BY BARBARA SUEKO MCGUIRE
It’s raining cats and dogs. Thunder, lightening—by California standards, practically a hurricane. The clouds are so thick that even if the sun hadn’t set, it’d be dark. But it has—it’s eight o’clock, so in a sense, it’s twice as black as it’d normally be. Regardless, when Bob Harris gets a call from Long Beach Airport wondering if he’d be interested in flying three people—a man and two women—over to Burbank, five bucks each, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Sure,” he says, and is out the door and on his way in less than five minutes.
Bob’s got a single-engine instrument-rated commercial pilot’s license and owns his own plane. He spends a lot of time at the airport, getting in good with the guys in the tower so they’ll call him when freelance jobs like this pop up. It’s been about three years since he was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, and for the time being, flying is fun, pays the bills.
Bob’s only twenty four, but after combat in the jungles of New Guinea, he figures there’s not much left in life to fear. Nothing can be worse than that, he thinks.
Once airborne, Bob circles around to gain some altitude and even though his radio isn’t working—it sounds like bursting kernels of popcorn—he confidently begins cruising north, just under the sky’s ceiling. Everyone’s getting to know each other, making small talk, when what sounds like a shot is fired. Only it’s not—it’s the engine backfiring, missing a beat here and there.
“Oh shit,” Bob mutters under his breath.
He immediately defrosts the carburetor, thinking that ice must’ve formed around it, but the engine only staccatos more.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” one of the women says, voice faltering. “What’s happening? What’s happening?”
Bob’s too busy to respond. He’s trying to figure out how to save their lives. The hairs on the back of his neck rise like freezing icicles when he realizes that he can’t call anyone for help and that because it’s night and stormy and dark and cloudy, he can’t safely execute an emergency landing.
By now the two women and the man are panicking. One of the women begins beating him on the back, screaming and crying and whimpering and begging him to tell them what’s going on. Frustrated, Bob reaches around and slaps the two people closest to him. “Shut up,” he says.
The plane is consistently losing altitude when the lights of the Burbank Airport appear. Bob’s radio jumps to life and he requests a straight approach. “What’s the nature of your request?” the tower asks. There are other planes ready to land that have been waiting in line longer than Bob.
Unable or unwilling to voice his reality, Bob lies. “I got three passengers that need to catch a connecting flight,” he says. As the plane nears the runway, the engine quits dead. Bob flares out a couple of times, enabling them to make it onto the asphalt. Their landing feels like an earthquake, but they’re alive—and ungrateful. The passengers go berserk and refuse to pay Bob his fifteen dollars. “You’re the worse pilot in the world!” they shout, but he doesn’t care.
“Get the hell outta here,” he says with a smile, just happy to be alive.
Bob Harris would be a rich man if he had a quarter for every time he found himself in a situation like this. In fact, now that he’s eighty four, he’d be more than comfortably retired, able to spend his free time leisurely putting around a golf ball or falling asleep waiting for the fish to bite. Although Bob doesn’t live in a world where he gets monetarily reimbursed for near-death experiences, he still takes every chance he gets to put his life in peril. From almost losing his head performing stunt work, to breaking all his ribs (plus his shoulder, scapula, knee and ankle) in a car racing accident, to nearly freezing to death in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Bob’s never once backed down from going face to face with the Grim Reaper.
This fact has not escaped his notice. “Isn’t that amazing, when you think about it?” he says, shaking his head and looking over his shoulder, as if the Reaper himself might be there, eagerly waiting for his next opportunity. “All my friends are gone, and a lot of them have been gone for years—when I was in my sixties, for God’s sake, they were dying. They died young. None of them were real old, so you don’t want to know me too long.”
Bob works out with my Dad at the gym, and when we first meet (at a Denny’s, where all the waitresses seem to know his name), I can’t help but think that he looks like a miniature, geriatric version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s buff-his torso is shaped like an upside down triangle—and you can tell he exercises regularly. He’s got a full head of crystal white hair, but given his steady voice and appetite for pancakes (easy on the syrup), I assume he’s in his early seventies. When I ask him how old he is, he responds by asking how old I am. “If I had my wish, twenty six would be the age I’d like to be,” he says. “No younger, no older.”
Bob doesn’t stay in shape because he’s vain, and he doesn’t do it because he wants to live forever. He does it because he wants to race—flat track motorcycle racing to be specific. His son, Raider, first introduced him to the sport three years ago (that would be when he was eighty one), and Bob found this relatively young, American-style variety thrilling. Flat track was different than the other dirt bike sports he had previously competed in because riders pass one another as they whip through corners and turns, rather than on straight-aways. There was also the added bonus of a steel-covered boot—a flesh and blood anchor the biker drags in the dirt to prevent toppling over as he rounds these bends.
Bob chooses to describe the sport in a much different fashion: “You race around in a dirt circle and you’re all sideways. It’s so much fun.”
