Edmonds resident Robert “Bob” Taylor was born in Whitefish, Montana, on Friday, Aug. 1, 1919. He is the fourth of eight children and — according to the 1920 U.S. Census — the 574th resident of the then-16-year-old town. Through the years, he has experienced significant events, and his worn hands reflect the better part of a century of hard work. Those hands helped build aspects of American history that can still be seen today.
When asked about his birthday plans, Taylor said, “Wake up and keep living.” His 104th birthday will be recognized by his grandson Chad Lundy and the staff at Cogir Senior Living in Edmonds, where Taylor resides.
Taylor was born during the Red Summer of 1919, when racial tensions fueled violent riots after World War I. The globe was still in the grip of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. A year later, Prohibition started, and alcohol would be illegal in the U.S. until 1933, which helped give rise to gangsters such as Al Capone.
However, Taylor grew up in a small, remote town near a quiet Montana lake with good fishing, timber, farming, ranching and huckleberries. The railroad was the town’s backbone; his father was a train mechanic and lived next door to the railroad roundhouse, where rail engines and cars were maintained and repaired. His mother worked the harvest seasons in Canada.
In this rocky and wooded setting, one could argue that an 8-year-old Taylor was the first mountain biker in Whitefish, a sport for which the town has become known. But he didn’t have the advantage of suspension forks, frames or oversized tires; those wouldn’t be seen on bicycles until the late 1980s.The bike was all steel and no fluff; you felt every jaw-rattling bump. On this rugged contraption, Taylor would run his five-mile evening newspaper route, which kept him out until 11 p.m.
Taylor always helped care for his younger siblings, but when his father died of cancer at 57, he had to drop out of eighth grade and start working. This was an uphill struggle made worse by The Great Depression, which started three years earlier in 1929. It wouldn’t end until the beginning of World War II in 1939.
Taylor would cut, deliver and stack cordwood for a $3.50 flat rate to make ends meet while living in Whitefish. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $1 in 1932 has the equivalent buying power of $19.19 in 2023, making Taylor’s service worth $67.16 today.
Trails, Fires and Miracles
In 1936, Taylor joined the Civilian Conservation Corps to build trails in Glacier National Park and spent all summer making the Avalanche Trail. His salary was $30 a month, $25 of which he sent back home. Even though the young men had the weekends off, they were supposed to stay at the camp.
“I would hide my Model T in the bushes so I could drive home on the weekends,” Taylor said.
Not long after his 17th birthday, CCC trail crews were recruited to fight a wildfire in Heaven’s Peak, now known as McDonald Valley. He joined the team to combat the blaze, but one day, he started feeling sick.
Curling up in a cluster of rocks, hoping for the feeling to pass, Taylor fell asleep. He woke to dead silence. No animals, no sound of cracking flames, no firefighters, nobody from the CCC. The ground and sky looked like the air smelled — ashen and charred. The inferno’s aftermath encompassed all the senses, from smell to the touch of ash under the fingers. He wouldn’t learn what happened until he returned to camp.
“They were told to drop their tools and just run,” Taylor said. “You can probably still find those tools up there.”
The firefighters lost control of the fire line and ordered the CCC volunteers to run for their lives as the raging inferno gained ground on their position. The blaze devastated the area, reducing it to cinders as if the wildfire had a vengeful will and refused to be contained.
All except the spot where Taylor slept.
Seattle or Bust
After working on the trails and as a water boy for railroad construction crews, Taylor went to school for riveting metal in Helena, Montana. Here, he learned the skills that would pave the way for his future. After graduation, he and a group of friends — along with strangers just needing a ride — moved to Seattle, in the fall 1941. The city was experiencing a job boom, especially at Boeing’s manufacturing sites.
With the $40 down payment from his brother for the Montana house Taylor made from timber scrap when he was 18. he was ready to build his future. Taylor said that Seattle was packed with people.
“We got the last boarding room in town above the Marine Hospital,” Taylor said.
One of the travelers migrating from Montana to Washington was a young lady named Ruby. She had one leg shorter than the other due to polio treatments that stunted the leg’s growth when she was young. Even though Taylor knew many “Rosie the Riveters,” Ruby was the one for him. They married later that year.
