The Beginning, Middle, and End
Although this story began more than 40 years ago and ended more than 30 years ago, it’s something that only gets bigger in my mind, the further I get from it. It’s all about the relationship of an older man (my then-best friend’s father), and a younger man (myself), but it really involved SO much more than that. More than anything, it truly proved how a friendship, over a period of time–a decade, in this instance–can blossom into something much greater: a surrogate father-and-son bonding. And it all started under a most unpredictable and inauspicious circumstance. In fact, it had its roots many years earlier, while I was still in high school back in the late 1960s.
Back then, Larry G.’s son, Fred G., and I were so-called bosom buddies, where we had met in high school. Even though he was one grade older than me, we shared several interests. We were on the same high school rifle team; we played golf and bowled on weekends, and we just “hung out” together. Our friendship continued well beyond high school. Even though we went to different colleges, we remained in close contact. We visited, exchanged phone calls, and even went on trips together.
Fred, however, began having difficulties coping with developing into adulthood. He flunked out of one, and then another college. Shortly thereafter, he began associating with the “wrong crowd”, who subsequently introduced him to drugs–specifically marijuana. He began inhaling small amounts but, unfortunately, this habit degenerated into a full addiction. Soon he had problems holding a job, and then, after that, he began having financial difficulties. But he always knew who to turn to for help.
Now, while I wasn’t accepted into an Ivy League college–like both of my older brothers had been–and I hadn’t exactly had an A+ grade average, I DID graduate from a good four-year college with respectable grades. From there, I moved onto a moderately successful career in business and, later on, an even more successful career in teaching. Fred, on the other hand, hadn’t fared nearly as well. So, whenever he needed a loan, he came to me. It usually wasn’t for much …. $20 or thereabouts …. and therefore, in the beginning, I acquiesced with little protest, admonishments, or too many questions. But, as the years marched on and we were both in our late 20’s, this became something first of a nuisance, and then graduated into a burden. This was exacerbated when Fred would always provide clever excuses as to why he couldn’t repay me.
Furthermore, the amounts of money he requested began to increase from $20 right up to $100, and eventually even higher. It was a rare occasion when he wouldn’t say to me something like, “By the way, I’m tight on cash; I need to hit you up for a loan, man. But don ‘t worry; you’ll get it back next week. How about it, huh?” I plaintively began to realize that this was all related to his addiction to marijuana. Meanwhile, his problem became all the more serious, and consequently, more obvious. He finally called me up looking for a loan of $200. “What do you need that much money for?”, I inquired. “To pay back a neighbor in my building, who I borrowed that same amount from,” he answered. With total disgust, I offered, “There’s an old expression for that. It’s called ‘borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’. And I’m not Peter; I’m Robert. And I’m also not a bank. So, go borrow from a bank, okay?” It wasn’t long before his telephone got disconnected by the phone company, because he defaulted on paying their bills. So now, when he needed to call me, it was from a pay phone.
Home phone or pay phone, the calls kept coming. Fred’s next request was for a loan to pay his latest Con Ed bill. Why? Because he had fallen in arrears with them, too. Again, I was beyond annoyed. But this time I handled it with great diplomatic aplomb …. coupled with a twist of sarcastic humor. I suggested that there was no need for me to lend him any money. Instead, there was a very cheap way out for him: All he had to do, I explained, was buy a box of candles. That way, when Con Ed would cut off his power and lights, he wouldn’t be sitting there in the dark. The candles would then light up his apartment. He didn’t like that idea one iota, but I didn’t mind. Because I no longer had any respect for him, I didn’t care what he thought anymore!
For quite a while, previously, I had become slightly acquainted with Fred’s father, Larry, and his stepmother, Billie. I had been invited to have dinner and go to Broadway plays with them on several occasions, and they had even met with my parents a few times. Thus, because I felt a certain level of comfort with Larry, albeit to a limited extent, I began to ponder contacting him and bringing this whole unhealthy situation with Fred to his attention. While I knew that he loved and cared deeply about his son, I also suspected that Fred was hiding and camouflaging his troubled lifestyle from Larry. The truth needed to be told, I strongly believed. I was perhaps within days of making this phone call when, by some bizarre act of providence, Larry beat me to the punch, by calling me first. This was in 1977.
Topic A was, of course, that he was not only aware of Fred’s problems, but wanted to know if I, as Fred’s best friend, could offer up any fine details that he (Larry), didn’t know already. But, more than that, he was curious as to what solutions I might have to remedy the situation at hand. It was then that we mutually agreed that I come into New York City–where Larry and Billie resided–sometime soon and that we meet to have a lengthy discussion. Considering that I lived in the neighboring suburb of Yonkers, New York, I didn’t have to go too far out of my way. And so, only several days later, we did, in fact, have a sit-down at a Chinese restaurant in his neighborhood on the Upper East Side.
