One day I got a long-distance telephone call from an old friend in Los Alamos. She says in a very serious voice, “Richard, I have some sad news for you. Herman died.”
I’m always feeling uncomfortable that I don’t remember names and then I feel bad that I don’t pay enough attention to people. So I said, “Oh?” — trying to be quiet and serious so I could get more information, but thinking to myself, “Who the hell is Herman?”
She says, “Herman and his mother were both killed in an automobile accident near Los Angeles. Since that is where his mother is from, the funeral will be held in Los Angeles at the Rose Hills Mortuary on May 3rd at three o’clock.” Then she says, “Herman would have liked it very, very much to know that you would be one of his pallbearers.”
I still can’t remember him. I say, “Of course I’d be happy to do that.” (At least this way I’ll find out who Herman is.)
Then I get an idea: I call up the mortuary. “You’re having a funeral on May 3rd at three o’clock…”
“Which funeral do you mean: the Goldschmidt funeral, or the Parnell funeral?”
“Well, uh, I don’t know.” It still doesn’t click for me; I don’t think it’s either one of them. Finally, I say, “It might be a double funeral. His mother also died.”
“Oh, yes. Then it’s the Goldschmidt funeral.”
“That’s right; Herman Goldschmidt and Mrs. Goldschmidt.”
Okay. It’s Herman Goldschmidt. But I still can’t remember a Herman Goldschmidt. I haven’t any idea what it is I’ve forgotten; from the way she talked, my friend was sure that Herman and I knew each other well.
The last chance I have is to go to the funeral and look into the casket.
I go to the funeral, and the woman who had arranged everything comes over, dressed in black, and says in a sorrowful voice, “I’m so glad you’re here. Herman would be so happy if he knew” — all this serious stuff. Everybody’s got long faces about Herman, but I still don’t know who Herman is — though I’m sure that if I knew, I’d feel very sorry that he was dead!
The funeral proceeded, and when it came time for everybody to file past the caskets, I went up. I looked into the first casket, and there was Herman’s mother. I looked into the second casket, and there was Herman — and I swear to you, I’d never seen him before in my life!
It came time to carry the casket out, and I took my place among the pallbearers. I very carefully laid Herman to rest in his grave, because I knew he would have appreciated it. But I haven’t any idea, to this day, who Herman was.
Many years later I finally got up enough courage to bring it up to my friend. “You know that funeral I went to, about ten years go, for Howard…”
“You mean Herman.”
“Oh yeah — Herman. You know, I didn’t know who Herman was. I didn’t even recognize him in the casket.”
“But Richard, you knew each other in Los Alamos just after the war. You were both good friends of mine, and we had many conversations together.”
“I still can’t remember him.”
A few days later she called and told me what might have happened: maybe she had met Herman just after I had left Los Alamos — and therefore got the timing mixed up somehow — but because she was such good friends with each of us, she thought we must have known each other. So she was the one who had made the mistake, not me (which is usually the case). Or was she just being polite?