Gene and I were friends of the kind you might have in a bomb shelter.
It's our fourth decade! Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously online since 1983
April 22, 2015
Gene Wolf, Mark Yafchak and me after a radio show late in the life of Random Access.
Radio and TV personality killed in shootout
Gene Wolf dies at 63
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2015, Al Fasoldt
You can't love everybody.
Not like that. Even when you try hard. We're human, peevish, morose, little-minded. Loving some people is hard.
But I loved Gene Wolf. He was an unloveable as anyone I've ever known. But I loved that man.
He's gone, suddenly, after a shootout with his sister, Kathleen Russell, and her son, Robert Higley.
Gene Wolf? The Mac guy? The guy who loved dogs and would step around an ant on the sidewalk?
Yes, Gene. THAT Gene.
Gene and his sister died in mid-April at her home in the mountains of Tennessee. Apparently, Gene shot his sister, so her son, Gene's nephew, shot Gene in retaliation. The son was wounded trying to shield his mother. Gene was 63.
That's the story we have so far. I'm sure there's more. Gene's nephew says Gene was told he had to move out and was upset. The cops said everybody in the house had a gun. I can't imagine Gene was the one who shot first, but I also can't imagine that the whole thing happened in the first place.
It was a bizarre ending to an unusual life. Gene and I were friends of the kind you might have in a bomb shelter. If it hadn't been for the need to be together on the radio once a week for nearly a decade, we would hardly have chosen each other. But Gene and I sized each other up, liked what we saw on the surface, and gradually began to realize we were George and Gracie, needing each other on the air.
Gene learned that I was as smart as he was. I learned that Gene had talents I'd never have. Gene learned that I loved to argue with callers; it made him tune up his own motor even more. I learned that Gene carried grudges, some of them decades old. He brought those old conflicts back out on the air, and there was nothing I could do to dissuade him.
He did what he wanted because of who he was. Gene was a magnet for attention when he entered the room. He was shy one-to-one but over the top in a crowd. Nobody ever asked, "Who's that?" When you met him, when you saw him in a crowd, when you heard him on a stage or over the air, Gene was unmistakably Gene. He radiated bumpkin charisma.
He said what he thought, dressed any way he wanted, bit the hand that fed him, laughed at his own jokes, looked like a cheap extra in a B-grade movie, wore his wild gray hair in a ponytail when he didn't want to scare the kids but left it flying up, down, left and right otherwise, talked in a nasal bad-boy twang and loved -- oh, how he loved -- cheap donuts.
He never answered his email. Never confirmed appointments. Never hugged anybody. Never let a good issue pass without an argument.
Most of all, he had the fastest mind in the world.
He handled the plugs and levers and switches of a radio station console better than the producer in the other room. He'd much rather do all that himself. That way he could cut people off. That was how you dealt with people you don't like on the radio, he said. You cut 'em off.
Gene Wolf was, from start to finish, a radio guy, a little awkward on TV, smiling at the wrong times. He seemed to be looking for the door now and then.
"I have a face made for radio," he'd say.
It's not that Gene wasn't good looking. It's that Gene never tried to look like anything other than your next-door neighbor after a bar fight. He was more or less trim at first, then turned portly. On days when Gene invited the fire department over, he'd drop an entire turkey into his specially made deep fryer. All that fried turkey made Gene happy. It made Gene fat.
Until halfway through our careers together, Gene and I never knew what we had in common. One day our wives were chatting in a waiting room during the show, and Nancy asked Cathy where Gene grew up.
"A little town no one ever heard of," Gene's wife said. "Just outside Troy. In New York."
"That's amazing," Nancy said. "Al did, too. Not in Troy. A place down the road. East Greenbush."
Gene's wife gasped. "Gene's from East Greenbush, too," she said.
The same location, a mix of rural and suburban with a big highway running through, the same schools, a town history that went back to Marquis de Lafayette -- THE Lafayette, buried right there where Gene and I grew up -- and the same long winters in the Hudson Valley.
We drank the same water, Gene used to say. But I never knew Gene existed until the day he arrived to do a spot on a TV call-in show called Point 'n' Click. I was one of the hosts -- we always had two on the air, in case one of us fainted, I suppose -- and the only pro was Nancy Roberts, with her fashion model looks and head-of-the-class mind. Except for her required presence at funerals and weddings, she was always at the other mike. "Read the teleprompter, Al," she'd say, straight out, without whispering, so the viewers could see and hear. I seldom wore my glasses and couldn't read the words most of the time. I could make out things like "We'll be right back" by the shapes on the screen, but unusual names or long words were out of the question.
Gene either had perfect vision or pretended he did. Sometimes he forgot to follow the script -- we all did, at one time or another, mostly because the script sometimes never showed up until the red light came on -- but Gene was too quick to let a mistake last long in the viewer's memory. He could say anything and make it sound scripted.
