The phone call came exactly when I needed it.
It was Bob Bernstein, with whom I’d never before spoken, calling from Rhode Island. “You haven’t been online, so I figured you might be having a problem,” he said. Indeed I was.
In January 1998 I decided to give up on OS/2, my computer operating system of choice for most of that decade. IBM, OS/2’s publisher, had already pretty much given up on it, and you stop manning the bilge pump when the captain has himself abandoned ship. I thought I’d give this interesting new thing, Linux, a try.
Ever since the days of a goofy little online service called “Prodigy” (a joint venture between Sears Roebuck and IBM, if you can believe it), a group of us who favored OS/2 had participated in a nomadic online forum titularly about OS/2 but wont to stray off-topic much if not most of the time. Our waywardness led us to get kicked off a succession of online services: Prodigy, GEnie, Delphi, everyplace except CompuServe (it was too expensive, so we were never at CompuServe at all, but would have gotten kicked off if we had been). One by one they all ceased to exist but we remained, kept alive by the miracle of something new, something called a “listserv.”
There was a core group of maybe a dozen of us, with some others coming and going over time. Among the arrivals was Bob Bernstein.
I announced on the list my intention to switch from OS/2 to Linux and asked if anyone knew how one might do this. Bob had some experience in this regard.
Linux was different from other software products. You didn’t just pop on down to Egghead and buy a box of Linux. Instead, you could purchase at a bookstore a thick book, costing $50, that had at the back a CD containing one Linux “distribution” or another. Which one to choose? After some deliberation I picked Caldera Open Linux 1.2, mostly because the book promised easy installation resulting in Visix Looking Glass, a graphical user interface that sort of resembled Windows 3.0, which I imagined I could figure out. I got the book and commenced installation.
About a week later I got the phone call from Bob, who was right about my having encountered a problem. I got Linux installed but I couldn’t get online (with my beloved U.S. Robotics HST Dual-Standard modem). I was stuck and had no source of advice. That thick book was useless.
Bob had somehow figured out where I lived and had managed to get my phone number. He now, over the course of many hours on the phone over a weekend, talked me through getting it all working. That’s going above and beyond, especially for someone he knew only through subscribing to the same mailing list. It was typical of him.
For the next decades, whenever I encountered an intractable Linux problem I’d turn to Bob and most of the time he’d come up with the answer. The mailing list continued more than 20 more years, with people coming and going. A lot of the originals, a really surprising number of them, died. They were from all kinds of fields and their combined accomplishments were impressive.
Bob got me up and running on Linux, and that fact alone made him a significant figure in my professional life. When 18 months later I was asked to write one of those thick books, this one about the exciting KDE desktop interface for Linux, the publisher asked me if I knew someone who could serve as technical editor — effectively a test kitchen where all my recipes were tried and confirmed accurate. I instantly suggested Bob Bernstein. He took the job and it was a pleasure to have him on board.
Over the following years we were in close contact, exchanging emails, sometimes multiple emails, nearly daily. Over the course of time we spent hundreds of hours on the phone discussing computers and most everything else. Nor was I the only one thusly favored — he was a great correspondent with just about everybody.
Here’s an example. A passionate fan of opera, he engaged in lively discourse with the hosts of opera programs on internet radio stations all over the country. I gave him grief about it, because the majority of grand opera is to me so much caterwauling. (I confess that part of my prejudice comes from WQXR Radio in New York, back when it was good, having opera on at 3 a.m.; I’d go to sleep with nice classical music and be blasted out of bed in the middle of the night by some shrieking Brunhilde, the noise as welcome as, and not sonically much different from, a 3 a.m. smoke alarm.)
We discussed politics, on which in pre-Trump we largely agreed; not as much afterward, because he liked Trump and I didn’t (and don’t). We both listened to Rush Limbaugh, and on the occasions something I’d written figured into one of Rush’s monologues, Bob would quickly drop me a note about it.
