|Birth: ||Jan. 3, 1916|
|Death: ||Jan. 17, 1985|
He signed his name A. E. Wagner, and was known as Al Wagner. Adolf Wagner was born in the United States in January 1916, five years before Adolf Hitler even joined the Nazi Party in Germany. How does this figure in Mr. Wagner's story?
"I don't use my first name," he'd say. "Why? 'Cuz I hate it."
The 1920 census tells us Al's father Carl was from Germany, and worked as a rug mill superintendent. Born about 1887, Carl came to the United States in 1902, and was naturalized in 1909. He married Luella Eisenmoyer, a Pennsylvania-born girl of German descent three years his junior, and they had Carl Jr., Adolf, and Mary.
Al Wagner was thus born in the US, and innocently given his good Germanic name before his parents (or anyone else) could guess where Hitler was headed politically, nor what it would mean to their son to carry the same given name all his life. To his fellow teachers, he was always "Al". By many of them, he is remembered for a single act of comedic heroism, saving Mrs. Beers, the French teacher. Mrs. Beers was a delightful, spirited, well put-together lady who was meticulous about her makeup and hair, the latter of which was usually rather complex and large, and secured with lots of hairspray. The story goes that at the faculty Christmas luncheon one year, Mrs. Beers leaned too close to a table centerpiece candle and her hair caught on fire. Thinking fast, Al Wagner dumped his cup of coffee on her, successfully dousing her flaming coif.
As I memorialize people on this site, a pattern emerges of recognizing that I knew only one side or part of a person, and end up telling tales that involve them and myself, or even just myself when I relate how they changed life for me. A memorial shouldn't be about the writer, and yet sometimes to tell the story of the departed you can only say what they brought to your life. For better or worse, thus it is with Al Wagner.
Mr. Wagner, or Herr Wagner (pronounced as "VAHG-ner"), as we students had to address him, was my junior high German teacher for three years, grades 7 through 9. He was rather tall and lean, and even in his later years had only a hint of a pot belly. Students who didn't have Herr Wagner who heard him from the hall, ranting loudly and slamming things, may have thought he was crazy. We students who actually did have him loved him, and perhaps feared him a bit too, but we felt tremendous loyalty and affection for him.
He began by teaching us what a good, solid language German is. He was full of exaggerated fake prejudice he did not mean, but which was meant to instill pride. Waving his arm dismissively he said "Spanish is for peasants," and then wrinkling his nose in a snobbish way, he said "French is for people who still have their adenoids." Then he stood upright on both feet. "German is a good strong language, and you speak it from here" he said, pounding his fist just below his ribcage, "your gut." If this sounds like unneeded cheerleading, remember, this man was born when World War I was underway in Europe, the US was wondering if it would get involved in the conflict, and people in the US who spoke German at home and amongst friends were trying to stop so as not to speak the language of the enemy. His parents were likely among them. Imagine, you have nothing to do with the war, you probably don't sympathize, but suddenly it's... Shhh, ve cannut spik Cherman now. Then came WWII, another time German language and culture was toned down, which in our area, with so many people of German descent, was difficult but done so as not to bring one's patriotism into question. Serious debate was held by many Pennsylvania school boards to determine if German should even be offered in the schools. Herr Wagner's message to us of linguistic pride came from someone who'd seen the German language closeted from prejudice, and he wanted us to know that despite some unforgettably terrible episodes of history, German was a respectable language - not just the language of soldiers, but of poets, authors and musicians. It wasn't built for shouting orders, but for songs of love, praise of God, and daily family warmth.
Once the opening ideology was concluded, we began boot camp. Drill, drill, drill, but over the years he made decent German speakers of us. We started with the easy stuff, simple moronic dialogues from the book that made you wonder what kind of lives these speakers lived:
Was tust du? (What are you doing?)
Ich übe Geige. (I'm practicing the violin.)
Bist du müde? (Are you tired?)
Or even stranger disembodied stuff like:
Warum bist du so traurig? (Why are you so sad?)
Richard ist krank. (Richard is sick.)
