photo: kenny klinkert
 -- Scott Bryant/Savannah Morning News

After rinsing the salt water off from a dip in the ocean at Tybee Island, Ken Klinkert flips his hair back repeatedly to air dry it. He admits the ritual sometimes draws some attention from other beach goers.

The Zen of Ken: Savannah's free spirit

Forget Gump or Shroud Man: Ken Klinkert is a searcher with a different viewpoint

By Jennifer Rose Marino
Savannah Morning News

For much of society, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equals a career, a car and a cell phone.

But Savannah native Ken Klinkert pledges his allegiance differently. He doesn't punch a time card or answer to supervisors. He's busy running with the dolphins along Tybee beach and conversing with strangers in Daffin Park.

"He's not after money, success, fame or fortune. He's in no way wrapped in the endless material cycle that the rest of us are," said Savannah resident Vernon Hux, who has known Ken for the past 25 years.

"He's given up the pursuit of the material word for the pursuit of whatever unusual song it is that sings to his soul."

"I'm free, I'm free,

Praise the Lord, I'm free,

This crazy mixed up world,

Ain't got no hold on me."

-- Ken Klinkert

Ken Klinkert, who survives on a $7,000 government disability check and Social Security payments, is not homeless like people sometimes assume. The only free ride he'll accept is to or from the beach.

"He's the kind of person who, if he's walking down the road with $2 in his pocket and sees someone who's hungry, he'll give that person both of them," said Ken's younger sister, Wilmington Island resident Deborah Stair.

"He's one of the most positive people you'll ever meet. He always tries to brighten your day."

By doing so, Ken has developed a following. Strangers from around the world send him letters, cards and gifts on a regular basis. He's inspired books, articles, television shows, paintings, poems and songs -- all without trying.

"I'm not trying to get attention from anyone. I just love inspiring other people," said Ken.

Thunderbolt Police Chief Kathy Youmans has known Ken for the past 15 years.

"He enjoys his freedom," she said.

"He enjoys not having to get up at a certain time. He doesn't go by a time clock. He has his own clock. He's a free spirit."

But Ken's apparent freedom comes at a price. While his unrestrained life might sound ideal to some, it's not to Ken. Because of severe dyslexia and disabilities from the Vietnam War, he's unable to drive or hold down a job.

In his eyes, he's condemned to be free.

"It's nature's gift and curse to me," he said.

"I basically don't like being alive, but I'm promoting life. That's what doesn't make any sense. I'm able to make other people feel good, but most of the time, I feel bad."

Local legend

You might have seen Ken trotting along the beaches and streets of Tybee, frolicking for hours in the surf, or hitchhiking on the shoulder of U.S. 80. If you have, chances are you remember. Most people do.

"The first reaction to seeing Ken is a bizarre fascination. Seeing him is kinda like passing a car wreck. You don't want to look but you do," said Tybee resident and author Micheal Elliot, who wrote "Running with the Dolphins and Other Tybee Tales," a book inspired by Ken.

When Elliot's book was published, he invited Ken to the release party.

"He came and stole the show. Everybody wanted to talk to Ken," he said.

"People are utterly intrigued by him. They want to connect with him, but they're afraid of doing so."

Youmans said Ken has a natural magnetism.

"There's just something about him that makes you want to talk to him."

That's what happened to local real estate broker Carl Fleischaker when he first spotted Ken in 1974. He described their meeting in the book "Kenny (The Man Who Looked Like the Shroud)".

"Normally, I would have seen just another long-haired hippie-type walking down the street...But as I was driving by, it flashed in my mind that this was no hippie but a modern day prophet," Fleischaker said in the book.

"I am a relatively straight sort of guy, and I don't usually see prophets and avatars. I have a degree in psychology, I sell real estate, I keep the lawn cut and the pool clean, and I voted for Ronald Reagan twice. But all the same, I felt compelled to pull over and check this guy out."

The same thing happened to Ernest Kolowrat, the author of the book.

"I met Kenny because I kept seeing him hopping through Laguna Beach. A couple of times, our eyes locked and it was as though I knew him in another dimension or another time," Kolowrat said in a recent interview.

Stair, who has lived in this area for 37 years, also has experienced the effects of Ken's charisma.

"People are always coming up to me saying, 'I saw this guy that looked like Jesus running down the beach.' I tell them it's my brother, and they always want to meet him."

