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On Feb. 23, 1948, at Boston's Lying-in Hospital, an obstetrician named George Goethals assisted at the birth of a male infant, to be named Robert Burns Arnot, the first of six children born to Robert Eugene Arnot, a psychiatrist, and the former Mary Burns. Goethals was the son of George Washington Goethals, chief engineer in the construction of the Panama Canal. Both Goethals, as it has turned out, oversaw the birth of a wonder of the world.
At the age of 18 months Arnot (pronounced ARE-not) would "escape," as he puts it now, from the frantic clutches of his grandfather, run to a nearby park, clamber up a 16' ladder and careen down a slide that 6-year-olds feared—and to think that his friends hadn't started to call him Crazy Bob yet. He would pick up that name as he grew to 6'4" and began doing things like chopping through New Hampshire ice to race canoes, windsurfing in huge swells off Maui, ice-climbing in the Himalayas and flying to Greece for a marathon, which he ran in 2:38.
What wouldn't Arnot do? What couldn't he do? Last summer he laced on speed roller skates for the first time and in September finished 11th, in a field of 800, in the 26.2-mile Brooklyn Rollathon. Now he skates all over the country, flying his plane from race to race, sometimes three in a day, and practicing the trumpet at 15,000 feet. Last April Arnot entered his fifth straight Boston Marathon, and one half expected him to waltz down that city's hallowed course behind Bill Rodgers and two or three other lean and skinny chaps. But he only ran a 2:59.16. Perhaps he shouldn't have completed a 27-mile bicycle race the previous day.
That was Easter Sunday, and the race was at one p.m. Arnot, then living at his parents' Wellesley, Mass. home, could have slept late, but he didn't. Arnot never sleeps late. Indeed, it seems he hardly ever sleeps at all. At 9:15 he was practicing a piece on his piccolo trumpet, a baroque classic, Giuseppe Tartini's Concerto in D with his right hand; with his left he was steering his BMW 2002 north on Route 128 at 70 mph. At 10 he would play at one Easter service in Winchester, 20 miles from Wellesley, and at 10:45 he'd play at another back in Wellesley. The pic is the tiniest of the trumpets, and Arnot kept lowering it and flapping his lips like an exhausted horse. "See this little indentation around my lip?" he asked. "Playing notes in the upper octaves with the pic requires more airway pressure than any sport. Mouthpiece pressure on the lips to maintain an air seal in this range restricts circulation to the lips and may cause permanent damage."
Might then he be playing too much today?
"Could be," he replied, "but it wouldn't be worth doing if there weren't any danger, would it?"
Arnot Sr. observes, "We are what we were. Bob is the sixth generation of pioneer spirit expressing itself in the '80s. In 1805 James Arnot immigrated to America from Scotland. His son Daniel then went to Canada. Daniel's son Robert pioneered to North Dakota. Robert's son Jesse moved on to Montana, and Jesse's son—myself—came to Massachusetts. Bob is exploring a new frontier—sports medicine, computers, airplanes, even windsurfing—these are the new things of his time.
"Bobby always had tremendous hope and energy. He could have tremendous defeats, but he never whined, never sought attention in a negative way. Yet he did have a need to be recognized, and we paid him more attention growing up than we did the five other children put together, because he always did things you noticed. He was never involved in team sports as a child; he was no athlete, which he'll tell you. His brothers were excellent athletes—every one could do things better than Bobby. But he never complained. He has always had a tremendously good spirit, and the confidence to conquer a new challenge. My wife," Dr. Arnot adds, "has the same damn energy."
It seemed, there in the car, as it often does, that Arnot was working hard to maintain a persona, but at the churches that required no effort, what with his great curly mane, the brassy glint of his instrument and the sharp, high notes of the Tartini resounding among the pews.
Arnot changed at his parents'—a phone booth would have been more appropriate—and sped up to Bedford, 15 miles away. He had raced little in recent years, and the strategies of cycling are demanding, especially for someone whose ego tells him to break from the pack and dust the field. But on this day Arnot showed some restraint. The race was 30 laps around a .9-mile course, and at the end of each lap there he was, back in the pack, waiting. When the race was over he had finished fourth.