Along with the dialogues, which even he thought were silly, he had us memorize verb conjugations, which he recited in a sing-song way to help us commit them to memory. Even now, years later, I bet every one of his students still can chant the "to be" conjugations:
Er, sie, es ist!
Sie, sie sind!
Roughly- I am, you are, he she or it is, we are, they are, you (singular polite form) you (plural) are.
He also taught us early through simple rhymes:
Eins, zwei, drei (One, two three)
Die Henne legt ein Ei (The hen lays an egg)
Die Henne legt ein weisses Ei (The hen lays a white egg)
Eins, zwei, drei. (One, two, three.)
Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben (1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
Wo ist meine Schatz geblieben? (Where's my honey? Literally, "Where does my treasure stay?")
Ist nicht hier. (Isn't here)
Ist nicht da. (Isn't there)
Wohnt sie im America! (She lives in America)
Incidentally, while learning how to recite numbers, it got to where you could hardly wait to get to eleven. Herr Wagner would say each number, the class would repeat what he'd said... but come "eleven", for which the German word is "elf", he'd point his index finger on the exact top of his head, as though wearing a little cap, twirl in place and sing "I'm a little elf" and quickly move on. Normally his voice was low, slightly growly and authoritarian, so for him to revert to a tiny, child-like, high pitched voice had quite a comic effect. His demeanor too, was a usually bit starched so these fleeting moments of silly comedy struck you as a quick refresher. In retrospect, I think many of Herr Wagner's outbursts and habits were designed to wake you up or to buy you time to find the right answer if you were slow or had just missed a question.
In his class, if he asked you a question in German, you had to reply in German. If you began to hem and haw in English, you'd be cut short with "Auf Deutsch!" (In German!)
Herr Wagner instilled in us respect for his class protocols. He addressed us mostly by our last names, and our answers had to be just-so. In addition to the "answer in German" rule, you were required also to begin and end each exchange with him with "Sir!" as in "Sir! Ich habe meine Heimarbeit vergessen, sir!" (Sir! I've forgotten my homework, sir!)
Besides the rules of class conduct, you also had to know his schticks, his running jokes, and answer appropriately to those as well. For example, if a struggling student had a breakthrough and finally understood something, he would look up, point heavenwards, and exclaim "Excelsior!" which we thought meant something like "Hallelujah!" but actually is Latin for "onwards and upwards". So he'd burst out "Excelsior! Miller, what is that?"
"Sir! Good packing material, sir!"
"Rasmussen! Why do bees sting?"
"Sir! You'd be mad too, if someone stole your honey and necked her, sir!" (Nectar pun intended.)
"She was beautiful with Western teeth. What's that mean, Dieffenbach?"
"Sir, wide open spaces, sir!"
"East is East
And West is West
And never the twain shall meet. Why not?"
"Sir! No twack, sir!" we'd say in unison.
He'd make big "it's obvious" eyes, shrug, say "No twack!" and move on. Sometimes you had to wonder if Herr Wagner were not a frustrated comedian or vaudevillian.
Despite the drills and rituals, we were kept in a state of constant readiness and anticipation because of his seeming unpredictability that was planned and well-orchestrated by him. I had only one other teacher who did this, and it was years later in high school, so Herr Wagner was the first teacher I knew to use this unnerving technique: while beginning a question, his eyes would rove the room, going over face after upturned face while he built his query, and near the end of it, he might be looking at Heil, but in the very last word, would suddenly conclude with the name of another student on the other side of the room, like Heffner. Both the person who thought he was getting the question, as well as the one who did were well-shaken.
I daresay most of us had some slightly mixed feelings in anticipating his class each day. Even if you were a good student, you were on your toes like everyone else, and you never knew when you might screw up or be found wanting. Mostly you thought it'd be an exciting, adrenaline-filled 40 minutes, but there could be a land mine waiting to blow anywhere if you muffed it. And God help you if you did.
If a mistake you'd made irritated him minorly, he'd have what might be called a Chinese hissy-fit: He'd do a little 8-second song and dance while turning in a circle, bent over as though from the pain your botch-up had delivered to his gut, while chanting, "Ingy-wingy, wong-wong, chewy-eye-oh!" and then get quickly back to the matter at hand. Should you cause him greater frustration however, there was more to come.
