October 2, 1961-March 8, 2000
Bob was wearing his green Stevenson Patriots jacket that said "Yearbook Photographer " when I met him. He was backstage at Fiddler on the Roof, and he seemed to be everywhere. I'm not sure if he had a part on the chorus, but he was definitely on the stage crew, and if there had been a part for electric bass or piano, and it had a been a few years later, he would have been doing those too. But it was photography that led me to strike up a conversation. He had it all - a Canon SLR with a motor drive, and another one hanging at his side, at least in my memory. I was new at Stevenson, a freshman, and intimidated by all the taller, more athletic people who all seemed to know each other. But here was this guy, moving around backstage like he owned the place, and talking in between shooting, who was the only young person I'd met who knew more about photography than I did.
This feeling would become familiar. Cameras were only the first thing I learned that about. I'm guessing others here have had the experience of hearing from Bob some minute, arcane detail about an area that we introduced him to. If it caught, then in a week, or a day, or a year, if it was some small topic like, say, running a sound studio, he'd know it better than us.
When he was 17, he showed me that there was no trade that couldn't be mastered. By my count, he was an electrician, a circuit designer, carpenter, photographer, pianist, mechanic, machinist, and that was all in high school.
It started out simple - to fixing a television, he plugged it in to an outlet that had a wall switch, removed the cover, flicked the switch, and replaced whatever made smoke. He was pretty sure that this is what repairmen do most of the time.
But at Radio Shack, the scorched part in hand, he would buy a book, or borrow one from his father. And he would know why it had smoked, or whether something else was likely to burn out, and he would know it by morning.
He worked to the exclusion of all else - including keeping track of time. We had a signal, when it was too late to wake me up. He would pull in the driveway at three in the morning, to say "I've fixed it!" Or "It works!" If the neon sign was on, he could knock on the window, so as not to wake up my family. Sometimes, when it was off, he knocked anyhow.
Bob was not a patient person. He couldn't get all the way home from Radio Shack without opening the package. Even if he was driving.
Once, he and I were coming back from Grayslake, normally an hour. But my truck's transmission had given up, and all we had left was first gear. So this was now a 3-hour ride. The pickup's AM radio had always bothered him, so Bob decided that this was a good time to upgrade to FM. After all, there were tools in the truck - there were always tools in the truck. Step one - disassemble the dashboard and pull out the AM radio. While going down Northwest Highway at a stately 18 miles per hour. I tried to focus on my driving, and on the rear view mirror.
He could be a patient teacher, provided the student was as quick as he was. Which was seldom. Mr. Misik's attempts to use Bob as a remedial teacher for the weaker members of the choir was not a success.
He was a good teacher because he believed in what he knew. He insisted on it. And he insisted on knowing what he believed. Bob turned things over in his mind a few hundred times more than most of us will.
Bob was unapologetic. He had a bass guitar, that he, and then I, learned to play on. The putty bass. Natural wood, with a lot of wood filler here and there under the varnish. Polished smooth, absolutely straight, and a lot of fun to play. But if you looked close, you could see that it had been reassembled from a lot of very small pieces. I'm not sure if Bob busted it up, since he was known to send things out a window now and then. More likely, he got the bass one afternoon, and decided to learn it, that day. And about four AM, his father decided he'd had enough. I wouldn't blame Roger, I think we've all decided that we've had enough at one time or another. If you've been involved with Bob, you're sleep's been disturbed, probably a lot.
But Bob took the time, and the patience, to put it back together, and filled in all the holes with wood dough. He finished it in clear varnish. He didn't try to hide it - he made an effort to show it, in its best light. To see the beauty in it. later, when he lost some of his hair, he shaved his head, and kept it that way even when the chemo was over. The scar caught your eye, and he liked it that way.
When Bob went out with Jeannette, on their first date, he said "I have a brain tumor." He thought she should know that. Right away. When radiation and chemotherapy made his hair fall out, he left it that way. It didn't bother him that the scar on the back of his head showed. I think he wanted people to ask.
He wasn't squeamish. He liked the music of Warren Zevon, the writings of Lenny Bruce, the drawings of Edward Gorey. I'm sure there are nurses in Detroit and Toledo who wish he'd never read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. When he worked, he worked in AIDS research, with blood samples from infected people. He didn't see anything unusual in this, though he knew it made him so much cooler.
As his tumor grew, it became another one of those things he turned over in his mind, even as his mind changed. In one of our later conversations, he said "You know, Noah, talking to me is like reading from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat." (If you don't know this book, it's by Oliver Sacks, and deals with brain disorders and how they manifest themselves.) He explained what he had lost. The changes in the way things tasted, the way they sounded. What it was like when he had to pause mid-thought, and how he had to find his way back to a topic. Finding new words and ways to say things as the old ones disappeared.
It was hard to remember that he heard and understood much more than he could say. But once in a while, when I wasn't sure that he was hearing me, I would make a grammatical error. And he would correct me.
It was especially hard when Bob could no longer make himself understood to his doctors. He knew what was going on, but couldn't communicate it. Not all the time.
I got a few things from Bob that are part of me now. My wife has gotten used to them, and lately, since we've been talking about him a lot, she's learned who they come from.
All of the battery doors on our remote controls are screwed in place.
I won't take a posed picture. When people force me to, I cheat, and shoot before they're ready.
I insist on using the right tool, even if it means a half-hour drive. And when I think about using the wrong one, I remember a little song that we learned in shop class. Every time.
I take on projects that most people would hire someone to do.
I ask my doctor more questions than he asks me.
When it's bright and sunny day, I know what shutter setting to use, without a meter.
Audio tapes go tail out, without rewinding. Bob says they last longer that way, and don't print through as much.
My children know that nothing can't be understood, if you try.
I'm offended when people play Ragtime too fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.
Sometimes, when I'm up very late, and the rest of the house is asleep, I turn on a neon sign. In case Bob's still up.
(Note - I have since learned that the Bass Guitar was actually smashed by Mike P, and Bob and his dad had nothing to do with it. But he would have liked the story anyhow)