Originally published July 26, 2012
Although I wasn’t planning to write any more blog posts until the Fall, my mind suddenly began to wander back to the ’60’s – to my one and only visit to Washington, DC – a weekend full of surprises in the Land of the Free. It’s a story that still gives me the shivers – so be warned – it’s not for the faint of heart.
I was renting a room at Mrs. Simpson’s place and her son Robert and I used to hang around a bit. He was attending college and I was working at my first full-time job after graduating from high school – and although our social circles were different, we were good friends.
One night, he came down to my room and asked me if I wanted to go to the States with him for the long weekend. He was planning a surprise visit to his girlfriend – who lived in Washington, DC. Actually, she and her parents used to live in Oshawa – her dad was a big shot at the Toronto Telegram Newspaper – until it went out-of-business. His new job was at a newspaper in Washington, DC – so their family moved from the Shwaw. Robert was heart broken and so was his girlfriend (whose name I’ve forgotten) – but they vowed to stay in love forever and ever.
For several months, Robert and his girlfriend wrote letters to each other – every week. People used to do that a lot – before the age of computers, internet, email and texting; and long distance telephone calls were too expensive – so writing was the best method of staying in touch.
But the months apart from each other felt like an eternity, so Robert planned to drive there during the Christmas holidays – and it was going to be a surprise visit! Robert carefully planned the trip in advance – which included shopping for gifts for his girlfriend and her parents. Money was tight – the expenses for the trip would have to come from his hard-earned savings – savings that were supposed to fund his college education. But matters of the heart should always trump matters of the purse – and Robert was in love – could life be any sweeter?
Robert didn’t sleep that last night before leaving on his trip – he was just too excited. He had already packed the car and was just lying in bed, restlessly waiting for morning. The house was dead quiet; the only sound was the ticking of his old alarm clock. It was too much – he couldn’t wait any longer – he had to leave right now!
He silently tiptoed into his Mom’s bedroom and kissed her on the cheek – whispering “I’m leaving now – Merry Christmas – I love you”. His mother was in a deep sleep – probably the meds she was taking – she mumbled something, but Robert wasn’t sure what, if anything, she was saying.
Several hours later, while driving in New York, Robert was hit head-on by an eighteen wheeler (truck). All he remembered was waking up in a hospital room several days later. He had numerous tubes and wires attached to his body, and a lot of pain. He would only be awake for short periods – but during one of those times he saw his mother sitting in a chair beside his bed – quietly knitting. He tried to speak but before he could open his mouth he would fall back asleep. He spent several weeks in the hospital before he was well enough to be transported back to Oshawa. They said it was a miracle that he survived. The accident wasn’t his fault – but it took a few years to settle with the insurance company.
Robert had been home for several months before I started to rent a room there at his Mom’s place. It was several months later that he came down to my room to ask me if I would go to the States with him. It would be his second attempt at a surprise visit – and I was thrilled to be a part of the adventure. I’ve always been a romantic-at-heart, so the thought of seeing Robert finally reunited with the love of his life, was exciting.
I don’t remember all of the details about our trip but I’m pretty sure it was on a long weekend. We left on a Friday and drove non-stop to Washington, DC. Robert did all of the driving and we only stopped when we needed gas – with one exception: we stopped at a section of the 2-lane highway where he had been in the accident the year before. Robert was quiet for a couple of moments and then simply shrugged his shoulders and said that it was good that he couldn’t remember anything about it (the accident). I also remember that we mostly spoke about Robert’s girlfriend – and her family – and how he got along with them so well. Although I had never met the girl, it seemed like I had known her for years. Robert was so excited – and I was both happy and a bit envious of him.
We arrived in Washington at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. We didn’t have a lot of money between us and we didn’t want to pay for a motel room for Friday night – because it was already Saturday. So we figured that we would sleep in the car until mid-morning and then check-in to a motel and only be charged for the Saturday and Sunday nights (returning to Canada on Monday morning). But where would we park the car to get some much needed sleep? Neither of us were familiar with Washington (or even Toronto for that matter) – we were just 2 kids from a small town in a big city – where could we park legally? We didn’t want the cops to arrest us for vagrancy, so we had to find a place that was discreet. We finally found the perfect spot – the parking lot of a cemetery! Robert had the front seat and I sprawled out in the back seat of his ’62 Poncho (Pontiac).