Herr Wagner taught while standing at a wooden lectern which was covered by a slab of blue plexiglass. He kept his books and notes on it, and sometimes he drummed on it with his knuckles or the heel of his hand. The drumming would come if you were slow to answer, other times delivered while singing the first two lines of "You Cheated, You Lied". But if you made a whopping mistake, he'd pick that plexiglass up and slam it back down with a thwack that could be heard up and down the entire hall, even with the classroom door closed. The class would jump in their seats in unison. His frustration was easily read in his exasperated body language that stiffened his shoulders, and he'd shake his head while pacing one or two steps in each direction before speaking. Whatever he said next wasn't mean or angry, it was loud disappointment. You'd let him down. He'd had faith that you were with him, and now you'd blown it. Usually whatever he said next was prefaced by a higher pitched "Why?" as in "Why would you say that, when we just reviewed the vocabulary words and that same word was in there?" Everyone's head would be lowered, our faces a bit hot with shame that one of our own had failed. You never wanted to let Herr Wagner down.
So how is it that a man so loud, commanding, and surprising earned our love and respect? Beneath the noise and stiff protocol, you knew there was a teacher who really wanted you to succeed, and who actually liked you as a student. He treasured us all, gave many of us nicknames, and loved to give due praise. When you did wrong, it meant to him that he'd failed you as a teacher, and you'd failed him by messing up what he knew you could do. He expected your best and knew you had it in you. It was silently understood; you had to let him blow off steam before he could move on, and he would, almost always giving you another chance to redeem yourself. Then all was forgiven on both sides, and everyone would continue with a clean slate.
As international travel has become more affordable, the chance to meet people speaking another language has greatly increased. During my school years, the learning of a foreign language was seen as a nice addition to education, but not a necessity. Some Europeans view Americans as rather provincial because we are often not fluent in languages beyond English, and there is truth to that. If we'd grown up in Europe where folks who spoke another language were only a few hundred miles away and we were likely to meet them, language-learning would have had a real-life incentive. As it was, we were becoming skilled in something we were not likely to need, or so we thought. With America being so large and geographically and culturally varied, we could travel quite far never leaving our own borders, nor having the opportunity to speak another language.
Yet surprisingly, it was only a year after leaving the instruction of Herr Wagner that I finally had the opportunity to use my German. In my sophomore year, our high school German teacher, Frau Beidelmann offered a school trip to Bavaria. All of us begged our parents to go, knowing that it would be cool to see Germany, that it would be fun, and that we'd have access to beer, but also knowing that we'd finally have reason to use our German, and of course that was the argument we used with our parents. When else am I going to use this? Many of us were lucky enough to go. I'm uncertain how many, but we filled a bus.
We practiced with each other for weeks beforehand, as well as on the plane, which stopped to refuel in Iceland before continuing on to Luxembourg. From there, we were bussed over the border into Germany, where we practiced with the poor bus driver and his lovely young daughter who accompanied us. We practiced at every restaurant and hotel we stopped at, thrilled that the staff (who of course knew we were a tour group) could actually understand us and not get snotty about our fumbling. The only time they showed disapproval of us was when as part of a package deal, we were all served liver for lunch with no alternative choices. Liver is not a common nor widely-liked meat in the US. While we were polite about it and ate everything else offered, the frowns of the wait staff as they cleared the ample leftovers made it obvious they thought us wasteful and spoiled. We felt pretty badly about that. Still, overall, we were all very charmed by the people and sights of southern Germany, and they seemed equally smitten with us. Having some German blood in me, and apparently not dressing too differently to be an obvious foreigner, I was delighted to be assumed to be a native German on a few occasions, being asked for directions... until I opened my mouth and confessed I had no clue where Whatever-strasse was.
