August 18, 2017

My friend Bob Johnson has died

 

By John Guy LaPlante

First:an explanation.  I worked hard to get this out on time. Yesterday, I “published” it–sent it to all of you. I am totally at a loss to explain why not. I’ve been doing this blog a long time and this is a first. This lapse is a great sorrow to me.  Bob such a dear, dear friend.  And an embarrassment. I had hoped part of it at least could have been spoken at his funeral, which was impossible for me to attend.  I had told Bob’s son Rob that I would get it out, so of course I am greatly embarrassed, though it was not my fault. So I’m sure Rob is wondering what the heck happened. Again, no explanation. Dealing with computers can be baffling. So, keep in mind that what you’re reading was written for you to read last week

NOTE: Please do get to the bottom of the text to see a photo montage, well, a good part of it, put together by Rob about his Dad.

Morro Bay, CA – My dear Deep River, Connecticut, friend Bob Johnson died last Saturday evening a few minutes after11. He passed on in the Hospice at nearby Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut. Robert, his only child, was at his side.

Bob’s last days were awful. He suffocated to death. That’s the plain truth. His lungs gave out–the result of years of smoking- cigarettes-though he never mentioned that.

He quit before I got to meet him, but too late.

By the time we became friends, he had morphed into an all-out crusader against smoking.

More than once I got to see Bob stop and scold somebody he had spotted smoking, even a total stronger. Usually a younger person. Bob’s intentions were the best–to save that person before it got too late.

He knew I was a Rotarian. One day he told me, “John, get Rotary to put up a No Smoking sign at the Landing and with their name at the bottom, and I’ll give the club $200.
Well, the club did that. The sign is still there, tacked to a bench overlooking the magnificent Connecticut River.

The Landing was one of his favorite spots. He took me there often.

We’d sit in his car, open our windows, breathe in the fresh air, look out at the river and the birds and the boats. Wonderful. Then! He’d get out and pick up cigarette butts. Dozens of them every time. And would shame me into helping him.

Bob was born in Deep River as Robert Johnson but was universally known as Bob. Amazing how many friends he had.

His son Robert was always Robert to Bob and his mother, Rosa, but Rob to others.

At the end, Rob, who is an executive for a big insurance company, had spent more than 80 hours in vigil by his Dad, waiting, waiting, waiting for what he knew was coming.

I saw the two together numerous times. It was absolutely clear how much he loved Robert and was proud of him.

Well, right away, Robert began making calls. He was quick to tell me that I was the first outside the family to be given the sad news. Which was very nice.

Bob and I had been friends for several years . Buddies is a better word. We became so close you might have thought we were pals from childhood. Our friendship puzzled me—we were so different in so, so many ways. You would think we’d be totally incompatible.

Truth is, Bob enriched my life to a degree I couldn’t imagine. He was so smart. Was so much fun. So generous. So loyal. Taught me so much about Deep River, which late in life I got to call my home. Introduced me to so many people. On and on.

We were friends to the point that we talked on the phone every single day all through his awful illness, Even after I moved to Morro Bay 3,200 miles away to be close to my daughter Monique.

It didn’t take me long to find out Bob Johnson was a fighter. A go-getter. An entrepreneur. How so? In a few words, he would go all out to fight for anything that he considered important and wanted. It was his nature. He acted this way all the time.

But this is what turned him into the ace real estate agent he became. For years he operated as his one-man Lafayette Insurance on Lafayette Street.

He ran his business out of his home there. He had lived his whole life in that beautiful house. It was just a few minutes’ stroll from the heart of our little town. So convenient. He was born in that house, which his father had built.

“My father dug the cellar and the foundation by hand!” he told me the first time he invited me over. “At night after his day’s work. By lantern light!”

I told you how Bob loved to laugh. He was always ready with a joke. He would tell one story often. “You know, I was born upstairs in my parents’ room. What is now my room. And know what? I’m still sleeping on the same mattress.” And he would laugh and laugh.

He sold many hundreds of houses and stores and pieces of land in Deep River and nearly. Some of them twice. A few three times. Yes, that’s true. He would even remember the date and price. What a memory he had for numbers.

He’d always step forward to make things happen. “Pro-active” is the wor we use these days. In fact, that’s how he met me. By stepping forward.

I was drinking a coffee and was deep in a newspaper at Burger King in next-door Old Saybrook. He came in and spotted me in a booth and ambled over.

He was a tall, lean, handsome man, born with a quick and easy smile.

“Aren’t you the fella who writes all those long pieces for the Main Street News?” he asked. Smiling, of course. He was wearing a bright red sweater. That was always one of his trademarks. That red sweater.

