Jeff Tayler’s eulogy for his dad

Jeff Tayler, writer, Atlantic correspondent, and erstwhile publisher of stridently atheistic essays in Salon, wrote a godless “eulogy” for his father’s recent funeral. This is a 1200-word condensation of what he wrote and delivered, and I wanted to put it up here.

Eulogy for My Father, Charles William Tayler – a Progressive Man

 Buffalo, NY, November 13, 1923 – Washington, D.C., December 3, 2017.

Charles William Tayler

We’re having a secular service for my father today, Charles William Tayler, because he was a nonbeliever. I had confirmation of this a couple of years ago, when one of his caretakers asked him if she could “talk to him about Jesus.” My father answered, “No! I’m an atheist!” He was a person of integrity and a rationalist and a realist. You could count on him in a crisis to give you his honest opinion.

The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, he was extremely diminished. He had lived to be ninety-four. He told me, “I’m in the final stages of life.” He said that with a smile on his life. He was not resisting his fate.

He used to tell me, as he approached the age of sixty-five, that “You know when I was a kid, the Roosevelt Administration adopted social security, and set the age for pensions at sixty-five. We all said, ‘this is a scam! No one lives to be sixty-five!’ But I see people living longer and longer, and I’m concerned that I not be a financial or a personal burden on you.” And he told me about his living will and something new at the time – his advance directive. He said, “If I have a heart attack on the tennis court, I don’t want to be revived.”

He was concerned throughout his life that he answer for himself and that his children answer for themselves. As a result this meant at times that his spirit would come out in ways that people might not have fully understood. When he saw someone with a cane or in a wheelchair, he would say, “your life is over if you have to use a cane or a wheelchair!” But when he did end up using a cane and a wheelchair, he accepted it.

Cicero wrote that we should reap and gather the fruits of life as they come. My father did this. It might sound clichéd to say that he led an extraordinary life. But he rose phoenix-like from the ashes of a serious of crises in the middle of his life to have a second half of life that would have been the envy of anybody. He met those challenges with courage. And soldiered on. And I use that verb advisedly.

My father was born in 1923 in Buffalo, New York, to a British-Canadian father and to our grandmother, who was born in Bagheria, Sicily, although she avoided discussing her Italian past. She would say, “I’m an American! I’m as American as anybody here!” That was the idea back then. Immigrants tried to blend in and feel that they were Americans, with a common purpose. She was a smart, tough woman. At a time when few women went to college, she graduated from a state university in New York with a chemistry degree.

When my father reached his mid-teen years, his mother asked him to go to the Catholic priest at the local church and be confirmed. My father went to the priest, listened to him, and came back saying “I’m not going to be confirmed. I don’t believe in it, and it’s not good for the world we live in that people have these religious views.”

When the Second World War broke out, he had just lost his father to stomach cancer. He went to his mother and said “I’m going to enlist!” She said, “No, wait until you’re drafted! You can’t leave me here!” He told her, “I’m going to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot.” She broke down and fell onto the bathroom floor, sobbing, saying “you can’t do this to me! I have your sister to raise, and I’ve just lost your father! I don’t have a way to make a living anymore!” Nevertheless, my father left with his friends from the University of Rochester to enroll in the Air Force, but they wouldn’t take him because of his vision. He enlisted in the Army. They put him in the Army Corps of Engineers.

He ended up in Patton’s Third Army, where he served as a combat engineer and machine-gun crew chief. He landed in France. He and his unit followed a route that led through France and Germany, and he witnessed the liberation of Dachau. He told me about what it was like to be an occupier. The Germans had surrendered, of course. When American soldiers would go out in the evening to get drunk, everyone wanted their business. But going home, they could count on gangs of German guys waiting to beat them up.

He returned to graduate from the University of Rochester. He then went to Harvard Law School on the G.I. Bill, and finished in 1949. Then he moved down to the District of Columbia. He had to pass the bar, but he had no income. So he worked on construction sites all day and studied all night. He had decided to become a lawyer because he believed in due process of law.