Several months ago, Ken was featured on the television show "Strange Universe" because of his resemblance to the human image on the Shroud of Turin, hailed by some as the burial cloth of Jesus.

The shroud comparison is nothing new to Ken. He's been compared to biblical characters for more than half of his 52 years. With his long brown hair, flowing beard now gray with age, and bronze frame fit from decades of exercise in the sun, he's been compared to everything from Jesus to Forrest Gump.

"People really want to see good. A lot of times people will see good in me that's not really there. It's really the goodness in them that they see," said Ken.

"All people need is a little clarification. I don't do anything for people that's not already there."

Battle scars

Ken wasn't always a longhaired free spirit. Once a cleancut soldier who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, he came home to Savannah a changed man.

"I couldn't function over there, and then I really couldn't function when I came back," he said.

"When you see people blown up, body parts in the air, heads being shot off when you're a young person, that can affect you."

Ken received injuries during the war, including a bout of malaria which required him to be packed in ice for two days and a leg wound from a booby trap.

"Somebody else tripped a wire that had a hand grenade attached to a tree. It blew me straight up in the air, 20 feet. When I came down, I didn't think I'd have my legs," he said.

He acknowledged that his war injuries probably contribute to the mental and physical challenges he struggles with today, including manic depression. He's supposed to take high blood pressure medicine and medication to keep him calm, but he refuses.

"If I can't calm myself down, then I don't want to be calmed down, even if I do have a chemical imbalance," he said.

Ken's service in the war earned him a Purple Heart, an Air Medal and a Bronze Star. Despite the medals, Ken said he was anything but a model military man.

"I was always the laziest soldier they ever had. I didn't like to run. When somebody tells me to do something, I don't like it even more," he said.

"(The other soldiers) were always trying to get rid of me. If somebody just got killed out in the field, they always made me go first."

Ken was discharged from the service in '68 after serving a year. Besides the medals, he returned with the knowledge that he was severely dyslexic, a condition that had gone undiagnosed for years -- even when he failed high school in Savannah.

"He's very intelligent," said his sister. "But when he was younger, that wasn't recognized because of his dyslexia."

Road to California

After the war, it wasn't long before Ken realized that he wasn't going to function normally in mainstream society.

Heavy emotional scars inflicted while growing up as an abused child combined with his Vietnam trauma and dyslexia made it impossible for Ken to live life like most people.

He tried working for a short time as a "friendly bouncer" at a Hilton Head Island bar called The Shipwreck Club. At the time, he weighed 200 lbs.

"I never bounced anyone," he said. "I just talked people out of fighting. After that, I never messed with bars again."

A transformation began about that time. His hair past his shoulders. A beard that would eventually be six inches long started to creep down his face. The pounds fell off, and in time the cleancut soldier image vanished.

Eventually Ken went to New York. When he tired of life in the big city, he returned to Savannah, where he lived on the streets for awhile. After moving in with a friend, he began dating the one and only girlfriend he ever had.

A few months later, she broke his heart.

"The reason she left me was because I used to sit up all night with the winos and listen to their problems. I was younger then and thought I could help them."

Distraught at the breakup, Ken walked to a local restaurant where he met a leader of Hell's Angels, then known as "The Hell's Angels Prophet." He invited Ken to go to California with him. Ken accepted.

"When we got halfway across the country I found out he had a stolen car. I got out in Colorado."

Ken eventually made his way to Laguna Beach, a place where his girlfriend had lived and told him about.

"I just started sleeping outside under the stars and talking about life. I was doing what everybody did in the '60s."

He took up residence in the bushes of the hills and sycamore groves behind Laguna Beach. There were caves in the area that were famous for their hippy transients, but he chose not to sleep in them because he preferred it outside on a certain hill.

It was around that time that Ken gained folk hero status in Laguna, when he became known as the Skipper.

Guru of Laguna

After some time on his hill, Ken began feeling a nagging need to reach out to others. He believed that he had a mission: to tell humanity that it needed to clean up its act or life as we know it would go down the drain.

But he became frustrated. People wouldn't listen. Although his message was simple, people dismissed him as a crazy hill hippie.

So he started skipping. Up his hill, down his hill, to the beach, from the beach. Everywhere Ken went, Ken skipped. And while he skipped, he made up rhymes about life that he hoped would inspire people.

