If you don’t look closely enough, or don’t know who you’re looking for, Robert Eikleberry is easy to miss, tucked away in his favorite spot at the end of the bar at The Blazing Saddle, the Des Moines LGBTQ+ pub he’s owned for 38 years.
But once you know a little about Eikleberry, you keep finding more to know.
He’s a war hero recipient of the Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. He’s a leather man with a unique talent for e-stim. A philanthropist. A gun rights advocate. A medical marijuana advocate. Eikleberry is a cancer survivor. An ordained minister and true-believing Christian who has belonged to at least five different denominations so far.
He’s a former choir singer. And an ordained minister who’s formally joined 26 couples in marriage, He’s a self-proclaimed father figure to lesbians. The oldest in a family of five siblings, Eikleberry is also the only boy.
Articles are aplenty about Eikleberry since former U.S. Rep Cindy Axne honored him on the Congressional floor in summer 2021. Here’s a different look at Eikleberry — or “Mongo,” as many know him: a collection of his views, his words, and the Eikleberry spirit behind The Blazing Saddle and its historic tenure as one of the two oldest LGBTQ+ bars in the Midwest:
TODAY’S POLITICAL SCENE
Though he would have preferred Pete Buttigieg for president (because he speaks seven languages and served in combat, not because he’s gay), Eikleberry easily transitions back and fortl between championing President Joe Biden and calling him out for his failings. Sometimes, Eikleberry sounds more like Kyrsten Sinema. “Joe Biden might be old as dirt, but the man’s heart is as big as all outdoors. And we need this infrastructure bill…. I just don’t know how you can be against someone who’s for us.” He’s also concerned Biden is targeting business owners like himself for tax increases
Eikleberry owns so many guns he had to get a safe. He regards them as not only deadly and necessary weapons, but also works of art. He supports the right to carry after passing a background check, a safety test, and a mental competence test. He also opposes assault weapons for everyday people. When he briefly owned one, Eikleberry traded it in at a loss for a pistol. “You don’t need an assault weapon. They were designed for one purpose only: to kill people.”
He handles guns and teaches others to handle them according to the advice his stepdad gave him: “Never point, unless you’re ready to shoot. Never shoot, unless you’re ready to kill. Never kill, except for food or protection of yourself or family.”
TIPS FOR LEADERSHIP
Eikleberry’s best advice: “If your’e going to ask your team to get dirty, you get dirty first.” Don’t ask anyone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.
Eikleberry believes in national legalization and says he learned the value of medical marijuana when he was recovering from throat cancer. He used a one-hitter each night before bed. “My doctor said, ‘How’s your pain level?’ I said, ‘I took all those narcotics you gave me and flushed them.’ “
RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
Though he hasn’t set foot in a church in almost three decades, Eikleberry considers himself a true believer. He’s also made an effort to learn deeply about all religions and has been a Southern Baptist, a Northern Baptist, a Pentecostal, a Lutheran and “can do every hail mary and not miss a strike.” Eikleberry also says he understands why many younger adults are leaving religion today and encourages all believers to remember that spirituality is “in here (pounding his chest), not in a building.” The 26 marriages over which he’s presided include several from out-of-state, back in the days when Iowa was the first and only state go legalize same-sex marriage.He “prays every night. Not for myself, but for my friends.”
Eikleberry made it a point to convert The Blazing Saddle into a lesbian-friendly place when he first took over and refers to lesbians as his “sisters.” He attributes part of his awareness to growing up as the oldest in a family of four sisters. He is known to invite scores over for holiday meals. “Lesbians don’t have family. If i can give them a good meal and a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood, then I will.”
Eikleberry first began big-time giving during the AIDS epidemic in the mid 1980s, when The Blazing Saddle first opened. He recalls raising tens of thousands of dollars at some events, and helping to coordinate “secret hospitals” when traditional hospitals were turning away AIDS patients for fear of contracting the virus. Today, The Blazing Saddle and Eikleberry continue to support charities through the Imperial Court of Iowa, Iowa Leather Weekend affiliations and other community partnerships. The bar also opened its doors to social justice protesters in summer 2020 and was among the first Iowa bars to publicly announce it was requiring proof of COVID vaccination.
HIS MILITARY HONORS
Eikleberry says his Bronze Star came because of a bayonet fight he led in Cambodia, when his unit found itself low on ammunition and unable to call for artillery support. He organized his soldiers to charge the woodline and didn’t lose a life. “My colonel found out about it and said, ‘We haven’t done that shit since World War II.’ “ Eikleberry says he also learned as a military leader to balance the wielding of power with sharing it. “We’d go for a briefing, and i’d tell them, ‘This is what we’re going to do tonight. Any suggestions?’ And they’d say, ‘we should go this way’ or ‘we should do this.’ You take everybody as a collective group, and pick their brains. Everybody has a piece of the pie.”