Bob Lienhardt will tell you some of the best stories you've ever heard--as long as he can remember them
By By Dana Holgerson
Oct 27, 2014 at 1:54 PM
Bob Lienhardt sits on a bench in Mount Vernon, painting watercolor landscapes. The 83-year-old dons a ruffled navy blue button-down, a weathered khaki wind-resistant jacket, a leather neck pouch, and a tote bag which carries his daily necessities: old photographs of his travels, the Circulator route map, and a scrawled-upon composition notebook containing detailed calendars of where and when to be. These objects are imperative to his daily life, his memories.
After setting aside his paints, Lienhardt delicately fumbles through his pile of old photographs, scratching his forehead. These precious images help him to trigger memories from times past. His hand lingers atop his head where one can see two symmetrical surgical scars. Around 10 years ago, while walking down an alley in Baltimore, he suffered a sharp blow to the head.
"It was just a street robbery and they were frequent at the time. I don't even remember the day. I've had memory problems ever since. They never caught the guy."
Lienhardt sifts through the dozens of photos in his hands. His piercing blue eyes glitter as they recall fantastical Balinese rituals.
"The most fascinating time was when the solstice and the full moon coincided. We're talking about 10 or 11 at night and the older Balinese men were dancing, holding knives to their chest. The atmosphere was electric with some sort of religious inner-nervous communication. The clouds came over, cut off the full moon, and at that moment, this group of a dozen men dancing with knives to their throats fainted to the ground. They caught their breath, sat in a circle, and bit the heads off chickens, drank the blood, and passed the chickens around. And I have never at any time, anywhere else, under any conditions, felt a more intense supernatural energy."
With his gaze transfixed on an image of young dancers, he then softly tells of a horrific, senseless slaughter.
"The early explorers came to Indonesia and took Spanish swords with their beautiful steel and made them into kris knives, which have the wavy blades. Anyways, there was a sword collector. He goes to a major dealer, with lots of kris knives, and sees a sword he wants. The owner said it wasn't for sale. The [European] man got angry, threw money on the table, grabbed the sword, and walked out. Two nights later in a luxury hotel on the beach, he takes the sword and kills both of his children, kills his wife, and commits suicide."
Lienhardt finds a photo of the Great Pyramid of Giza and explains that he was, for 25 years, an art history professor at MICA, then known as the Maryland Institute. He would travel to the ruins, temples, monuments, monasteries, and archeological sites that were discussed in his classes to bring back slides for his students.
He gingerly sips his coffee and places three photos before him: one of mountain goats on the extinct volcano Karadag in Turkey, another of a religious ceremony in Kathmandu he has titled 'Daddy and Baby,' and finally a photo of a frighteningly normal-looking cannibal.
"He wasn't hungry. This was taken in Bali, but he came from one of the Eastern islands and was working on a construction job. He didn't exist for me and I didn't exist for him. No blond hair or blue eyes in that part of the world, so he gave me a lovely smile."
"And that's my wild flaming youth," he says, beaming.
Lienhardt travels back in time to when he purchased an old clunker Mercedes in Germany for 200 bucks, pointed it east, and drove through Austria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. That was 1975.
He holds up an image of the old camel caravans in Afghanistan, right before they paved the overland road, which was dubbed the "hippie trail" for all of the cannabis-smoking Westerners. Young intellectuals and adventurous youth would decorate old school buses, load them up with hippies, and head east.
"When I was there, my wife and I checked into a freak hotel. It was an old dilapidated building with squeaky beds. The hotel attendant offered us cigarettes with hashish, the best in Afghanistan. Who could resist that? The thing with hashish is . . . don't take it to the border. If you went to Iran and had any drugs on you, they'd say come on over here, we want to shoot you. Immediately. For me, I had little experience with drugs. My wife at the time had some experience. She knew how to put them together, the cigarettes."
Lienhardt explains that he was married to a German woman at the time, then married a French woman, and finally, he met a woman named Barbara, whom he calls his sweetie, with whom he has spent the past 20 years or so.
He pulls out a photo of himself acting beside John Wayne in the 1962 WWII film "The Longest Day," one of the various movies he played a role in. This reminds him of when he was stationed in Germany.
"I was a captain in the infantry. I spent a month in a pup tent, 6 inches of snow on the ground, the Rhine River frozen a couple hundred of yards beneath us."
Lienhardt holds one of his many photos of cathedrals in his left hand. He recalls the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Worms, Germany.
"When I was at Rutgers, I drew a picture of this church. The army sent me to Germany where it was," he says and then makes the sound of an explosion—his mind being blown. "Changed me. The man who walked out of that church was not the same man who walked in."
His time in the army allowed him to use the G.I. Bill for his graduate studies in Cologne, Munich, and Paris. He later earned a Ph.D. from the French Sorbonne, graduating with high honors.
An artistic photo of a nude woman stretching on a beach surfaces in his stack of photos, he blushes, and hurriedly flips to the next photo.
"You know what that is. It's a babe on a beach. A human male enjoys taking photos of human females," he says, giggling.
Lienhardt visited Mount Everest before there was working electricity. He even met the Dalai Lama. He knows not to eat uncooked food in Kabul, since once he saw people in the river washing veggies with the body of a dead horse only 10 feet upstream. He knows the French, German, and Spanish translations for "flying buttress."
In 1967, he moved to Baltimore, specifically Bolton Hill. A crooked grin appears on his face as he says, "[Baltimore] was wonderful. It was quieter. I moved from New York to Baltimore and all of a sudden the tensions of life disappeared."
He then pauses and pulls a few of his infamous ceramic frogs from his tote bag. He always carries a few with him, just in case.
"I do ceramics as a recreational activity. One time a young man came along and offered to carry my bags up the steps at the subway station and I gave him a frog. That's what they're for... to make people happy." (The film crews from "House of Cards" and "Veep" have taken a liking to his ceramic creations and will be including the frogs in a few of their shots, so be on the lookout when you watch the new seasons.)
He suddenly glances at his calendar and sees a written reminder to call his sweetie. His face lights up when he sees her name.
"We went to the BSO last night. Keeps me busy. Alright, I'll wet my brush again," he mutters as he sets his photo collection to the side.