Robert Guy Barrows

Letter from Floyd Barrows

The brother I remember – random memories evoked by the events of January 2008:

For the past 40 to 50 years, Bob and I exchanged phone calls on our birthdays.  He would call me on December 5th and I would call him on February 9.

Many times Bob would call on December 4th and then apologize for getting the day wrong; but as time went on he managed to get me on the right date.  Sometimes, I would be out when he called, and I would call him back.  He would say that I was paying for my own birthday present then.

On these calls, we would exchange the necessary greetings, and then talk about all manner of stuff, from each other’s health and welfare to the state of the union.  But we never developed any kind of “debate” that was much more common when we were together.

I was never sure how Bob treated my calls to him; once, just a few years ago, I called and he had already gone to bed.  Jeri told him I was on the phone and he got up and took the call.  This was one of our shorter telephone visits.  Yet seldom did we ever talk more than ten minutes.  We are still of the generation that treats long-distance calls gingerly because it is costlier than local calls.

I soon reached the point where the high point of my birthday was the call from Bob.  If he missed both the 4th and the 5th, I tried to reassure myself that he was busy, out of town, or some other perfectly valid reason for not calling.  But then on the 6th, there was the call with the apology for missing the correct day.

The relationship between Bob and me over the years was always close – but at arms length.  As kids, we tended to fight a lot – most of the time it was Bob and Jim versus Floyd.  I could always play with Jim; but with Bob, there was usually something above play between us.  He allowed me into his room on occasion – Jim and I always had the same room; Bob had his own.  He would have some kind of chemistry experiment, or electrical experiment, or something else that would put me in awe of him.  He was the big brother.  It was expected that he would be the one to take care of his two younger brothers whenever the need arose.

When our parents separated in 1937, with Mom taking me and Jim to Laramie, Bob stayed with his Dad in Ft. Collins.  To me that continued to represent his “big brother” status.  I was certain that I would never grow into that level of prestige and authority.

In 1938, Bob came to Laramie to live with Mom, Jim and me.  To this day, I do not know why he left Dad to live with us.  But it was clear that Bob was parent in absentia because Mom had to work long hours to pay the rent and buy groceries, etc.  Since she was working as a waitress in the different restaurants in Laramie, that meant that frequently it was Bob who got us up and saw that we had breakfast and got ready for school.  By then, Laramie High School and the Junior High School occupied the same building, so Bob and I would walk up to school together, but we never saw each other during school.  He was always up there ahead of me.

One of my childhood fantasies about Bob was our ages.  He was always 2 numbers ahead of me except for the short period between December 5th and February 9th.  Then I would gain one number on him; and I felt I was getting close to being even with him.  But I always knew that he would jump ahead again.  It was part of the vertical relationship we had – he was always the bigger and I was always the little brother.

When he took up the saxophone, Mom tried to get Jim and me to practice learning the piano.  This piano thing had started before the family broke up.  Bob was taking piano lessons with a real piano teacher in Ft. Collins.  Once I got to go with him – the teacher had a new album of 12-inch 78rpm records she wanted Bob to listen to.  As I recall, it was pretty heavy stuff – for me anyway; but Bob sat dutifully attentive.  The teacher talked to him in a language that seemed way too smart for me.  I knew I could never reach that level.

So my lessons on the piano never matured into anything useful.  Jim put only a token effort.  And there was Bob, way ahead of me on the saxophone.  And then one day he came home wearing the High School band uniform.  I was awestruck; but I sure wanted to wear that uniform.

The Boy Scouts was the same thing.  Bob was a real Boy Scout; I was only a blue and gold cub scout.  Jim was put into the cub scouts, but never got a full uniform like mine; he never cared much for anything organized anyway.  But Bob went on to earn rank after rank, and merit badge after merit badge.  And continued playing the saxophone.  My favorite memory is Bob playing “Sweet Sue” and our terrier mutt, Butch, with his nose next to the sax bell, howling up a storm.

At the beginning of the summer in 1941, Bob went to El Paso to visit with our Dad who had been called up to his reserve rank of Lieutenant.  Dad was at the new recruit center established at Ft. Bliss for the processing of new recruits who would then be sent off somewhere for basic training.  Finally, in August, Jim and I got to go to El Paso also.  We three were supposed to head back to Laramie in time to start school in early September.

