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The Man in 21C

Here’s my latest column from SLO City News (now reprinted in the Bay News and Coast News)

Clutching my boarding pass, I slowly made my way down the crowded aisle. The flight was full. There was excitement and anticipation in the air as the passengers settled in their seats, waiting to depart Santiago, Chile that Sunday morning. Next stop, Ushuaia, Argentina and a rendezvous with a cruise ship bound for Antarctica.

I looked again at my seat number: 21B. Another three hours trapped in the dreaded middle seat of an airplane. A small price to pay for the adventure that lay ahead.

He was already in the aisle seat, 21C. Short gray hair. Gray mustache. Glasses. Stocky in build. Staring blankly straight ahead.

“Bad news,” I said, as I reached Row 21. “I’m sitting next to you.” I’ll never forget his response as he popped up and graciously made way.

“Good,” he said, with a slight Southern drawl. “Now I’ll have someone to talk to.”

So we talked for the next three hours, all the way to Ushuaia. His name was Bob and he was from Atlanta, retired from the phone company after 35 years of service. 58 years old. Two adult children. Divorced. An avid scuba diver, but not exactly an experienced traveler. Like me, Bob had always wanted to visit Antarctica. We both understood that this would be the trip of a lifetime.

We got separated at the Ushuaia airport, but I saw Bob again on the ship later that day as the passengers gathered for dinner. My friend Jan and I were in the lounge with a couple we had just met from New Jersey. Bob came wandering through by himself. I waved him over and he ended up joining us for dinner.

That began the pattern for the next eleven days as Bob became part of our group. We had lunch together. We had dinner together. We certainly had way too many drinks together. Bob was easy to get to know, funny and entertaining. I became closer to him in eleven days than I do many friends in eleven years. We just clicked.

Our time in Antarctica was everything we wanted, and more. Neither one of us spent much time in our cabins. We were the guys outside on deck, often not bothering with a coat, snapping away hundreds of photos of icebergs and whales and penguins, constantly shouting to one another, “Can you believe we’re actually here?” I had found someone more excited than I was to be cruising the bottom of the world and Bob enjoyed every second, every minute, every hour, of our adventure.

It was all over far too soon. Back to civilization. Back on the plane to Santiago. A final dinner and drinks together at the airport as we waited for our separate flights home. There were seven of us who had become particularly close. Email addresses and phone numbers were exchanged. Promises to visit were made. Bob seemed in no hurry to leave. The flight to Miami was on time. We shook hands and hugged goodbye. Then he was gone.

That was last January.

Last week, Bob’s daughter-in-law, Jennifer, called me from Atlanta. She had found my name and phone number on that piece of paper we had all exchanged at the airport. Bob had died, she said, choking back tears. Leukemia. He was 58.

A knot twisted hard in my stomach. This couldn’t be. He seemed so healthy on the cruise. When did Bob get diagnosed, I asked. Jennifer explained that she had found some test results from 2006.

He knew. He knew all along. That’s why he was on the ship. He was dying and he wanted to see Antarctica while there was still time. He never said a word to any of us.

Flying out for the funeral became too impractical on such short notice. Instead, I am wrestling with a letter to Jennifer and the rest of the family, trying to help them understand what Antarctica meant to Bob. Then I look again at the photos and think back to my robust friend standing out on the open deck, beaming in excitement and wonder as a mother whale and her baby frolic nearby, and it’s my turn to choke up.

“He mentioned you a lot,” the daughter-in-law told me. Yeah, well, I was just the guy stuck in the middle seat on the plane, somebody he could talk to, as we headed for the adventure of a lifetime. You only get one, I guess. I’m glad Bob and I got to share ours together.

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