People started noticing Ken. The Los Angeles Times wrote about him, as did several other publications. His nicknames changed from Bushman and Georgia to Skip Man and Skipper. Some thought he was a prophet, others perceived him as homeless and insane.

He lived on his hill and skipped through life for nearly a decade, dodging police who wanted to vacate him from the area.

"My job in life is life itself. It doesn't pay a lot of money. That's why I lived outside on a hill for eight years," he said.

Many of Ken's friends in Laguna were other homeless people. Most of the time, they survived by eating whatever they could find. Their specialty was "hobo Laguna stew," a concoction containing vegetables and other food salvaged from garbage cans.

"We didn't know what was in it but it tasted pretty good," said Ken.

"It was some of the best eatin' I've ever had. I weighed more then than I do now."

While in Laguna, Ken became involved with the Hare Krishnas for several months. He joined them for a short time, but refused to shave his head.

Eventually he decided he wanted to learn more about religion on his own. In an effort to combat his dyslexia, he began teaching himself to read and write by studying the Bible. A church on the bottom of his hill adopted him, renamed him Joshua, and he became a born-again Christian.

In time, Ken became disillusioned with all forms of organized religion. He started exercising, which became a form of meditation for him.

"Next thing I knew, I was running 40 miles a day. I knew the church wasn't going to save me. I knew something was missing," he said.

"I have nothing against church or religion. It's our basic nature as human beings to have something to believe in.

"I respect it...but we use religion as an excuse rather then facing the issues of doing something about life's problems ourselves."

When he'd done all the skipping he could handle, he gave up his mission and left Laguna. For another 15 years he was homeless, living off the streets of Savannah and Atlanta.

Several years ago, he returned to Savannah to care for his ailing mother. When she died, he had her buried with the only piece of jewelry he wore -- a necklace, from which hung a mustard seed set in gold. A symbol of faith, the seed was a gift to him by an appreciative listener.

Ken still lives in his mother's former house near Victory Drive, a crumbling structure that he can't afford to fix. Although he'd like to live somewhere else, like Jekyll Island or Costa Rica, he finds it hard to think about selling it.

Even though Ken no longer is homeless, he has a lot of homeless friends, people he meets in the parks and at the beach. Occasionally he'll send someone Elliot's way. Besides being a part-time writer and Southern Baptist minister, Elliot is the executive director of Union Mission Inc. in Savannah, a nonprofit corporation that operates housing programs for homeless people, substance abusers and AIDS victims.

"What I do for a living is give people opportunities. I think Ken has the same ability, giving them opportunities. He's a one-man referral service," Elliot said.

Ken today

Ken usually gets up around 4 a.m. He doesn't sleep much -- four or five hours is usually enough. After donning his usual attire of shorts, tank top and running shoes, he starts his day with some meditation and exercise, which includes situps and pushups -- more than 1,000 of each.

After drinking some coffee, he might stroke his pet, Cat, before going for a five- to 10-mile walk or bike ride. This time of year, he'll usually head to Tybee, where he'll run and swim another 40 miles.

"When I do a lot of exercise, I can use my brain better," he said. "The sooner I can burn out all of the bad energy, the sooner I get good mental energy."

Although in top physical condition, Ken has never competed athletically. The only race he ever ran was by accident.

"I was running along and there were all of these people running in front of me. I started running faster because I wanted to get away from the people. I ran and ran and kept passing them until finally it was just me running."

Eventually, Ken crossed a finish line.

"I'd won a race I hadn't even entered."

These days, Ken runs or rides his bicycle to Wilmington Island. From there, he hitches a ride to the beach since he doesn't like running over bridges.

"He and I have had long conversations. He's very intelligent. He has ideas about certain things. He stands by his beliefs," said Youmans, who has given Ken rides to and from the beach in her patrol car more times than she can count.

Once at the beach, Ken usually runs before swimming. When he gets hot, he wets his long, brown locks with seawater and ties them back with a shoelace. He wraps his hair behind his head and slaps on a white plastic bathing cap. After his swim, he wets his hair again and bounds out of the water. He then begins a curious routine that onlookers have marveled at for years.

To dry his hair, he wildly flings his head up and down repeatedly until most of the moisture is out. Elliot, Youmans and several other locals have witnessed the process, which takes several minutes.

"It looks like an epileptic seizure. Then he suddenly calms down, puts his rumpled T-shirt back on, smiles at the people watching him and goes home," Elliot said.

