Rob was the kind of guy that was hard to peg. He was ultra-conservative on some issues, ultra-liberal on others, and didn’t give a shit about most. He was the kind of person who decided he was going to be your friend, and he didn’t care about your opinion on the matter, that’s the way it was.
I first met him in the fall of 1999. I was lifting weights in the gym one day and he came over and struck up a conversation about the Raiders because I was wearing a Raider cap. He was a lifelong Raider fan, and we had an immediate bond, two silver and black vagabonds in a Bronco town. He exhibited a strange combination of personality traits right off the bat. He would be almost manically happy one minute and dragging the pits of hell the next. There was nothing he wouldn’t say, and then once he said it there was no backing off or softening his words. We hadn’t known one another for a week when he looked down at me, because he was probably 6’4’, and said, “I just noticed your eyes are really trippy, one is brown and one is green, were you born like that?” Most people, after saying something like that, might offer an apology or an admission that they were getting too personal. Not Rob. He stood there staring at my eyes like he was examining a jewel. He had absolutely no “off” button, and the part of his brain that measured inappropriate questions or phrases was completely missing. He was an imposing man too, tall, muscular, a huge scar on top of his head, and another on the left side of his chin. His arms and torso were covered with strange tattoos, twisting around and into each other, and I was never quite able to decipher what any of them were. There was one particular tattoo on his right bicep, a seven inch wide band that went all the way around his arm. It was tar black and so dense it shined. One day I asked him what it represented. He brought his other hand up and touched it softly, like it might stick to his fingers if he put too much pressure on it. “It’s personal…” I never asked about any of them again.
The first few months I knew him we were just gym friends. I never saw him away from there, and didn’t care if I did. I had my boys living with me and I’d rather have spent time with them than anybody else. One weekend just before Thanksgiving the boys went to their mom’s house. I mentioned it to Rob and he asked if I wanted to go grab a beer. I had no way of backing out because I’d already told him that I had nothing going on, so reluctantly I told him I would. I’m not a very social person, and I’m not into hanging out with people I don’t know very well, and especially someone like Rob, who seemed like he could be awkward in some situations.
We met at a downtown Missoula bar that night and the first thing he did was order shots with beer chasers. I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with this big, awkward, and unpredictable guy and he wanted to get shitfaced and I started to feel my spider sense go off. How can I get out of this… We sat at the end of the bar, and as the evening got rolling he accelerated the pace that he bought drinks. With each round I could feel him getting more and more unbound. After an hour he had abandoned his stool. He stood next to it bouncing on his toes, and our conversation had died except for the occasional shout of, “I love this fuckin’ song.” The bar was jammed, and the music was pounding, and I just wanted to leave. I liked a more laid back place, somewhere that a conversation could be had without screaming. Rob was like a falcon, his eyes sharp as he scanned the room. I wasn’t sure if he was interested in finding someone to date or someone to fight, but his intensity was palpable. Finally at about a quarter after eleven I’d had enough. We’d barely spoken for the last half hour and I had no gauge on what he was going to do next, he had an overwhelming sense of unpredictability to him. I stood and patted him on the shoulder and told him I was going to go home, I told him I’d had my fill. He asked if I wanted one more, basically implored me, but I told him no, using my nicest manners. I could see that he was totally hammered and I’d seen that wild eyed look in people before. A look which told me I wasn’t even safe from him swinging at. “All right, all right, I’ll go with you” he said. I just wanted to get away from the guy, but I knew he’d be offended if I said no, so I agreed.
I lived about three blocks from the bar and there was a bar on the way that served great pub food. “Hey man, lemme buy you a bite before you go home.” As we walked and talked he kept taking a step or two and gathering himself and then jumping as high as he could every few feet, like he was dunking a basketball. I wanted nothing less on earth than to go anywhere else with him, but I also didn’t want to roll around in the street throwing punches because he felt offended either. I told him I would go.