The flat track season begins in February and runs through October, but Bob’s able to practice year-round on a track he and his friends built in his backyard in Acton, California, a dusty, tumbleweed-pocked town about forty-five minutes north of Los Angeles.
Last season, out of three hundred racers, Bob was voted Most Improved Rider of the Year. This was just after he had his most recent up close and personal encounter with the Reaper. It was the last lap of his last race. He’d been able to pass every other biker, except one, who kept sneaking out from under his grip. “I start catching up to him as we’re going down the last straight-away and we go into the turn together,” he recounts. “We’re sliding there, doing about a hundred, and he’s right next to me. I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, if I take him and me out, we’re dead, right?’ And then I thought, ‘I am not shutting down.’ I just kept it screwed on all the way and I beat him.”
Bob says he doesn’t remember what year he was born, so I do the math and tell him it was 1923. “That sounds about right,” he says. “I’m so bad—I can’t keep dates.” He does remember, however, that he grew up in Long Beach, California, and that his father worked on the oil wells there. “My mom told me that we lived in a tent on Signal Hill and that when I was a baby she did my diapers in a tub over a bonfire. That’s really something, isn’t it?”
When Bob was about five years old, his parents and his two sisters (one older, one younger) moved to Oakland, where his dad played as a drummer for a few “big bands.” Soon thereafter, his mother and father, who were just eighteen and nineteen respectively when Bob was born, separated. All three kids were sent to boarding houses. Whereas his mother and grandmother eventually retrieved his sisters, Bob spent his entire childhood in boarding homes, attending a total of sixteen different grammar schools.
“My father was a good-looking guy and they should’ve never been married,” he says. “He was a young lover, you know what I mean? He didn’t want kids and he’d only come around about every six months. He asked me one time, ‘Do you love me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I do, but not the same way as if you would’ve raised me.'”
Bob struck out on his own when he started high school, after he began working the graveyard shift at a ball bearing factory, where he earned enough to rent a room for ten bucks a week. He only made it through the tenth grade. After turning eighteen, he decided riding the rails would be far more interesting than going to school and work. One day, with nothing more than a change of underwear, an extra pair of socks and a jacket, Bob and a buddy of his hopped aboard a train with no clue where it was going. “You learned quick what cars to get into and what part of the car to sleep in so that if the freight train shifts you don’t get killed,” he explains. “There were different hobo villages and you learned not to sleep by the fire because it was full of cooties.”
The two left with no more than five bucks a piece and would beg for food from bakeries. “We would say, ‘Excuse me, could I buy fifty cents worth of stale whatever you got? My friend and I, we’re hungry,'” Bob recounts, with a grin that’s up to no good. “They’d give us a whole bag of day old pastry, and we’d get back on the train and as we’d go through the streets we’d wave and throw the donuts at cars.”
Bob stopped riding the rails after a close brush with the Reaper, although his decision had nothing to do with being scared straight. Rather, he just liked the town where the train stopped—or at least nearly stopped. Bob and his friend had been sleeping, and upon waking, they threw open the doors of their car only to be slapped in the face with one hell of a snowstorm. They didn’t know it yet, but they were in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Donner Pass. The two stepped down into the fresh blanket of waist-deep snow and began hiking towards what they hoped would be civilization. Fortunately for them, though clothed in nothing more pants, a T-shirt and a light jacket, theirs was not a Donner Party-esque destiny.
“We were nearly frozen to death when we found a cabin,” Bob says. “We broke into it through a window, found sleeping bags and beans and started a fire. The next morning, the front door opens and there’s the sheriff and the guy that owned the place. We talked him into letting us stay there and went to work for Union Pacific.”
From there, Bob eventually moved on and got hired at a shipyard before he was drafted into the army. Whereas his memory is fuzzy regarding every other specific time and place in his life, it’s sharp enough to draw blood in regards to his years as a soldier. “I went in January 3rd, 1943 and got out January 6th, 1946,” he tells me. It was on the GI Bill’s tab that he learned how to fly planes and earned his commercial pilot’s license, but it wasn’t long before he bored of that as well. “I’ve always liked to do something and not just say I did it, but to have accomplished it and be better than the average person. Then, when I have enough of it, I go on to something else.”
When Bob talks about outliving everyone he knows, he’s not just referring to high school pals and long-time neighbors. He’s referring to bona fide cultural icons. “All of my friends are dead,” he says, ticking them off on his fingers like a to-do list. “Lee Marvin’s dead, Keenan Wynn’s dead, Elvis Presley’s dead, Steve McQueen’s dead. I can go on and on through all the other actors and actresses I know—all dead.” Bob’s not showing off. After working for forty years as a television and film stunt man, these long-lost souls were genuinely a part of his inner circle.
Bob was working as a car salesman when he first met Keenan Wynn. The two became friends after Keenan found out Bob had a Jaguar he raced on the weekends. “Lemme give you my address,” Keenan had said. “Come over to my house tonight—I’m gonna loan you a good helmet.” When Bob arrived, the two enjoyed a few cocktails before Keenan brought out the helmet. It was hand-painted with images of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Pluto, and much sturdier than the one he’d been using. Great, Bob thought. I need all the help I can get. That weekend he had a race at the Old Paramount Ranch, a particularly dangerous track where three guys had recently been killed.
