Even though the focus of this blog is my family heritage, there may be times when I need to write about something else. This is one of those times.
Three weeks ago, I lost a life-long friend. He died unexpectedly during his fourth surgery of 2019. Fourth surgery in nine months! I’m still trying to make sense of this sudden turn of events.
I’ve had four really close male friends in my life, one from my grammar school days in Minnesota, one from my high school days in California and two from my college years. My childhood friend and I drifted apart when my family moved from Minnesota to California in 1965. We wrote letters to each other for several years and I returned to visit one summer for a week after I finished junior high school, but the intensity that we experienced as kids didn’t last.
I roomed with each of my two college buddies, one year with one and two years with the other. One of those relationships withered away after graduation, but the other one remains solid to this day. I’m eternally grateful for my friendship with Mark Gustafson.
I was thirteen when my family and I showed up in Anaheim, California in July of 1965. Since we didn’t have a house under contract at first, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment ( four kids in one bedroom . . . for a month!) on the Anaheim/Buena Park boundary. To say that we were disoriented would be a severe understatement. The 24-hour environment of automobiles and asphalt was beyond anything we could have imagined.
One month later, with a house secured by a loan from a Minnesota fairy godfather (thank you Sam Haugen!), we were settling into our new life. There was still a month until school would begin so there wasn’t a lot of stress for me at first. However, I didn’t have a clue how I might begin to make friends with my neighbors. At that moment, into my life walked Rob Carroll. I’m not sure exactly how he came to seek me out, but I’ve always suspected it had to do with a local church connection. My father was a preacher and there was another clergyman on our block, so it wouldn’t have been difficult to put out the word that there were some new kids in town and why not make them feel at home?
Rob and I bonded immediately and my life has always been the richer because of that chance meeting. The first activity I remember sharing with him was watching the movie “The Great Escape” at the Brookhurst theater. Movies and music made for powerful connections back in the day. Rob was the first person I met who had memorized all of the song lyrics from the “Music Man” as I had. I thought I was some kind of freak, but Rob normalized my obsession for me. He also introduced me to the movie “Damn Yankees”, a story which combined our mutual love for music and baseball. We gave riotous renditions of the song “You gotta have heart” for our own enjoyment.
Rob was an inveterate collector in a couple of specialty areas and I was always in awe of his expertise. He was enamored of the 45rpm vinyl record format. I had a few 45s, but Rob had dozens, maybe hundreds. He was particularly gifted in knowing what was on the “B” side of those discs! I could never catch up to him. He introduced me to the art of shopping at music emporia. There was a giant record store somewhere west of us (Buena Park? Stanton? Cypress? Long Beach? I can’t remember the name of the store. Anybody?) that had private listening booths where you could preview a recording to see if you’d like to buy it. That seemed so exotic to me. How did Rob know this existed?
The other focus of his collecting was baseball cards. Again, I participated, but I was just a minor leaguer. The depth of his knowledge about baseball history was staggering. He was still editing a baseball journal at the time of his death.
For some reason, I usually went to his house to hang out and not the reverse. It might have been because my house was always full of people: my three siblings and their friends were always around and there really was no place to go to be undisturbed. When I went to Rob’s, we played wiffle ball in the street in front of his house: me, Rob, Howard Kelly and Carl Magno. We’d check on Rob’s pet rabbit in the back yard (I wish I could remember the beast’s name!). We’d chat with Rob’s Mom, Marge, and she’d serve us a snack. Then we’d listen to Rob’s records and flip through his cards.
Rob’s given first name was Jan (which he wasn’t using when I met him), but I’ve always called him”Robér” which was what Marge called him. I have no idea whether he liked that name or hated it. It never occurred to me to ask him if he minded, but since he never objected, that’s what I did.
Throughout our school careers, the one constant activity that we participated in together was band: concert band; pep band; marching band. We both played the trumpet and sat within two chairs of each other for five years. Individually, we pursued different goals. I played basketball for four years and I recently realized that I have no idea if he ever attended one of my games! On the other hand, I just noticed that he was the yearbook editor of the South Junior High School yearbook when we were in 9th grade. Did I not know that at the time?
After high school, I returned to Minnesota to attend college. Rob stayed in California to go to school, so we continued our friendship via correspondence. I know that he was a much more consistent correspondent than I was because I found a letter from him recently that begins, “You’ll never guess who I got a letter from the other day! Do you remember a guy named Dan Bergenen or Bergeson or something like that? Well, he’s since moved to Minnesota and I hardly ever hear from him. A tall guy with blond hair. Does it ring a bell? You may remember that his father was a preacher. He had a very good-looking sister. Oh, your remember now?” How’s that for a not-so-subtle comeuppance? (I deserved it, of course!)
After college, Rob spent a couple of years in the oil business working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia. We corresponded the whole time. When I got married for the first time in 1977, I asked Rob to be one of my groomsmen and I think that’s the only time he ever visited Minnesota. It was really fun watching the interactions between my high school bud and my college friends.
Fast forward 20+ years: both Rob and I now had children. In 2001, I decided that it was high time we got to meet each other’s kids! My wife and I arranged a summer vacation to southern California and did a lot of the touristy stuff, but I made sure that we had time to visit my old neighborhood and high school, and that we spent time with Rob and Nancy and their two boys. We had a great time and our kids recall that trip with fondness even today.
Through all the years since school days, Rob has always remembered my birthday. I got a card the day before or the day of every year until this past February. I should have known that something unusual was happening with him when no card or email arrived at the designated time. That just wasn’t like him.
The last time we spoke, Rob was still in the hospital recovering from his third surgery. I had no idea that he’d been struggling so much recently, but I could tell from Nancy’s messages on Facebook that he was frustrated and could use some company. I gave him a call one evening last July and we talked for close to an hour. He detailed for me his medical issues and I began to understand the severity of his condition . He had a crappy set of lungs from birth and his asthma was always present with us when we were together. Apparently, his health was being affected at a much more serious level this year. We chatted for some time longer about family and mutual friends. He sounded exactly like he’s always sounded and although clearly frustrated with his situation, he was his usual upbeat self. We exchanged texts the next day, both so happy hearing the sound of each other’s voices again. He attached a current photo of him and his mom.
On Thursday evening, September 19, Rob posted on Facebook that he was in the hospital for yet another operation, but not to worry, this procedure is “expected to bring this unpleasant chapter to an end . . . this is not a “woe is me” posting – as always, I remain optimistic.” We learned from Nancy that the operation was scheduled for 7:30 am Saturday morning. I posted a comment that said I hoped this was the silver bullet solution to this perennial problem.
All day Saturday I thought about him and hoped that someone would post an update telling his friends about the successful outcome of the operation. The day passed with no word. I thought that was strange, but I wasn’t alarmed. I should have been.
I got up Sunday morning and checked my phone for messages as I always do. The only message I received was from a classmate telling me that Rob had passed Saturday morning during surgery. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of news. I spent the day in a deep funk and three weeks later, I’m still not quite sure how to think about this new reality in my life. There aren’t many human experiences more disorienting than the unexpected death of a friend or family member. It’s happened twice to me and both times it’s been a horrible gut punch.
I treasure the lifelong friendship that I enjoyed with Rob. We didn’t see each other often after high school, but when we did, we resumed our relationship as if we hadn’t just spent ten years apart. It was such a warm and satisfying feeling. I’ll miss him for the rest of my days.