Though we didn’t delve into great detail about such things, I know that he spent time in study at M.I.T. and had come to know some of the important figures in early computing. He was devoted to mental health and undertook studies and work in that field. He’d worked as a surveyor, and from what I gathered went off the rails with drink and other substances at some point. He was quick to thank Alcoholics Anonymous for getting him back on track and (like many people who owe much to that organization) was also quick to assign all wisdom to AA and to the veteran members at meetings, which was, to me, sometimes a little annoying.
Being from Boston or thereabouts he knew how to be pugnacious (as is true, in my experience, of most people raised east of the Hudson River; Bob mentioned a few years ago that he had never been west of the Hudson). This scrappiness led to disputes at mental health facilities where he sometimes worked. He insisted on doing it right as he saw it, and not everyone agreed. Unhappiness was sometimes the result.
Bob was not averse to disagreement, though. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that in some ways he relished it. I often wondered if upon awakening he began a search for something to be angry about. That’s not the definition of the man, though — just the loudest part. Still, I’ve heard about it when he and family members, especially his brothers, came to lively disagreement. He dreaded family gatherings, though more often than not returned from them happy and contented. We’d occasionally argue and I was reminded of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s comment about his friend and colleague Willmoore Kendall: “Willmoore made a point of never being on speaking terms with more than one friend at a time.” I suppose we would have disagreed as to which of us was Kendall.
Well read, Bob dabbled — he’d say more than dabbled — in philosophy. He would find an author who fascinated him and would immerse himself. There was a long Jonathan Swift tear; later, it became George Orwell.
Likewise religion. I believe that he descended from Jews and may have to some extent thought himself a Jew. But he had somewhere along the line become devoted to the writings of Thomas Merton, the trappist monk and mystic. (When I converted to Roman Catholicism, a priest mentioned to me that I might sometime find it interesting to visit Gethsemani, the well known Kentucky monastery. It came up in conversation with Bob, who immediately erupted: “Merton!” The monk had spent the last 27 years of his life there, which fact I had not known.) He was a faithful reader (as well we all ought be) of The Catholic Thing, which each day produces an essay worth thinking upon.
Ultimately, I came to think of Bob as trying to figure out the best way to live life, just like the rest of us (or at least those who bother to think about it at all).
You know where this is heading.
Bob was not in roaring good health for the last several years. Respiratory issues caused him to be on a course of Prednisone, the powerful steroid, from time to time. The rise of SARS-CoV-2 was cause for alarm. Here’s how Bob put it in a note last July: “I am well lodged in the high-risk cohort: seventy five years old with lifelong pulmonary disease and not-so-long cardiac problem. I imagine that, if a Covid-19 got inside me, he would start jumping up and down out of simple excitement. He’d call all his friends, ‘Hey guys! Guess what? I just hit a Trifecta up here in Rhode Island…old bastard bad asthma his whole life…Woo Hoo Partay On Garth!’”
Through vaccinations, vitamins, close consultation with physicians, and a general tendency to stay home anyway, Bob made it through the height of the pandemic untouched by the Sino-bug.
A little more than two weeks ago, he had some digestive issues. He got taken to the hospital. After a couple days of treatment, his wife, Kathy, told me, he was sent to some sort of rehabilitation.
While he was there, apparently, he picked up COVID-19, and a week ago today he died of it.
I passed the word along to one of the longtime members of the mailing list, who is still in touch with some of the others. He wrote back, describing himself as “heartbroken,” which is a good word for it.
It’s peculiar, the subtle ways these things affect us. I hadn’t spoken with Bob in weeks, and the occasional email didn’t go into any detail. But three times now in the last week during my morning reading I’ve encountered something I knew would be of interest to Bob, and twice even opened the mail program to send the link before . . . oh, yeah, that’s right.
People of his age — John F. Kennedy was killed the day Bob turned 19 — sometimes die. The fact that his death was due to this particularly awful disease, which was entirely unnecessary for him and for 6,150,000 other people, does make it worse.
There’s no overarching lesson from his passing, but there’s to me an important personal one. My life would be markedly different had I never known Bob Bernstein, and I don’t think it would have turned out as well.