Building the Superfortress
Taylor’s riveting skills became crucial to the war effort as that December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. He worked for Boeing through the war, riveting the bomb bays of the B-29 Superfortress at Plant #2 in Seattle — including a few prototype planes such as the XB-29. Everything was done by hand, from design drafting to manufacturing and parts ordering.
“They gave us flush mount rivets, but they ended up being the wrong pitch,” Taylor said. “So, I had to go out there and redo all the planes.”
One of the crucial things about flush riveting is having the correct angle or pitch of the sides of the rivet head. The wrong angle means the sheet metal won’t fasten correctly. For any aircraft, a fabrication error could be fatal.
Even with perfect rivets, other things can go wrong on a plane. To save weight on the XB-29 Superfortress prototype, parts of the plane’s engines were made from the flammable and hot burning metal, magnesium. The fire was even more hazardous since the early B-29s carried roughly 8,000-9,500 gallons of 100 octane aviation fuel in its wings — right where the plane’s engines are mounted.
On Feb. 18, 1943, a prototype XB-29 had its outer left engine catch fire. Boeing’s chief test pilot, Eddie Allen, shut off the engine and activated the CO2 fire control to extinguish the engine fire; it seemed to work visually. He turned around to take the plane back to Boeing, but there was an issue he might not have been aware of: magnesium still burns despite being submerged in CO2.
At 12:26 p.m., the XB-29 Superfortress prototype crashed into the Frye Meat Packing Plant south of downtown Seattle, killing 11 Boeing crewmembers and 20 people at the site. Taylor saw the wreckage and the charred building.
“I remember seeing the tail sticking out of the building,” Taylor said.
Eventually, the war would end, and the U.S. would enter a golden era of economic prosperity and global influence. But the world would shift from a World War to a Cold War lasting until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Life in Seattle After the War
WWII, like the Great Depression, would end. Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, following the suicide of Adolph Hitler. Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, after atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by modified B-29 bombers made in Boeing’s Nebraska plants.
Taylor went from riveting bombers for Boeing to boilers for National Steel. He worked there for 50 years and retired as a shipping manager. Ruby worked as the business manager at Puget Sound Rubber for 40 years. Like many Americans, he and his wife settled and started a family, joining the Baby Boom. In 1945, the couple welcomed their only child, Karen, into the world.
Karen had a son, Chad Lundy, but Karen died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975 when Chad was 4. Chad Lundy joined the Navy and was an in-flight avionic technician on the Lockheed Orion P-3 anti-submarine aircraft. Over the years, he became proficient in all current Boeing models, helped with plane certification programs and was a production lead for the 787.
Taylor, who spent countless hours and rivets building B series planes, never got to fly in one. When the time came for Lundy to fly a restored B-17 to the Air Museum in Everett, he took his grandfather with him.
The Most Impressive Thing
Taylor has seen the advent of TV, stereophonic FM radios and the moon landing. Not to mention the evolution of automobiles, from his complicated Model T Ford to hassle-free computerized cars that start at the push of a button. But the most impressive thing to Taylor isn’t cars, planes, or electronics. It’s medicine.
Medical advancements over Taylor’s lifetime have been impressive. The first successful human organ transplant — a kidney — wasn’t until 1952, with heart, pancreas, and liver transplants in the 1960s and lungs in the 1980s. The quadruple bypass technique Taylor had in his later years wouldn’t be successfully performed until May 2, 1960, by Dr. Robert H. Goetz.
The polio virus that affected Ruby’s leg was eradicated in the U.S. in 1979. The World Health Organization reports that wild poliovirus type 2 was eliminated in 1999 and type 3 in 2020. As of 2022, poliovirus type 1 has only been reported in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But medical innovation isn’t what Taylor credits to his long life. When asked his secret, he shrugged and answered, “I don’t know, hard work?” With the hard work he has put in over his life, it’s difficult to argue with him.
Happy 104th birthday, Bob Taylor. Thank you for your contributions to the Pacific Northwest and the country.
— By Rick Sinnett