Arthur Wagner: Remembering a Great, Good Man

News just came that my favorite uncle, Arthur Wagner, age 94, has passed.  He was more than an uncle to me — a mentor, grandfather, the grand patriarch of our clan who occupied a huge and honored place in my world. Feelings are complicated; he was 94; he lived a long and fruitful and much-loved life; he will be missed; his gentle passing breaks my heart and reminds me that we’re all on a journey and eventually that journey has to end. He deserves to be remembered well, and so I will do my best to share my heart now, while everything is fresh.

“I’m Old and Feeble and Not Long For This World”

He loved to say, “I’m old and feeble and not long for this world”.   Imagine, I first heard him say that in 1960 when I was little more than a toddler–a riff he picked up from Jack Benny and made his own. And I last heard it in 2010. That’s 50 years of being old and feeble and not long for this world, which isn’t bad.  His daughter Carol remembers: “He said it when he entered the nursing home after his stroke, and seriously alarmed the sweet woman who was trying to make him comfortable. That was three years ago.”

“Regina Sabaka Estupida Von Dog”

He was a curious character. Deep, resonant voice — he could sing the “Volga Boatmen Song” with a great richness that would fill your heart, and his love of music would be passed on to all of us–so much so that our annual gatherings nowadays around Christmas time always end up as picking and grinning music fests. He loved to play around with languages and he seemed a man of the world to me at a time when I didn’t know anyone else who could be classified that way. Always joking — he had a ragged, lovable dog named “Regina”, a gnarly mongrel whom he loved dearly but about whom he would say that her full name was: ‘Regina Sabaka Estupida Von Dog’, which to my 7 year old sense of humor was hilarious and mysterious, especially when he explained that sabaka is Russian for “dog”.

A House of Dreams

He lived with my Aunt Caroline and their children –my cousins Curt and Carol —  in an old, beautiful, rambling (in a glorious way) two story house on the Choctawhatchee Bay in the tiny, rustic bayside community of Villa Tasso, Florida. The house sits on a bluff overlooking the bay, and is surrounded by moss-covered trees. Even today, the paved road ends and you have to travel on sand roads the last half mile or so to get there. On the property, across from the main house, was a “Hemingway cottage” where Arthur’s dad, Pops we called him, lived and died in his 90’s. That old house and cottage on the bay, where the warm, moist breezes from the gulf would wash across the large screened in porch where we’d sit into the evening on summer nights, was and still is the closest thing to heaven I’ve known, or hope to know.

As the years went by, the old house and property and Arthur seemed to be locked in a bit of a battle — the wet coastal weather creating maintainance needs that Arthur met himself well into his eighties, when my Aunt Caroline and other relatives prevailed up him to finally stop climbing up to the roof to clear the drains and make repairs.  In my earliest childhood there was a sandy road running along in front of the house, between the property and the sandy cliffs falling away to the bay — but erosion was a problem and the road disappeared.  A seawall eventually stopped the erosion, but the road was gone–which wasn’t a bad thing.

A Cool Geek Before We Knew What a Cool Geek Was

Uncle Arthur was a cool,  congenial geek before we knew what a cool geek was. I remember, sometime around the age of 9, he introduced me to my first science fiction book — Robert Heinlein’s classic Citizen of the Galaxy. “Mike,” he said in his distinctiively slow, sonorous voice, “I’ve got something here I think you might enjoy.” I still remember sitting at the kitchen where we would gather for hours as he handed the book, with its distinctive blue cover and line drawing of Thorby, the young hero. I devoured the book in a day and a half, then discovered that his attic was a veritable treasure trove of science fiction–Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Andersson, Arthur Clarke. The rambling house became my summertime gateway into other , fantastic worlds, and by the time I was fifteen I had read all the books and discussed them with my uncle.

In recent years I would see him mostly at Christmas, when our families would gather on the night after Christmas for an annual guitar picking bash at my mom’s house. Increasingly feeble physically, he was still alert and cheerful,  would still make it to the party each year and sit with us, drinking his coffee, making quips and telling stories and even reciting a funny poem at one of the most recent gatherings.  He seemed smaller in his last years, shrinking in physical stature even as his status as the grand and revered patriarch of our clan grew.

A Last Visit to the Old House by the Bay

In my last visit to the old house he was there, and we sat in the kitchen and had coffee.   He was the originator of the venti sized coffee mug — way back in the 50’s when people were drinking coffee out of 6 oz cups, he had a 20 oz giant mug the likes of which I had never seen. He enjoyed his coffee and when I saw him last he still had what seemed to be the same mug he’d had in my childhood. I told him I wanted to always remember him crouched over the same mug at the same kitchen table from my increasingly distant childhood, and he tolerated my efforts to crouch down and get a kids’ eye view of Uncle Arthur and his coffee, just the way I saw it when my eye level was barely above the table. I got the picture I was looking for; and I’ll keep the memory for all the days that remain to me.

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