Okay, my turn.

To me Bob was slightly larger than life.  You generally didn’t come into contact with him without getting a smile and a handshake, and you generally felt better about yourself by the time you parted company.  That said, he had zero tolerance for bullshit and didn’t suffer fools, so if you managed to stay out of these two categories with him, chances are you’d just made a reliable friend.

Of course, Bob has been in my life since forever.  We would visit his home during summer vacations from Arizona and I’d play with his kids, Dan mostly, as he was a little bit older than me and the only one who shared the powerful Star Wars/Comic Book/Weird Al/Laser Tag gene that seemed to be recessive in the rest of our families.  I owe more than a little of my geeky disposition to Dan.

After finishing high school and I headed back to South Dakota like a homing pigeon, and to be honest it didn’t occur to me to go anywhere else.  I attended and graduated from SDSU, just like Bob and just like my father.   When I arrived, having Bob there helped make it feel more like I was returning home than moving half way across the country.  He never made an attempt to replace dad, but he certainly filled some fatherly gaps by offering me sound advice and always making sure that I knew I “was welcome at any time, day or night.”  I remember after about three weeks of living in Brookings he told me to stop knocking before I came into their house and just come in already.

“You’re family,” he’d say.

When I was looking for work he gave me a part-time job in his store, working whatever hours worked for me; when I was short on money for rent or car insurance he would lend me the little I needed to get me through the month (with an understanding on when it would be paid back); when I needed someplace to stash the money for my wife’s ring, he kept it in his safe; when I needed someplace to stash the ring, he kept it in his sweater drawer.

When Bob began to lose his final bout with cancer, I suddenly realized I might not just be losing a good friend but also one of the single best sources of information on dad.  So one evening I turned on a small tape recorder and we started talking.  By this time he was on medication so the conversations are quiet and rambling with long pauses, but he was fierce in his love for my father.  He told me the key to their being friends for as long as they were was communication: there was never a time that they weren’t in constant contact via either mail or phone.  He also talked briefly about their decision to volunteer for Vietnam.

“Our country was in a war.  And when your country is in a war goddammit you go.”  Simple as that.

We only completed two tapes before he died and they’re of terrible quality, but you can hear his distinctive voice, his anger and sadness, and his trademark “no bullshit” style of conversation.  Ultimately I made the same mistake with Bob that I did with dad: I waited too long to really sit down and talk about the important stuff.

To say that when he died it was like losing a father would be a lie.  It wasn’t.  Only his children can say that.  But I lost my dad at 13, at a time when I had no idea of how to relate to him as a man, how important he would really be to me, and what a void his absence would create.  In a way I understood Bob’s death much better than I did my father’s.  At 23 I knew exactly who I was losing and how it was happening and what his place was in my life.  I’m not searching for Bob.  Bob isn’t a mystery to me.  I know who he was.  I love him and miss him, but his passing was much easier for me to synthesize mentally and emotionally.

This whole experiment is me trying, at long last, to fill in the gaps that remain in my knowledge of my father.  I want to use that information to build an image of him for myself to relate to, and since I can’t know him, I’m having to settle with being able to study his history like an archeologist.  Which I guess is what I’m ultimately doing here: studying my father.  Trying to learn as much as I can about him so I can develop an opinion, a feeling, or perhaps even an emotional connection with his memory.  A connection which I certainly don’t have now.

For reasons that I’ll have to articulate later, I don’t have any truly strong feelings about him. I feel I should, but I don’t. All I feel is the hole that he would have occupied in my life.  A hole that Bob’s presence helped me realize I had.  Bob was a huge piece of the puzzle that is my father.

Now I’m sure that some people who are reading this remember him differently than I did, and that’s to be expected.  I was his best friend’s son and that pretty much puts a rose-colored tint on everything Bob.  It’s also fair to say I put him on a bit of a pedestal, so I can’t possibly pretend to be objective here.  He wasn’t my father but he supplied me with a healthy number of fatherly moments.

Anyway, while these three posts are here to provide a little context to Bob, they are also meant to serve as a small tribute to a man who was, to many of us, kind of a big deal.

Ethan

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