I learned that Claude T. Anderson had died the same way I learned that he existed -through an e-mail from a stranger.
The first e-mail came from Claude himself. He began writing me a few years ago to comment on a column. Then he wrote again and again. It occurred to me finally that Claude was to be a regular correspondent and so I created a file for "Ramgoc," his electronic handle.
Claude's letters were sometimes long, always erudite and inevitably challenging -mini-dissertations on things like literary deconstruction, existence, essence, "booming confusion" and the rule of unintended consequences.
I learned enough about Claude in snippets to build a profile of a man I ultimately considered a dear friend. He was a true Renaissance man -a doctor, a colonel, a Rhodes Scholar, a navigator in the Army Air Corps who flew 35 missions in a B-17. He was married 28 years to a wife who remained his friend after their divorce and until his death. He had five children, lived in a three-bedroom ranch house in Pomona, Calif., with 30,000 books and a Chihuahua, the latter selected, he said, for its minor size necessitated by the crowd of books.
I knew that he had a hearing aid and had tolerated prostate troubles. I knew what he thought of Christianity, the Middle East, Aesop, Humpty Dumpty, "free love." He told me about growing up poor, the son of tenant farmers during the Depression, about borrowing his first books and then buying them as he could afford to.
Claude revealed himself to me for reasons I'll never be sure of. I responded because I was flattered that he considered me qualified for the dialogue. Over the years I told him personal snippets as well. We mutually bragged about our loved ones, our fears and concerns. We exchanged jokes. Claude loved limericks and sent me dozens, including one or two written about me.
He wished me Happy Thanksgiving and asked me to be his valentine. He told me about his 80th birthday celebration, mentioning yet again that his teen-age granddaughter, Lydia, who lives in Richmond, Va., and my teen-age son, John, ought to meet someday.
Then last week came the other e-mail, this time from a family member. The note was brief. Claude T. Anderson was dead.
Ramgoc dead? Through all our e-mails and musings, it never occurred to me that Claude would not be there someday. That we would never meet, never make eye contact, never take a tour of his book collection, never laugh aloud at the notion of this 6-foot-2 giant of a man hand-feeding his Chihuahua, whose name I never learned.
He died peacefully at home, the e-mail said. No one had any idea that he was near death. The only hint that he might have had some premonition was a book by his bedside opened to a passage about death coming by surprise. And a dog bowl full of food.
My shock at Ramgoc's death was no greater than the surprise of my tears. I felt like Tom Hanks' character in "Cast Away" when he loses his soccer ball, "Wilson," the imaginary friend who had kept him company during his years of isolation. Claude wasn't imaginary, but he wasn't quite real either. He was a voice Out There, a brilliant mind, an electronic entity, a soul who filled a vacuum I didn't know existed until he was gone
I was struck and am fascinated still by the miracle of technology that permits such connections. I am bereft that I didn't realize the import of that connection until it was too late. I meant to know him better, which is, I suppose, the message in the bottle. We put off too long the things that matter most, and nothing matters more than human connection, as Hanks learned on an ignored island and as we all learn, inevitably.
It was in that spirit -or Claude's -that I responded to his family's e-mail. And it was by coincidence, I suppose, that my son and I were in Richmond this past weekend. It was yet another sort of miracle, though not of technology, that John and I found ourselves Sunday seated in a booth at the River City Diner with Claude's family -his pathologist daughter, Soni; her geneticist husband, Peter, and their brilliant, beautiful, teen-age daughter, Lydia.
We swapped stories, fought tears, filled in blanks, hugged, promised to stay in touch, waved goodbye from our respective cars as the freeway split, and we went our separate ways. For them, the meeting was perhaps a curiosity satisfied mostly out of politeness. For me, it was a tangible dimension added hastily to the electronic memory of a man named Claude -a sort our world will never have enough of and whom I
will miss greatly.