By M.J. Knapik
I learned later that his real name was Robert E. Wood. When I came to know him, people were calling him F.U. Bob. During the ‘80s, Bob was quite the fixture on Main Street in downtown Kent, Ohio—the same city where the May 4, 1970, shooting happened. He would walk for miles collecting discarded bottles and cans from one end of town to the other well before recycling was in vogue, addressing obnoxious car travelers with utter vehemence by reaching his right middle finger high in the air and bellowing his mellifluous “Yoooooouuuuu!” Apparently, the finger itself represented a quasi-verbal act, so there was no need to actually utter the F-bomb; those who taunted Bob often claimed he barked the entire two syllables. I never heard it.
People can be cruel, especially the college crowd. Students would find time in their busy schedules to hunt out and chide Bob as they meandered throughout Kent just to honk and toss beer cans, cigarettes, garbage wrappers, and other items to prompt his proclamation. Once a carload of young people veered onto the sidewalk, causing Bob to dive out of the way to save himself. Without skipping a beat, he hobbled up and shouted his mantra while flying the bird. This was quite a feat to behold.
Though Bob was viewed as obscene, in fact, he was caring and gentle with anyone wishing to befriend him. The obscenity was his modus operandi while in public; in private he was refined and brilliant. Bob graduated from Kent State University with a master’s degree in painting. F.U. Bob was simply an artist, an award-winning one, too. He had remarked, “You never know who’s watching you when you step outside your side door; people judge you for all the wrong reasons.” I came to believe this without a second doubt. People certainly misjudged him at first glance and concluded he was just one freaky-ass Vietnam vet who couldn’t function in society. Boy, were they ever wrong.
[blocktext align=”left”]You had to engage Bob with tactical dynamics directly on foot, one on one, mano a mano, being of genuine mind and heart. Only then did Bob read you like some Timothy Leary experiment. [/blocktext]The rainy Friday afternoon that silver El Camino skipped the sidewalk and nearly sideswiped Bob was the first time we met. Of course, I had passed him numerous times while driving around town and have to admit I too slowed to glimpse Kent’s main attraction. You had to engage Bob with tactical dynamics directly on foot, one on one, mano a mano, being of genuine mind and heart. Only then did Bob read you like some Timothy Leary experiment. He had great interpersonal perspicacity.
I witnessed the near accident on my way into Susan’s Coffee and Tea on Main Street. As the car sped away, I trotted over to Bob and asked if he was all right. Taking in his disheveled graying beard, tattered camouflage Army surplus coat, and the exquisite smell of Bay Rum, I was almost scared off by his hypnagogic state.
“Fools, crazy-ass fools,” was all he said as he hobbled in semicircles. I encouraged him to take a rest inside the coffee bar and maybe get a drink.
At that time, I wasn’t very forthright. But an inner voice had prodded me forward. People can change you know, hopefully for the better. And surprisingly, the few gawking patrons inside Susan’s that afternoon had ringside seats. They greeted Bob, paying no attention to me, offering him a place at their table.
“Hey man, you okay?” were the first words that made me realize this wandering vagrant was a well-known fixture and very real, which brought out a dash of reverence—one that I wasn’t privy to. The cafe was already packed, stagnant with the lingering lunch crowd. The patrons eyed any new bait that gravitated in. I now felt like the loner, the pariah.
“Who’s your bud?” they asked him.
“Cool man, nice pickup.”
As if on cue, a couple glasses of water were set on the table. Then a hippie in the corner, stirring, added, “What the fuck was that all about?”
Then this done-up goth chick with long, straight black hair fused with half a jewelry store brushed up against me and asked if I wanted something to drink.
“Coffee. Lots of cream, please,” I said.
“The way I like it, too,” she answered. “Be right back.”
There’s a middle moment in everyone’s life, a sort of comfort zone when living just works, like the right amount of strokes on a canvas: Too few doesn’t speak to you, too many really looks like shit, but this certainly ranked as one of those split seconds of impunity. The eyes of the world, in this case the coffee-gulping patrons, now enveloped me as one of their own. I had sway. The goth returned with my coffee and introduced herself as Rhiannon.
[blocktext align=”right”]All of a sudden, I felt this pressure on my left shoulder reaching around my bicep, and the next thing I know I was turned around and smothered in a bear hug. It was Bob.[/blocktext]“Just like the song,” I said.
“No, not at all,” she stated, “more like the goddess in Welsh mythology, silly. I’m afraid that’s where Stevie Nicks stole it from.”
“Oh,” was all I could add to that, plus, “Thanks for the coffee.” All of a sudden, I felt this pressure on my left shoulder reaching around my bicep, and the next thing I know I was turned around and smothered in a bear hug. It was Bob.
