My Friend Bill

A Treasured Friendship

It must have been 1970 that I met Bill for the first time when he came to work for the same company I worked for, in Richmond California. Bill was an unmarried man, a quiet man, sticking much to himself. It took a while but he slowly opened up to me just a little bit. We talked about Europe where we both were born. Bill in Hamburg, Germany, I, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Many years passed before our contact became more social. At one point he invited me to go out on his boat which became an annual routine. This was the beginning of a friendship that continued long into Bill's retirement.

The following stories are as close as I remember them or were told to me by Bill himself. He was born in Hamburg, Germany into a middle class family, an only child. He served in the German Army during WW2 were he spent his last year of the war in Italy. He told me his first story, innocently; about an encounter that might have cost him his life at an early age right there in Italy. His actions put the lives of his army buddies in jeopardy as well. Bill was in Italy as an infantry soldier. One day he came across an item that was most interesting to him. He picked it up off the ground. An item he had never seen before it attracted his attention for its beautiful colors and shape. He turned it over and over admiring the colors. Wondering what is was. He asked his army buddies "What is this thing?" while pulling on a few things. His buddies immediately ran away at high speed while screaming "It's an Italian hand grenade." Bill did get rid of it in time avoiding harm to anyone.

It was not his first encounter with dead. Bill's propensity for bad luck followed him the rest of his life.

An earlier encounter happened in Hamburg when he was a young boy. The family lived close to a city lake where sailing was a daily activity. Young Bill wanted to sail in the family sail boat. His parents found him too young to go out on his own. His Father, a busy business man, didn't have the time that day, to go sailing with Bill. Bill decided to take the sailing boat and have a fun day at the lake without supervision. Things went well until the wind picked up giving Bill a difficult time fighting the control of the boat. The boat picked up speed; he did not know how to trim the sails. He stirred away from the middle of the lake where it became choppier and choppier. He aimed for the shore all the while trying to reduce speed. The boat ran full-sail head-on into the rocky shore. Bill was thrown out of the boat, the wooden boat split open, slowly sinking.

Nothing changed over the years.

I lived through entertaining and challenging boat and car trips with Bill never knowing for sure what situations we may run into each day. He had more than his share of bad luck. The end of the war came for Bill in Italy. He was captured by British troops and sent as a prisoner of war (POW) to England. He spoke a bit of English which put him in a somewhat privileged position over his fellow prisoners for whom Bill translated. He used that freedom to make a civilian suit out of an old German uniform. He had obtained dye, needles and fret, using tailor skills he fashioned a suit out of that old German uniform. One day he walked out of the camp wearing his home made suit. His plan was to go to a nearby railroad station buy a ticket to London and then board a ship to Hamburg. It did not work. People at the railroad station noticing his suit that very much looked liked a dyed German uniform. The police were called who took him back to the POW camp. Eventually all the POWs were sent back to Germany and released.

Through the Canadian military and government Bill learned about job opportunities in Canada. The job was in mining which was along Bill's training as an engineer. A training that was never completed because of the war. He signed up, was hired, and left soon for Canada. I do not know how long he stayed in Canada nor why he wanted to move to the United States. One day he just got into his car and drove into the USA heading for Texas. He had heard there were plenty of jobs, with good pay, in the Texas oil industry. On his way to Texas his car gave him some problems. The problem was electrical in nature for which he had to bend down to work under the dashboard. While lying on the floorboard working under the dashboard, with his head stuck under the metal frame, he felt someone touching his upper leg. No words were spoken. He jerked his head up hitting it hard on the metal underside of the dash board. (In the early sixties cars were mostly made of steel) While rubbing his forehead trying to re-focus he noticed a small girl outside the car. Bill asks her what he wanted. "Just want to know what you are doing Mister", replied the girl. "Do you have a dime?" was her second question.

