Copyright 1999 Robert E. Horseman, DDS
(Permission to use requested; one party says he thinks it’s o.k.)
I used to have a plan for what I would do if I ever came face-to-face with a real celebrity. Cool, I decided, would be the way to go. Never let them see that you’re impressed, no obsequious toadying. No fawning, just detached coolness. So much for planning. When I came across the first and only celebrity I’ve ever met, I saluted, called him “Sir” and nearly became incontinent.
It’s early morning, summer of 1944, Livermore Naval Air Station, California. I’m sitting in the rear cockpit of an N-2S Stearman primary trainer, commonly called “The Yellow Peril.” Yellow, because that’s the color of it; Peril, because there are thousands of them here at NAS Livermore, and they’re all trying to either take off or land on the mile square mat fronting the control tower.
As an AvCad-V-5, my job is to sit here, strapped in, helmeted and goggled, on a concrete parachute. There are 100 Stearmans on the flight line this morning, engines warming up, ticking over noisily. Along with the other cadets, I am awaiting the arrival of The Man. The Man is my flight instructor. He is God and I am an Idiot; it’s a relationship all cadets accept as normal.
Threading his way carefully between the whirling props, supporting his chute behind him with both hands, God approacheth. Navy protocol requires that, upon his recognition that I am alive, I pop him a smart salute and yell out, “Cadet Horseman, SIR!” Preparing to mount the front cockpit, he looks up, expressionless, returning the salute and that’s when it happens!
My God! My instructor today is Spangler Arlington Brugh! That’s right, Spangler Arlington Brugh, a.k.a. Robert Taylor, movie star, matinee idol, billed as “The Man With the Perfect Profile” and husband of Barbara Stanwyck. Only the fact that I’m securely pinioned in my seat prevents me from making a perfect fool of myself by leaping out to kiss the hem of his garment. We are going flying, me and a movie star. Alone, in an airplane, Bob and Bob.
Taylor doesn’t seem to notice my absence of cool. He tells me via the gosport tube that connects his mouthpiece to my earphones to taxi out, take off and climb to 2,000 feet south of the field. That voice! The same plummy baritone that knocked ’em dead in the 1935 version of “Magnificent Obsession,” caused Vivien Leigh to swoon in “Waterloo Bridge,” broke the heart of Deborah Kerr in “Quo Vadis,” and inflamed both Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine in “Ivanhoe.” That same voice is telling me to turn right 30 degrees. I could die!
Lt. Taylor doesn’t seem to be in the mood for routine instruction today. He demonstrates an “8 point slow roll.” It’s perfect. Thank heaven he doesn’t ask me to do one. We then go to an outlying field used to practice “S turns to a circle” and “slips to a circle.” He demonstrates one of each. I have done this a hundred times, but again, he doesn’t ask me to show my stuff. I’m beginning to wonder — is he trying to impress me? Me? Does he think that because he’s a movie star everybody thinks he can’t really hack it in the Navy? That it’s just a cushy assignment until the war’s over?
He suddenly elects to land on the grassy field, gets out and motions me to do likewise. We stand there for a moment, side by side. I’m acutely aware that he is short — five-seven, maybe eight with lifts. I feel like scrunching down to his level from my six-one. He offers me a cigarette; I decline, embarrassed. Then I think, you moron! That cigarette would have made a priceless souvenir. He’s 33 years old; I’m 24 and feel like 6. While he’s lighting up, I study him, looking for flaws that I can report back to show how unimpressed I was, how cool. There aren’t any. Hair, complexion, voice — he’s got it all. OK, so he’s a little short. Maybe he has to stand on a box like Alan Ladd when he busses these women. If Barbara Stanwyck can live with that, it’s no skin off my nose.
I’ll say this: He’s not much of a conversationalist. I have to say something. He’s finished one cigarette and is lighting up another.
“It’s a strange war, isn’t it, Sir?” I offer.
“Hmmm,” he says in his Taylor voice.
“I mean, here I am, a dentist from Laguna Beach and you a movie star from Hollywood flying primary trainers in Livermore.”
“Hmmm,” he says. I was hoping for more, like “How come you’re not doing dentistry?” or “Would you mind taking a look at this molar? It’s been bothering me.” Maybe without a script, he hasn’t a clue. I can’t even get a good look at his teeth to see if they’re capped.
We fly back to the base, stick our Yellow Peril in with the others and manage to land safely. Once out of the plane, he offers his hand, we shake, salute and he’s gone. That’s the last I ever see of him, walking away, supporting his chute with one hand and trying to get at his cigarettes with the other.
Later I learn that I am his last student at Livermore before he departs to narrate a documentary about the USS Enterprise, called “The Fighting Lady.” Twenty-five years later in 1969 he is dead at 57 of lung cancer. I blame myself for not pointing out to him on that grassy field that all Perils weren’t necessarily Yellow, that he should quit smoking right then, cold turkey. Then maybe he and I and Barbara could go out for some Chinese and a movie. But I guess that wouldn’t have been cool.
Short? Who’s short?
I think Dr. Horseman exaggerated Mr. Taylor’s lack of height to enhance the humor of the piece. Taylor was probably 5’11”–not hugely tall but definitely not short. My husband is 5’11” so I know whereof I speak. I offer two pieces of evidence: