by JIM KNIPFEL
July 5, 2009
(Author’s note: Under normal circumstances, this week’s column would have been devoted to an unforgiving frontal attack, not just on that twitching puppet Michael Jackson, but on those poor misbegotten slobs who, for some godforsaken reason, are suddenly hailing him as a “musical genius” and an “American icon.” Sadly, I was confronted with something a bit more important than the death of some freakish pederast.)
My phone rang on the evening of June eighteenth. The trembling voice on the answering machine made it immediately clear that something was very wrong. When I picked up the receiver, my sister Mary spoke only three words:
“Bob died today.”
That was the last thing I was expecting to hear, and it took a long time to register. Bob, her husband of twenty-eight years and the father of their two daughters, had only turned fifty a few months earlier. He was healthy, he was active, he showed no signs of anything at all until he suffered a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn. It was a horrifying shock. He was an extraordinarily good-hearted man, who doted on his daughters and was always willing to help out his neighbors whenever and however help was needed.
My purpose here is not to write an obituary for him. I’m not qualified to do that. A hell of a lot of people (as the overflow crowd at the funeral revealed) knew him a hell of a lot better than I did. All I want to do is tell a few stories about some of the times we spent together. We had radically different personalities, but he was always able to make me laugh.
Bob and Mary started dating in the late seventies, shortly after they graduated from high school. Back then, I used to count on them to bring me along to R-rated horror films, since the theaters wouldn’t let me in alone as I was underage and too short to fake it. They took me to see Halloween, The Shining, Prophecy, and a host of others. None of them, though, tops the time they took me to see The Omen. At the time, Green Bay still had two drive-in theaters—the Valley Outdoor and The Starlite, which wasn’t too far from Bob’s house. It seems strange in retrospect, but back then the local drive-ins showed first-run Hollywood features along with the usual AIP fare. I first saw The Godfather and Airport at the Starlite. And in 1976, Mary and Bob took me there to see The Omen.
The three of us were sitting in the front seat of Bob’s pickup—Bob in the driver’s seat, Mary in the middle, and I was against the passenger door. About two-thirds of the way through the film, when the body count was piling up and you didn’t know what sort of stunt that crazy Damien was going to pull next, Mary decided she needed to make a run to the concession stand. I let her out, then fixed my eyes on the screen again.
Mary had been gone for awhile, but I didn’t notice. The tension on the screen was building. I was so transfixed that I never saw her return to the truck with the tray of fries and hot dogs. When she pulled open the door next to me, all I knew was that some kind of monster was about to maul me. I threw my hands over my face, let loose with a high-pitched little girl scream, and flopped across the front seat against Bob.
Nobody was expecting that.
After his laughter subsided, his only comment was, “I dunno what the hell you expected me to do about it.”
It was probably around that time that he began to realize that he wasn’t dealing with one of those rough and tumble kids you usually saw around Green Bay, with the scuffed knees and dirty faces. Nevertheless—and I don’t know to this day if Mary put him up to this or if it was his idea—he invited me to go fishing with him. It was clearly intended to be a bonding exercise.
See, Bob was more than an avid outdoorsman. To the very end he was a compulsive outdoorsman. He hunted pheasant and deer in the fall, but above all else he was a fisherman. He fished year-round, driving hundreds of miles—even deep into the wilds of Canada recently—to enter fishing tournaments. The walls of their rec room were covered with mounted deer heads and fish of all sorts. He was the only guy I ever knew who actually watched fishing shows on TV.
So when he asked me to go fishing with him, it was no small deal—it was serious business.
He picked me up about five in the morning, and we probably drove three hours to a small, quiet lake in north central Wisconsin. He backed his boat into the water, then we puttered out to the middle of the lake where we dropped our lines and waited.
Let’s just say that at age twelve, I wasn’t quite the . . . umm . . . most, umm . . .
Okay, so I probably wasn’t exactly the fishing partner he was looking for. I got a bad sunburn, and probably hooked my thumb five or six times. Five hours later, we puttered back to shore and drove home. I’m not honestly sure whether or not any bonding took place, but I had a great time. Have my doubts that he did that afternoon, sitting out there on the still lake trying to catch anything at all with this big-eared twelve year old yapping away, but I had fun. He never invited me to go fishing with him again, but, as I learned from his friends in the days before the funeral, he rarely invited anyone along period, so then I didn’t feel so bad.
Along with the hunting and fishing, he also loved hockey. So much so that well into his adult years he’d run up to the park near their house to play pickup games with the neighborhood kids.
Just a few months ago, he was watching a baseball game with a neighbor, and said one of the finest and wisest things that’s ever been said in defense of hockey—as well as something that sums up my feelings about modern professional sports in general:
“I don’t see,” he said to the baseball fan next to him, “how you can possibly like a game where only one guy gets to carry a stick.”
Maybe it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t a bookworm geek, and I (lord help me) wasn’t an outdoorsman. There’s nothing wrong with that. We simply focused on different things. Still, the day before I left home for college, Bob called me just to wish me luck. It may not seem like much, but it struck me at the time as a very classy move, and became one of those brief phone calls I will always remember.
So no, no obituary. Bob was a smart, talented man who participated in his own life a hell of a lot more than most people do. It’s a rare thing, and he was a rare man who will be deeply missed.
You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:
With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.