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Immersed in His Monstrous Obsession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Taylor wakes up two hours before dawn and stares at the dark, thinking about the monster.

When the swirling sky above the ocean looks like the creamy frosting on a birthday cake, the clouds like pink roses, he brews a pot of coffee and wakes Margaret, his wife of 22 years, and together they sit by the window, watching the sun rise and talking about the monster.

Just after dawn, he starts the long drive, past the joggers and golfers, past the fireworks stands and video poker parlors, past all the symbols and signs of easy fun and instant gratification that clutter the South Carolina coastline, until he reaches this shadeless town and this desolate industrial park, where he’ll spend the day sweating and panting and chasing the monster.

Given half an afternoon, Taylor will have you believing this is the good life, that it’s normal, even noble, for a 58-year-old man with a weak heart and a white beard to spend his dwindling days building a submarine with which to hunt the Loch Ness monster. Like the monster itself, Taylor’s easier to believe in if you’ve actually seen him.

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He might seem more ludicrous if he didn’t look like every epic seafarer in lore and history, from Noah to Jonah, Ahab to Nemo, with a dash of Ernest Hemingway, to recall “The Old Man and the Sea.” He might seem more comic if he didn’t tell such a vivid and compelling tale of meeting the monster 30 years ago, both of them bumping and twirling on the bottom of Loch Ness like a couple of shag dancers. He might seem foolhardy if he didn’t have the money to finance a submarine, the know-how to build one and the respect of several esteemed scientists and researchers.

But Taylor doesn’t care how he seems. He doesn’t care if people point and giggle, which they usually do, when he stops in for lunch at the Cripple Crab. He doesn’t care that Margaret’s girlfriends tease her about being married to the Monster Hunter. He doesn’t care, never will care, because his obsession crowds out much of the sensible world. Taylor’s world consists of seven oceans and three strong-willed women. There’s Margaret, of course. His mother, Justine. And his monster, Nessie.

He loves Margaret. He loves his mother. But something in him needs that monster.

He also needs his welders, who are due this afternoon to connect his main hull to his battery room. But welders, they’re a funny breed. They keep their own kind of time, and this being Friday, and the temperature getting on near 100 degrees, there’s always the chance they won’t show.

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He’ll just have to adjust, adapt--improvise. When you’re on the trail of a monster, you can’t lose your focus, can’t let yourself be blown off course by a few tardy welders. “There’s nothing you can’t overcome,” he mumbles, “if you just don’t pay attention to it.”

*

He stands 5 feet, 9 inches in Topsiders that curl up at the tips like an elf’s slippers, and he leaves Topsider prints of rust and muck wherever he goes. His chinos and denim shirt are so smeared with sweat and grease and grime and oil and what looks like crab juice that their original colors are as much a mystery as the existence of any monster.

He has a bone-white beard, which radiates and ripples across his face like moonlight on a calm ocean. His voice is low and Tennessee soft, and he uses it the way doctors tell him to use salt--sparingly. When he does talk, he sprinkles his speech with country phrases. Rather than say he’s tired, he’ll say, “My tail feathers are really draggin’.” Shambling around his workshop, he moves like a man who’s never hurried in his life, which is not true, at least not anymore. This is a man who hears the big clock ticking.

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“When you sit around thinking and dreaming of something for 30 years, it’s time to fish or cut bait,” he says, coughing on one of 40 cigarettes he’ll smoke before sundown. “This is the challenge of my life. Gosh, what else could I do? What else should I do? This is just something that’s stuck in my craw.”

Most obsessions eventually become monsters, but a monster became Taylor’s obsession in 1969, and never let him go.

It was several years after he left the Navy, where he’d served mainly on submarines, taking part in the blockade of Cuba and assorted top-secret war games. (He also spent the mid-1960s doing the most delicate submarine work of all, he says, scouring ocean floors for a hydrogen bomb the Air Force had misplaced.)

He knew submarines like the back of his permanently tanned hand, knew the sea as few men do, from the inside out. With such rare expertise, he landed a job with a University of Chicago biologist named Roy P. Mackal, who was getting up an expedition to Scotland’s notorious Loch Ness--that 23-mile-long, 1-mile-wide, 700-foot-deep strip of fresh water where for roughly 65 years a great sea serpent has been fleetingly, though never definitively, glimpsed.

