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Walking with a Friend

Manish Nandy |

Bob and I walked around Lake Anne for years. I live in a charming town north of Washington, called Reston. The very name evokes peace and quiet. For me it does a little more. Reston comes from the initials of its founder, my friend Robert Edward Simon. Everybody called him Bob.

As we walked, Bob would speak to anybody who passed by. With friends, he noticed a changed hairstyle or a bandage on the hand. With strangers, he discussed the warm weather, a cuddly dog or the heron he had observed beside the lake.

He paid attention to everything. He checked out each garden, told me what was new or good in it, what the garden keeper had done that was special. He wanted to know the name of each plant or flower and would ask a resident the exact spelling of its name. We had a special spot that we both liked, where a tree bent over the stream. He made sure to check it daily.

He wanted to hear about the places I had been and what was special about them. Generalities did not interest him. He wanted specifically to know what I had experienced, what it had meant for me.

We talked about Reston. I told him what I liked and what I didn’t. Though some thought I should not tell him what I didn’t like – he might be upset – he was quite open. He would pugnaciously contradict me, but never stop me. He liked good polemics and I think he enjoyed debating an adverse point of view.

We walked together every morning, except when one of us was out of town. When we started we walked all round the lake. Later he shortened his route, and I would walk with him and then a mile or two on my own.

I often walked with a dog. Sometimes it moved unaccountably from one side to the other and get in the way of Bob’s walking stick. He moved graciously to the opposite side and let the dog have his way. He explained, “Let her have her way and follow her interest. After all, we are following ours.”

I loved his stories of the past. A typical weekend recreation of the Simon family, Bob told me, was the excursion in a car out of town. His father, who spent all his days in downtown hustle and bustle, loved to be out of Manhattan and be on uncluttered country roads.

Something went wrong on a bright fall Sunday. Driving carefree, his father suddenly saw what looked like a large crack in the road and trying hastily to steer round it. He ended in a roadside ditch. The car toppled and turned upside down. Miraculously, none was seriously hurt; Bob and a sister had minor bruises.

What followed was to him even more miraculous. While the children crawled out of the car, his father couldn’t. His mother quietly took command of the situation, lined up the kids on one side and asked them to push the car, and then, singlehandedly, pulled out his father.

Finishing college, Bob, 21, went to work for a company to gain some work experience. The very next year his father died. He suddenly had to take charge of his father’s company and the Carnegie Hall.

An employee who had worked long for his father became his right-hand man. Given his unfamiliarity with his father’s affairs, Bob thought, the man would be an asset. Two months later, before he could find his feet, he found the person had been cooking the books and had stolen money.

He was uncertain that he could manage without the man’s help, but he could not bear to work with one who had abused his trust. He sacked the man and plunged himself into a determined study of the company’s accounts.

A tall, soft-spoken woman joined the staff as Booking Manager for Carnegie Hall. Bob liked her from the start and ended up marrying her. He meticulously planned his honeymoon. After considering several hotels, he chose one that seemed just perfect: it entailed short travel, the price was right, and its cuisine was reportedly excellent.

When he arrived with his wife, the clerk was cagey and quickly called the manager. The manager took one look at Bob and his papers and said he could not find a place for the couple. He explained that his was a classy hotel. He could not accommodate Jews, without upsetting his top-class clients. Bob had to take his bride and, late in the evening, go in search of another hotel.

At 29 Bob joined the US Army. “Unlike all the wars that followed," he said to me, "this was a very emotional war. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t join. I could have avoided because of my age and my work. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I went.”

He had training at Camp John in Long Island and then more training at Camp Lee, later renamed Fort Lee, in Virginia. He then went to Kansas and Nebraska for further training and got posted in the quartermaster’s office.

He worked two years in Brussels, mostly on logistics, buying pulp for paper making. He was then assigned to France, just liberated, and found the major part of his work was to a tiptoe his way through the French bureaucracy.

His aunt in New York, who had hastily migrated to the US in anticipation of the German invasion, asked him to check on her valuables stored in a Boulogne-Billancourt warehouse, on the Paris outskirt. Knowing the chaos of occupied France, neither expected much. Bob’s expectation sank further when, arriving in the suburb, he saw the extensive damage from allied bombing. The potbellied warehouse manager pointed to a razed building and said, “Our largest store has been reduced to ashes.”

Bob waited quietly for bad news as the manager riffled through old records of deposits. “Let us see what is left,” he said, and walked with Bob to a dusty corner of a warehouse that hadn’t been destroyed. After some search the man found what he was looking for. There lay, in neat order, all the sixteen packages of Bob’s aunt’s property. The man could have as easily said the property was in the other warehouse and destroyed, and appropriated the property himself. But he hadn’t even touched the most valuable and tempting part of the collection: the aunt’s huge prized collection of vintage wines, including an open crate with eight high-price bottles. Bob died when he was 101. It still seemed to me a bit early. I miss our walks.

(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank)