This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

Lockdown

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(The following is a true story…)

The teacher thought this was a drill, but it wasn’t.

The P.A. blared out: “Stay in the classroom, and lock the doors. This is not a drill.”

Caught in the Computer Lab with a class of thirty high school students. They have no food, no drinks, and they will stay here from 10 am to 3:30 pm. Five and a half hours of hell, and the sound of a circling helicopter above them. Streets outside are closed up, and the hallways are crawling with the swat team.

The first couple of hours the only information known is a man is on campus with a gun. Only later the details will be learned from a computer in the library—A group of boys had a confrontation across the street, and it spilled out over to the campus. To the upper level senior parking lot. One of the teenage boys is spotted with a gun, and a call to the police was made.

Ushered by a security guard through a supply room and into the stacks of the library, the teacher instructs his students, “No talking, no talking!” The class stays quiet because to hear students inside might prompt a gunman to rush the room. This is how the drill goes, and this is real now, so the rules are followed. Keep them quiet; keep them calm. Bored students empty the shelves, and use the stacks to lie down for hours of just waiting. No need for books; this is their education for the day.

Stay away from the windows and doors in case they rush into the room with bullets flying. This is what the teachers have been taught; this is what the students are told.

One student after three hours passes out after an epileptic seizure. They call the office and several members of the swat team come in, using their walkie-talkies to call for an ambulance. “I have to go with her; she’s my student.” The teacher is told to stay there, and it’s the one time during this entire siege when his eyes fill with tears, “That’s my student—I’m responsible for her.”

There are no bathrooms in the library. There are 100 students and five teachers. The boys can use a wastepaper basket, but for the girls? One of the women teachers puts on music so people won’t hear as the girls use another wastepaper basket. Other students use Ziploc bags.

Kids are seated at tables with their arms behind their heads as swat team members come in and question them. There’s a special ed student who always looks slack-jawed because he’s on meds. The police take notice of him and start to question him. They don’t like his answers, and start to take him away, “He’s special ed,” the teacher tells them. “He’s on meds.” They take him away anyway.

Three boys appear at the door immediately after the lockdown—they have been left outside in the hallway, and say they weren’t in class because their teacher let them out early. Do you let them in, or keep them outside? What decision do you make as a teacher? It’s your judgment, and yours only. Bring them into the safety of the classroom, or leave them outside to fend for themselves. Not knowing if they are innocent or not, whether leaving them outside condemns them, or brings them inside to condemn the others.

One of the girl students is pregnant and needs water. The boy who sits next to her in class is the father—The teacher didn’t even know they were dating. Not until today.

There is one bottle of water rationed among the students — kids drink from little cups, several students to a cup. This after an early morning faculty meeting about the importance of cleanliness and the swine flu pandemic.

One student asks in a hushed and timid voice, “If they rush in here, will you die for us?”

They don’t tell you how to answer something like this when you’re student teaching. But this is what it means to be a teacher now. These are the questions you somehow must answer.

This is part of the job.

Everyday People Doing Good Every Day

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holding-heart

(This is part of a series I’m starting here on the blog and I’m calling it, “Everyday People Doing Good Every Day.” There are a lot of folks feeling many different feelings right now.  This isn’t an easy time for many of us. But every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that makes me feel good again. It helps me remember how much goodness there is around us, and when I see this goodness I’ll post it here to share with everyone. Hopefully, it’ll inspire us to do good things ourselves in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)

Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. is an orthopedic surgeon.

He’s also my cousin and a very good man.

I don’t just say that because he’s my cousin. You can ask anyone in Santa Barbara who knows him and I’m sure you’ll hear the same.

I don’t get emails at midnight from my cousin Dan. So last night when my phone “dinged” at a little after 12, and I saw there was an email from him, I figured it was important. The guy has been getting up at 4 each morning to handle extra patients, and I hoped everything was okay.  Here is Dan’s email…

“He’s 95 now and still has that smile. I’ve known him for 20 years.  Operated on him twice. And always the same question: How’s Charlie?  You see he’s forgotten that my Uncle Charlie passed away quite a few years ago, but he still remembers him. They played basketball together in the 1930s and 1940s at the Rec Center on Carrillo Street.  It is when he asks how Charlie’s doing when I remember that my Uncle shared the story of how his good friend was sent away to a Japanese Internment Camp during WW II.  Uncle Charlie said he was a helluva nice guy and even at 95, even now I can see that.  Humble, soft spoken and always smiling.  My uncle, who served in WW II, took a flesh wound and saw his platoon decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, always said, “It’s the shits what they did to our Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps.” So my uncle’s friend – in spite of all the memories that he’s lost because of age – still remembers Charlie.  And for the first time today I tell him, “You know my uncle shared these stories with me about you.  About your family and the internment and how it wasn’t fair.  How you were such a good friend to him and how they carted you off.”And this man, with tears rolling down his eyes, but still with a smile on his face, just looked at me and said, “What were we to do?”  He reached his hand out and shook mine, told me he missed Charlie and my father, Danny, and he thanked me for taking care of him. What a sweet man.  Dignified. Full of grace. Always a kind word. I love that guy.”

Dad always felt badly that he couldn’t do anything to help his friend or his family.  “They lost everything,” Dad told us. “Their business, their house, their friendships.” In fact, Dad was the only friend who went to the train station to say goodbye to the whole family as they were being transported to the camps. No one else wanted anything to do with the family – a family that had lived in Santa Barbara for many years.

When Dad showed up at the train station, it meant the world to his friend. He gave him a gift, something he’d made at school:  a set of black ceramic coffee mugs. They were a parting gift of thanks to a good friend.

We never used those cups growing up; they were always hidden away. I think they were a reminder to my father of something terrible, something beyond understanding, a time that made him feel helpless.

One of those cups sits prominently on my desk.

I keep it there to honor the man who made it. And the friend who didn’t follow the crowd, but who still remained a friend.

Maybe my father couldn’t have done more.

But at least he did something.

dads-black-cup