I do not know how long Bill stayed in Texas. He did tell me he didn't like the dirty oil jobs even though the pay was good. He had had dirty jobs in Canada, but didn't want to continue this line of work much longer. He was thinking about his age and wanted a less labor intensive carrier. That's how Bill eventually came to work as a Lab Technician in Richmond California.

He had money saved, was able to purchase a three door apartment in Oakland, California. He lived in one of the units and rented out the others. At one point he moved out of the apartment to move closer to his job in Richmond. At first he rented a place but soon wanted a place of his own. He purchased a house on Western Drive in Richmond. The house was in a most desirable location with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate and San Francisco. The beautiful view was to change after several years. Developers built a house behind Bill's property obstructing his view. He was able to persuade the owner of the house to lower the pitch of the roof to give Bill a bit more scenery. Several occurrences with his house should be mentioned. Bill invited me over to the house from time to time for barbeque and beer. The steaks were prepared on a small barbeque located on the back porch with the million dollar view. After the barbeque was over, frugal Bill would place the hot coals in a coffee-can, dousing it with water, the coals to be reused some other time. We ate, drank I went home. This is what happened after I left. Bill proceeded to do some cleaning up in the kitchen. He notices a burning odor but contributed this to the earlier barbequing. More time passed by, the odor became stronger. Finally Bill noticed smoke and flames coming from the rear deck where we had barbequed earlier. He had forgotten to douse the hot coals, in the coffee-can. The heat had penetrated through the can bottom igniting the floor boards.

This leads to the story of Beer. Bill at one point had been burglarized. That was bad enough even though not much of value was stolen. He was more upset about the fact the burglars had the nerve to drink some of his beer taken from the refrigerator. "I will teach them a lesson", Bill said. "The next time they drink my beer they will be in for a suprise". He had removed the tops of several freshly bought bottles of beer placed rat poison in the beer recapped the bottles. Placed two bottles in the refrigerator. Made some marks on the bottle labels so that only he knew the extra ingredient. From that day on whenever Bill offered me a beer I had to ask him if it was safe. He was never burglarized again.

We will move on to the next disaster. Beside Bill's property - in between the next door neighbor's property - was a plot of land owned by somebody else. Every year tall weeds would grow. The local fire department had noticed the weeds and instructed Bill to cut them down to prevent grass fires. The fact that it wasn't his property didn't impress the fire department. It was closer to Bill's property than to the next door neighbor. Bill wasn't much of a gardener didn't own any equipment to cut down the weeds. He had a solution. I will burn the weeds down. The weeds were far enough away from the house that no harm would come of it. One Saturday he decided to burn the weeds. It didn't take very long for the tall weeds to burn furiously, producing embers that were carried by the wind to the next door neighbor's yard igniting his weeds. Bill and the neighbor labored hard to keep the fire from spreading. Subsequent follow up by the fire department resulted in a lecture not to burn weeds. Bill eventually purchased the plot and maintained it dutifully.

Let's move on to Bill's following disaster. For a period of time Bill had leased the bottom basement-room out. The renters didn't stay long, never to renew their contract; Bill was not an easy land lord. His previous rental properties in Oakland had given him a lot of grief as well. He wound up selling the apartment, below market value, just to get rid of it. In his current house he needed to paint and redo the room frequently because of the turnover. This time he was going to paint and spruce up the whole lower floor including the stairs leading up to the main house. This was at a time that many paints were oil based requiring solvents for clean-up. The painting done, the clean-up remained. The paint brushes were cleaned in the downstairs garage where the leftover paint was stored as well. Satisfied with the results Bill went up stairs to take a well-deserved shower. After his shower Bill went to his bedroom to dress up. He noticed that the floor of the room was somewhat warm to his bare feet. Possible the effect of the shower he reasoned. He went about his business. Several hours later he was in his bedroom once more and again he noticed the floor being warm to the touch. The bedroom floor lay directly over the garage. This time Bill decided to look into the situation. He went down stairs opened the door to the garage and was confronted with smoke and flames coming off the ceiling rafters. He opened the garage door using the garden hose located in front of the house to attack the flames. In the meantime a neighbor who noticed the emergency situation called the fire department that arrived within several minutes. The flames were doused the rafters inspected for damage. Bill who had worked hard to attack the flames was now reprimanded by the fire department chief for not calling the fire department immediately. Bill was still indignant about that confrontation several months later. Again Bill came out of this mishap with minimal damage but wiser. When cleaning the paint brushes he had used rags soaked with solvent. Those soaked rags were left out on a work bench in the garage. The solvent had evaporated into the garage and combined with the solvent fumes of cleaning the brushes an ignitable mixture was created. The water heater pilot light ignited the buildup of the thinner fumes. This was not the last of Bill's confrontation with fire.