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The loch has always seduced men like Taylor, because it’s a fluke of nature that looks as if it could easily harbor a freak of nature. During the last ice age, when a massive glacier carved Scotland neatly in two, it left a vast gash in the earth. As the glacier melted, it filled the gash to the brim, creating one of Europe’s largest fresh-water systems. To this day, Loch Ness remains so deep, so cold, that its temperature never varies by more than a degree or two. Even on hot summer days, the loch cloaks itself in a shroud of mist, enhancing the aura of its mythological inhabitant.

Together, Taylor and Mackal ventured forth to find that inhabitant once and for all, their quest sponsored by the World Book Encyclopedia. With them they brought a small fiberglass submarine that Taylor built in his free time, and amid terrific fanfare, Taylor submerged.

The mission was doomed, however, by poor visibility and bad luck. Loch Ness is so thick with mud and peat, which rush into it constantly from surrounding hills, that Taylor couldn’t see more than a few feet out his portholes. Also, the submarine was slow and hard to maneuver, which almost spelled disaster when its propeller got tangled in a nest of cables abandoned on the lake’s floor.

“It was a little dangerous,” Mackal says. “I thought, uh oh, all we need is to lose somebody.”

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On one of his last futile runs around the loch, Taylor was hovering at 250 feet, shining his lights into the murky water, when the submarine began to turn, unnaturally, like the second hand of a clock being pushed backward by a finger.

“I could tell the boat was turning,” he says. “I don’t even think it dawned on me that it was her. Until I got up.”

That brief encounter--so haunting, so tantalizing--preoccupied him for the next 30 years, possessed him through careers as restaurateur and entrepreneur, builder and carpenter, repairman and inventor. “It’s unfinished business is what it is,” he says. “Someone gave me this assignment, and I failed. Now I’m going to fix it.”

He looks at a blurry, black-and-white photograph of Nessie hanging like a pinup girl on the wall of his workshop, along with an ancient-looking calendar from the Southern Welding Co. (The welders. Where are they?) What doesn’t hang on the walls is a blueprint. The submarine’s designs are stored inside Taylor’s head.

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“An artist wouldn’t make a blueprint,” he says. “It’s like a painter can see a painting before he starts, I can see this boat in my mind.”

He used to say he could see it in the back of his mind. Then, three years ago, everything in the back of his mind shifted forward, like a ship’s cargo during a storm, the result of a stroke, a heart attack and an epiphany.

He’d always assumed there would be plenty of time to find Nessie, because he always assumed he’d live to be 84. Every man in the Taylor clan, going back to the Civil War, lived to be 84. Not a year older, not a year younger. But when he found himself in the hospital at 55 years old, Taylor realized not only that he might die before his time, which would be sad, but that he might die before finding his monster, which would be tragic.

So he willed himself to get better, sold his house and moved himself and Margaret into his mother’s place on Hilton Head. He sank $80,000 from the sale of the house into acetylene torches and wire grinders and soldering guns and steel, lots of steel, then rented this airless workshop an hour down the road.

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He’ll spend another $120,000 before he’s done, not counting the value of his time, eight hours a day, seven days a week. He asked his mother to help with some of the expenses, but she turned him down flat. With any luck, he’ll find some rich sponsor who shares his sense of adventure. If not, such is the price of contentment as far as he and Margaret are concerned.

“This is just something he’s always wanted to do,” says Margaret, who sometimes pitches in and paints the submarine. “What else could I do but say yes?”

*

The sun is sailing high in the hazy sky, shining down like the lights of a submarine cutting through murky water. And still there’s no sign of the welders.

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Taylor sparks another cigarette, sits heavily on a stool near a fan that offers no relief, and talks about his father, whose death last August had the strange effect of making life easier.

A trust-funder who never much cared for work, Taylor’s father enjoyed duck hunting, fly fishing, and little else. His bequest gave Taylor a steady source of income, while his lack of ambition provided a constant source of fear. Not wanting to drift like his father, Taylor plows full ahead. Aimlessness is a different kind of monster, the kind you run from.

