Big Dave Tayloe Made World a Better Place
A few minutes before dawn last Sunday, Ajax the Wonder Dog and I went for a walk along the Pamlico River.
Our pals Whit and Buffa had invited us down for a long-overdue weekend at the rustic cottage that’s been in Buffa’s family for decades, the kind of unfussy river camp where the coffee percolator is older than most of the houseguests.
For the record, that vintage percolator makes about the best cup of morning coffee you’ve ever had.
Big Dave Tayloe, the family patriarch, a legendary family physician from Little Washington, who bought the place for a fishing and hunting camp back in 1958, two decades after it was built, passed away last year. He was, by all accounts, true to his name, bigger than life and twice as funny, whether he aimed to be or not.
My favorite Big Dave story is the one where his daughter Sally drove him to services at tiny historic St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Bath one morning with his hearing aid whistling. She suggested to Big Dave that he turn down its volume, which worked beautifully until the rector began quietly reading the lessons, whereupon Big Dave thundered across the pews, “I can’t hear a God-*&$#@ thing he’s saying!”
The Lord might not have been amused to hear his name so boldly invoked, but the congregants reportedly were. It was vintage Big Dave.
I do wish I’d met this dearly beloved fellow, because he was clearly an original, and there aren’t many of them made anymore. The love and admiration his family and friends continue to express through their hilarious stories about this crusty, no-nonsense, plain-spoken country doctor makes you realize how one well-lived life can touch and shape so many others, even those who never met the man.
Not long ago, a man came to do some work on Big Dave’s camp furnace and learned that the cottage, which was originally built in 1938, had belonged to Big Dave Tayloe.
“You mean the town baby doc?” he asked Buffa. “I remember Doc well. My wife took our infant son to see him, and he put that baby on the examining table and tossed him around like a dead chicken. After the exam, he proclaimed him to be in perfect health. He was right, too!”
I was thinking about this as young Ajax and I moseyed down the beach to have a look at damage from Hurricane Irene after a night in which 17 bodies and at least three generations feasted noisily on steaks and fresh crabs on the screened porch of Big Dave’s place.
With everyone talking at once, there were crossfire conversations about everything from the state cotillion to ACC expansion, from the aftereffects of Irene to the way Big Dave groomed his clan to pull crabs. If you failed to take your time and net them on the first go-around as the trotline of chicken necks reached the surface, Big Dave would lose his mind.
“Sit down, you baby elephant!” he once yelled at my pal Whit, Buffa’s husband, during one of their early crab expeditions. “You’re going to swamp the God-&*%$#! boat!”
“If Big Dave yelled at you,” Whit explained to me, “that just meant he really loved you. You can ask any of his patents. They adored the man.”
Big Dave’s beloved getaway has recently undergone a few minor improvements, ironically begun just before Irene showed up to wreck half the neighborhood. Bill Duff, Sally’s husband, insulated the main room of the cottage so the place could be used into the fringes of winter, and Whit and Buffa bought a pair of beautiful periwinkle couches to replace the old sagging couch that was in the house the day Big Dave took possession.
Amazingly, Big Dave’s place withstood the fury of Irene with only minor damage, relative to the destruction around it. As the storm surge hit late in the hurricane’s passage, right at high tide, the waters of the Pamlico islanded every cottage along the shore, rising at least five feet — stopping an inch shy of flooding Big Dave’s place.
The day before the storm struck, Whit drove down from Raleigh and battened down the hatches as well as he could.
“Basically, I stacked up all the outdoor furniture under the carport and picked up anything that could fly in the wind,” he explained. “This place has been here for almost 80 years. It’s seen some big storms before.”
The only significant damage to the property was a storage shed knocked off its foundation and a beloved basketball hoop where Big Dave and his girls used to play the neighbors and their sons (“Big Dave could set a mean pick for Sally,” reports Buffa. “And they rarely beat us”) got mangled like a child’s toy.