We went in and ordered burritos and then perched at the end of the bar. He sat next to me and bounced his knee up and down so hard it was shaking glasses on the bar. The bartender came over and he ordered two Kamikazes. I looked at him and said, “I’m not drinking anymore, I’m a lightweight.” I laughed as I said it I was worried he’d feel offended and turn all that pent up aggression towards me. He just shrugged, “No problem.”
When the drinks arrived he picked them both up, one in each hand, and shot them down one after the other like he was downing cough syrup. No shudder, no wince, no reaction whatsoever. He put one shot glass inside the other and knocked the bar for another drink. I sat there thinking, how long does it take to make a goddamn burrito? It’s hard to describe the electric energy that was emanating from Rob, but I once saw a photo of Nikola Tesla calmly sitting under a mass of electricity that looked like lightning as it bounced from the generator to various objects in the room…that’s exactly how it felt sitting next to Rob. And then something was different, like a cold wind had swept through the barroom and calmed everything. Rob’s knee stopped bouncing and he was staring across the room. I traced his gaze and followed it to a big thick nasty looking guy standing across the room. The other guy was about 5’10” and 250 lbs, he had long red hair slicked into a ponytail, and in an era before the explosion of tattoos, I could see them on his hands and neck. I instantly knew what Rob was thinking, and the other guy was ready and willing, staring straight back.
“Rob, listen man, no one is going to win here, there’s gonna be ruined clothes and broken bones, and cops called…come on man, let’s not get into this, it isn’t worth it.” He looked down at me, his eyes bloodshot and glazed. “Yeah…but you know what I always say? I always say violence is never the answer…until it’s the answer.” I didn’t even know how to respond to that, and I didn’t have time to. The Metallica song, For Whom the Bell Tolls, came on and it was like a shot of adrenaline to Rob. He stood and rounded the corner of the bar, the other guy had turned away, and was talking to friends at a table. The whole thing was like watching a movie scene play out in slow motion. Rob striding through patrons, the big guy’s friends eyes getting wider and wider as Rob approached. The big guy sees his friends' faces, he turns to see what they’re looking at, Metallica screams through the barroom as Rob closes the distance. The whole thing unfolded in a flash and I remember thinking, Do I have his back? I barely know this maniac, should I get the hell out of here? I was expecting a kick, a punch, maybe a torso to torso wrestling match, but that’s not what happened. As the big guy turned Rob brought his head forward from way, way back, all his might behind it, and head butted him in the face, blood sprayed from his obliterated nose. My heart tried to escape from my chest, I wanted no part of what was happening, no part…but it was too late. The friends at the table had identified me as an accomplice. Two of them came at me and I started trying to back them off before they even reached me. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I had nothing to do with this. I’m not a part of this, I swear to God.” I could see the first guy waver, maybe he wasn’t quite as enraged, maybe he could tell I was being earnest, after all, I wasn’t the one who was bathed in their friend’s blood beating the shit out of him. He stopped and cocked his head to the side and pointed at me really aggressively, but said nothing. He turned and went back to help his friend. The second guy got in my face, and I knew he was going to swing. I lunged in and grabbed him in a bear hug before he had the chance. He tried to swing anyway and lost his balance. I went down on top of him and he cracked his head really hard on the floor. I hadn’t used any fighting skill, it was a slip and fall that worked out in my favor and nothing more. It didn’t knock him out, but he was dazed. I jumped to my feet and headed toward the door, Metallica raging over the whole bloody scene, Make his fight on the hill in the early day… I went out into the cool night and jogged across the street and down a side alley and took an inventory. My shirt was intact, jeans not torn, I touched my eyebrows and nose and looked at my fingers in the dim light, no blood. I walked toward the Clark Fork river and put some distance between myself and the bar. What in the living hell just happened? I climbed down and sat on a big chunk of broken granite and watched the moon dance in broken fragments on the river current and calmed myself down. Not one thing that entire evening went the way I wanted it to, nothing. I resolved to follow my instincts the next time, anyone else’s feelings be damned. I sat there for a long time and could feel my stomach gnawing at me, I started walking home…I never did get the burrito.