That first meeting on TV led to an invitation. Gene was losing his partner on the radio show he had started on a local AM station. I was invited to be the replacement. I would be the PC guy; Gene would be the Mac guy. The rules for the call-in show were simple: There were no rules. Say what you want. Do what you want. Insult the station. Bitch at the caller. Complain about the pay. Ad-lib the commercials.
This was the '90s, when computers still crashed and nothing worked the way it was supposed to, when you had to rely on your brother-in-law or a call-in show for help after you realized the companies that made the hardware never wanted to hear from you again.
We were paid salaries with lots of zeros in them. All zeros. We did it for glory. "I got a raise this week," he'd say on the air. "You get one too, Al? I doubled my pay."
Gene loved our repeat callers -- "Dr. Mark," unruffled week after week while Gene harangued him over his choice of computers; "Michael from Fayetteville," who always called at the same time on Sunday mornings. And our Internet fans, listening live on our website, especially "Vlad from Vladivostok," who took on a reality all his own after I invented him one week. Vlad was a fan from that point on.
Dr. Mark, we learned, was Mark Sukoenig, an eye doctor. He became our cheerleader, berating other callers who called Gene names. He even formed a Random Access Fan Club and became its president and only member. Michael from Fayetteville finally told us he was calling each week during a break in his church service -- we guessed it must have been while the choir was singing, just before he had to give the sermon.
Or maybe that was Gene's fabrication. I never knew. Michael could have been calling from the county jail or a phone at the other end of the studio -- our "palatial studio," Gene always called it on the air. The room actually was the size of three phone booths.
This went on for seven years or maybe eight. I didn't keep track, and Gene never could count. One of our fans started recording the show and posting the audio recordings online. When he could no longer do it, I took over. I still have many of the shows as MP3 files. Listening to them so many years later opens a window on a dying era, one in which the anointed priests of technology held services every week for the faithful. (We were joined in the last few years by Mark Yafchak, producer of the TV show and a PC guru from the old school of patient explanations and serious advice. Mark was also an old friend. He fit in perfectly.)
Each time I remember Gene, the speed at which his mind worked is always the first thing I think of. Gene never paused before he said something. He simply started talking while the rest of us were trying to think of what to say.
One morning a woman called, obviously at the wrong time. The station had a cooking show on Sundays and she was no doubt assuming she had called that show.
"Last week you had a recipe for lasagna," she said. "Can you give it to me again?"
"Yes, ma'am," Gene said, and immediately recited a recipe from memory, pausing now and then to ask the caller if she was writing it down.
Mark and I started laughing, of course. But both of us realized at the same moment that it made no sense to make the woman feel like she'd called the wrong show. Based on the response she got from Gene, she hadn't called the wrong show at all.
Gene started a tradition on Random Access on a sleepy Sunday morning. Somebody called and said he was tired of all the problems with his PC. Without a pause, Gene gave him some step-by-step instructions.
"Are you ready?" Gene asked.
"OK. Take your PC out to your driveway, out in back of your car, and put it behind the right rear wheel. Got that?"
"Now get into the car."
We could hear the door slam.
"Start the car."
It rumbled to life over the phone.
"Put it in reverse, check to make sure no one is behind you, then step on the gas."
We could hear the twang of the shifter. The motor made another sound and we heard the crackling of plastic pieces followed by a whang.
"Pull the car up and get rid of the mess."
The caller thanked Gene and hung up. We never knew if the run-over-your-PC event was staged -- Gene swore it wasn't -- but the advice became our standard response when anyone got frustrated over their PCs.
Life was tough in those days, despite the humor. Random Access got booted from the AM station when Gene told listeners the station owed him money for doing commercials. We moved to an FM station in a different time slot, Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. Gene liked the new time slot and the new location because he could watch hookers and cops going by. He opened the studio's outside door one night and invited the beat cop to come in. Gene interviewed the cop for 10 minutes, then offered him a donut. The cop left with a Bavarian creme.
But the show was doomed. Gene never could understand that the people who give you airtime, whether they're paying you or not, deserve a little respect. So it wasn't long before the show was booted off the FM station, too. Gene had burned his bridges. Mark and I had waited each time Gene fired his salvos to see if he was joking, and each time he disappointed us. Or maybe he made us love him even more. The guy who could not coax the truth to hide in the corner was, once again, saying what he meant. It was a lesson.
Gene was an atheist and a Wiccan -- yes, that's a believer in witches -- and we talked a lot about spirits and demons. I had hoped, in all the years I knew Gene, that the Wiccan stuff was just a facade, but I finally realized he was serious. Oddly, it made me respect Gene more: He had to tell it straight out. He was crazy, but he was honest, and that counted more.
We talked about what happens when we die. I said I wanted to go quietly, with Nancy at my side. Gene said he wanted to go in a blaze of glory.
That was 22 years ago. This month he got half his wish.