“I’m sitting in my car, waiting for my race, when two guys come over,” Bob says. “‘We’re from the Los Angeles Times, could we get a picture of you?’ they asked. I thought, why me, I’m not famous, but okay. ‘Could you put the helmet on?’ they asked, so I put it on and they take these pictures. The next morning I get all these phone call from my friends saying, ‘Hey, your picture’s in the sports section.’ I say, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I get the Times and there’s the photo and it’s titled, James Dean Helmet Races Again—that was the helmet that was in the car with James Dean when he got killed! Well I took the helmet right back to Keenan and I said, ‘Man, I didn’t know that was his helmet! I don’t want to be racing in this!'”
After that, Keenan and Bob became close friends and would go dirt bike riding in the desert every weekend with Lee Marvin, Dan Blocker and Steve McQueen. Keenan got Bob his first entertainment industry gig, as a stand in, and then found him work as a stunt driver for a series he was starring in called “Couple Shooters.” Soon thereafter Bob got his Screen Actor’s Guild card and worked on anything and everything from “Bonnie and Clyde” with Warren Beatty to “Diamonds are Forever” with Jill St. John to “What’s Up Doc” with Barbra Streisand.
“Oh, I also stunted five movies with Elvis Presley,” Bob adds. “What happened was I was racing exotic Can-Am cars for Dan Blocker for this TV series he was the star of called ‘Bonanza.’ Our race cars were very valuable and the people filming the movie ‘Viva Las Vegas’ wanted to borrow them. They said, ‘You should use Bob, he’s got dark hair, he’s almost as tall as Elvis and not much older. When I did the driving it worked out well and Elvis liked me, so the next time they did something they were like, ‘Let’s get Bob again.’ Once we became friends it was a given that I’d stunt double for him.”
When Bob was still zooming around the track in cars, Patti, his wife, never missed a race. When he won, she would jump in his Can-Am and beam at the crowd while he circled around one final time, proudly waving the checkered flag.
“I’m not going,” she told him one Saturday, just before they were to leave for Santa Barbara.
“What? You’re kidding,” Bob replied, not even looking back as he made his way to the front door.
“No, really, I’ve got other things I need to do today.”
Bob shrugged his shoulders, went back and kissed her on the cheek. He didn’t want to get into an argument before a big race.
When Bob arrived at the track, his close friend Lance Reventlow (heir to the Woolworth fortune and Jill St. John’s husband) immediately asked where Patti was. “She didn’t want to come,” Bob said. Lance cocked his head to the side and furrowed his brow, but let it go at that.
Another one of Bob’s friends, Joe, was buckling in for his race and Bob approached the vehicle, bent down and tightened his seat belt. “Good luck, buddy, see you at the finish line,” he said.
“Hey Bobby, not so tight, that’s no good,” Joe said.
“You gotta tighten it man,” Bob replied.
“Nah man, loosen just a little for me, please.”
“Okay, you got it, you’re the boss.”
The race began and after a few laps, as Joe pulled into the second turn his vehicle began wildly spinning out of control, bouncing off the walls like a pin ball. Bob’s breath caught in his chest while the emergency response team sprinted onto the field. It was no use. Joe was killed instantly.
Bob felt like shit, but racing is like the circus—the show must go on, and after clearing the track of what was left of his friend’s vehicle, his number was up. I’ll win it for Joe, Bob thought. He started off the race strong, made it around a couple of times and increased his speed up to one hundred and forty as he entered that same second turn. Suddenly, someone popped a bubble of gum directly into his eardrum. Disoriented, Bob realized a millisecond too late that he hadn’t suddenly acquired a passenger, his suspension had snapped. He slammed onto his brakes and into the track’s cement wall, beamed off and headed directly toward the grand stands. Bob couldn’t hear the crowds’ screams, but he could see them turning and running for their lives. That’s the last thing he remembers.
He later woke up in the hospital and saw a doctor at the foot of his bed with a metallic clipboard. “Congratulations,” the doctor said. “You made it.” Bob couldn’t move and he couldn’t feel much. He had broken or cracked all of his ribs. His shoulder, scapula, knee and ankle were also broken. All the muscles in his back had been torn loose and three of his vertebrae had been crushed. Nobody needed to tell him he was lucky to be alive.
When Patti showed up at the hospital her eyes were swollen and her nose was red. “I knew it,” she whispered. “That’s why I couldn’t come.”
Bob’s not religious. He doesn’t pray and he doesn’t think God’s chosen to spare his life over others. His guess as to why he’s still alive is as good as anyone’s.
“I’m an agnostic,” he tells me. “I believe there’s a maker, I believe that there’s somebody, but other than that, nobody knows. There are just men who think they know. Everything that you read about religion was written by a man. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen and it’s just so silly to worry about it.”