The meeting proved fruitful in more ways than one. We both agreed that figuring out a way to get Fred to help himself would, indeed, require much patience, perseverance, and a touch of ingenuity on top of that. But, during the course of the initial conversation …. before we even broached the situation with Fred …. we made some small talk about our respective backgrounds. During this discussion, we learned that we had certain things in common. First, we both had come from prominent families. It turned out that his father, like mine, had once been the president and CEO of a large company. In his case, it was a women’s clothing manufacturer in upstate New York, and mine, a dairy company in the Northeast. Thus, we understood what it was like to be the children of privilege. Likewise, we had both pursued careers working for these family businesses during their heydays. We also learned that we each followed the stock market fervently, and watched the same program on PBS, “Wall Street Week”, which addressed this topic exclusively every Friday night.
As the famous closing line from the old Humphrey Bogart movie, “Casablanca” goes, “…. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”–and that is what it would come to be. In the beginning, we met with a somewhat erratic schedule. We would rendezvous at restaurants, or in his apartment. Within six months, though, it became somewhat more regular…. at least once a month. Although we initially about–or, more succinctly, commiserated over Fred’s continuing woes with few desired results–we discovered that there were just so many other items of a positive nature that we could explore. That’s when we expanded into more constructive areas.
Up to the point where I had met Larry, I considered myself, if not an aficionado on stock market investments, at least something beyond a novice. I did, after all, have shares in several blue-chip companies, and some others that were high-flyers. I quickly grasped that he had a decisive edge over me in knowledge in this field. Some of this could be attributed to his age and experience, and some of it was because he had accumulated a much larger portfolio than I had. In a very short span of time, I came to accept him as my unofficial financial advisor on what stocks to purchase, when to purchase them and when to sell.
On his advice alone, I did indeed reap some healthy financial profits. And, over an extended period of time, they continued to grow exponentially. In fact, I can safely say that, in the long-run, I was able to retire three years earlier from my teaching career than I would have because of these added portfolio benefits. Larry, unfortunately, didn’t live to see this happen, but if he HAD, he would have been most proud, knowing that he had something to do with it!
It reached a point where I would leave Friday evenings open, in expectation that I would receive a phone call from him at the last minute, with this request, “Hey, Robert, are you free tonight? If so, why not come on down to the apartment, and we’ll check out ‘Wall Street Week’ with Louis Rukeyser on TV. They’ve got a surprise guest expected to make an appearance!” This was usually too much of a temptation much temptation for me to resist, so I would waste no time in fulfilling his wish for my company that evening.
There was one particular Friday night in Larry’s apartment that turned into an incident involving Fred. While Larry and I were watching “Wall Street Week”, there came a gentle tap on the door. At first, both of us thought it might be one of Larry’s neighbors. But then it became louder, till it was extremely annoying. And then came a strident cry, “Hey, Dad, it’s Fred; I was in the neighborhood, and thought I’d drop in and say ‘hello’.” Larry and I looked at each other in total amazement, because we both knew the score: Fred, knowing that he hadn’t been invited by Larry, had decided to somehow deviously sneak past the security desk in the lobby of the building. Larry, being quite honest himself, didn’t care for this kind of furtive behavior on the part of his son. He therefore did not want to invite Fred in just on that principle. And I, not wanting any kind of contact with Fred, was in no mood to have to deal with him, either. So, Larry and I mutually agreed through silent hand gestures not to open the door for Fred.
But Fred persisted on knocking, and then shouted out, “I know you’re in there, Dad, because I can hear your TV!” But, given that Larry was not going to invite Fred in, he and I sat there in silence and ignored the knocking. Within several minutes, Fred gave up and went away. Larry then said what I knew he was thinking: He simply would not invite Fred into his apartment after Fred had snuck into the building like that. Plus, Larry also understood my sentiments not to want to see Fred anymore under ANY circumstances.
Shortly thereafter, Larry revealed to me what happened between him and Fred when they spoke about this particular incident several days later. Fred angrily accused his father of not letting him into his apartment when Larry was home watching TV. Larry then used his imagination and came up with a whopper to assuage Fred’s feelings. He denied being home and said he was out that night with his wife, Billie. The reason the TV was on, he explained, was to keep Larry and Billie’s dog company. And apparently Fred bought that story because it calmed him to the point where he was no longer upset at being “rejected” that Friday night!
There are still other unique memories of my visits with Larry in his apartment that live on with me. In my many conversations with him, he shared that he was a veteran of World War II, having served in the United States Navy in the Pacific Ocean Theater. Because Pearl Harbor had been attacked on Dec. 7th, 1941, which coincided with his 32nd birthday, he felt it his patriotic duty to enlist in the military and join the war effort. So, he ended up on an aircraft carrier, fighting the Japanese.