I can’t imagine how many bright red sweaters just like that he must have bought through the years.

“Yes, I am. What’s your name, sir?”

Without invitation he sat himself down across from me and started talking. What a talker he was.

“I know you’re new in Deep River,” he continued. “Why don’t I pick you up and show you around. It’s a small town. But there’s an awful lot here. Good stuff. Wednesday morning okay?”

Of course I said yes. How could I pass that up!

He was right. There is a lot to Deep River. And he showed it to me. He took me riding around time and again, pointing things out.

“Big fire in that house with blue trim years ago.” Or, ” This is where the few blacks lived back in the ’40’s.” Or, ” I sold that nice two-decker for $28,000 in 1972. Then $38,500 five years later.” (I don’t guarantee I remember the prices right.) “This Landing here at the Rive used to be a dump.” On and on. What a big favor he was doing by filling me in so wonderfully.

And that’s how our friendship took off.

Again, we were so different. But we developed a bond hard to explain. And impossible to ignore.

Yes, Bob loved to sell. He discovered that when he entered his teens. His older brother—Erwin, I believe his name was– was a terrific salesman in his own right. In fact, back then Erwin had the concession to sell lunches to the workers in the big red brick factory now known as Piano Works Condo Association.

The factory specialized in making the actions for pianos. All the working parts. In fact, it was the high-tech center for the piano industry back then.

As many of you know, I‘ve lived at Piano Works 15 years.

Erwin put his younger brother Bob to work there peddling sandwiches and drinks at noon time. Bob did a terrific job. Took to it. So much so that he quit high school a year or two short of graduation. And never looked back.

He tried his hand at selling all kinds of stuff. Fireworks before the Fourth. Christmas. Cars. Gravestones, if I remember right. Ran a taxi service Sold stuff at yard sales. Then, his first house! What a big day that was! He was hooked!   Yes, he gave everything his all. And he connected with his warmth and humor—schmoozing!

Got to tell you how he found his bride, his Rosa. A beauty who was the light of his life. She had come over from Austria to see relatives. Bob saw her and in a minute he was totally smitten. He had had girlfriends, of course. But now he was in his 40s and still a bachelor.

Well, Rosa went home to Austria okay. Bob didn’t just say, “Oh, well” and write her off. He pursued her by mail. Kept pitching and working like it might be his biggest sale ever.. Told her he’d love to go visit her. And she said okay!

He bought a plane ticket. Flying across the Atlantic was a big deal then. He took off with an engagement ring in his pocket. And he got to slip it on her finger.

I hesitate to put it in these terms, but yes, sir, it was the greatest and most momentous sale he ever racked up.. A sale with life-long payback.

Theirs was a great marriage. Right into their old age. When she came down with Alzheimer’s and had to move into Aaron Manor Nursing Home in next-door Chester, he visited her every single afternoon. For 13 months, I believe it was. Would take her out for a ride. Well, until she lost her mind totally. It is said he never missed a day. Then she died.

I’ve been a patient at Aaron Manor. Old-timers on the staff there remember that. Speak of it with wonder

All these years Bob carried a photo of Rosa in his wallet, and would flash it to somebody and anybody minutes after they met. He showed it to me at that first meeting at Burger King. I am sure it was in his wallet when he died.

I told you that he never hesitated to press and fight for something he considered important. That goes for things in Deep River. If he felt something should be fixed in town, or should be started, he would phone Town Hall, or walk over there, and push for it. “That town marker at the Essex line is missing!” Or, “They left a lot of leaves on the ground at the park.” Or, “Why not make that street one way?” Or, “How come there’s no plaque on the elephant statue yet?”

(These are just examples that I remember, and not exact, but they give you the flavor.}

For sure he was considered a pest by some people over there. He never always got his way, but gosh, how he tried! I do believe he was right often.

Yes, how he loved life. As his end got close, he would have done anything for another year, another month, another day–even when his life became impossible, well, so it seemed to me.

For weeks he was stuck at home, where he lived alone (but by his firm choice), incapacitated now, there in that fine house his dad had built. And which he had made even finer.

He was connected to an oxygen tank by 40 feet of plastic tubing which delivered the gas hat kept him breathing, but barely. He had to drag along that tubing when he tottered into the kitchen for his lunch, or into the bathroom. I was so afraid he would get snarled in it and trip. And hey, he couldn’t walk 10 feet without stopping and sitting to catch his breath. What an awful struggle every minute was! How he suffeeed!

One day, in very delicate words, I suggested Hospice might be a good idea. “I’m not ready for that!” he snapped.