Bill's mishaps in life can be broken down in categories. We have covered the house category. Now we go into the 'car' category.

Bill had seen a TV ad for a low cost flight to Australia. He wanted to take advantage of that opportunity and book a trip to Sidney. There were some restrictions attached to the low rate. One of those restrictions was that the ticket had to be purchased personally at the counter of Quantas, the Australia airline, its point of departure Los Angeles. Bill had to drive to Los Angeles within certain dates to purchase the tickets. No problem. Bill had plenty of vacation and driving to Los Angeles was not an issue. I never did hear all the details of the trip to Los Angeles. Bill never made it. Nor Australia for that matter. Somehow during the trip to Los Angeles while driving on Interstate 5 Bill plowed into the rear end of a trailer truck. His statement to me was that the truck suddenly put on the brakes and Bill couldn't stop in time to avoid a collision. I think it was inattention on Bill's side; he was easily distracted, but I can't prove it. The collision was powerful enough to bend the frame of the Volkswagen beetle he was driving preventing him from opening the doors. The Volkswagen bug has the fuel tank upfront in the storage area. The impact of the collision spilled fuel that ignited. Bill was now trapped inside the car and couldn't open the doors. Quick thinking Bill moved from the front of the car, climbing over the front seats, where the flames were, to the rear of the car. The Volkswagen was a two door car so again Bill was trapped. Lying on his back, on the rear seats, using his legs and feet, he kicked out the rear window. Once again Bill had survived.

While on the subject of cars we might as well stay there since we have more to tell. Bill was a boat lover. His bad experience at an early age with the sail boat had not curbed his enthusiasm for boating. Over the years, every five years or so, he would purchase a larger boat. I remember his first boat, not much bigger than a rowboat with an outboard motor. We were in the middle of the San Francisco bay when the outboard motor gave out. It was dusk; the wind picking up speed. We didn't have a paddle to row to the shore. I didn't like the situation one little bit and swore never to go out on the water with Bill ever again. Luckily Bill was able to get the motor going again and my imagination of being run over in the near dark by a speed boat was now somewhat subsiding. We were within twenty-five feet of a boat. To avoid monthly storage fees Bill kept the boat at his house. The boat was placed on a trailer pulled to the Richmond boat launch to take the boat to water. When done for the day the boat was placed again on the trailer and pulled out of the water. This was all done with Bill's Volkswagen beetle. Bill's car of choice. The car had seen a few mills, the brakes were in need of repair, the clutch slipped a bit, and the handbrake needed adjustment. Bill was aware of the fact that the car needed repair but kept putting it off. It was always next month. It was time again to pull the boat and trailer out of the water after a day on the bay. It was obvious to me, while watching Bill, that he had some problems pulling the trailer with boat out of the water. Between the slipping clutch and a handbrake that wasn't holding, Bill was losing the battle of pulling the boat out of the water. Bill came out of the car to assess the situation pulling the handbrake. The brake held for a while but while Bill was out of the car near the trailer, the car slowly started to roll back wards. Bill noticed that, jumped back into the car put it in gear, however the slipping clutch couldn't hold the car. Slowly I saw the car being dragged by the boat trailer backwards all the while Bill trying to pull it up. The boat trailer won. Slowly the boat trailer pulled the car into the water where it sank pulling the car with it. The car was hoisted out of the water. The boat floated again with the boat trailer touching bottom. The Volkswagen bug was written off by the insurance. Bill was allowed to keep the car. After draining the engine several times, drying the interior, with a hairdryer, Bill was able to bring the bug to life. He used the car for another four years.