But Mom’s mother died the day Jim and I left Laramie.  We were told about it by our stepmother, Bill, when they got us to the house.  All our lives changed.  Mom moved to Los Angeles.  And for the next 2-3 years, Bob, Jim and I would be shuffled back and forth between Los Angeles and El Paso.  Bob graduated from Huntington Park High School in 1943 and by that fall was in the army.  After basic training at Fort Ord, he was sent to Stanford in a program that would give him a couple of years of college credits and an officer rank.  But he didn’t like the pressure and I think deliberately flunked out.  He was transferred to what became the 10th Mountain Division; and in mid- or late 1944 he was sent to a camp in Texas.  Jim and I were with Dad in Paris, Texas, and got to go down to Ft. Worth to visit Bob while he was between trains.  That was a real big thing: two young brats walking around with a real soldier.

In 1945, after graduation, I went to Navy boot camp and would spend 4 years 9 months and 24 days in the Navy.  Bob and I got together for a night on the town when he came home after he was discharged.  He was in his uniform, a Master Sergeant, with ribbons over his left pocket and the “ruptured duck” over his right pocket.  After several hours of really hanging one on, we ended up in a cafe not far from our mother’s home.  It was around 3 or 4 in the morning, and we badly needed to sober up before going home.  The only other people in the cafe was an army captain and his pick-up he was desperately trying to seduce.  But he saw Bob, who at the time appeared to be about 16 or 17 years old, wearing the uniform of a Master Sergeant with combat ribbons.  The captain made snide remarks, Bob went over to him and the captain stood up.  2 seconds later, the captain was on the floor rubbing his chin; Bob was standing over him fists clenched.  I grabbed Bob and pulled him out of there before the MPs showed up.

I think that was the first time I ever felt I was Bob’s equal.  We were both military; we were both adult men; we had gotten drunk together.  The next day I had to return to duty, my liberty over.  I wouldn’t see Bob like that again for some time.

We wrote occasionally while I was still in service.  And Bob went to college.  He sent me letters telling me what I had to do to get ready for college.  There it was again – my big brother telling me what to do.  But I listened – every letter from Bob and I would go pick up the book he would recommend.  In the next two years, I pretty well covered my freshman year in college.  When I finally got to college, it all seemed so familiar.

I was discharged from the Navy in January 1950 and promptly went to Colorado Springs where our mother was living.  Bob promptly called and talked me into coming up to Boulder.  He and Bess were renting this tiny little cottage – the only actual rooms were the kitchen and bathroom off the kitchen.  There was a living area we called a room; and an open space to their bed area.  So they hung a blanket and I bunked down on a daybed that passed for a couch.  I would stay in Boulder until the summer of 1952.

Bob helped me enroll at the U that Spring term; and promptly took me to the theater tryouts – the play was Chekov’s “Squaring the Circle”.  I had never read for a play in my life – but I found my name being called to get up and read for a part.  Bob had filled out a card with my name – and without telling me.  Faced with embarrassment if I didn’t rise and pick up the book, I went forward and read the requested lines.  I didn’t get any part, but I ended up on the stage crew and doing publicity.

Bob graduated the next summer, and he and Jim – Jim had come to Boulder that year because Bob had urged him to – and Bess jumped in a used car they bought and drove east to crash into the New York theater world.  Of course, they didn’t make a dent.  But they got an apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey – and one day I got a phone call to send money so they could come back to Colorado.  I borrowed $50 from the campus credit union – the U’s theater director co-signed the note.

Bob and I went our separate ways in the years that followed.  I ended up in LA; Bob was doing his master’s work at UCLA; I got a job and met Jean; married Jean; had a son in 1954 (Bruce); and that Fall enrolled at UCLA.  Bob graduated with his master’s and went on the road for a company that would help local groups put on shows.

In subsequent years, we drifted physically apart, but always kept in touch writing notes and sometimes long letters debating weighty issues of the universe and humanity.  But the birthday phone calls always were there. 

So, Bob, wherever you are now, this is my call to you on your birthday, February 9, 2008.  I have to write it because I can’t be present in person with all your family to share in your spirit.  But in the words of that old World War II song, “We’ll Meet Again…don’t know where or don’t know when…but come what may, we’ll meet again someday.”

Your loving brother, Floyd.