Some of his war stories were enough to make my hair stand on end. One in particular still resonates with me. Towards the end of the war, Japan became desperate. They began launching kamikaze attacks on enemy ships and aircraft carriers that were coming closer to their navy and mainland, as they were rapidly being defeated. One such kamikaze airplane attempted to crash into his aircraft carrier, but miraculously missed its target by a mere 50 yards. Instead, it crashed into the ocean, killing the pilot instantly–but nobody else was hurt or killed on the aircraft carrier. Larry was a witness to this horror, standing on one of the upper decks, no more than 200 feet away.
And that’s when he showed me, in his library, a book that he prized as his favorite in his whole collection of books. It was a tome, more than 1000 pages long, with a black cover and silver lettering for the title and author. The name of it, appropriately enough for him, was, “The United States Navy in World War II”. Now, given that I myself have always been somewhat of a World War II aficionado, I spent much time perusing this book every time I visited Larry’s apartment. I frequently found items of interest in it and asked him questions about his own personal experiences during the war. This book became a source of many a topic of conversation between us about his life and time in the navy. He would regale me with war stories, and not one of them was boring! This book would someday surface in the future in a most bizarre and unexpected circumstance …. but that will come up later in this story, and not now.
Then one day, as my 30th birthday was approaching, I received a most pleasant surprise from Larry: an invitation, by phone call, to accompany him down to Florida for five days while he visited his daughter and her husband in West Palm Beach. He made it abundantly clear that the timing was purely intentional, by commenting, “I know this particular birthday is a special one for you, so why not do something different to make it special? Come and join me, and we’ll find plenty to do in the time that I’m not at my daughter’s house.”
We ended up doing just that. In a rented car, we did much touring in that neighborhood, and we even drove across the state on “Alligator Alley”, which is an interstate highway cutting across the middle of Florida. It was a long drive each way, and Larry once again had no shortage of stories about his life to make the trip more interesting.
There were to be other trips taken together after this one. On one occasion two years later, we went upstate New York, where we entertained ourselves by visiting with my brother, John, and his family. Then, several years later, we went down to Atlantic City for a long weekend. Once again, Larry served as my mentor, as he knew so much more about gambling than I did …. although neither of us hit any large jackpot. And he even embellished matters by relating stories of his visits to Atlantic City as a young man with his parents, long before it would become the gambling mecca that it is today.
None of this burgeoning relationship went unnoticed by Larry’s wife, Billie. She was deeply incredulous as to how well cemented it had become. One evening, while I was visiting both of them in their apartment, she opined to me in private, “Don’t you realize what you’ve become? You’ re now Larry’s other son!” Stunned, I stumbled for a perspicacious and witty response. Failing at that, the very best I could offer up was, “Well, if that’s the case, then, I can think of much worse things that I could have become. I’ll take that as a compliment; thank you!” That was when it all sank in that I was so fortunate to have this unique friendship.
Sadly, none of it was wasted on Fred, either. When he learned that Larry and I had traveled together, he reacted more like a jealous child than an adult. He sarcastically snapped at Larry, “Why don’t you just adopt Robert?!” On the one hand, my friendship with Fred had deteriorated so much at this point, that I didn’t feel any great sense of loss. On the other hand, though, I also had to accept that part of the reason that I wasn’t that close with him anymore was due to the fact I had “outgrown” him, so to speak. I had moved up to higher ground in life. And, in that process, I had become almost a surrogate son to Larry. Billie was, indeed, accurate in her judgment call of my relationship with Larry.
Fred kept calling me–still, from pay phones(!), with the hope of getting back together with me and becoming friends again. I was so far past that stage with him, that I finally had my phone number changed to an unlisted one just to get rid of him. He was so upset at this, that he managed to sneak into my building one day when I was out working and left a nasty note under my door. He was bitter towards me at being rejected, but I just ignored that note instead of responding to it. That was pretty much the end of it between him and me. Truth be told, this was somewhat of a tremendous relief to be rid of him once and for all.
Many years later, I would learn, from a mutual schoolmate of Fred and I, that Fred had even larger drug problems than I was aware of back then. The schoolmate had three degrees of separation with Fred because a girl he was dating in our high school ended up dating Fred several years after all of us had graduated. What my friend learned from the girl was that Fred, then in his early and mid-20’s, was “into” snorting heroin in powder form. My friend wasn’t certain exactly how badly Fred had become addicted to that deadly drug, but the mere fact that he had experimented with it was bad enough. Having known Fred’s checkered history with drugs, this was no great bombshell for me, but it was revelatory still the same. And it made me realize, in retrospect, that breaking away from him as I had done, was a wiser move than I had known at that time. Fred genuinely turned out to be a total lost cause, a loser’s loser!