Even at the end he was dreaming—scheming—how to get to the family condo in Stuart, FL, and get away from the cold and ice and snow and dreary skies outside.

He even composed an ad for Craig’s List.

“Are you a retired nurse? Like to go to warm and sunny Florida for three months? I need some physical help. I’ll cover plane fare and expenses. I’ll have a car there and we can take rides and eat out now and then.” Well, you get to idea. He didn’t live long enough to follow through with that.
Every week he’d head to the casino. We have two big and famous ones. Mohegan Sun was his favorite. He loved to go for the gigantic buffet and then play and play the slots. Just the slot machines. No table games ever.

He’d always play a fixed amount of money, win or lose. Never a quarter more. Disciplined! I know exactly how much in quarters he’d plunk into those machines totally but I can’t say. Take a word that it wasn’t mere pocket change.

More than once he told me, “John, when I win, and I’m very lucky, I call it a great investment! When I lose, great recreation!” And he’d break into a big laugh.

He’d say, “When I’m playing, I don’t think of anything else for a single minute!”

He always insisted that over the years he came out ahead at the slots. Which is impossible, of course. For so many folks, the slots—in fact, the casinos– are a disaster, a calamity, a tragedy, as we know.

Again, I told you how vastly different Bob and I were. His recreational gambling is just one example. I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life except to help a good cause. Have never played a slot machine. That’s true. No kidding.

He asked me several times to go with him. I gave in only once, and it was just to look around and take in a show there afterwards—tickets that he earned as bonuses for being a good “client.” Meaning, losing so much money tto the grateful casino. A terrific show, by the way.
Three weeks ago he was looking forward to just one more visit to Mohegan Sun and planned to ask his friend Pat to take him. I couldn’t imagine how Bob could ever make it there. There was no way. Well, It didn’t happen.

Then, just 10 days or so ago, gasping his way to the bathroom at home, he fell and broke his hip. Long story. But he was rushed to the hospital and had his hip put back together. Was in agony afterward.

I knew, just by my daily phone talk, that he would never walk again. In fact, that his time was very, very short.

Then I got Robert’s phone call. When I saw it came from him I just knew! I knew! Instantly!

Must also tell you this about Bob. He was never much of a reader of books. But he read my Around the World book. Insisted on buying it. In fact, a’ll my books. Could have borrowed them from the Deep River Library. Tried to get others to buy them. How about that?

Robert has been filling me in. The funeral will be this Saturday morning in Centerbrook , right next door to Deep River. At the Robinson, Wright, and Weymer Funeral Home, at 9:30, I believe.

For full details, go to www,courant.com and click on Obituaries. It’s the website for the Hartford Courant. It will also provide his formal obituary, which I found excellent. So rich in details!

By the way, I’ve written more than 2,600 words here. But this has been just a skimming.. His family and friends will be telling anecdotes of their own.

Bottom line: Bob Johnson was one of a kind, and how pleased I was—and am– to consider him one of my best friends.

Burial will follow in old and beautiful Fountain Hill Cemetery in Deep River. Know what?  Know what? I believe there are more people resting there now than there are in town.

Rob tells me there’s two to three feet of snow on the graves. But the burial will take place. Won’t be postponed. And his Dad will be put to rest right next to his darling Rosa. Just as long planned. With military honors, for his service in the Navy when very young.

Bob’s name has been on the monument for years now. Robert F. Johnson. Just the final date has been missing. Now it will be added. But he’ll remain Bob to many of us.

Bob has made visits—”pilgrimages” says it better– to her grave beyond count. In all seasons. Would speak to Rosa, and I believe she would speak to him. Would made sure the plants were kept healthy and trimmed. Got their monument steam-cleaned periodically.

And this Saturday, Feb. 14, is St. Valentine’s Day!  Right? I feel that is so, so appropriate!

Well, what I’m hoping is that up there in heaven, besides being with Rosa, Bob has managed to find some slots. And  schmooz his way into a nice new bright new red sweater.

God bless you, Bob!

You'll enjoy this montage of photos of Bob sent to me by his son Rob. Actually, it's part of his montage. Notice the four photos of Bob with his trademark red sweater and his trademark smile!

You’ll enjoy this montage of photos of Bob sent to me by his son Rob. Actually, it’s part of his montage. Notice the five photos of Bob with his trademark red sweater and his trademark smile!

 

 

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Comments

  1. Andrew Katsanis says:

    John A wonderful story of true friendship. He was fortunate to have a friend like you.

    Hope all is well in your new home Did you sell your second condo yet?

    Sara and I send you our greetings.

    Andrew

  2. Bob was super polite, smooth, and kind. a loyal family man. a friend, as he was to everybody.

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