My friend Josh died this weekend. I’d like to tell you a little bit about who he was, which is also a little bit about who I am, since we were friends for nearly 50 years.
I met Josh when the teacher introduced him as the new student to our third-grade class. I was fascinated, because I had never heard of another kid named Josh. (By the 80s one in every thousand American babies was named Joshua, but this was the mid-60s and we Joshes were rare.) Josh and I became inseparable, partly because of our shared interest in science.
My father was a chemist and his father engineered radiosondes, devices attached to weather balloons that radioed data about conditions in the clouds. So we came by our geekiness naturally. Each month we would await the new issue of Scientific American and turn instantly to the Mathematical Games column by Martin Gardner. We made hexaflexagons and tormented our friends and teachers. One time Gardner suggested some cool things to do with Moebius strips. All nerds know that you can cut one in half and end up with a double-twist strip instead of two loops. But we cut one in thirds, and then cut the resulting strip in half again and ended up with a mass of knotted spaghetti, which we fit neatly into an envelope and sent to Martin Gardner. We never heard back but we were hooked.
Being a nerd kid in 2015 is cool. But this was the 60s. Dressing in mod clothes was cool. Saying “far out” was cool. Being into science and math was not cool. Nobody had heard of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But Josh and I didn’t care. We just loved the stuff and impressed nobody but each other and our parents and the science teachers.
In junior high school we amused ourselves at lunch by playing “Racetrack,” a game based on the laws of physics that you played with a pencil on graph paper. We formed an Explorer Scouts troop dedicated to data processing and made art out of holes in punched cards. We were in the chorus together, the only two junior high school boys willing to admit we were tenors rather than pretending to be basses.
We also tormented the science teacher, Mr. Selgrath. We broke more glassware than any other students. We did an independent study project to determine which liquids would make the best thermometers. We partially filled a piece of glass tubing, closed at the bottom and open at the top, with the test liquid. Then we placed it in an ice water bath over a burner and marked how the level of the test liquid changed as the temperature rose. We knew regular thermometers often had alcohol in them, so we tried alcohol as a test liquid. The experiment was working great until the water bath reached about 80 C. We were surprised to see the level of the alcohol jump up, then down, then up again. Nobody had told us that alcohol boils at 80 C. The boiling alcohol squirted out the top of the tube, rained down on the burner, and set the lab on fire. Mr. Selgrath was not pleased.
By high school, we ended up surrounded by a clique of other nerds. We discovered girls. I wasn’t bad looking, with a mop of curly hair, but Josh was sort of goofy with pink skin, blond hair, and big teeth. (My orthodontist used to get business by showing his before-and-after pictures of Josh, because before he got braces his buck teeth were terrifying. His mother used to have a big picture of him, complete with those teeth, in a special spot right over the piano.) Our great social activity was (I am not making this up) to get four, eight, or twelve of us together and play bridge.
There was a really nice and beautiful girl in our group with long, straight, dark hair. I was in love with her, but she ended up with Josh. I knew my love for Josh was going to last a lot longer than my infatuation with the girl, so I stepped aside. I had the 70s ‘fro, but Josh was such a sweet, loving, nice guy and she saw something special there. They’ve remained friends over all these years.
Josh and I went off to different colleges and graduate schools. I ended up at MIT where I washed out of the math Ph. D. program; Josh got masters degrees in physics and computer science at Johns Hopkins. I got married; he was my best man. I got a job at a software company called Software Arts in the suburbs of Boston. He was engaged to a girl who was living in Boston so I persuaded Software Arts to hire him for the summer.
We went on double dates and it started to become clear to me that he was in trouble. I really didn’t like his fiancee. Worse, she was really treating him badly and Josh was too good natured to realize he was in trouble. One day at lunch I took him outside and talked to him at a picnic table. “Josh,” I said, “I worry that what I am about to say will end our friendship, but I just have to tell you, I think you are going to be very unhappy with this girl you’re with.” Josh got a funny look on his face. Then he said “I’ve been worried about that, too.” Eventually, the girl was gone, but our friendship was stronger than ever.
There was also a young woman named Amy at Software Arts. She and Josh became friends. Josh went back to Baltimore. One day, late, after most people had gone home, Amy, who I didn’t know well, came rushing down the hall into my office. “Help me, I’m getting this message and I don’t know what to do,” she said. Josh had dialed into the Software Arts minicomputer and was sending Amy a text message on her terminal. I showed her how to respond.
I didn’t realize it, but Amy and Josh were soon having an epic love affair by text message. Now, this was the early 80s, and there was no commercial Internet. There was no such thing as “texting” or “IMing.” This was all happening on dumb terminals and IBM PCs with 1200 baud modems. Josh had used the Software Arts password for a dial-up network called Tymnet. About 4 months later, somebody noticed that the Tymnet bills were about $3,000 higher than normal, and puzzled out that most of that traffic was coming from Baltimore. That was the end of the text-based romance, but by then, Amy and Josh were on a path to something more permanent.
Josh moved to Boston and married Amy. I was his best man and the witness for the ketubah, which is the Jewish traditional marriage contract.
Eventually, I got divorced. I was very upset, but Josh was no help at all, because while he loved me dearly, he was just too nice a guy to understand my anger.
One night, Josh sang in a performance at Harvard. (Josh had and endless collection of hobbies, from singing to playing piano and recorder to archery and scuba diving.) A bunch of his friends, including me, met afterwards at the Wursthaus in the heart of Harvard Square.
One of Amy’s college friends, Kimberley, was in the group. I was just emerging from the pathetic funk after my divorce and decided I really liked Kimberley. I called Amy up and demanded Kimberley’s phone number and an explanation on why she hadn’t introduced me earlier. Eventually, we got married, Josh was my best man again. Our marriage is still a wonderful thing 25+ years later. I hadn’t realized that by bringing Josh to Boston where he could meet Amy, I was setting in motion the chain of events and connections that would bring me my life’s companion.
Amy and Josh have two great daughters who are adults now. Josh got coding jobs with a robotics company and then Digital Equipment Corporation. Josh was one of those incredibly loyal guys who would work late, work weekends, do whatever the company asked, and never quit or look for a better job. (I know, because I tried to get him to look, but he never would.) He survived at least three rounds of layoffs at Digital (which got bought by Compaq, which got bought by HP) before they bounced him out. He ended up tending the huge computer systems that drug researchers use at Pfizer.
When Josh got lymphoma three years ago, he was true to form. He took a nerdy interest in everything associated with the treatments, which eventually included a procedure that intentionally burned out his whole immune system and replaced it with new cells — a treatment he went through twice. The whole time he was upbeat and optimistic, indulging his musical hobbies in the hospital. Once he got home, he got back to working for Pfizer remotely, because with his vulnerable immune system, he couldn’t go into the office.
I know I don’t really know Josh as well as I could — we somehow didn’t spend that much time together as adults even though we only lived an hour apart. His daughters and theater friends have had a completely different experience of Josh that I was never really a part of. But every time we did spend time together, that bond we’d formed so many years ago was still there. Josh gave love generously to everyone he lived with, worked with, and performed with because that’s who he was. As long as he was producing, he was happy. I know there are people who will have a wry smile when I die, but nobody feels that way about Josh. Everybody who knew Josh knew what an incredibly smart, incredibly nice guy he was. He was just a force for light in the world.
Josh was only 57 when he died, a month younger than I am. I’d known and loved him for 49 years. His death shows that there’s no justice in the universe. But now that everybody loves nerds, I’m just sad that we had to lose one of the really good ones.