There is yet another twist in this story, making it somewhat more complex. And in that twist, there is even a bit of ironic humor. Just like Larry and his son were somewhat estranged, I was somewhat distant in my relationship with my own father. We didn’t have the intensity of conflicts that went on between Larry and Fred, but there was a certain coolness between us. We just weren’t that close, for various reasons. I was far closer to my mother than I was to my father.
Whereas Larry and I would talk on the phone two or three times a week, my father and I would speak at best only once a week. And I made no secret out of the fact that I was talking to Larry more than I was talking to him. My father was also well aware that Larry and I had traveled together on several trips, which was more than I did with him. Somehow this sparked jealousy in him over Larry. He once made a remark that was like what Fred had commented to Larry. Upon learning that Larry and I had gone to Atlantic City together, my father said, “My, you and Larry are spending so much time together.” And then he continued, with biting bitterness, “Why doesn’t he just adopt you?” It was all that I could do to fight back the laughter at that comment because it echoed what Fred had said to Larry about adopting me only very recently. My father’s remark was not only ironic, but it also contained a chuckle. In fact, the whole situation bordered on being a living black comedy! I felt like mentioning it to him, but I was afraid it could hurt his feelings. So, I refrained from bringing it to his attention. It was abundantly clear at this point that not only was I a surrogate son to Larry, but he was a surrogate father to me.
Even my mother got into the act. At one juncture, she said to me, “Don’t keep mentioning Larry G. to your father as much as you do. He doesn’t like it!” I could only counter, “First of all, I wasn’t intentionally rubbing anything in by talking about my friendship with Larry. I was only being honest It’s just that he and I have become somewhat close lately. And what doesn’t Dad like about that? Does he have a guilty conscience about something?!” There was only stone silence from her when I said that, because she couldn’t respond with an explanation that made any sense. She may even have finally come to her senses that there were two sides to the story but didn’t care to openly admit it.
It all came to something of a head when, not too long after this, I made a point of remembering Larry on Father’s Day by sending him a simple card of good wishes. This must have touched him in some way that I didn’t intend because I received a phone call from him inviting me down to the city to spend Father’s Day with him at our favorite Chinese restaurant. However, the very next day, my mother invited me up to our family home in Scarsdale, New York, to spend Father’s Day with her and my father. Now I was in something of a dilemma. How could I get out of the invitation with my own family, when I had already been invited to be with a non-family member on Father’s Day?
I decided to take the high road, by being open with my mother. I simply explained that I had already accepted an invitation from Larry and couldn’t get out of it now. When this rebuff got back to my father, he reacted with embarrassment and much shame–according to my mother. My deciding to be with Larry on Father’s Day instead of with him was just too obvious that something was missing between him and I. It was truly a symbolic slap in the face! In his own quiet way, he refrained from making any references to it afterwards.
Perhaps he was hiding his pain and didn’t want me to know that it bothered him. It was obviously a bitter pill for him to have to swallow. What he didn’t say somehow revealed his feelings about it just the same. He certainly had to come to grips with the fact that there was something missing in his relationship with me. It obviously couldn’t be blamed totally on me; it had more to do with him. So it was never brought up again by either he or my mother and when the next Father’s Day came around one year later, I made a strong point of spending it with him and my mother…. even though I was, once again, invited to be with Larry and Billie on that day! Only this time around, I very politely–and discretely–declined their offer.
The fact of the matter is, my father and Larry were almost complete opposites. My father, having been a brilliant student in high school, graduating at just 15, went on to get a math degree at NYU. Larry, on the other hand, chose not to go to college, even though he came from a family who could well have afforded to send him there. Instead of college, he opted to work in his father’s business. But Larry had the street smarts that my father never possessed. I jokingly referred to him as a “road scholar”, meaning he was quite philosophical and knew so much about life in a non-academic way. This was, to be sure, a play on words for the real term, Rhodes Scholar.
As a matter of fact, Larry was, quite literally, just that, a man of the road. He and Billie did much traveling together in their later years. And wherever he would go, he would make a point of sending me a postcard. I would always get postcards with exotic-looking scenery, and he would write a concise message describing the historic sites that he and Billie would visit. Some of the foreign lands they visited were Mexico, Greece, and Israel. And, in the US, they frequently went to Vermont, Massachusetts, and Montauk–which is in Long Island, New York. Regardless of where it was, I would hear from him without fail!
