He was as much a part of the balmy months at Boularderie Island as lobster boils, occasional sunshine and summer rain. One wonders how a Cape Breton summer can ever be the same in his absence. He of course would want the laughter to flow unabated as it always did in his ambit.
The ancient memory bank overflows with vivid recollections. I was 24, Bob 41 when we first crossed paths, at his Uncle Wally’s place on the hill. It was something like love at first sight. We each had prodigious appetites for beer and wine, and equally strong inclinations towards outrageous conduct. He had had Dan Murdoch Patterson build a fine A-frame summer place for him on the hill that became a magnet for those fond of food, flowing wine and fun. On one memorable occasion I remarked on what a marvelous sight it was to see so many drunken MacKenzies gathered in one place. Aunt Margaret demanded that he ban me from the hill. He didn’t.
In the summer of 2002, sitting in the marvelous screened porch at my cabin above the Great Bras d’Or, Bob’s eyes lit up when I said you should have a porch like this, let’s build you one next year. We didn’t wait that long. We started the next day; in six memorable weeks the porch was completed and we had a fine new venue for appreciating Alexander Keith and beholding the timeless beauty of Kelly’s Mountain and the Bird Islands.
It had been long years since he had ridden a bicycle but we got Bob back on two wheels and soon enough he was doing his best to impersonate Eddy Merckx. In his 78th year Jan and I talked him into doing a one-day two-wheel circumnavigation of Boularderie Island – a hundred kilometres on the nose. It was a piece-of-cake triumph for the old guy. He knew all – I mean all – the Broadway show tunes; he sang each and every one of them on the ride and never once repeated himself. I recall them all but have an especially fond and vivid memory of Bob belting out ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ as we rode Boularderie’s perimeter blacktop. He got even more ambitious: he joined us for a 400-km ride through PEI and the Magdalene Islands. He triumphed again.
He had been an ordinary ticket agent for American Airlines at Boston but the force of his personality was so large that American persuaded him to take on a bigger role: its VIP greeter at Logan. He got to be on first-name terms with Red Auerbach, Cardinal Cushing, Frank Sinatra and many others. Those who worked with him at Logan tell us that Bob was legendary – and bad to the bone.
In a little over a week Jan and I will be back on Boularderie. It will be the strangest of experiences to be there when Bob Nagel isn’t. Doubtless he will come up in conversation again and again. He had many friends for whom the letting-go will not be easy. Perhaps the sharing of fond memories will go some way to helping Bob’s friends adjust, friends for whom his company was always a pleasure, always a joy.
Robert loved music and not just music of the Broadway show variety. He shared a passion for opera with Jan, a passion they managed to infect me with, a little. Many times, sitting in that porch or in Bob’s kitchen we would listen to the great arias by the great tenors: Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras and the man I came to imagine was the best of them all, Bjoerling.
When I want to summon memories of the Best of Bob I will turn to Bjoerling, to Nessun Dorma, and recall what it meant to be Bob’s friend.