a powerful double-woof. When the door came ajar the first thing I saw was the massive head of a St. Bernard, about belt buckle high. Bob moved the giant brute away by her studded collar and peered out at me. He wore bib overalls and a friendly smile. His free hand was on the vacuum cleaner he’d been running athletically when the bell rang. He mopped his face with a bandana.

I introduced myself and came to the point. My Dad, Elgan Taylor, had been dying of cancer for most of the year and would be leaving us within the next week. He’d always believed that Fat Bob was the greatest singer he’d ever heard personally, and I wondered if Bob would sing at his funeral. Quickly, Bob said, yes… emphatically yes!

In a few days, I dropped off the music. I’d had to make a few small changes to Stephen Foster’s 19th century classic “My Old Kentucky Home”. Bob said, “Consider this job done, my friend. I know where the funeral home is, I’ll be on time, just say when, and we’ll send your dad off in style.”

And he did. I gave the eulogy without embarrassing myself, and Fat Bob replaced me at the lectern. Everyone was thrilled with his soft, keening operatic rendition of ‘Old Kentucky Home’. When he glanced at my mother and smiled gently on the brave words, “Weep no more, my la-dy…” it took one’s breath away.

After a career of regional fame, appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, offers from the NY Met (declined), a couple of successful pop albums, and plenty of Las Vegas exposure, Fat Bob passed away in 1995. He’d hosted a mid-day radio show of his own in Ann Arbor, then bought a farm in the rolling green Michigan countryside not far away. He raised his own produce… and some goats.

There’s more, but on this Memorial Week, I must leave you with my favorite memory of Fat Bob Taylor. He was a red-white-and-blue patriot. He disapproved of the Vietnam War, as we all did, but he despised even more the radical America-haters and their attempts, both violent and subversive, to destroy our nation and our institutions. Occasionally, when the notion struck, he would adjust the mike at Tiger Stadium and deliver an unexpected stanza from “The Star Spangled Banner”. This is what we heard:

Oh, thus be it ever, when free men must stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Power that made and preserved our great nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.
And let this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Yes, it was the flag-burning, tantrum-ridden, dope-smoking sixties and seventies, and yes the final verse was in-your-face defiant. But the singer knew his heart and his audience. No one ever told him don’t do that. (Nobody could sing along with him anyway.)

Bob Taylor had decided long ago what was right and where his heart belonged. And he was a Canadian.




The Writer Doubts

Self-analysis of self-analysis, with a bittersweet ending, by L.E. Taylor

One of my adult students chimed in with a haunting question a few weeks ago.

I’d been guiding a class of rookie writers through the editing drill, and had remarked that you will never have perfection, only a satisfactory product of the best you can do at that moment. I concluded that a useful first step to self-editing is incubation; simply put the piece aside for a time, then come back to it. A work’s merit may be more sharply apparent when you’re able to see with the objectivity of a reader, and not the biases of the writer.

Then Sarah asked, “When you’ve spent years writing a long book like Elgan and Grace, and then come back and read it a couple of years later, how would you handle discovering any weak parts that you’d missed?”

I replied, “Don’t go back and read it.”

It got a laugh, and I was half-clowning, but the fact remains; it would be uncomfortable. We outgrow ourselves. So, because we learn to write by writing, there is plenty of reason to “go back” – foremost, to do penance on the sweat-stained treadmill of self-improvement.

But in truth, I have been silently vexed for two years by a suspicion that I’d left vacancies in the narrative of my book. Specifically, should I have defined more clinically the secret flaws that brought down the book’s protagonist?

This exchange with my student, Sarah, returned to mind unexpectedly last week. I was driving a thirty minute stretch on my way to coach another workshop of writers in another town. The radio was tuned to the Dennis Prager Show, a civilized, intelligent potpourri of discussion and opinion. Dennis was talking with Drew Pinski, M.D., a noted researcher in the pathologies of celebrity, and counsellor to many high-profile people.

Dennis asked “Dr. Drew” how ‘de-toxing’ from celebrity-addiction compares to detoxification from substance abuse? For example, to heroin?

