Dick Taylor joined the Marines at a difficult time. Not because the U.S. military was putting its finest in harm's way, as it must sometimes do. The fighting in Vietnam had ended.
No, these were difficult times of a uniquely unprecedented nature. Taylor joined the Marines when "Marines" was practically a dirty word. Military fighters, whether drafted or voluntarily enlisted, were suddenly and unfairly the bad guys, symbols of an undeclared war few wanted and a government few trusted. U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines had become the scapegoats of a nation in turmoil.
It was 1975, and the last of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had just helicoptered out of Saigon as the city fell to the Communists of the North.
Had America, which just 30 years before had saved the world from tyranny, actually lost a war? Someone would have to answer for that, and the uniformed men and women returning from Southeast Asia were the most visible, convenient targets.
It was in that strange and daunting environment that the 19-year-old East Bakersfield High School graduate put pen to paper and became a Marine.
"Just a handful of us joined the service," Taylor said. "It was a weird time. (Service members) came back home and hated the way they were treated."
But sense of duty overrode any possible reluctance.
Taylor served only four years of active duty — although many years of Reserve and National Guard service came later — but he never really left the service.
Now, 43 years later, Taylor is finally stepping away from service to his country, or more specifically, to the service of those who've served their country. At 63, he is retiring as Kern County's director of veterans services and handing the reins to a younger man — but not quite riding off into the sunset.
New director Joshua Dhanens inherits a department that has made a number of inroads in the service of veterans in need of employment, career training, PTSD recovery, health care and assorted other benefits.
Taylor seems to have been born to that kind of service.
He worked at Taylor Tire & Brake, the business his father, Harris Taylor, opened in 1953. Upon graduation, though, he enlisted.
Maybe he was influenced by his World War II veteran father, a B-25 bomber pilot with the Army Air Corps who was shot down in January 1944 near the Japanese-held island of Wotje near Tarawa.
Maybe it was the fact he went to the same school as Leonard L. Alvarado, who in 1969 saved the lives of several fellow soldiers in Phuoc Long province, Vietnam — and was killed that day, a month before Taylor entered East High as a freshman. President Barack Obama presented his daughter with Alvarado's Medal of Honor in 2014.
Maybe it was the fact that his principal at East was E.C. "Bus" Mills, whose son, Navy Cmdr. James B. Mills, had gone missing in his F-4B Phantom fighter jet off the coast of Vietnam in 1966. James Mills' remains were positively identified only this year, a half-century after his disappearance.
But join he did.
Another chapter opened after Taylor finally closed the family's Tire & Brake in 2006. It was around that time that Taylor, a member of an off-road club that hoped to see the county develop an off-road park, sought the help of brand-new Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard.
"We just hit it off," Maggard said. "I asked him, 'Hey, what would you think about working for me? I could use a guy like you.'"
Taylor took him up on it and for the next six years worked on helping constituents get the answers they needed.
"You remember that commercial, the Shell Answer Man? That was me," Taylor said. "If I didn't have the answer I'd try to find it."
"Dick's a connected guy," Maggard said. "He was able to tell people, 'This is the pathway you need to take to get the answer you're looking for.' I always try to surround myself with people who have a servant's heart, and Dick is that kind of guy."
In 2012, another county job opened up — veterans services officer. Taylor applied.
"I didn't want to be in politics; I didn't want to run for elective office," Taylor said. "Taking the job previously held by Chuck Bukakis — he'd been a Marine like I was — seemed like a good move. When I told Mike about it, he was very gracious."
"And look what it turned into," Maggard said.
It turned into a succession of stories like that of the Kern County Vietnam vet who had died of ischemic heart disease — a disease presumed related to Agent Orange. His widow, who lived in Florida, was having a hard time of it financially, and so she moved back to Bakersfield to be with their grown children. Since the death certificate listed ischemic heart disease as a cause of death, she noted, could Taylor's team help?
"We were able to get her $150,000 in retroactive pay and $1,700 a month for the rest of her life," Taylor said. "She didn't get rich, but she got her basic needs well taken care of."
Most of the other stories are more mundane, but collectively they're making much bigger differences serving Kern County's estimated 47,000 veterans.
One of the biggest success stories has been the Kern Patriot Partnership, developed in coordination with Chevron. It connects Kern County veterans with local employers; vets are not guaranteed jobs, but participating employers pledge to give veterans a first look. Chevron launched the program with a $250,000 gift.
Another was the veterans ID program, in its third year of funding from Rio Tinto. The cards serve as proof of honorable service; once a veteran has been issued an ID card, he or she no longer has to carry a copy of military discharge papers to receive benefits such as veterans discounts at local businesses.
"It takes 45 seconds to print each one of those ID cards," Taylor said. "While the veteran is waiting for it, he's a captive audience and we give him our 30-second elevator pitch. So we're helping many more vets who didn't know what we were here for."
Taylor has led the way helping "justice-involved" veterans "who did something dumb" and are now trying to overcome their criminal records and become productive members of society.
And he has guided his department through staff development projects and physical improvements of the facility on Golden State Avenue.
Taylor's retirement plans don't sound a lot like retirement plans. He doesn't fish, doesn't play much golf. So this should not be much of a shock: He and Cheryl will volunteer all over the place.
They and friends like Patty Sue Beadle, who dropped in to see Taylor last Thursday, will continue to clean up "their" stretch of Truxtun Avenue, between Eye Street and Union Avenue.
Dick will work as a docent and naturalist tour leader on Tejon Ranch's 270,000 acres and he'll continue to participate in the Marine Corps' Nov. 10 birthday celebration, the Honor Flight program (he's attended seven such excursions) and of course all of the events surrounding Memorial Day.
And he'll be there for the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day event every March, honoring the men and women who came just before him and served during one of the nation's most difficult times for military veterans.
Some retirement. But knowing Dick Taylor like we do, what should we have expected?