Remembering a friend who died of COVID

Bill Walczak, left, with Bob Tarrant.

Auld lang syne, the Robert Burns poem that is sung at the end of the year, tends to be sung in a maudlin way, often with sadness and some liquor. Though our experience with the virus and the recent election may make us prefer to forget that 2020 ever happened, it is certainly a time we will always remember.

I was going through some photos on my phone this week, and came across a 2017 photo of one of my closest friends who died in early April of Covid-19. The picture showed Bob Tarrant and me at Yankee Stadium, and I chuckled as I remembered why I was there. Bob and I were very close from an early age, and went to elementary and high school together. We grew up in New Jersey, and he stayed there when I came to Boston for college. We both were Yankee fans in the era of Mickey Mantle, known to all as “the Mick,” who was thought by fans to have supernatural powers. I switched my allegiance to the Red Sox during the 1975 World Series. Unlike most Bostonians, I don’t hate the Yankees, except when I have a conversation with avid Yankee fans like Bob.

The story of the photo stems from an argument that Bob and I had over who won the Heidi Bowl. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Heidi Bowl refers to an infamous 1968 football game between the NY Jets and the Oakland Raiders that went longer than planned. In the last minute of play, with Oakland down, the NBC network decided to leave the game to show the scheduled children’s movie “Heidi,” about a Swiss orphan girl and her family.

The decision led to an enormous number of telephone calls to NBC by fans curious to find out who won the game. Amazingly, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute to win, which resulted in so many angry calls to the network that all 26 of the phone line switchboard fuses were blown out. Many years later, Bob said that Oakland won; in my mind, the Jets won. The bet was that whoever was wrong would buy tickets to a Yankee/Sox game at the stadium of the person who won the wager.

We both wore our colors, and though I got some catcalls at Yankee Stadium, people were generally of good humor. A woman in front of us wore a shirt with a drawing of Babe Ruth in a Yankee uniform giving the finger with the words “Hey Boston” written above. She posed for a photo and then took the photo of Bob and me.

Bob was a very smart and generous man. In St. Cecelia’s elementary school, he was voted the most likely to be a US Senator, as he gave speeches for the eighth grade student council election that had the teachers and students marveling at his abilities. He graduated near the top of our high school class without even trying. Eventually he became a registered nurse, working in intensive care wards of metropolitan NY hospitals. He retired a few years ago and spent much of his time as a volunteer for the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a Catholic charitable organization that helps those in need.

In early March, the head of the Society asked Bob to do a nurse visit for an elderly man associated with the charity who had come down with odd symptoms. He visited the man twice, and took him to the emergency room, where he was released because his symptoms did not match up with what Covid was thought to be at the time. A few weeks later, the elderly man and his wife died of Covid, and their adult children came down with it. As did Bob, who had gotten a large dose of the virus from spending several hours with the elderly man.

At the hospital, they gave him hydroxychloroquine, the Trump-recommended medicine that wound up not having any useful purpose in dealing with Covid. To be fair, the medical world had no effective way to treat Covid this early in the pandemic. Bob’s oxygen levels dropped, and he died a few days before Easter, just one death of the more than 335,000 we have had since February.

I’m sure millions of Americans know of someone who died of Covid, and they all have stories. In my view, the number of deaths is an unnecessary tragedy. Bob would likely be alive today if our government took Covid as seriously as many other countries did. Our government resisted masks, failed to produce a workable test, and gave out confusing messages about the virus that they knew were wrong.

President Trump knew in January that Covid-19 could be as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. He told Bob Woodward on February 7 that he knew it was deadly and was spread by breathing. Yet he continued to insist that it was under control, telling Woodward, “to be honest with you, I wanted to play it down because I didn’t want to create a panic.”

While the dangers were being hidden from us, the virus spread like wildfire, killing at least 130,000 Americans who would have lived had the President acted sooner and implemented widespread public health precautions designed to protect our nation.

Bob and I were supposed to get together on March 22 to see a play, but it was canceled along with everything else. Had the pandemic crisis hit just 2 weeks later, I would have met up with Bob right around the time he became infected.

I’ll be singing Auld Lang Syne sadly this week, remembering my close friend Bob, and with hope that 2021 will be a year we will want to remember.