One more experience with this bug cost him a few dollars to fix. Bill worked swing shift. This happened on the first day of resetting the clock to daylight savings time. This was the period were we gain an hour. It was an unusually hot day for the time of the year. Bill was driving with the windows of the car rolled down because of the heat. The Volkswagen didn't have an air conditioner. He was running late and drove at a high speed for a long distance to make sure he would arrive at work on time. With the windows down and the wind rushing through his hair he was not able to hear the sound of the engine. Concerned to make it on time he really pushed the engine hard to make it. He finally arrived at work. He noticed that he had driven at high speed in a low gear that he normally would have heard, but with the windows down didn't. When he clocked-in he noticed to his dismay that he was an hour early. He had not changed his own clock. Also he found out that driving in a low gear at high speed caused some damage to the transmission. Once again his bug had to be repaired to be ready for the next disaster.

Before going home one day Bill needed to stop by a store for a purchase. He chose a store located on a highway (San Pablo Dam Road). He elected not to use the store's parking lot but park on the shoulder of the highway. That way he could jump quickly back into the car and keep on going. The last thing he remembered was opening the car door and a loud noise. He woke up in Kaiser Hospital where they told him what happened. When Bill opened the door of the car and started to lift one leg out of the car his leg and door were hit by a passing car knocking Bill unconscious. He was in the hospital for three weeks; his knee was never the same again. This time the Volkswagen was damaged to the point of no return and Bill was forced to purchase another car. Again it was a Volkswagen, but this time a station wagon. Bill's accident had damaged his knee to a point where the doctors told him he would never ski or dance again.

Next to boating, skiing and dancing where Bill's most favored pastime activities. Bill's social life started in Oakland where at one time a large ball-room dancing hall was located. He could be found at the dancehall nearly every week-end. The hall closed in the 70's, leaving very few places where people could dance. Bill would travel to Little Switzerland (Riverside Sonoma, Ca.) or Swiss Park (Newark, Ca.) just to dance. Those places are still open today. It was in Little Switzerland were Bill became acquainted with a Korean born nurse sharing her passion for dancing with Bill. She was his dancing partner at many events. I knew Bill liked her a lot as he continuously talk about her. I was not surprised when I learned they would go to London, England for a ten day vacation. Bill had organized everything. He even booked the flight and the hotel through a travel agent to make sure things would work out just perfect. His partner was under time restraints in coming back. She absolutely had to be back in California on a specific day. They had a great time in London. Preparing to go back to California, they arrived at Heathrow airport to board the return flight to California. They were told their plane left yesterday. Upgrading their ticket would have cost nearly a thousand dollars with no space available for that day on coach anyway. Both returned to the hotel for another stay. They actually couldn't get a flight out until two days later. Bill called his travel agent in California, but during that conversation it was not clear who had messed up. The agent claimed to have followed Bill's date line, but Bill claimed he never told the agent those dates.

The Korean dancing partner, who could not return on time to California, had to make many calls to straighten out the changes caused by missing the plane. She slept those nights in a room she had bought separately because she would not be around Bill any longer. Even flying back after the two extra days she would not sit next to Bill in the same plane. It was a tremendous blow for Bill. Later he told me he actually was thinking to marry the lady. They were never to speak with each other again even though they saw each other at dance events. Bill never got over it. It hurt him badly.