Sometimes, on his return to Savannah, he'll stop and visit his sister at her home on Wilmington Island.

"Everybody has a hometown hero," said Ken. "Mine is my sister. She's been taking care of everybody else as long as I can remember, people and animals on their last legs."

Stair thinks highly of Ken, too.

"I couldn't ask for a better big brother," she said.

On his way back from the beach, Ken doesn't have a hard time hitching a ride over the bridges, since most people who know of him like giving him rides. When they do, Ken just listens.

"When people pick me up, I don't have to say a word. I talk to more people without saying anything," he said.

To Youmans, it's her duty as police chief to help him out.

"My job is to protect and serve. He needs to be protected and served as much as anyone else," she said.

Once Ken is home in the evening, he doesn't sit down to dinner like many people. He rarely eats at all. He estimates that he doesn't eat 70-100 days out of the year. In the winter, he eats more, so he usually gains 20-30 pounds.

"I can basically function real well with absolutely no food," he said. "I don't really get hungry."

When he does eat, which is usually every three days, he doesn't stop for hours.

"I just consume. I'll eat all at one time."

In addition to basic foods like fish, chicken and cereal, Ken's favorites are whipped cream, Twinkies, ginger snaps, cold Little Debbie cakes and frozen fudge bars.

"I load up on millions of grams of fat cells."

Like his life, Ken's expenses are simple: food, property taxes and telephone, electricity and water bills. It's not always easy for him to pay them since he lives below the poverty line, but somehow he manages.

When he's not exercising, Ken reads and meditates under the trees in his backyard. He loves to philosophize about life in general. His main inspiration comes from the memory of his best friend, Henry James Pruitt, who died of alcoholism last year.

It was Pruitt, Ken said, who got him to believe in himself again.

"I think in reality that the human race is a mess. I'm a mess, too. But I think we can clean the mess up," he said.

Ken realizes that some people perceive him as a homeless street bum or an ex-GI with mental and drug/alcohol problems. But he said he doesn't rely on any chemicals to stimulate his brain.

"I know some people think I'm crazy," Ken said. "But whether people like me or don't like me doesn't really matter."

Youmans thinks Ken is anything but crazy.

"In my line of work, I see more 'crazy people' then the average person. Those so-called crazy people, if you reach your hand out to them, they will grab it and help you anytime you need it," she said.

"That's the way Kenny is. He's a very caring man."

The name game

Gump Man. Bush Man. Shroud Man. Jesus. Skipper. Moses. Georgia.

Those are some of the nicknames Ken's had over the years. The most current one is Shroud Man. Before that, it was Gump because of his resemblance to the main character in the movie "Forrest Gump," which was partly filmed in Savannah.

Ken didn't see the movie until a year and a half after it was released.

"I love the movie. I just wish I didn't look like the character because it almost got me killed," said Ken, referring to a violent incident last year in which a gang of youths yelling "Get Gump!" brutally attacked him.

"I was finally winding down from being called Jesus for so many years, and then they were calling me Gump."

Sometimes Ken wishes people would forget the nicknames altogether.

"Don't call me Prophet. Don't call me God. Don't call me Jesus. Call me Ken. It means a range of vision and understanding. That's what I'm about."

Ken's message

Although Ken doesn't consider himself on a mission any longer, he'll still talk to anyone who wants to listen. But for many, deciphering what he has to say is difficult. His thoughts tend to move quicker then his mouth, which tries frantically to keep up.

"He believes he's got a message people need to hear and see. Sometimes, it's hard to get to the bottom of what his point is," Elliot said.

After spending hours with Ken discussing his thoughts, his message today seems remarkably simple: Humans should concentrate more on prolonging life rather then destroying it.

"Humans could extend life 300-400 years and be a more powerful species," he said.

"You see two old people walking down the beach holding hands. You see just precious souls melted into each other. They're not fighting the system of life. It's kinda sad, but it takes so long to get the roughness out of us. We need gentle spirits around us a little bit longer."

Whether or not people understand his message is no longer important to Ken. He knows he tried.

"I gave myself to my country and to God for years. I walked around with guidelines and constraints. Now I'm going to give myself to my own thoughts and ideas. Now I'm a free spirit."

Municipality reporter Jennifer Rose Marino can be reached at 652-0307.

Web posted Sunday, July 5, 1998