It never occurs to Taylor that instead of rebelling against his father, he’s another son trying to do the old man one better. It never dawns on him that he’s actually emulating his father; he’s hunting and fishing too, but for an especially grand and gaudy trophy.

“He was always building something,” says Taylor’s 84-year-old mother, Justine Smith, who divides her retirement between a ranch in Vail, Colo., and her house in Hilton Head, after a long career running restaurants in the South. “He built a windmill when Congress passed a law that you could make your own electricity or sell whatever you made. Then Congress changed the law, and he had to take it down.”

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Even before the windmill, she recalls, when Taylor was just 7 years old, he built a crude water craft by rigging empty oil cans to his bike. Pedaling into a nearby pond, he felt confident that the air-filled cans would act as pontoons and keep him afloat. The second he hit the water, the bike sank.

“I learned a lot about ballast that day,” he says.

He wasn’t crestfallen about the water bike, nor about the huge windmill that followed years later. Nor the giant aquarium, nor the remote-controlled torpedo, nor the hydroelectric dam, nor any of the elaborate inventions he undertook, most of which failed to live up to expectations. “Nothing I make,” he says, beaming with pride, “ever works the first time.”

His remarkable openness to failure, his high regard for the honor in trying, draws people to him. Next door to his workshop is a company that manufactures sacks. Employees often lend Taylor their forklift, or help him maneuver the big pieces of steel that arrive from Pennsylvania, because helping gives them an excuse to watch him shape his dream ship.

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“Crazy?” says Keith Zoll, one of the managers at the sack company. “They said Leonardo da Vinci was crazy too.”

Even Taylor’s machinist and welders (where are those blasted welders?) have been discounting their time and labor, because they value what Taylor’s trying to do.

Taylor’s old partner still believes in him. Now retired, Mackal says the monster is almost certainly a “primitive snake-like whale,” a zeuglodon, and there are probably more than one, perhaps a whole breeding herd cloistered in the loch, which draws a steady food supply of salmon from the North Sea.

Only an all-out hunt such as Taylor’s can satisfy the skeptics, Mackal says grimly: “The final answer everyone will believe is the animal’s carcass.”

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Because the sightings at Loch Ness seem to have begun in the 1930s, that would seem to be when something slithered into the loch from the ocean, says Lisa Wolfinger, a producer for the PBS series “Nova.” Wolfinger and a film crew went to Loch Ness last year to make a documentary, due to air next fall. Before going, she counted herself among the majority of people who don’t believe in any monster, a group that grew after 1994, when the best-known photograph of the monster, one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, was revealed to be a hoax.

But after interviewing many eyewitnesses and examining the data, Wolfinger came away converted. “There’s something big in there,” she says. “Undoubtedly.”

Next June, when the weather conditions are just right and Taylor makes his triumphal return to Loch Ness, Mackal and Wolfinger will be rooting for him, as will Robert H. Rines, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained physicist renowned for inventing radar devices used in everything from warfare to surgery--and a dedicated Nessie hunter himself.

“We need all the [Taylors] we can get,” Rines says.

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In 1972 and 1975, Rines used ultrasound and cameras with powerful strobe flashes to obtain the best evidence yet of something big and sleek swimming around Loch Ness, an exotic creature with horns on its head, fins on its sides and a back like an upturned boat. Rines agrees with Mackal that what he saw was probably no monster, but a missing link, if not a zeuglodon, perhaps an ancient reptile called a plesiosaur, thought by most scientists to be extinct for 65 million years. He bases such an opinion on more than fuzzy photos and radar charts. Like Taylor, he’s met the monster.

“It happened June 23rd, 1972,” he says. “My late wife, Carol, and a former wing commander in the RAF, Basil Cary, we watched this big back move out against the currents, from the bay into the main part of the loch, then turn round and come back and submerge right in front of us, I’d say about 1,000 feet away. It looked just like the back of an elephant.”

Ever since that day, Rines has been an unwavering believer. He’s not sure the animals are still alive, particularly since the number of sightings has fallen off in recent years, but he hopes Taylor can at least find a skeleton.