I awoke a few hours later – it was light and somebody was knocking on the windows of the car. It was the graveyard workers – they seemed to be mad at us for sleeping in the car in the cemetery – they threatened to call the cops if we didn’t leave right away. We quickly left – and began our search for a motel.
We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in College Park, Maryland – right across the street from the University of Maryland. We checked-in, then went straight to our room; had a shower and shave; put on some clean clothes and headed out the door. Robert got directions from the motel clerk and we were soon on our way to his girlfriend’s place.
We pulled up to the address and parked in the driveway. The house looked like a mansion – in a very upscale neighbourhood. We turned to each other and I shook Robert’s hand – and said “Congratulations” or something to that effect.
We then walked up to the front door and rang the door bell.
A lady answered the door and let out a scream of surprise – “Robert!” But as she hugged him, I couldn’t help but notice a look of concern on her face – actually a very troubled look. Something inside of me was shouting “No! Please, No!”
Suddenly his girlfriend’s father appeared. He extended his hand to Robert. Robert introduced me to them and then the father spoke: “Robert, may I have a word with you?” He led Robert into what appeared to be a library or den and then closed the door. I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach – the kind you get just before something bad happens.
I stood with the mother and exchanged small talk – for what seemed to be an eternity. Suddenly, the door opened and Robert and the father appeared. Robert gave the mother a quick but somewhat awkward hug and said goodbye. I shook both of their hands and said it was nice meeting them.
Robert had already left the house and was quickly walking to the car. I ran after him and got in the car just as he was starting the engine. He quickly backed the car out of the driveway and then drove down the street for a couple of blocks. He then stopped the car and turned to look at me – his eyes already full of tears. And then he started to cry. He cried so hard he couldn’t speak – he was trembling. I could feel his hurt and desperation; it made me cry, too. A few months earlier I had been “dumped” by my girlfriend – and knew the pain he was feeling.
After a couple of minutes I grabbed his arm and gave it a squeeze. I didn’t say anything – what could I say? Robert put the car back in gear and we drove back to the motel. Once we got back in our room he started to cry again. And so did I.
He tearfully explained that the father had told him that his girlfriend had flown to Toronto for the holidays – to be with her new boyfriend! The father explained that she didn’t tell Robert because she didn’t know how to do it without hurting him – especially after the bad accident. But she had moved on with her life.
We spent the rest of the weekend being tourists – seeing all of the famous landmarks. But neither of us was too excited. We both just wanted to go home – Robert to his house on Nassau Street – and me to my rented room in their basement.
A few years later, Robert met another girl and got married. I was one of the groomsmen (ushers) at his wedding. It was the last time that I saw Robert – they were living and working in Toronto and we just drifted apart. But not our friendship – I have always considered him a lifelong friend . Some experiences create a lasting bond.
About 40 years later, in 2003, I was in Edmonton, Alberta on business. I was staying at a small boutique hotel in the downtown area, and had just gone to the dining room for breakfast. The room was deserted except for three business people seated at a table across from the room from where I was seated. It was nice to be staying at a place that wasn’t crowded – it was actually peaceful. And then I noticed one of the men at the other table – he looked familiar. Could it be my old friend Robert?
I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of my business cards. I motioned for the waitress. I then instructed her to go to the other table and ask the gray-haired man if his name was Robert Simpson. If the man said yes, then she was to give him my card. If not, she was to return my business card to me.
I watched her as she walked over to the table. Then I watched as the man nodded yes. She then handed him my business card and after a moment he jumped out of his seat and looked around the almost empty dining room.
I was already walking towards him as he made eye contact with me. We didn’t shake hands though – we hugged. He gave me his business card and we promised each other to keep in contact. What are the odds of two guys meeting each other after 40 years? Staying in the same small hotel in Edmonton and eating breakfast at the same time?
I spoke to Robert a couple of times after that. He had been very successful in his career. He was married and had kids and grand kids. He now lived in Uxbridge, Ontario on acreage. The last time we spoke was when he called to tell me that his older brother David had just passed away. He was crying as he told me about his brother – and I started to cry – again. We promised to stay in touch – that was several years ago.
Wonder if he ever thinks about our trip to Washington, DC?
Wonder if he ever thinks about that girl?
Maybe I’ll give him a call tomorrow.