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Blythe Spirit Is Taken Away

When Toby Morelock died, the desert town lost more than a cabby. It lost a sympathetic ear, a lifeline and a man who cared about people.

June 16, 2002|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLYTHE, Calif. — This desert town is so small, you can spit from one end clear to the other. At least, that's how the locals tell it.

Snuggled up against the Arizona border, Blythe is a dusty and sweltering patch of modest homes, motels and saloons. Slow living turns still slower in summer, when temperatures climb to 110 and above.

It's a town so steeped in heat and inertia it can't afford to lose its air-conditioners, beer coolers or, evidently, its cabby.

Blythe's one and only taxi driver, 81-year-old Arthur "Toby" Morelock, died last December. He has not been replaced. Folks here aren't sure he ever will be, really.

Morelock was more than just a ride about town. He was a delivery service, a sympathetic ear, a lifeline. Morelock's Taxi Service schlepped the city's residents from the grocery to home, from bar to bar, just about anywhere they wanted, for more than two decades.

"Maybe he didn't serve a great magnitude of people," said Blythe Mayor Robert Crane, "but there are people here who really needed him. He was a safety net for people."

Of course, there's still the Dial-a-Ride service, though the locals don't seem to care much for it because patrons have to make an appointment the day before. Its drivers won't wait while riders run into the grocery store, and they just aren't around at 2 a.m. when you need a ride home from, say, Jim Dandy's bar.

And Morelock did so much more. He would pick up a prescription, a pizza, or, if you were really in need, the occasional six-pack.

A soft touch, he had a reputation for picking up pedestrians at no charge just to get them out of the blistering heat.

From his barstool at the Horny Toad Saloon, David Anderson recalled that sometimes when he called Toby at closing time, he didn't have a dime in his pocket.

"And he'd just say, 'That's OK. Just pay me when your money comes,' " said Anderson, who gets by on Social Security. "That's the kind of guy he was."

Before Morelock, it was hard to keep a good, honest cabby in town. Most were flaky, sometimes answering calls, sometimes not. One would arrive with liquor on his breath.

No one would have guessed that Toby Morelock would become the sole cabdriver here. Until 1976, he owned a tractor repair shop in downtown Blythe.

But that was hard, back-breaking work, and business had slowed in the once-bustling agricultural community.

Morelock simply came home one day and said he was starting a taxi business, as his widow, Leona Morelock, remembers it. She never questioned the wisdom of opening a taxi service in their tiny town, where half of the 23,000 residents are inmates at Blythe's two prisons.

Toby had a certain charisma that inspired even those who hardly knew him.

After all, Leona married him back in 1943 after just a four-day courtship, breaking her engagement with another man.

"He was just, wow!" Leona Morelock, 81, says today, sounding every bit like a girl with a schoolyard crush.

In old family photos, he stands out, even as one of 11 siblings. He wasn't just handsome. He was movie-star handsome, tall with a square jaw, held high.

He was cocky but kind, and people just flocked to him, his wife said.

Soon, Blythe's cabby had a dedicated group of patrons--Alpha Beta Bill, AAA Joe, Murdock (just Murdock) and the Naked Guy, named for his habit of stripping down to nothing in the fields around Blythe for no particular reason.

Morelock became such a staple in the town that businesses relied on him to run packages into Los Angeles in the days before Blythe had a Federal Express office. He transported lab work for the hospital. And when the first of two prisons was built in 1989, he delivered anxious wives and teary-eyed moms on visiting day.

Barbara Crow, 54, met Morelock as she walked home from errands one day back in 1997. It was 115 degrees.

"It's too hot to be walking on a day like this," he called to her, waving off her protestations that she couldn't afford a cab. "I'm taking you home."

Morelock would see 64-year-old Fred Banke, who lost a leg years ago, walking to the grocery store. The cab driver would insist he was headed there anyway. Then he'd be waiting when Banke was ready to go home.

"That was Toby," Banke said. "I sure miss that guy a lot."

Not that Morelock, a World War II Army veteran, was a pushover. This was a man who in his 70s cold-cocked a twentysomething punk who demanded a late-night ride and, in the process, cursed Leona Morelock.

Around town, though, most people remember Morelock's softer side. Especially the town's bar patrons, now caught with no ride home in the wee hours--or sometimes in the middle of the afternoon--or for the regulars swatting flies and drinking on the stoop outside the B&B Bait shop

Marjorie Blythe, the Horny Toad's owner and barkeep, feels the void keenly. Blythe, whose ex-husband was related to town founder Thomas Blythe, kept Morelock's phone number over her bar for 20 years. Now, she's reduced to driving the drunkest customers home herself.

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