The doctor’s reply (that it’s virtually impossible), was not as interesting to me as his explanation of why. He said that all addictions occur as a means of filling an “emptiness.” He said this empty place has been created in many cases by a trauma, often early in life.

Dr. Drew based his conclusions about a person’s addiction to the drug of “fame” upon his own research, documented over the years – so his remarks were more than opinions. He said that success with any de-tox needs two components: faith, and abundant interaction with other people. These must both be in play to fill the emptiness left by the lost “drug”. Healing takes a long time and is never complete.

My mind darted back to its doubts. Had I told enough to solve the mystery of Elgan?

Finally, Prager’s guest gave reasons for his gloomy prospects of curing celebrity-addiction. He cited the two root causes of one’s drive for fame: 1) through obsessive hard work and single-minded ambition to excel, a person hones skills that can lead to fabulous success; or 2) a person simply has a raw obsession to be famous.

Both paths are highly competitive and high risk, carrying huge “liabilities.” Dr. Drew pointed out that for celebrity #1, fame is a by-product –the cellist or the research chemist or the Olympic swimmer love what they do and the more they work at it the better they become. For celebrity #2, there is only a narcissistic hunger for the spotlight.

A person like Elgan has no interest in applause. Although he takes pride in his integrity, his family, and the careful grooming of a personal style, the phoniness of a spotlight means nothing. The man, Elgan, simply loved his work, and his accomplishments filled the vacuum. Much like a great musician or a world-class champion. And the empty place stays filled… as long as the work continues.

But, doubts still lurked in my mind: had the author fully explained the cause and effect of his hero’s fall? Or somehow did the tale of Elgan and Grace play out with enough subtext to inform a serious reader?

The author wrestles with this. And then… another story percolates through the fog of memory.

Ernest Hemingway’s short stories were known for their lean prose. Once, “Papa” was challenged to write the world’s shortest story. He took a day, and returned with a six word story:

Baby bed for sale. Never used.

I feel better now.




MD-Eleven Don

This isn’t the way it was supposed to go – Reflections by L. E. Taylor

When you’re born six years before the other kids in the family, you get a skewed worldview. You don’t know what a child is. You only know you want one to play with. That was me. I wanted a brother. I wanted his name to be Jim.

My wish was granted on September 11, 1940, a couple of days after my tonsils came out. Recuperating at my grandma’s house, I was pretty much absorbed with my sore throat. But I got the word that cheered me up. I had a brother.

What a disappointment. He was a tiny bald doll, wrapped in a bunch of blankets. And his name was… Don.

By the time he was old enough to play with me I wasn’t very interested. Neither was he. I was twelve and for the past five years my interest in my little brother was merely to keep him from destroying himself or somebody else. Donnie was a handful.

In those green years, and for the next sixty, we had one trait in common, influenced by our mother, Grace – a ready sense of humor. Absurdity, irony, irreverence, and self-deprecation were our maternal inheritance. It was frequently edgy, but we sure made each other laugh. The reader will have to take my word for it. Maybe it will be subject of another book.

Don Howard Taylor somehow morphed into a highly-qualified U.S. Naval aviator. For years, he flew missions around the globe – to the Vietnam warzone a dozen times, on patrol across the Mediterranean and over the Caribbean, long distance missions of mercy. His military years having served their purpose, Don applied his work ethic and love of flying to self-interest. In what seemed a twinkling, he was a fast-track pilot at Delta Airlines.

Don worked relentlessly at upgrading his skills, always flying the most advanced equipment his company put into service. Finally, Don’s talent led him from the Lockheed 1011 to international flights, both Atlantic and Pacific, as captain of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-Eleven.

I admired my kid brother more than I can say, and I told him so. He brushed it off; said he only followed the rules and did what he was told, that I had chosen a harder path.

That’s what happens when brothers love each other.

A lifetime later, I’m brotherless again. For more than ten years now. It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

Captain Don’s overdue memorial at the columbarium in the San Diego Military Cemetery is taking place on Monday, 05 May 2014. I am there, though only in spirit, and I look forward to seeing him again, God willing, in the company of our loved ones.

There will be laughter.