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My Friend, Bob Carleton

My friend Bob Carleton has experienced that dramatic change of address that awaits us all. He died on February 25th.

Bob and I were friends at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio. We were a quartet of young bucks (Bob, Bowker, Phil, and Brady) seeking our way in the world, employing such time-honored traditions as the Irish exchange of punches (at least that’s what we called it). In this tradition, you stick out your chin and the other fellow gets a crack at your jaw. It is best played while inebriated so as to heighten the hilarity and raise the pain threshold.

The most significant event in our friendship occurred one winter’s night while attending a holiday party (when people still had holiday parties) at a home on the shore of Lake Erie.

It was a rather large gathering and we were drunk. At some point, a group of us had the notion to leave the party and walk out on the frozen lake. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes (average depth of “only” 62 feet) but the depth immediately off shore is 20 or more feet. You can actually walk to Canada in some winters (30 miles). It freeze’s solid.

While a small crowd stood close to the shore, Bob and I took a beer can and proceeded to throw it further out on the lake and then race to see who could get there first without falling down. Great fun, in that youthful, drunken boyhood sort of way. Further and further, we went, on our way to the Canadian shoreline! After a while we looked back and noticed that our audience had left. Without a crowd, the game became less interesting and we elected to head back. Mind you we were not wearing coats or jackets, just our “party clothes”.

As we jogged back, Bob was ahead by a bit. All of a sudden, Bob disappeared. I am mystified. In another few steps, I am not mystified, I am in the lake. We had fallen through the ice at a large opening. Why open water at that point did not concern me, I was desperate to get out before slipping under the ice.

I had no idea what Bob was doing but I was grasping at the ice edge trying to pull myself out. The pieces kept breaking off and I kept falling back in. Finally, at some point I grabbed a piece of ice sticking up a bit and dragged myself belly first onto the ice. A few yards away, I saw that Bob had done the same. We looked at each other and started laughing and rolling on the ice. We had “cheated death”! We were alive! We were invincible! We were freezing to death!

We went back to the party and there the host (a fellow I barely knew and cannot remember) provided us with a change of clothes (way too big) and we headed off to an all-night laundromat to dry our clothes. Upon taking my clothes out of the dryer, I noticed that my favorite purple and black sweater had shrunken to the size of a girlish crop top T-shirt!

Bob went on to become one of the earliest international male flight attendants on United Airlines. More impressive was his career as an internationally acclaimed mime. He represented the USA at the Shanghai International Pantomime festival in 1994. As for me, I went on to a career in Telecom and “wanna be farmer”.

A few years ago, I met Bob in Chicago for dinner. Our conversation centered on our “failed” marriages, our daughters, and our journey since falling through the ice. It was a golden moment only realized in its passing. He gifted me (is gift a verb?) a few of his posters.

Bob was a good and decent fellow. A heart of gold and a smile that penetrated any darkness it encountered. What amazes me still is his striving and lack of bitterness. In the last few years, he started The Unicorn Mime Ensemble of Elgin with a small group of young people. They will carry his imprint as I do.

Please don’t say “sorry for your loss”. I haven’t lost Bob and Bob isn’t lost. Just because I can’t find something in its usual place doesn’t mean it’s lost. It’s transitioned. It moved or was moved. It’s somewhere waiting for me, perhaps in a room for which I do not yet have the key. In that room are a host of relatives, friends and probably God too.

For better or worse, we imprint each other. I am a better fellow for having known Bob. And now you know him a little bit too!

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