Bill who lived his whole adult life as a single person was not easy to get along with. He was in his 70's by the time he wanted a romantic alliance. Too late to change a person's fixed habits. Possible true for his lady friend as well. It was also difficult for me to deal with Bill even though we saw each other only several times a year. There was no room in Bill's lifestyle and behavior for another person romantically or otherwise. Everything was on his terms. He would talk over you like your statements had no value. Bill continued to dance and ski as much as his troubled knee allowed him. His knee gave him problems but it never stopped him pursuing his beloved activities. Not even after another serious event.

Every winter Bill would go up to Lake Tahoe to ski. He even went to Aspen for advanced lessons to improve his style. He was a great skier not only by my standards but also by experienced skiers. He was a member of the ski patrol in Lake Tahoe which gave him nearly cost-free skiing privileges. Did I tell you that Bill was a cheap skate? He would sleep in his station wagon to avoid the more expensive hotel/motel rooms. One day he was on ski patrol having a great time when out of nowhere a person crossed very closely in front of him. Bill had to brake avoiding hitting the person. He called after the guy to let him know that he misbehaved. While yelling at the person Bill was not looking where he was going. He woke up in the hospital once again. It turned out while yelling at the guy Bill ran full speed head-on in to a tree. It knocked him out with bruised ribs and difficulty breathing. After a day or so he was moved from a Tahoe hospital to Kaiser Hospital in Richmond where I visited him again. This accident was just another event in Bill's life. He was most indignant about the behavior off the person that caused the accident. The above incidents were Bill's more serious problems. His daily live was filled with little everyday occurrences that for Bill, even though frustrating, were just a part of life.

I was sitting in the company's lunch room one day when Bill came in to prepare his lunch. He had brought with him a can of Spaghetti in Tomato sauce. He took the company's can opener trying to cut open the top off the can. He had a very difficult time with it. The opener would keep slipping not cutting being impatient Bill turned the can upside down thinking he would cut the bottom side. He didn't have any better results on that side either. The can was now sitting on the counter upside down with a frustrated Bill leaving the lunch room for a while. He came back to his Spaghetti can frustrated by the lost time. He figured he would turn the can back to its original position, top side UP, and try again. While turning the can up-side UP he had to take it off the counter. When he lifted the can the total content of the can dropped out of the can onto the counter making a big mess. Apparently his first attempt to cut the lid was successful after all. He scooped, by hand, the spaghetti into the sink, stormed out of the lunchroom hungry and angry.

Another incident happened when we were in Lake Tahoe for my first skiing lesson. Bill had been trying for a long time to persuade me to learn how to ski. This time I agreed to try it. We arrived at the snow and Bill gave me a quick introduction how to stop when you pick up too much speed. The snow plows technique. Practicing that for a while I kept an eye on Bill in case I needed more instructions. I noticed that many people looked at him with a smile. Assuming those are the people he had met over the many years skiing. I was to learn that their smile was not of recognition but more out of sympathy. When Bill at one point came back to me, to check on my progress, (very little) I found out why the people were smiling at him. He came down the hill toward me at a high rate of speed moving from left to right like the expert skier he was. The one thing that destroyed his professional image was the fact that his fly was wide open exposing his super white underwear. Bill was oblivious to it.

I could go on forever with my stories of near misses in traffic or just daily mishaps. Bill was the type of person you see in movies as mister stumble bum. The person who would knock over a vase, trip over chairs, knocking over water glasses. But every year I would go out on one more boat trip hoping for a safe return to shore. Bill eventually moored his boat away from the house. It was an hour and thirty minutes away from his house near Dutch Slough. Richmond harbor was too expensive for him. At one time, checking on his boat he found that people had entered the cabin and stolen several items. Among the stolen items was a camp stove very much treasured. From that day on double locks were placed on the cabin doors. We both arrived for our annual boat trip. The boat was in good shape the cabin doors solidly locked. Bill had brought the keys to the cabin locks. I should say Bill had brought a key to unlock one lock the key to the second lock was left at home. The second lock remained locked throughout the rest of the day. Therefore we couldn't get to the pots and pans, including the new camp stove. We had to eat dry rolls forgoing a hot meal. It was just another adventurous day in the life of my friend Bill.

