The Bill Wagner Story Collection
The other day, when driving back from the airport with Doug Hartle, the aerial views of the Island we had just witnessed brought to mind Bill Wagner, who loved to poke into any undiscovered nook or cranny of Beaver's terrain. For a moment, we surrendered to our independent recollections. "I remember a time when Bill called on me to go with him in his cutter to High Island, to help him paint the two cabins near the beach at the north end of the east side," Doug reminisced -- for years the DNR had maintained them as emergency shelter for boaters caught in a storm. "There was a rough sea, which always made me seasick. I dreaded the trip, but I didn't feel I could tell him no. So, full of trepidation, I met him at the dock, and we set out into the chop. To my surprise, that old boat cut right through the four and five foot waves like a knife slicing through room-temperature butter. Even in the roughest part, I didn't have a problem. The hull's sharp bow acted just like a knife. No wonder they called it a Cutter."
Doug's story reminded me afresh of what the Island lost when Bill was taken before his time. Past men in his position had been mocked, ostracized, and even shot at, but Bill was almost universally liked and respected. In the early years of his absence, stories illustrating his unique character abounded, testimonials to the high regard in which he was held. It occurs to me that the viewers who knew him probably have their own memories, which they might be willing to share. To start the ball rolling, I'll contribute the one of my own (which I told Doug as we approached St. James) to start this Story Collection:
When my wife and I first arrived here twenty-five years ago, we were inveterate city people who had never even considered living anywhere with less than a million people close by. Consequently we were deficient in the knowledge of how to cope with the demands of rural life.
One example was cutting firewood. We rented a house with a Franklin wood stove. Not knowing any better, we thought its roaring fires were great. Initially the wood rack was full, but as it diminished, we began to puzzle out the problem of how to re-establish it, finally deciding to take the old bow saw that had been left in the barn and drive our battered Oldsmobile to the section of road just past where Jim Willis now lives, and "harvest" the limbs and logs cut to protect the power line. Some of these had been taken by the residents, but for some reason most had been spared. We smiled back at them as they passed us, grinning as we loaded chunks of pine and poplar into our back seat.
The next year, we bought an old pick-up for $85 from Gene Burke (which, it turned out, he didn't own; it had been abandoned at the airport), skillfully negotiating him down from his initially-firm price of $100. Dick DeRosia, who had shown us several berry patches, sold us an old chain saw for $5. It was left-handed, had a 10" bar, and could only be started by pouring gas into the open top of the carburetor, but it was a wonderful step up from the bow saw, whose frame had split and was held together with duct tape.
Thus prepared, we went out to cut firewood on the Fox Lake Road, across the street and south of Cindy Ricksgers' current home. Everything went fine, for awhile -- until the chain saw broke. The engine would run, but the chain would not turn. We could not comprehend this mechanical mystery.
Sheldon Parker, who would always cut an extra half-cord or so and leave it stacked in the woods as a surprise for other gatherers, happened to be cutting nearby, and happened to hear my stream of undeleted expletives. He moseyed by, catching us at our truck back on the road, surveyed the problem, and offered a solution. "Were you cutting back in there?" he asked, waving his hand behind us. "Yes," I answered, not knowing him or what he was getting at. "Well, you're in luck," Sheldon replied. "That's State land." "Oh?" "Yes, you see, we have a DNR officer here on the Island, and he handles the State land. Policy is, if anything goes wrong on State land, it's his job to make it right." He paused; I didn't know what to say, so I waited for him to continue. "All you have to do to get your chain saw fixed is go to his house and tell him where it quit running. Know where he lives?" I didn't, so Sheldon told me. "Just tell him that Sheldon Parker told you that he would fix your saw because it broke on State land, okay?" I nodded, glad to have this information.
My wife and I drove our $85 truck to Bill's house in the growing November dusk, and knocked on his door. Marge let us in. Bill and his daughters, Nancy and Jody, were midway through their dinner, which made me a little uncomfortable for having come at the wrong time. I recited the story of my saw breaking down and Sheldon coming along and telling me about the State policy, but offered to come back later. "No, that's okay," Bill said, pushing his chair back from the table. "Marge can keep this warm. It shouldn't take long."
It was hard to read the attitude of his family as Bill led us to his block-walled garage. We followed docilely. He grabbed a wrench and took the saw apart, and after a few minutes announced that the problem was that the saw's clutch had broken loose.
His tone implied that the saw was done for, so I thanked him and reached to take it back and conclude our imposition. But he stopped me. "We can fix that," he said, reaching for his welding goggles. A moment later, with the saw in a vice and the clutch in a pair of vice grips, and fired up his welder. We stepped back as sparks and ozone filled the air. He strained, and adjusted, and then tested the result, but it popped free, and he had to do it again. Finally, he had it fixed to his satisfaction. He tried to start the saw, discovered the difficulty, cleaned the clogged sawdust out of the filter, adjusted the carburator, and then fired it up, filling the garage with smoke. He showed me that now the chain turned. I thanked him, but he wanted to take it outside and cut a log as the final test. "You won't begrudge me cutting up a little of my firewood, for all my work," he joked.
The saw cut through a log, but not quickly, so he took a minute to file the chain. finally he handed it back to me. "You sure I don't owe you anything?" I asked, aware he had spent almost an hour fixing my saw. "Nope," he avowed. "As Sheldon said, anything that breaks on State land, we just take care of it."
For the next few weeks, I continued to think about this wonderful policy. From time to time I told the story to the people we were meeting in our first fall on the Island. They nodded, letting me talk away. Finally, in January of the next year, someone explained to me that there was no such policy, and that I had been the middle-man in some good-natured kidding between two friends. Abashed, I went to Bill Wagner's house, told him I was now in on the joke, and tried to pay him for his labors. But he wouldn't accept any money. "Do me a favor back," he said. "How'd that be?"
I agreed. I had always considered myself to have certain talents, and I watched for a chance to use one of them to return the favor. But I couldn't find anything Bill wanted to do that I could do better. I wasn't always conscious of my need to balance our relationship, but whenever I heard about something he was doing, I tried to figure out how I could do some small part of it better.
I never did. When he passed away fifteen years later, that favor was still unrepaid.
– William J. Cashman (6-25-98)