The truth was, Robinette didn’t feel ready for the big time. Though his career was taking off, his emotional state was becoming more fragile. Before the war, he says, he’d never fired a gun or gotten into a fight. Now he was often confrontational at work and getting into brawls after-hours. “He had a big temper back then,” recalls Jim Henderson. “Things got to Garland that might roll off someone else’s back. He has more of the temperament of an artist.” Things got so out of control, Robinette says, that when he went up to wcbs in New York to meet Walter Cronkite, both of his hands were in casts from a fistfight. He cut one cast off himself the night before the meeting so he could shake hands with the broadcasting legend. Robinette says he went through years of counseling and tried several medications to deal with the psychological trauma from the war, but with limited success. He didn’t drink or use drugs (aside from his prescription medication), but he smoked heavily and he eventually packed 230 pounds on his five-foot, ten-inch frame. He was a star in New Orleans, but he was bored and restless. He worked seven days a week. He went through three marriages, all of which ended, he says, entirely due to his problems. “I wasn’t always a lot of fun to be around,” he says.
Eventually, two things helped him keep his demons at bay: exercise (he started running up to seven miles a day) and painting. Though he always liked to sketch, Robinette didn’t start to paint seriously until he was past forty. Now he has his own gallery and exhibits regularly around New Orleans. In a studio behind his house, designed by Nancy Rhett, a fellow artist to whom he has been married since 1994, Robinette has several canvases in different stages of completion and much of the nervous tension that surrounds him at the radio station is noticeably absent. His home is decorated with his work, including several portraits of Charley, his twelve-year-old daughter with Rhett and his only child.
As for how long he’ll remain on the air, Robinette says he’s not sure. He has no immediate plans to stop, but at various points he spoke wistfully of retiring and leaving the city, pursuing his love of painting in some distant, less-troubled landscape. He also says he was approached by a delegation of local businessmen (whom he declines to name) about running for mayor next year when Nagin’s term expires, a suggestion he says he quickly dismissed. At times the city and its multitude of problems—staggering violence, dysfunctional politics, economic woes—seem to overwhelm even Robinette’s crusading temperament. And, hanging above it all, is the unrelenting specter that New Orleans remains in peril, unprotected by the incompetence of those Robinette rails against each week. The aftermath of Katrina reopened emotional scars from the war that Robinette thought had finally healed, and he’s not sure he’d be able to endure another big storm. That the city will flood again, Robinette has no doubt. “We’re basically Gulf-front property already,” he says with resignation. “People still don’t realize how close the sea has come.” But as another hurricane season gets under way, Robinette remains at the microphone, fighting a battle he sometimes thinks is already lost. And in the warm and verdant city outside his studio window, the trees are filled with the song of birds.