Last week my dear college roommate, Robert S. (aka Bobby), called to check in like he and I have been doing for over 50 years.
Why we became roommates, I'll never know. I was the first hippie at St. Lawrence University in 1965. Hair down to my shoulders, bleach-stained jeans with holes in them, protesting against the Vietnam war, and listening to Bob Dylan's great songs on my phonograph whenever I wasn't in class or playing basketball.
Robert S. hated Bob Dylan and made it clear at least a few times a day for the entire year.
"Would you turn that crap off?!" He wore appropriate, ironed pants and had appropriate, short hair. He was heading toward a leadership position in the Reserve Officer Training Corps which would ultimately take him to the battlegrounds of Vietnam as a second lieutenant. He was a leader back then and has never left that path to this day.
Why were Robert S. and I roommates?
Some things you don't figure out until many years later...
Bobby returned from Vietnam with a Silver Star earned for valor in combat. It's the third highest medal awarded for exceptional courage in battle. He told me what he could of his story: Surrounded by Viet Cong soldiers all night long as they shouted out, "Give us the American! Give us the American!" It didn't happen. His South Vietnamese troops protected him. The next morning, they made their way out of the jungle. A helicopter rescue team found them, loaded up the survivors, and those who did not survive.
He has not slept well since returning from the battlefield. Too many memories. But he keeps marching on.
He graduated from law school in San Diego four years later. I was fortunate to be with him on the first day of his law board classes. Roommates forever.
Twenty-four years later he entered another battlefield—cancer. He was exposed to the toxin Agent Orange in Vietnam. He again battled bravely and went to work every single day during his chemo and radiology treatments. The cancer is gone. We were in contact nearly every day that year. One of his radiologists was a high school friend of mine. She cried when they made the connection.
Back to his phone call last week. Whenever I see his name appear on my iPhone, I immediately switch back to our college days. I say something like, "This is Bob Dylan, can I help you?" And he says something like, "Hey, Bob, have you taken those singing lessons yet?"
After a few more Dylan jokes, we settle in to catching up. This time, he said, "The world is really in an awful place these days, isn't it?"
"That's bull****!" was my immediate response. He was surprised and not used to people nailing him quite like that. He is a highly respected attorney. Only recently he retired from being the U. S. Attorney for Southern California. And I had just said "bull****" to him.
"Here's why, Bobby," I said. "Look back to any time in history. The Holocaust where millions were murdered and untold more millions of soldiers and civilians killed. How about slavery? Whipping, selling, buying, owning, hanging. How about Mao Zedong in China? He killed over 40 million people in our lifetime. Untold millions of native people all over the world have been brutally murdered. The list goes on."
Bobby wasn't prepared for my rant.
I continued, "I am simply saying that the world has never remotely been a perfect place. Our time doesn't deserve being singled out. In fact, it may even be a relatively good time."
"I stipulate to that," was Bobby's lawyerly response. Not his favorite thing to say, but that is why I love him so much. He may, at times, be brutally stubborn but is always willing to be humbly honest.
I was still on a roll.
"Some news media wants us to believe there is mostly darkness in the world. It is their job. Bad news is good news in that industry. But there is so much good happening in the world!! Uncountable miracles every moment of every day—anywhere you look. Inexplicable generosity. Courage of every kind. Dedicated moms and dads. Healing of all kinds that has never happened before our time!
The world has never been an easy place. Our main job, while we're here, is to make our part of it a little better, every day.
I absolutely know why Robert S. and I became roommates nearly 60 years ago.
- Burt Gershater is a counselor, leadership trainer, speaker and writer. He can be reached at [email protected]