He worked for the Justice Department as special counsel investigating the corrupt congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, he went on to co-found Sachs, Greenbaum, and Tayler, and later worked with Whiteford, Taylor, and Preston. He had quite a few major clients, including the McDonnell Douglas corporation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Watergate building, and Dale Carnegie and Associates. Sometimes they were controversial, with a lot of write-up in the press—as when the Saudis wanted to buy F-16 fighter jets. They still do buy F-16 fighter jets, but they first did so with legal counsel from Sachs, Greenbaum and Tayler.

When his law firm broke apart in the 1980s, my father said that he was under the most pressure that he had ever experienced in his life. But he told me, “Don’t worry about it. There are much worse things in life.” He had seen the poverty of the Depression in Buffalo and Europe destroyed after the war.

When my sister and I were starting our school years, he and my mother decided to send us to the first integrated school in Washington, D.C. —Georgetown Day School. We didn’t think anything of it. You go to school with people of different races and religions, and you don’t know that there are these prejudices. At one point I asked my father, “Dad, you sent us to an integrated school. How did you and mom come to decide that?” And he said, “Well, we knew that integration was the future of the country. We were not going to start you off in an environment where you would develop prejudices.” I asked him, “were you prejudiced?” His response: “I once had prejudices that were inconsistent with the future we wanted for this country.” So he changed his views. At a party he was hosting, my father also welcomed one of the first openly gay attorneys in Washington, and took great care to make sure he felt comfortable.

My father, up until 2008, lived up to François de La Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “Few people know how to be old.” He accepted the fruits of each age as they came to him, just as Cicero urged us to do. His ashes will be interred at the Arlington National Cemetery Columbarium, with, as he requested, the words “Sergeant — U.S. Army WW II” inscribed under his name.

The last time I saw him, he seemed resigned and content. He was happy to see me.

I’ll miss him.

*******

Jeffrey Tayler
Delivered on December 9, 2017 at Ingleside at Rock Creek, Washington, D.C.

24 Comments

  1. Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Very nicely done.

  2. GBJames
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Nice words.

  3. Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful

  4. nicky
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Great eulogy.

  5. Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Terrific. His Dad and mine we almost the same age (I lost my Dad in 2010 at 86). My Dad was a WWII combat vet (35 missions, a full tour, in the 8th Air Force (USAAF), navigating B-24s over Germany). And he was a USAF (single-A) officer during the Korean War and Vietnam War eras.

    I can relate to Mr. Tayler, based on knowing my Dad.

    In many ways, that was a special generation. Much was asked; much was given.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      It was the greatest generation. These are the people who lived through the depression, mostly poor with nothing and then joined up and went overseas to beat Hitler and Hirohito. No other generation did so much and asked for so little. They are nearly all gone now and we will miss them.

      • Blue
        Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Every day. I miss Daddy every single day.
        Next Friday ‘d ‘ve been his 98th.
        Dead waaaay, way too soon at age 72. y1992.

        Pilot shot down behind Japanese lines
        inside the Himalayan theatre. Told me as a
        wee kiddo, “I have walked the World over.
        There are people everywhere who get up every
        single morning and go out and do the Right
        Thing. And they have never heard of any
        gods.” Some Chinese found and saved him,
        his radio, nursed him back to health and
        four months later using that radio, silently
        escorted him through the mountains and back
        to his people. Spent an entire lifetime
        thereafter asking, Randall, “for so little.”

        Aside from my three sons, the awesomest man
        I have ever known … … my Daddy.

        Blue

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted December 15, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like a great man.

    • Historian
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Tom Brokaw dubbed the World War II generation the “Greatest Generation.” One can quibble whether the Americans who fought in that war were “greater” or “braver” than those who fought in others. This is a question that never can be answered. But, what sets that generation apart from later ones is that the war it fought united the American people to a degree unseen since. All Americans knew that the war against fascism had to be won. This is why, I think, that World War II is viewed with a degree of nostalgia. Today, people of all political stripes remember it as a time when political and social differences were largely suppressed, even though it was only for about four years. The extraordinary devastation tends to be forgotten.

      My dad also served. He was on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Santee that operated in the Pacific. On October 25, 1944, the ship was hit by a kamikaze and a torpedo from a Japanese submarine during the battle of Leyte Gulf. The Santee was one of the first (it may have been THE first) ship struck by a kamikaze. It survived, repairs was made, and it continued in the battle.

      As Wikipedia puts it:

      “At 07:36 on 25 October, Santee launched five Avengers and eight Wildcats for an attack against Japanese surface units some 120 mi (190 km) to the north. At 07:40, a kamikaze — carrying what was estimated to be a 138 lb (63 kg) bomb – crashed through the flight deck and damaged the hangar deck. At 07:56, a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine struck the ship, causing flooding of several compartments and creating a 6° list. Emergency repairs were completed by 09:35.”

      My father was reluctant to speak about his experiences in the war. So, I know little about October 25h. I do not think this reluctance was uncommon among war veterans. But, I have often mused that if he had been standing a few yards in a different direction on that fateful day, I would never have been born.

      • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        This will make everyone hate me, but then, why should WEIT be any different? Hagiography gets under my skin.

        My parents were members of this generation and I agree with the “Greatest Generation” sentiment… up to a point. They did do great things and we owe them our very lives, but they did evil things too. It wasn’t so great to be female. It wasn’t so great to be black either. This was the Jim Crow generation as well as the Greatest one.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          The trouble with looking at things in this way is, for you, the greatest generation has not been born yet and you at putting your 21st century belief on people of the 19th or 20th century. That is never a fair or practical way to look at the past. I guess all people in the dark ages were just savages, right.

          • frednotfaith2
            Posted December 15, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            But there were people very much ahead of their time, even going back many centuries, who rose above the ignorance, bigotry and sexism of their peers. For many it was very dangerous to even express opinions that were contrary to the norm, but those who were brave enough to do so slowly gained traction in convincing others. The “greatest” generation included horrible people as well as those who willingly fought for a better world and not just because they were drafted and didn’t have a choice in the matter, just as no one chose to have to live through the Depression. I personally disagree with the notion of honoring an entire generation (which after all, would include Nazis & Fascists as well as those who fought against them) but rather those of any generation who recognized the ugliness within their culture and did their best to make it better, and certainly Charles William Taylor falls well within the latter group of having deserved respect for the actions he took to counter prejudice, ignorance and injustice and not just because of his having been born within a particular generation.

            • Historian
              Posted December 15, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

              I think Brokaw was referring to Americans, not Nazis or fascists. But, you are right that within any generation, you can find the good, the bad, and the ugly. For reasons I indicated, World War II is viewed for many through the lens of nostalgia, but American involvement was less than four years and what came after re-opened the many divisions wracking society. Even during the war itself there were shameful incidents, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans. Still, if there was ever a “good” war, World War II was it, and the men and women who served on the front lines and at home should be honored for doing their duty.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted December 15, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Heard a comedy bit about Brokaw and his frequent documentaries about ‘the greatest generation’. This is where members of that generation demand that he ‘stop following us around!’ and ‘leave us alone! We mean it!’

      • Posted December 18, 2017 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        My Dad had two incidents of “near misses” (at least! These were the ones we heard of!)

        Once, he had just taken a star sighting through the small dome above the navigator’s station in the nose of the airplane (he stood with feet on two racks to get high enough). He had just hopped down and moved aft when a piece of “flak” shrapnel flew vertically through the plane (all the way through) right where he had been standing.

        One flight, he had a faulty connector for his O2 mask. It fell of once and he noticed and plugged it back in. Second time, he woke up with another crew mate over him, having plugged it back in for him. He said it was unusual for the crew to check on him. He would have died (very likely) if they hadn’t checked. Maybe they called him and he hadn’t responded …

        Many ways to lose your life when flying an unpressurized airplane full of explosives over hostile territory.