One goof that happened and was quite funny occurred the very first day in Heidelberg. We were on our own for lunch, so six of us went to a lovely little place in a sunny basement. It was a bar and restaurant, so of course we all ordered beer with our meals. I was surprised how quickly beer fills you up; Herr Wagner had told us years ago that many Germans consider it a food, and it had that pleasantly filling effect. He'd told us Americans were not raised with any liquor at the table and so were unwise in using it, and that's true, at least in my family and in my life. Anyway, we were enjoying our beer, sandwiches and soup, when one of the guys noticed a show coming on the TV above the bar. "A Britisher Visits Berlin" said the title. It was a documentary done by British TV, and we were all interested- after all, the Berlin Wall was still up, this was a part of Germany we'd not get to see, and what would be the observations of a fellow who, like ourselves, was new to Germany? We drank and chewed silently through the opening music, and then the travelogue began. The visitor, in his deep voice and fine British accent opened with "On my first day in Berlin, I struck out..." and suddenly we could hear him no longer, as the volume of his English musings dropped to be spoken over with "An meinem ersten Tag in Berlin..." by the translator who was, of course, making the story clear for German viewers. It was trippy - you're used to the translator covering up the language you don't understand!
In having to use the language, my first test was stepping outside of the tour safety and going to a nightclub, where, to my delight and that of my friends, we were able to understand and be understood by the locals there, who kindly spoke a bit slower for us. Liquor-wise, I know most of us were careful, not having had much experience with alcohol. I was still 15, so had no idea how much to drink was normal or appropriate, so drank slowly and cautiously, and ordered drinks my equally clueless friend assured me were more harmless, less likely to result in our getting too stupid. I think I nursed one or two sloe gin fizzes all night.
A bigger test was venturing out alone to verbally fend for myself. One night in Munich everyone was hungry but too tired to go out, so I volunteered to walk to a McDonald's I'd seen a few blocks from the hotel and bring food back. Getting the orders of our close-knit group of about 10, I set out, feeling pretty confident; after all, McDonald's was familiar to me as an American. What a surprise to get to the restaurant and find out that Germans have different words for all the dishes! Like, a Big Mac was called a Happy Mäc, yikes. So I stood back from the counter, collected my thoughts, and finally stepped up and delivered the order in my best, flawless, high school German. The person taking my order nodded understanding as we went through everything, and then moved away to assemble the order. A moment later he stuck his head out from behind the bin that warmed the buns and called to me in flawless English "The fish'll be five minutes!" I laughed sheepishly and asked him "Was I that obvious?" And he kindly said "No, and your accent is quite good." I'm sure I beamed.
One evening our smaller group of friends set out for the Hofbräuhaus, a massive beer hall in Munich. Oh sure, there was fine dining upstairs, where we had an excellent meal, but we couldn't wait to get downstairs. If you have not been to such a place, it will be almost futile for me to attempt to explain the ambiance. Yes, it had the cliché of happy Germans singing while drinking beer in a dark wooden place with long tables and benches, but what you cannot see or feel from old movies is the tangible camaraderie and true joy. Usually when you see beer-hall Germans in a movie, it's in a war-era story and is depicting evil, propagandized Nazis singing of German dominance, a cheap device meant to quickly scare you with how brainwashed a strong people can become. My visit was 30 years post-WWII and the beer hall is a place to go to have innocent fun, to drink and sing together, and be a little loud in a nice way.
At the Hofbräuhaus, beer was served in huge, heavy, thick glass mugs that hold, I think, a liter (4.2 cups, or 33.6 ounces). For people used to drinking 12 ounce cans of beer, that means each mug held the rough equivalent of three cans. I didn't know this at the time, and even if I had, was three cans a lot? Remember, again, that I was 15 and not experienced with beer. To this day I cannot tell you exactly how much I had, only that it was too much for my 15 year old self, at least two, maybe three mugs, and I was working on the next one. As I sat on my bench, happily sipping away, watching the folks singing together, swaying and banging tables and beer mugs, while I got more and more sozzled, I was charmed to pieces, and frankly, pained that I did not know the songs so I could join in. I am musical and sentimental by nature, I had no way to vent my need to be part of it, and the mood was in the air. The word is "Gemütlichkeit" and it implies a happy coziness. The songs went on and on, with short breaks, the beer kept coming, and I had no idea how woozily lost I'd become, feeling nothing but the base and naive desire to join in. Deep inside, I am German, a German-American with Welsh and Scot and other goodies mixed in too, but the German girl inside was thrashing to be let out, to sing, to drink, and to have and instigate fun. These were my people, so close and yet so far. I felt like I had been there before, had been there always. Conscious thought was gone, all that remained was utter primal instinct to reach out, to make some offering. When there was another pause in the music, without any forethought, I stood up on my bench and began quaveringly, "God Bless America, land that I love..." Who knew how the locals would respond, and I hadn't even thought that far. My friends rose, "Stand beside her, and guide her..." and then other Americans in the place also rose "Through the night with a light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies..." more people joined in, and I saw the locals were actually grinning and swinging their mugs in time with the song "to the oceans white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet, home, God bless America, my home sweet hoooooooome." And we silly brave souls got a nice big round of cheers and applause from our kindly hosts, who I think understood our desire to be not outside looking in, but to be part of their brotherly whole.