Even Billie sent me some postcards. I’ve actually held onto all of them, about 30 altogether. After all, not only do they have sentimental value for me, but postcards have become almost collectors’ items today. They’ve become somewhat of an art form of the past, as they are seldom used anymore. Everything now is sent via e-mail messages from iPhones with digital photography. Who needs to send postcards nowadays?
And then there was the matter of romance. Larry knew full well that I was “footloose and fancy-free”, meaning, of course, that I was single, and in my early 30’s. He had become somewhat concerned about my marital status. Having been a bit of a ladies’ man when he was single, he took it upon himself to fix me up on blind dates. Because he was a part-time vacuum cleaner salesman for Electrolux (he was doing this just to keep busy in his retirement), he came in contact with quite a few single women as customers. Whenever he noticed they were young, attractive, and possibly my type, he felt compelled to fix me up on dates with them.
Most of these blind dates ended, well, like most blind dates do …. up a blind alley. In other words, there was no compatibility. But there was one blind date in particular that became somewhat interesting, and which did NOT end up in a blind alley. Her name was Eileen, she was five years older than me, and had never been married. She was of Italian background, brunette, and quite attractive with a perfect, svelte figure. As Larry succinctly explained to me directly before making the introduction, “She’s the kind who, when walking down a busy street, will get a second look from all those red-blooded male onlookers!” As I would learn shortly thereafter for myself, he would turn out to be 100% correct in that assessment of her!
She was also very worldly, and so I stood to learn much from her in more ways than one. We were, indeed, very compatible from the first date onward. The only problem was, as I learned early on, that she was extremely fickle, and also extremely opportunistic. She explained at the outset that she was, at the time we were dating, also dating two other men. Both of them were married; one of whom happened to be her immediate boss. Her job was running a café at Citibank in midtown Manhattan, where she also lived.
While I thought this would become a meaningful and lasting relationship, I learned soon enough that that was not meant to be the case: I was dumped by her after only four dates. Because Larry had set the whole thing up with me, I explained to him what had happened. True friend and mentor that he was, he pledged to patch things up between she and I. Sure enough, I was back on track with her in a short period of time. Everything looked hunky-dory, and it was–for the next several dates. Then, again, I found myself being dumped very suddenly. Her explanation was that she needed to be faithful to her #1 boyfriend, which was her married boss at Citibank. Upon hearing that, I deemed it to be a genuine case of loyalty in the first degree …. to herself, that is. Or, in the immortal words of Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, “This above all else: To thine own self be true”. I could only conclude, then, that that must have been her mantra!
Still and all, I was willing to give it another try. So, again, Larry intervened on my behalf. And again, in my naïve state of mind, I thought that three times would be the charm. But, in this case, three times turned out to be the exact opposite of that–because this time around, she dumped me for the third consecutive time after only three dates. When I conferred with Larry on this development, he and I agreed that the rules of baseball also apply to this: Three strikes and you’re out! While I was disappointed to say the very least, Larry offered the brighter side of it, by pointing out that all of it could be credited to a learning adventure in life. And, with a bit of humor, he added, “Perhaps what we should really call it is a learning misadventure in life!” I couldn’t argue with that.
My father, when he was informed of how this whole matter played out, was not at all unhappy. In fact, he had originally been worried that one of those two married boyfriends, if they were aware of what had been going on, might try to come after me with a gun. I then opined to him that he need not be too concerned. The reason for that being, operator that Eileen was, not only did they not know about me, they most likely didn’t even know about each other! My logic must have made sense to him because he then seemed relieved from that point on. However, when it ended, he was even more relieved. He viewed it as being a closed chapter that was best being just that …. permanently closed.
As supportive of me as he was in so many ways, Larry could also be my biggest critic. But because he did it in a constructive and impartial way, I would always listen to whatever he had to say. And I would never become defensive because I knew he was doing it all for my benefit. In particular, he felt that I was too sheepish and that I needed to become more outspoken when I was in any way being verbally abused by those around me. Was he correct in this assessment of me? After a brief self-evaluation, I realized that, lo and behold, he had a point there! I immediately put forth an effort to develop a stronger personality. I must have been a success after scrupulously working on it because it wasn’t long before people around me, even friends and family members, noticed I was becoming more assertive and in a positive way. I was also becoming more self-confident. How about that? A brand new me. Chalk one up for Larry G.!
Of course, Larry himself noticed it, as well. He went so far as to say that he wished Fred would grow, as I had, and also become less abashed. He went even further than that, to say that he could see why Fred and I had drifted so far apart. In his opinion, I had completely surpassed him. “I can remember when you and Fred were best buddies in high school; you were both on the same immature level. You were acting like a pair of 12-year-olds! But that changed, because you’ve since grown up, and sadly he hasn’t. You’ve really left him behind in the dust! At this stage in your life, what do you need him for anymore?”, he truthfully said to me, about his own son. He elaborated even more, by commenting that, “If Fred wasn’t related to me, I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, so consider yourself lucky that you’re not related to him.” I was truly shocked by his honesty, painful as it must have been for him to reveal that. While I felt his pain, at the same time, I greatly admired his courage. Very few parents are as forthright about their children as he was. Chalk up yet one more for Larry G.!