“Thanks man, you’re a real decent person. You’ll be blessed some day,” he said. “Who the hell are you, by the way?” glaring into my soul with his deep-set hazel eyes. “We’re compadres now, my friend,” he added.
Like it or not, I was indoctrinated into I-didn’t-know-the-hell-what. But I soon figured it out. Not everyone was privy to actually facing F.U. Bob and living to tell about it. He was Kent’s spiritual guru who knew almost everything about anything—philosophy, religion, politics, music, history, film and, of course, art.
I never saw Bob after that day. Susan’s wound up closing. I really didn’t galavant into Kent much anymore because the girl I was after decided it was time to marry. That was our stomping grounds; do the bars, some sex, then a breakfast buffet at Manners Big Boy, yeah.
Piddling on the Internet about a year ago, I happened upon a Regina Brett story. Title caught my eye: “Kent ‘folk hero’ was more than he appeared.” And damn if she didn’t hit it true: “Most people didn’t know his name, so they wouldn’t have recognized the local obituary that said Robert E. Wood died on February 5th.”
Shit, I never even knew. I wish I had. Ugh, Bob—so sorry. F.U. Bob died. Wow. F.U. Bob. Here’s to you, my friend. (Author flies the bird and shakes his hand wildly in the air.) Wherever you may be. Goodbye.
M.J. Knapik is an adjunct professor of English and Communications at Lakeland Community College and Lake Erie College. His passion is training dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind and is currently writing a novel about his experiences.
I love this story. I can hear and see in my mind’s eye every scene, character and word spoken. Yes, F.U. Bob had it right, people do judge you for all the wrong reasons. Like F.U. Bob, M.J. Knapik is a painter, just with a brush, but with words. Thanks for publishing.
I was born and rasied in Kent. My son, Sam is a photo-journalist. He did a story on Mr. Wood in high school. When Mr. Wood passed away, Sam donated all of the photos he had taken of him to the memorial service. If you would like to see them, contact me at my email and I will get you in touch with him.
I am so very proud to hail from a town where hearts are so alive. I miss you,Kent.
Carla, a few of us are commemorating Bob’s life and would love to meet and talk with you and your son. Please contact me on facebook Heidi Smith Weisel. Thank you!
I would love to see the pictures of Bob and any others having to do with KENT. I lived there my entire life,I dont make it back there much but it certainly doesnt look the way I left it! thank you in advance
Look on my flickr page.
I used to run into Bob in random places. My wife would know when a 20 minute trip to the grocery became two hours. He had me reading Kant so we could discuss philosophy in more depth. Quite an interesting man.
Cal, a few of us are commemorating Bob’s life and would love to meet and talk with you and your son. Please contact me on facebook Heidi Smith Weisel. Thank you!
Wow this is so true. I had the opportunity to be Bob in the 90’s. I was his pastor at the Vineyard Church in Kent. Bob brought life to us and his art was inspiring! I have wondered what was going on with him. Love you Bob!
Doug and Linda
Doug, a few of us are commemorating Bob’s life and would love to meet and talk with you and your son. Please contact me on facebook Heidi Smith Weisel. Thank you!
F.U.Bob, was a friend of mine. He is as much apart of my fondest childhood memories as FRIENDLY’S ice cream,THE STUFFED MUSHROOM, The homeless Banjo pickin’ Eddie, and Wheelchair George. I recall how the had to test the road before stepping down from the curb before crossing the street, never failing to stop and check the curb before stepping up on it. I heard all the rumors about doing too much acid over in NAM,where he obviously lost his mind.Never gave him much thought until I got a job at H&W,I would cut through the alley behind his house and take my lunch breaks in that alley. He would come out and stand there sometimes he spoke to me sometimes he rambled things to himself.Then one day I offered him my pbj sandwich,he politely said no but thanks.long silence then he spoke again “I like tuns though” Yeah? well,I’ll see if my mom will pack tuna tomorrow,cool? He smiled and laughed “very cool,mom tuna sandwiches are the best” Okay then Bob it’s a date sametime same spot,I got up to head back to work, when he said “If your just going to throw it away,I’ll take PBJ now” I handed him my bagged lunch said it’s all yours. For the first time he looked me in the eyes and said “Your good,I like you” I said “your different and I like you” I didn’t keep that job long,but I never ate my lunch alone! After that,I would see him walking and I would approach him with a “hey stranger,remember me?’ he would always say “where’s my tuna fish?” Truly a memorable man! I sure hate I didn’t get to know him better,talk with him longer or walked a little farther. bye Bob
See the painting behind his head? I have pictures of Bob showing it to me when Stone Tavern made him take it home to put up other art. He was pretty sad about it.