        He was somewhat reluctant to talk about WWII as well. But he did sometimes talk about losing friends and having to hose out airplanes on return to base. Yikes.

        In the 8th Airforce at that time, you had about a 65%-70% chance of surviving a tour. Imagine facing odds like that? I doubt they were told this at the time. But it wouldn’t have been that hard to figure out!

    • Filippo
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      My own father, a couple of weeks older than Mr. Tayler’s, was bombardier, navigator, flight engineer on a B-24 in the 13th Air Force in the Southwest Pacific (Admiralty Islands, Balikpapan). (I have read many letters to and from him during that time. At the top he would frequently write, “Somewhere in the South Pacific.”) He died in 1959 when I had just turned four. I have a few memories of him, but I can’t say that I recollect how his voice sounded. My aunt, his sister, told me that, during WW II, he had gotten sick and, while he could have made the mission push-come-to-shove, he was replaced. The plane did not return. I say that in the context of Dawkins remarking on how stupefyingly unlikely it is for any one of us to exist. Had he made the flight, I gather that I would not be here to remark on the matter, whatever other hurdles had to be jumped over mind-boggling deep time, by whomever and whatever, so as to result in my existence.

    • ploubere
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      My dad was the same age too, and also passed away at 86 in 2010. He fought in Italy as part of the 10th Mountain Division, and was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat.

      He too was a confirmed atheist, having renounced the Catholic Church upon his return from the war.

  6. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    He said, “If I have a heart attack on the tennis court, I don’t want to be revived.”

    My Granddad, of the same generation, was more blunt about wanting to die in flagrente delicti. Couldn’t be bothered with tennis.

    Columbarium

    OK – new word for the day. From the genus name, I’d guess something involving pigeons or doves, modelled on an “arboretum”. What does Google have to say?

    noun: columbarium; plural noun: columbaria
    a room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored

    Well, the idea is perfectly sensible. Ah, but the origin is from Columba – the pigeon. If you’ve ever seen a “doo cot” (“dove cottage”, in Scots) on the inside, with lots of little niches for the birds to nest in, then the link is obvious.
    Here’s a re-purposed doocot, for laying spirits to a temporary rest. Slainte!

  7. Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    A dignified tribute.

  8. Rob Hyland
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece. A life well lived…

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Hitchens wrote the following about his father, Commander Eric Hitchens.

    “The Commander, who had seen action on his ship HMS Jamaica in almost every maritime theater from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, had had an especially arduous and bitter time, escorting convoys to Russia “over the hump” of Scandinavia to Murmansk and Archangel at a time when the Nazis controlled much of the coast and the air, and on the day after Christmas 1943 (“Boxing Day” as the English call it) proudly participating as the Jamaica pressed home for the kill and fired torpedoes through the hull of one of Hitler’s most dangerous warships, the Scharnhorst. Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done, and every year on the anniversary the Commander would allow himself one extra tot of Christmas cheer, or possibly two, which nobody begrudged him. (To this day, I observe the occasion myself.)”

    • Blue
      Posted December 16, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      That is darling, Mr Gallant.
      Thank you for its posting.

      I am thinking: I need me right now
      ” one extra tot. ” Lucky I am that
      I happen to have quite on hand … …
      one, ” or possibly two ” o’those !

      Blue

  10. Posted December 18, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I have some of one of my grandfathers’ books, where amongst other things, there are reflections on his time as an aircraft mechanic (stationed out of BC) in WWII. He volunteered for service, figuring that was the way to get into the area one wanted (before draft) and since he was reasonably mechanically inclined – but not very educated, it worked out well, to that extent. But the authoritarian nature of the Forces bothered him, and he was fond of writing out parts of “Charge of the Light Brigade” about this. I have no idea where he would have learned it.

    Gene Roddenberry wrote about how war is horrible in part because one has to confront “the enemy within”, and I think of that whenever I read works about it, talk to veterans of all ages and so on. I wish I had more to help think that through.


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