By the time I was 37, and this unusual friendship had now reached the decade mark, I had somehow foolishly led myself to believe that it would never end. The age difference between us was 40 years, as he was 77 at that time …. so of course, it would end. How naive I was to believe otherwise! What I wasn’t aware of–and which he very discreetly concealed from me–was that he had recently developed prostate cancer. Therefore, I had no reason to doubt him when he once informed me that he was leaving town for about a week, to attend a business convention at Electrolux headquarters out-of-state. What I didn’t know was that, during that period, he was really undergoing medical tests at a local hospital in Manhattan. He had, in fact, not left New York City. And he had not been truthful with me about what he was going through. I would learn later on that, for reasons of privacy, he had told this same story to everyone around him …. with the exception of his wife, who knew the true story.
Several months later, I learned the bitter truth very suddenly and most unpleasantly. I received a totally unexpected phone call from Billie, at about seven in the morning on one fine early spring day in 1987. Larry had been rushed to the hospital the previous night and was now in a coma. The cancer had spread throughout his body faster than the doctors had anticipated. She concluded the conversation by saying, “All you can do now is pray for him.” He lingered for 12 more days, before finally succumbing. Again, Billie was the one to inform me of the terrible news.
To be sure, the timing of this couldn’t have been worse. Only seven months earlier, I had lost a granduncle with whom I had been very close. And less than two months earlier, I had also lost a niece with whom I had nurtured a very close relationship. It seemed to me, as the famous saying goes, “When it rains, it pours”.
My first reaction was to feel somehow cheated. I had never had the opportunity to either say goodbye to him or thank him for taking me under his wing and being my mentor for all those years. After all, I reasoned, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if I could have enjoyed 10 more years of this relationship? After overcoming this early stage of bitterness, however, I finally saw things as they were: Instead of an extra 10 years, I was SO fortunate to have savored the 10 years that I DID have. The glass is either half-full or half-empty and, for me, it was most definitely half-full! I knew that this friendship had been a “growing experience” for me, and I was very flattered when I learned from Billie, not too long after Larry’s demise, that it had been the same for him, as well.
As much as I wanted to attend Larry’s funeral in Brooklyn, New York, I couldn’t. I was, of course, invited by Billie to attend, but I had to politely refuse. I knew Fred would be there, and that was a situation I just wanted no part of. That was because I knew that Fred, upon seeing me, would be after me to return to being friends again. I respectfully declined Billie’s offer. But I also explained to her why I wasn’t going to attend, and she had no problem comprehending my position. She responded by saying succinctly, “Larry would understand.”
In a later conversation I had with her on the phone, she revealed something to me that was somewhat startling–but not completely. Apparently, Larry, at one point towards the end of his life, was getting ready to include me in his will. But the reason he decided against it actually had something to do with a discussion I had had with him only four months before he died. He made a vague reference to some “estate planning” that he was addressing, and that he didn’t want me “to be entirely forgotten.”
I immediately picked this up as a clue that he was considering making me a beneficiary in his will. I then explained that, while I greatly appreciated the kind thought behind it, it would not be necessary. I would not be needing any money from his estate; I was financially secure already. But I also added that, whatever amount he was considering giving to me, he should not give it to Fred, either. That was because I knew that Fred, with his wastrel ways, would only squander that amount, however much it would be. This was the end of that topic until Billie brought it up with me that time on the phone. She mentioned that he had intended to include me for $25,000 (quite a bit of money back then), but after I declined it, he not only acquiesced but also did not add that amount to whatever Fred would eventually receive. Instead, he gave the difference to several charities. He wisely honored my requests on both matters!
With Larry gone, is this the end of this story? Well, it certainly appeared so to me at the time of his demise. But that was not to be the case. The plot would thicken and in the not-too-distant future.
Because of the suddenness of his departure, I had some serious difficulties in dealing with it. There was no warning that he would be gone so suddenly. And at such an inopportune time, given the other losses I had recently suffered in my family. I then began compensating for this by bringing him back to life …. in a series of dreams, that is. In less than a month after his death, I had the first one. There he and I were, walking down the street right in front of his building on East 83rd Street and First Avenue. And in this dream, I was thinking to myself, how good it is that he’s okay. After all, I had had a nightmare recently in which he had passed away. But thank God that was only a nightmare, and that here he was, alive and well. Of course, this was the real dream, and I was back to reality when I awoke shortly thereafter.
