A Very Special Favor

Dale Fehringer


© Copyright 2014 by Dale Fehringer 


Photo of William Saroyan's grave.
Photo of Bob Damir Thirty-two years ago Bob Damir faced a dilemma when his friend, William Saroyan, died. An unusual request was included in Saroyan’s will, which Bob had been asked to fulfill. Bob wanted to do this favor for his friend, but it would be quite an imposition.

William Saroyan (or “Bill” as Bob knew him) was a popular author in the 1930’s and 1940’s; at the time one of the best-known writers in the world,
on par with Hemmingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. He wrote fiction, mostly about life in California during the Depression and World War II, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life, and an Academy Award for his screenplay for the movie, The Human Comedy.

Bob and Bill were friends for more than 40 years. Their families were from the same town in Armenia, and both families escaped the Turkish massacres, emigrated to the U.S., and settled in Fresno, California. Bill was quite a bit older than Bob, and their lives took very different courses, but luck (or maybe fate) put them together several times over the years, often purely by chance. Bob helped Bill put his will together, which included a foundation to help young writers. Bill’s will also stipulated that after his death half of his ashes should be buried in Fresno, and the other half taken to and buried in Armenia.

Soon after Bill’s death, Bob started getting requests for the ashes from Russian officials and Armenian groups, but he told them all that the Foundation would decide what to do and when to do it. In May of 1982, a year after Bill died, the Foundation asked Bob to head a delegation* to take Bill’s ashes to Armenia. Bob knew this was important to his friend, and he wanted to honor Bill’s wishes.

But Bob had a family and a thriving law practice in San Francisco, and a trip to Armenia (which was then part of the U.S.S.R.) meant he would have to leave everything he cherished and travel to the Soviet Union. He would be unable to contact his family for nearly two weeks. To make things more difficult, relationships between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were strained. It was the height of the Cold War, and two years earlier, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Since then, relations had further deteriorated, and the U.S. instigated trade sanctions and travel restrictions against the Soviet Union. So Bob would have to travel through Canada, to Moscow, and then to Armenia. Who knew what sort of treatment he would receive when he got to Moscow?

That made the favor a very special one, and Bob had to consider it carefully. He talked it over with his wife and family, discussed it with his friends and colleagues, and decided he would go. He admired Bill and wanted to do this for him. So Bob reluctantly told his family, arranged time away from his office, and had a travel agent organize the trip. He would travel from San Francisco to Toronto, and then to Montreal. After a night in Montreal, he would fly a trans-Atlantic flight (on a Russian airline) to Moscow.

So, in late May of 1982, Bob packed a suitcase, kissed his family good-bye and headed to the airport, uncertain what awaited him.

The flight to Canada was crowded and long, but the overnight stay in Montreal was pleasant. Bob had a nice stroll and dinner, and made a last call to his family. The next morning he boarded a Russian Aeroflot plane for the flight to Moscow. It was crowded, uncomfortable, and Bob had an edgy, raw feeling during the flight. The seats were small, made even more so because Bob had Bill’s ashes (in an urn) with him, and it was nearly impossible to sleep on the plane. Most of the passengers were unfriendly Russians who spoke little or no English and the flight attendants were brusque. It was a long and awkward flight, and he was pretty dazed when he arrived at Moscow.

Bob didn’t know what to expect from the Russians. He reminded himself that they wanted this to happen, and he felt safe as long as he had the ashes. But he was tense as he made his way down the steps from the plane. The customs process was stiff and bureaucratic, and Bob could feel the distain the Russian officials had for Americans, but once through customs it was a different experience. There to greet him (along with the Red Army, reporters, and photographers) were two vans full of representatives from the Armenian Writers’ Union who warmly greeted Bob and his companions, and embraced the urn. Bob and his group were escorted to their hotel, and that night, they were treated to celebrations and toasting.

The next day, the delegation flew to Armenia, where they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds of locals. They had arrived in an ancient land that has suffered suppression and massacres, and its people take great satisfaction when their offspring are successful. Saroyan had told the world about Armenia, and Armenia’s people treated him as a hero.

From the time he arrived in Armenia, Bob was involved in nearly non-stop observances and formalities. He was taken on sightseeing tours of Armenia’s points of interest, including the ancient Garni Temple and Echmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. At the Martyr’s Monument, he was moved to tears by thoughts of his ancestors’ ravaged land and slaughtered people. He was honored at banquets and gatherings and attended an opera, a play, and many late night parties, where speeches and toasting went on late into the night.

The highpoint took place Saturday, May 29, when the urn that contained Saroyan’s ashes was buried. It was a warm, sunny day and Gomidas Park in downtown Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) was packed. Bob estimated the crowd of people at around 5,000. The urn and an enormous photo of Bill were on display, and dozens of floral bouquets surrounded the burial site. The dignitary’s platform was filled with high-ranking government officials who made elaborate speeches, lavishing praise and admiration on “Our Beloved William.” Bob was amazed by the intensity and sincerity of it all, and he was sure his friend Bill would have been surprised by the accolades, but pleased to be so well known in the land of his ancestors.

On his last day in Armenia, Bob returned to Gomidas Park to take one last look at Saroyan’s tomb. When he got there, four days after the burial, there was a crowd of people admiring Saroyan, praising him and crying over his grave! Bob met one elderly man who had travelled over 200 miles from his mountain village to pay respects to Saroyan.

Today, when Bob thinks back to his trip to Armenia his face breaks into a smile. He has happy memories, a terrific sense of accomplishment, and a warm feeling that comes from helping a friend. And, when asked about doing that very special favor, Bob says he has no regrets.

*Other members of the delegation were Allen Jendian, Dickran Kouymjian, and Osheen Keshishian.

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