Bob Griffin was unlike any friend I ever had.
He was a great athlete, a dedicated teacher, a devoted family man. But so are a lot of people.
He was a decorated soldier and a storyteller with a huge stock of material. But a lot of people are that too.
(Photo for the Enterprise — Richard Rosentreter)
So what special qualities made him the person he was?
I mulled over this, ran it through my mind, turned it this way and that, till it hit me: Bob understood one of life's Great Essential Truths that too many of us either forget or never knew in the first place - things don't matter, only beings do.
I knew Bob all my life, but because he was five grades ahead of me, he was one of The Big Kids, that group of exalted beings as unapproachable to me as the Maharaja of Jaipur.
In the 60s, our paths crossed again when we both had classes at Paul Smith's. But while our acquaintanceship was pleasant, it was also superficial, limited to brief, occasional chats.
Our relationship got cemented about 10 years ago in that Hub of the Universe - the Blue Moon. During the summer, I'm there every morning; Bob, a summer resident, came in some mornings, so it was inevitable two super-shmoozers like us would end up sharing the same table.
Our get-togethers always began and ended with a handshake and a hug, but what went on between them was a free-flowing exchange of old time Saranac Lake tales, personal and political rants, educational theory and practice, anecdotes and adventures, very little sports (at my insistence), jokes, put-ons and goofs, with classic gossip thrown in for good measure.
Typically, our sessions lasted a couple of hours, and then, abuzz with tales and caffeine aplenty, we'd say our goodbyes. Sometimes, however, we idled away three or even four hours. To a lot of people, four hours talking and drinking coffee is a complete waste of time. It wasn't a waste of time to me; in fact, it may have been one of the smartest things I?ever did.
The Mad Hatter and
the hat matters
Bob had another quality that set him apart from the rest of us: He made everyone feel important. And it was no game or hype - to him, everyone was important.
Their importance had nothing to do with money or status or power or any of the other conventional trappings of success. Instead, he was genuinely friendly to everyone and if they responded in kind, the deal was sealed.
Friendship is never a matter of words alone, and with Bob and me it went into, of all things, hats.
As long as I can remember, I've been enamored with hats. Maybe "enamored" is too weak a word and "obsessed" is more like it. I'll leave that to the lexicographers and shrinks to figure out. But the truth is I've never met a hat I didn't like and I've got so many I sometimes wear four different ones in a day just because, to paraphrase George Leigh Mallory, "they're there."
Bob himself couldn't have cared less about hats, or about clothes in general. To him they were for comfort and utility and nothing more. But if I had a hat fetish, the least he could do as my friend was support it which he did with gleeful abandon.
A few weeks after he and his wife Diane had left on their annual winter sojourn, a small package appeared on my doorstep. Handwritten on the return address was, "The Mad Hatter, Key West." Inside was a light blue ball cap with "Conch Republic" embroidered on it. It was an inconspicuous beginning to what became a very conspicuous collection.
The class radio disc jockey line was, "The hits just keep on comin'!" And there but for one vowel was the story of Bob and me: As he and Diane trekked around the country, I'd receive a hat from here, another hat from there, and another hat from the other place.
They ranged from the silly to the sublime, the silliest being my St. Patty's Day shamrock special; the most sublime being my elegant Uncle Sam top hat from Venice Beach.
But for sheer fun and funk, my palm frond hat is a classic: Right-side-up, it's a parrot; upside-down, it's a fish, and either way it can hold a bottle of your favorite beverage in its center.
Then again, my Route 66 cap is almost too classy for me (the key word there being "almost").
Which one is my favorite? Silly question - they're all my favorite.
Of course the hats are only hats. What they represent, however, is Bob's loyalty, which was undying - literally. And last week when our friendship ended, it happened the only way it could have - Bob's great heart gave out.
I've never forgotten something an old guy told me about friendship when I was a little kid.
"When you get to be my age," he said, "you'll be lucky if you can count all your friends on one hand."
I nodded out of politeness but didn't believe a word of it. And why would I? I was ten years old; I had dozens of friends. And when I got to be his age, I'd have hundreds.
The years blasted by and now I'm that old guy's age. And guess what? I don't have the hundreds of friends I thought I'd have, nor do I have the dozens of friends I thought I had back then.
In fact, I don't even know if I've got enough friends to count on one hand.
I only know, all too well, last week I lost one of my best.