The most vivid dream of them all was when he and I were having a meal in the same Chinese restaurant that we had first met in 10 years earlier, only a few blocks from his apartment. And we had met there several times since then, to be sure. We were having a typical discussion, as we had frequently done. But then something suddenly occurred to me in this crazy dream: How could this really be happening, if he was no longer among the living? I then conjured up the presence of mind to say something.
“Larry, what are you doing here with me right now? Didn’t you pass away quite a few months ago?”
“It’s not true,” he said. “and where did you hear that false rumor?” -,
“Well, first, I heard it from your wife, Billie, who broke the news to me. And then, two days later, I read it in the New York Times obituaries.”
At that point, he suddenly burst out laughing loudly. “That only goes to prove that you can’t believe anything that you hear, and only half of what you see!” At the same time that he was laughing, he began literally fading away from me at the dinner table. Pretty soon, with a sudden “poof!” he was gone altogether. And there I was, sitting all alone in that restaurant, feeling hurt and betrayed by the powers-that-be. Mercifully, that’s when I woke up. Even though it was only four a.m., I couldn’t get back to sleep that night. Perhaps I was afraid of falling asleep again, lest I encounter another nightmare such as the one I had just endured.
This series of psychic dreams, perhaps six or seven in all, finally ended about one year after Larry’s passing. I was beginning to get over it all and move on to the next chapter in my life. But then, about one month after the last dream, something incredible happened which I marvel at to this very day. One cold, dreary March morning in 1988, as I was departing in my car from my previous address on Rumsey Road in Yonkers, New York, I stopped for a red light on the corner of Rumsey Road and Spruce Street. That’s when I noticed, right there on the ground near the curb but away from the sidewalk, a large black book that had obviously been left there. Book-lover that I am–I had a large library of books then, and an even larger one today–I just had to see what kind of book this was. Perhaps I might even want to include it in that library, I thought to myself as I pulled my car up on that curb. By doing that, I would not create an obstruction of traffic for those cars piling up rapidly behind me in the morning rush hour.
I then got out of my car and picked up that book. Before I even read the title on the cover, I instantly knew there was something very familiar about it to me. And why wouldn’t it be familiar? when I read the title: “The United States Navy in World War II”. Was I believing what I was seeing? I would not have expected this to happen in a million years! This was the very book that Larry G. had owned in his apartment in Manhattan. I had gone through it many times with him, and it had led to so many discussions between he and I about his numerous wartime experiences in the navy. So, I snapped up that book, put it on the front seat of my car, and drove off that morning in a deep state of astonishment at what had just occurred.
I had several errands to complete that morning, which I did, but in a zombie-like state. I was on “automatic”, as it were–physically functioning, but my mind was elsewhere. Upon returning to my apartment, the first order of business was to inspect the book. Yes, it was certainly the same book that I had come to know in Larry’s apartment. But was it actually that book …? the one in his possession? Or was it another one that, by sheer coincidence, had belonged to somebody else and, also, by sheer coincidence …. had ended up on a street corner less than a block from where I lived? Then, too, there were no markings in it, such as a nameplate, or handwriting. They would have indicated that it was somebody else’s book …. or Larry’s book. Markings or writing could have provided such valuable clues either way, but unfortunately there were none. So, then, how was I to ascertain that it was THE book in question–the one from Larry’s apartment?
There were two options, but neither of them was very viable. The first would be to contact Fred, and ask him if, among the items in Larry’s estate he had inherited, that book one of them? If so, then that would rule out the book I now had as actually being the one from Larry’s personal library. But, if not, then maybe it was Larry’s book, and had somehow ended up belonging to someone else before finding its way to me. And I would inquire of Fred that, if he didn’t own the book, whatever happened to it?
Calling Fred, though, would mean re-establishing contact with him, which I was trying to avoid at all costs. I had broken off friendship with him years earlier, to the point of having my phone number unlisted. I did not want to be in touch with him anymore, and this would open the door to that once again. There were simply too many problems associated with him. So that option was off the table.
The second option would be to call Larry’s widow, Billie, and ask her pretty much the same thing: Was that book still in her apartment and, if not, whatever happened to it? There, too, I was somewhat stymied. While I had always had a good relationship with her while Larry was alive, she had been somewhat cool and distant since then. True, she had been the one to call me when Larry was rushed to the hospital, and she had also called to tell me that he had passed away. But since then, I had heard little from her …. all of only three times. And she had not returned several of my most recent phone calls. In fact, I had not spoken with her in over six months. I did not take it personally, however. I reasoned that perhaps I somehow served as a painful reminder to her of the days when Larry was alive and well. Maybe she felt it was time to put that all behind her and move forward. That was why it seemed somewhat awkward to reach out to her now–especially with an enigmatic story indirectly involving Larry! It would not be appropriate, so that, too, was off the table. I was now dealing with a brand-new mystery. What to do next, though?
