Lex Barnett had had it. He'd had it with the incessant travel, with meeting himself coming and going as he crisscrossed the country as a service troubleshooter for the Ozalid Corp. Had it with the endless paperwork, with writing up one report after another.
Maybe it was during one of those trips -- to Ohio or California or Florida -- that an idea took hold. As much as he hated to travel, he did like to drive. And as much as he hated being away from home, he did like people. The perfect job for him, Barnett decided, would be driving a cab.
"When he said he was going to quit and drive a cab, I didn't like it," his widow, Betty Barnett, recalled one morning last week.
"I'm ashamed to say it, but I thought it was beneath him," she added, sitting at the kitchen table of the house she and Lex bought 51 years ago, a tidy, red-brick colonial among the tall, sheltering trees of Garrett Park.
Eventually, her husband won her reluctant support, and in 1962, he quit his corporate job and started driving a Diamond cab.
"I thought it might be a good thing to let him do it, and he'd see," the tiny, soft-voiced woman recalled.
Lex Barnett, who was 89 when he died July 8 of diabetes and other illnesses, grew up a Pennsylvania farm boy. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois -- where he sang in the choir and was awarded a certificate for his beautiful voice -- he was dispatched to a naval communications station headquartered in a former girls' school on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington.
Betty Matthews Barnett, now 85, grew up in Green Bay, Wis., where her father was one of the original Packers (both meat packer and football player). An adventurous sort, she joined the WAVES, and in 1942 was sent to the same Nebraska Avenue communications unit as her future husband. Even before she met him, she heard his pleasant voice singing snatches of songs around the office.
The cryptographic work they were doing was highly classified -- "and still is," Betty Barnett said in a conspiratorial whisper, although she confided that she was able to follow the Pacific peregrinations of her brother's aircraft carrier through the coded messages her unit analyzed.
Lex and Betty were discharged in November 1945, and they got married the next year. They loved Washington -- the cherry blossoms, the nearby beaches and mountains, the monumental buildings -- so they decided to stay.
Lex Barnett, after a brief second hitch with the Navy, where he began learning Russian, caught on with IBM, servicing early automatic typewriters, and then with Ozalid in 1948. Ozalid, a branch of the German company I. G. Farbin, had perfected white prints instead of blue for architects. Barnett was dispatched regularly to various plants across the country when the local service people were stumped.
His wife worked for various government agencies, her last six years as a records officer for the National Institutes of Health.
Barnett turned out to be a very successful cabdriver, thanks in part to his wife, who gradually got used to the idea. As the aspiring cabby studied for his license, the two would drive to the beach on weekends, and she would drill him on monuments, D.C. buildings, street names and numbers. And once he got his license and was behind the wheel of his sparkling clean Plymouth, he made the city he loved his own.
"Little by little, people who rode with him were pleased because he had a clean cab," Betty Barnett recalled. "He probably talked their arm off because he liked to talk. He was very friendly."
Over the years, he developed a corps of regular customers -- elderly people with doctor's appointments, disabled people, even people who relied on him to get back and forth to work every day. He even ferried a covey of little girls to a Catholic school near the Barnett house. Some of the regular customers became family friends.
In his cab, Barnett kept a little imitation-leather, variety-store autograph book for celebrity signings. The late Jennings Randolph was one of the many signees; Barnett drove the West Virginia senator's wife to her cancer treatment on 35 consecutive days.
Journalist John Chancellor signed it ("Best wishes and thanks for the ride"). So did diplomat Averil Harriman, Hollywood song-and-dance man and California senator George Murphy, columnist Earl Wilson, former White House secretary Rose Mary Woods a year after her boss's resignation, as well as one of the go-go girls from a club called the Good Guys. (She would always finish dressing in Barnett's cab, Betty Barnett recalled.)
Both Barnetts retired in 1978, but many of Lex Barnett's faithful customers still called whenever they needed to go to the airport or to a doctor's appointment.
He never had an accident.
"He loved it," Betty Barnett recalled last week, not quite a month after her husband's death. "He was very proud of it."