I would not have reason to use Herr Wagner's German for many more years, fifteen to be exact. I'd been in a bad car accident (rear-ended by a truck) and could not sit at a desk, so had bar tended for a while. One such job was at a hotel in Philadelphia that was a frequent stopover for tourists from Europe who had that day been to either New York or Washington D.C., and tomorrow were going to the other city. Philadelphia lay between them, so was a logical place to spend the night.
Early one evening about 50 Germans, mostly men, descended on my hotel bar. They were great customers, and while many could speak English, they were tickled I could speak German with them, not perfect but certainly functional. Unlike many Europeans, they knew of the concept of tipping, and took good care of me too. The night went fast because they kept me running, were fun to talk with, and very cordial. From the man in charge of the group, I learned they were fire fighters, he was the captain, and they were on their way tomorrow to visit their sister fire-fighting company. "Wo gehen sie hin?" (Where are you going?) I asked the leader. "Cetronia" he said. "Nah an Allentown?" (Near Allentown?) I asked, and he replied in the affirmative. Small world. I said "Ich bin von Allentown." (I am from Allentown.) His eyes went wide, he grinned and set his beer down, put two fingers to his lips and let loose a screeching whistle - fweeeeet! Everybody went quiet, he was der Kapitän, after all. Pointing at me he shouted "Das Mädchen ist von Allentown!" (The girl's from Allentown!) A cheer went up, and suddenly I was a good omen of their visit to come the next day. I hope they had a great time, because I sure did that night.
It's that connecting, that reaching out that Herr Wagner's teaching of German made possible. That's what language competence does, it allows you build bridges to people. It's too bad no one thought to tell us kids that back in junior high school, we might have studied with more enthusiasm. You never know where life will take you, or who it will bring to you. I never thought I'd have the chance to use my German with anyone but the few remaining old Pennsylvania Germans who still spoke it, and it turned out that being able to struggle through it made me some new friends and some great memories. Vielen Dank, Herr Wagner, Sie haben meine Welt grösser gemacht, als Sie es je wissen werden. Many thanks, Herr Wagner, you made my world bigger than you will ever know.
Vielen Dank, Edda Meinikat, dass Sie sichergestellt haben, dass mein Deutsch Herrn Wagner nicht missfallen haben würde, und für die Sponsorschaft seiner Erinnerungsseite. Many thanks, Edda Menikat, for ensuring my German would not have displeased Herr Wagner, and for your sponsorship of this memorial.
Adolf E. Wagner, 69, of 1951 Pennsylvania St., Allentown, an Allentown School District teacher for 30 years, died Thursday in Allentown Hospital.
Formerly of 618 Greenleaf St., Emmaus, he was the husband of Kathryn D. (Shankweiler) Wagner.
He taught German at Trexler Junior High School, now Trexler Middle School, and Central Junior High School, now Central Elementary School, until retiring in 1981.
Born in Kutztown, he was a son of the late Carl F. and Luella (Eisenmoyer) Wagner.
He was a member of St. John's United Church of Christ, Emmaus.
Surviving with his widow are a son, Randolph E. of Whitehall Township; a sister, Mary E. of Allentown, and two grandsons.
Kathryn D Shankweiler Wagner (1908 - 1985)
Plot: Section A, Plot 508, Grave 5
Created by: sr/ks
Record added: Feb 25, 2009
Find A Grave Memorial# 34205820