First things came first: I carefully examined the condition of the book. I could tell that it had not been there at that street corner for very long, because it was basically in good condition. I then recalled that it had rained heavily only two nights earlier, and so I reasoned that it must have landed there since then. Otherwise, it would have been tremendously waterlogged from the downpour.
I immediately cleaned it up just a bit with a damp cloth, to make it look fresher by removing some minor dirt stains. I noticed that it appeared to have no other serious damage, which it well might have sustained, had it been lying there for very long. But the cover and spine were slightly split in several places, perhaps from the impact of being tossed on the hard ground as it had been. I remedied this by applying some Elmer’s glue to those areas that needed it. After the glue dried, it was certainly presentable enough that it looked like an average slightly used book, and nothing worse than that. I was proud of how I had improved upon its appearance!
The next order of business was to have a “show and tell” session with the book, with close friends and family. Of course, the special relationship I had had with Larry came first, because it preceded the book story. All in all, it made for good conversation. Prior to doing this, though, I had done a little research on the history of the book. It had been written in 1966, which was more than 20 years before it turned up in my immediate neighborhood. It was therefore absolutely not a recent publication.
Furthermore, I learned that it had never, even back then, been a bestseller–largely because it was basically a reference book. It’s the kind of book found mostly in libraries. Therefore, there was never an abundance of copies of this book out there, because it had never been printed in large quantities. In short, it wouldn’t be like finding an old copy of “Gone with the Wind”, which was an international bestseller, had been printed in numerous editions, and with millions of copies still in circulation today. What I had was something very rare, which therefore made the odds of it showing up as it did by sheer coincidence extremely slim.
A long-time and well-educated friend, upon hearing the whole story, offered up an interesting and insightful opinion. He claimed that the odds of this book coming back to me were so remote, he created this analogy: It would be the equivalent of filling a large room with five million white marbles, but with only one black marble, mixing them all up, and then closing the door. Then, upon reopening the door, the first marble to roll out of the room would be that one black marble. In other words, in his judgment, the chances were one in five million of this strange event occurring. I disagreed with him in a half-jocular manner, by saying his odds were on the conservative side. “If I were to lays odds”, I answered, “it would be more like one-in-TEN-million!”
And yet another well-educated friend (to be sure, a fellow teacher), also weighed in with his opinion. He and I, in recent years, have often discussed the occurrence of “synchronicities”, whereby we even trade personal examples of these in our own lives. The definition of synchronicities, according to the late analytical psychologist Carl Jung is, “When meaningful coincidences occur, with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.” My friend and I had, in fact, encountered dozens of them in our pasts. But this one, he seemed to feel, was over-the-top unique; it basically took the cake! He even likened it to something bordering on the supernatural, along the lines of episodes seen on “The Twilight Zone”. This was the famous TV show in the 1960’s, hosted by the late Rod Serling.
My teacher friend continued on, by saying that, “While I don’t think that Larry literally dropped the book down from heaven to you, he somehow figured out a way from the beyond to get it back into your hands.” Wow, food for thought, there! The mystery will always remain as to exactly how it fell virtually onto my front doorstep. And the timing of it coming to me so shortly after I had had that series of psychic dreams about Larry only made it even more bizarre and coincidental. That, too, can’t be left out of the equation.
However, that book came to me, though, I cherish it even today, where it holds an esteemed place in my (somewhat large) library–which I affectionately call my “college of knowledge”. It’s my way of keeping the memory of Larry, gone over 30 years now, alive and well.
And there is yet another way that I keep Larry alive: When I find myself facing life’s challenging conundrums, I frequently ask myself what would he advise me to do to solve those difficult situations? And sometimes this leads me into deep meditation on how to cope with whatever problem I’m up against. The man may be long gone, but his influence continues to have a hold over me. The guiding light lives on. Larry G., wherever you are today, you STILL rock …. baby!
Robert M. Kern is currently a retired teacher as of 2013. He taught for 23 years. Prior to that, he held the position of inventory control supervisor for 15 years in a large dairy company in Westchester County, New York – where he currently resides. He holds a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Special Education from Long Island University. He is quite active in his retirement. In fact, he views his retirement as being something of a second career! Among his many hobbies are reading, music, traveling, and genealogy. Yet another favorite hobby is writing. He has had numerous articles published in a prominent genealogical journal since 2001. And, yes, he has recently graduated to writing a novella: “College-Bound for Misadventure.”