As for Taylor himself, Rines considers him a fellow traveler, another adventurer who sees that dark body of water for what it is--the repository of something primal and thrilling.

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“I have a very strong conviction,” Rines says, “that at one time there were things in there that shouldn’t have been alive.”

*

Taylor walks around his half-built boat, moving stiffly. The stroke left one foot sporadically numb.

It also stole the sight from his left eye, and when he’s excited or making a point, the right eye tends to open wider. It opens wider now as he explains why so many submarines, including his first, fail to find Nessie.

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“If you’re going to catch her,” he says, sounding like Quint, the flinty shark hunter in “Jaws,” “you’re going to have to have a fast boat.”

His boat will be a monster in its own right, 40 feet long, 35 tons, with a 500-horsepower motor pulled from a locomotive, which will help him reach speeds of 25 miles an hour. “It’ll sound like a freight train a-comin’,” he says. “But it’ll move like a freight train too!”

Should he overtake Nessie, Taylor doesn’t want to kill her, despite what Mackal and others say. He just wants a piece of her. “Biopsy wands attached to the bow,” he says, “to take a piece of her hide.”

Short of a skeleton or carcass, he hopes, a bloody chunk of monster might convince the world that she exists. He points to a spot high in the air where the harpoon wands will be mounted. Then he points to a spot where the massive cone-shaped nose will go. Then to a spot where the portholes will be, then the periscope, then the large propeller. An active and suggestive imagination is required, because though Taylor promises that the submarine will look “like a bullet with a propeller,” right now it looks like a giant bottle of Budweiser tipped on its side.

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The hull is an inch thick, made from high-grade steel, so fine and hard that it comes with its own papers, like pedigree dogs. Inside will be considerably softer. Seating for four will be furnished by another of his neighbors in the industrial park, a company that outfits luxury buses for rock stars.

One thing his boat will not have--not today, at least--is welders. Taylor checks his watch and grunts. Time to leave the monster. Time to see Margaret.

She greets him at the front door with a pitcher of sweetened tea and a big smile. Then she looks down and gasps, because she sent him out of the house this morning, as she does every morning, scrubbed and polished.

“What happened to your clothes?” she says, as though this were the first time Taylor had come home in such a state. It’s all part of their end-of-day ritual.

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He laughs, doesn’t answer, then follows her to the living room, which is flooded with late-day light and dominated by a wide view of the Atlantic. While he studies a new map of Scotland, she sits quietly, studying the sunset.

Margaret had a dream once too. It was a dream as vivid as her husband’s. A former schoolteacher, she dreamed they would travel when they retired. Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the Holy Land--she wanted to see all the places she’d read about and taught about.

“But I decided I couldn’t stand in the way of his dreams,” she says, her voice low and soft, a Tennessee voice like Taylor’s. “Even though it meant putting my dreams on hold a while.”

It’s never been any different. On their first date, he took her to a construction site. Years later, he was wide-eyed with joy as he spread the parts of his first submarine on her living room rug. He’s never happier, she says, than when covered with dirt and hot on the trail of something invisible. Maybe the one thing that obsesses a man more than what he can’t have is what he can’t see.

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“When I get back from Loch Ness,” he says, “I’ll be sick of water. I’ll want to be a landlubber for a while.”

She looks at him, skeptical. The idea of a quiet retirement feels more far-fetched than the idea of a giant sea serpent.

While Taylor is off building his boat all day, Margaret watches soap operas, works in the garden, gazes at the shrimp boats that crawl along the horizon. Last year, for Christmas, Taylor gave her a CB radio, so she could eavesdrop on the shrimpers’ notoriously salty dialogue. One day, she heard them hollering and raising hell when they netted an enormous brown shark, biggest ever fished out of these waters, the men seemed to think.

As Margaret listened intently, her ear pressed to the radio, the man who caught the shark kept calling it “the monster,” regaling the others about “the monster” he’d landed, “the monster” he’d yanked from the depths of the sea with his own bare hands.

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She shakes her head, marveling at the strange secret world of men, and the curious joy they derive from their monsters. “I had to laugh,” she says.

What else could she do?

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.


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