After many years in the United States Bill had finally become a US citizen. He informed me he had changed his last name. I wasn't aware of a dislike of his last name. I ask; "What is your last name now?" His answer: "The same, I dropped only one letter" I ask which letter he dropped from his last name. It is now Rottman with one N he replied. I understood later that he wanted to maintain the true meaning of his name*

Bill lost mobility in his knee diminishing his skiing and dancing. Bill had always been very evasive about his age. He was retired; did that mean he was over sixty-five? He looked younger. Maybe he retired early I figured. One day when Bill was talking about his house, asking me if I was interested in another property. I had at that time several houses and didn't want the burden of additional property. It was not clear to me the meaning of the conversation. During that session I ask Bill what age he was. It took a while before he committed himself to an answer. I'm seventy-one he volunteered. I was totally blown away by his answer. By that time I figured Bill to be approximately sixty years old. It became only clear several years later what the meaning of his questions were regarding me having additional property. I learned that Bill had asked an attorney to write a will where Bill's house, upon his death, would turn over to a realtor who was to look for a young, newly married couple. The house would be donated to the young couple. The only stipulation was the fact it could not be a couple related to the realtor.

Bill slowed down, more and more. He had some work done on his heart and continued to live by himself, his knee giving him more and more problems. The annual boat trips had stopped. As a matter of fact, he told me that the boat was sold. I saw Bill more infrequently. The last time I saw him was the time when Bill had invited me to tour his old neighborhood, Point Richmond of which he was very proud. We would stop for lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant (Little China) close to his house. He insisted that it was going to be his treat. It was a pleasant day with an interesting tour through Point Richmond neighborhood. A visit to the Plunge about to close for safety concerns. A tour through the neighborhood pointing out buildings of interest. The restaurant was rustic, in need of interior improvements, however the food was delicious. A great day without mishaps. It was time to leave the restaurant to go home. The restaurant tab was presented; Bill picked it up as promised. When he reaching for his wallet it was not in its customary location. A further search in all his pockets had no better result. I offered to pay the bill but Bill would not hear of it. "I invited you it's my treat". I suggested he could pay me back later but that fell also on deaf ears. The decision was made I would remain in the restaurant while Bill would go home to pick up his wallet. The restaurant was only a stone's throw away from Bill's house on Western Drive. To show good faith toward the restaurant owner I remained behind in the restaurant. I settled in at a little table with a fresh cup of coffee. The round trip for Bill to return was in my estimate 15 minutes. Twenty minutes had passed, no Bill. After thirty minutes waiting the restaurant owner dropped by my little table and suggested I go home. I replied, "I have to wait for Bill anyway he is my transportation." After forty five minutes, my coffee cup empty, Bill had not arrived. The newspapers lying around were no comfort to me; they were in the Chinese language. Finally fifty minutes later Bill arrived with the long awaited wallet. The Bill paid I was released from custody. Bill explained that going home - he had to take a detour because access to his house was blocked for road repair. Later I found out that additional time was lost because Bill couldn't find the wallet. This restaurant visit turned out to be the last time I saw Bill.

For several months I kept on calling Bill's house never to reach him. Bill didn't believe in owning a mobile phone. Eventually I dropped by Bill's house at Western Drive to check things out. No answer. I inquired with the next door neighbor who told me that Bill had passed away approximately three weeks earlier. A young couple was to move into the house that week-end. This was the end of an interesting friendship that in spite of the unpredictability was and still is very much treasured.

*The surname ROTTMAN is a German and Ashkenazi Jewish nickname for a person with red hair. Bill was indeed a red head. The name was originally derived from the Old German word ROT what means Red and MANN meaning the one(s). As a Jewish surname it was adopted for the same reason. The name has numerous and variant spelling, find below only a few example.

Rottmann, Rottman, Rothmann,Rottermann, Rodeman, Rutmann, Redmann, Rotte, Roiter, Roitemann.