Several heavy wooden chairs that Whit carefully put up got washed somewhere to sea. Other neighbors who rode out the storm in their solidly built log cabin filmed the surge at its peak.
“They had whitecaps breaking on their deck,” says Whit.
Neighbors’ cottages both left and right weren’t so fortunate. The front lawn of a handsome cottage of similar vintage, owned by a dear friend of the family, was covered by a tidy Everest of destroyed family possessions, furniture, bedding, sodden wallboard, you name it. I saw an heirloom dresser that was now two-toned from water stains and already coming apart from buckled wood.
On our morning walk, thinking in cliches about how quickly all things pass away save for some hurricanes — this one stalled over the sound, wreaking extra havoc — and how time and tides wait for no man, young Ajax and I moseyed down to investigate another small cottage sitting near the boat slips where the neighborhood keeps their boats.
Ajax turned 4 months old that very weekend, still brand-new to this world, a joyful golden retriever pup that already weighs 35 pounds and refuses to let anyone in our house take a shower without climbing in on top of them. In other words, he digs water.
This was AJ’s big river debut, and he didn’t waste any time plunging into the river and swimming out a dozen yards, followed by an ecstatic roll in the sand, followed by a wild gallop down the shore and another violent plunge into the river. The boy is a water dog, no question.
It was all I could do, in fact, to keep him from a dawn swim as we went down to look at the other cottage that had seen the fury of the river in its living room. Its screened porch was shredded and its French doors had been shorn off, exposing the living room and kitchen to the elements. College pennants still hung from the wall, and the heart-of-pine bookshelves sagged with a couple of dozen water-soaked best-sellers.
I saw a ruined TV set and stereo. There were still family photos attached to the refrigerator. Limbs and lawn furniture rested on the stove, probably where the tide had left them. A week after the tumult, the floor was a foot deep in pieces of various kinds of vegetation, fishnet, articles of clothing, sand and shattered furniture.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Big Dave would have said about all of this. Probably something along the lines of, “Well, don’t just stand there like a big baby elephant! Let’s get this God-&%*$#@! mess cleaned up! There’s crabs to be caught!”
Life Is a River
As the sun came up over the Pamlico, Ajax and I walked down the other way to the long pier that extends a hundred yards out into the river.
It was from the end of the pier that the Tayloes sprinkled some of Big Dave’s ashes, per his request. Other bits of him went to ground by his wife Erin’s grave at St. Peter’s in Little Washington. Big Dave didn’t want any kind of ceremony.
“But we told Big Dave stories anyway,” Buffa said with a laugh.
Near the end of the pier, flying mullet began to pop out of the water, and young Ajax looked as if this was even more exciting than seeing my wife in the shower. Before I could grab him, he’d launched off the pier and was swimming after them like a sinner chasing the angels. Channeling Big Dave’s voice, I finally got the crazy fool back to shore, where he shook off violently before rolling in the sand.
I walked back to breakfast thinking of another Big Dave story Whit had recently told me.
It seems Whit was on a business flight to Texas when the man beside him casually wondered where he hailed from. “I’m from Ahoskie, but I married a girl from Little Washington,” he explained.
“What’s her name?” the fellow asked.
“Buffa Tayloe,” Whit told him.
The man started to cry.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Whit. “I asked him what on earth was wrong.” The man explained that he was also from Little Washington and that day happened to be his late brother’s birthday.
“He told me his brother literally died in Big Dave’s arms of leukemia. Big Dave had been treating him for years without any payment, because his family couldn’t afford it. Every time the man promised to pay him, Big Dave told him, ‘You haven’t got enough God-&%*%#! money to pay for this kind of service.’ The man’s family brought Big Dave cucumbers and tomatoes and sweet corn for years. That was enough for Big Dave.”
Life is an old river that flows swiftly past. Babies grow up and hurricanes come and go. But we could use a few more like Big Dave Tayloe in this world.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw and O.Henry magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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