My cousin Charles Roger Slucki, known by almost everyone as Sluggo, passed away suddenly in Los Angeles on the 29th December 2015. He was on his way home from a trip to the United States with his wife Mich to visit their son David and his family. Sluggo’s funeral was held in Melbourne on the 6th January 2016, and that evening we held a memorial for him at the Kadimah. Amongst other people who spoke and performed, I delivered a eulogy on behalf of his cousins. I’m publishing an edited version here as a tribute to him on what would have been his 72nd birthday.
Sluggo belonged to the world – he really did. I’d often wonder about famous people and what it would be like to know them in their normal life. Well, I didn’t really have to wonder – we had one of our own. And although he belonged to the world, he was first and foremost one of us, a Fertig.
Our grandparents Itschak and Ruchl Fertig, were simple old-world orthodox Jewish shtetl people. They had three daughters – Eda and Sala, my aunties, and my mother, Hania. They had lived a hard life surviving the Holocaust in Siberia, and then, in 1948, the first member of the next generation was born in Paris. That was Shmulik, or Moola as he named himself as a young child, or Sluggo as most of us came to know him.
I don’t really know, but I imagine, that for our family, after the war, after the 6 long years of running, struggling, surviving, Sluggo represented the new dawn, the first of the post-war, post Holocaust generation. The first grandson. The first nephew. New hope.
In 1950, Eda and her husband Jakub, and 2-year old Shmulik, sailed for Australia, and soon after, they sent for my grandparents, my Auntie Sala and her husband Vovek, and my mother. In March 1951, right after Sluggo’s third birthday, the family was finally together again – in North Carlton.
In 1952, my cousin Haiml was born, and then in 1953, exactly one day before Sluggo’s fifth birthday, I was born. Each of the sisters now had one child. The other three cousins – Miriam, Freda, and Baruch (who has always been called Butch) came along over the next two years.
So, there we were – six cousins – running around North Carlton together. Two were orthodox Jews, the other four were children of Bundists. But all six were as close as could be. We did everything together. We have so many photos of three of us, four of us, five of us – all six of us – at family functions, playing cricket, playing football, giggling – just 6 cousins playing and living together.
And at the top, at the peak of the mountain, was Sluggo, the oldest, the first, the leader of the pack – looking after us all.
We all had different relationships with him and called him by a variety of names. To my cousin Haiml he was always Charlie, to me and Freda, he was Sluggo, to his sister Miriam, he was Slug, to my parents he was Moola or Shmulikl – but whatever we called him, he certainly looked after us.
In 1973, Butch spent a year on a religious Kibbutz in northern Israel. Sluggo was travelling the world at that time and made a point of visiting him on the kibbutz. It was about a 3-4 hour bus journey from Tel Aviv. Butch said that it was great to see him, as he was the closest member of the family to visit him on his year away, and they spent a night and a day together. Before they went to eat in the kibbutz dining room, Sluggo did something very interesting. At the time, he had very long hair, and in order not to embarrass Butch, he wrapped his hair into a ponytail and tucked it neatly under the hood of his jumper, so that it wouldn’t be so noticeable. He also asked for a kippah, a skull cap, to wear during the meal. Butch sent me this story yesterday finishing with the line “… always respectful, my cousin.”
In 1993, when I was living in Dallas, my wife Helene heard that Sluggo was taking a large group of school kids on a trip to LA, New York, and London to perform his musical, Friends. Helene said, “No way is Sluggo going to America and not coming to Dallas”. So, she and Sluggo organised for them to come to us between LA and New York. They organised a state-of-the-art theatre that had Sluggo and his Lighting Manager Rohan in raptures, billeted the kids, and had all the teachers stay at our house in beds, on couches, and on the floor.
That was the first of three such trips in 1993, 1995, and 1997, and we met several of Sluggo’s students and fellow teachers, many of whom are here tonight, and many of whom we’d see at his family functions over the years. And although I’d seen his production of The Wizard of Oz years earlier, those days in Dallas were the first time I really got to see up close how great he was with his students, with the other teachers, and with all the Texans he ended up befriending and working with.
And whenever he’d come, he’d bring me Rosella pickles, and Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles, and Vegemite, and dozens of VHS tapes of Carlton footy games that he’d hand over thru gritted teeth, being the mad Collingwood supporter that he was.
In fact, every time he ever travelled overseas, starting with the very first time when he was just 11, he’d bring something back for me – a ViewMaster thingy from Disneyland that broke right after I got it, an Arsenal jersey from England even though I had no interest in soccer, a red sarong from New Guinea, although where he thought a young 16-year-old fashionista would wear it in Melbourne I’m not entirely sure – but he always had something for me. And then the last few years he’d bring little gifts for my grandsons – a book, a Yiddish alphabet, a t-shirt. Always something!
The other great thing was that no matter how accomplished he became, how many awards he won, how many famous people he knew or mentored or ran into, rather than brag about them to us – he’d brag about us to them.
I remember once going for a coffee with him to catch up with a pretty well-known actor. I was really expecting them to just shmooze the whole time with him showing off that relationship to me. But we got there, and all he talked about was me, as if he was showing off our relationship to him. And of course, as David reminded me this morning, he’d ask me key questions that he obviously knew the answer to, but just wanted the other person to hear. “Moshe, what was the topic of your PhD again?” or “Moshe, who was that mayor of Washington DC that was in that course you led?”
In 1984, my sister Freda, who used to be nicknamed Frog, got married and went on her honeymoon to Adelaide. She was walking with her husband David, when she heard a loud shout – “Froggy!!” She looked up and there was Sluggo with a bunch of his school kids and teachers. Of course, he insisted that they join them, and she ended up spending part of her honeymoon sitting around watching bits of the Adelaide Festival with a group of Highett High School kids.
There are hundreds of little vignettes, little stories that illustrate the kind of person he was. My cousin Haiml used to ask him for advice as a teenager and then later as an adult. The answer always pretty much boiled down to: “Live life, enjoy every minute. You never know what’s around the corner”. Haiml also said that, more than anyone he’s ever known, Charlie lived his life according to his values. There was no compartmentalisation. What you saw was who he was.
Since my return from America in 2000, we became even closer. We’d have lunch every few weeks or so, and Helene and I would often go out to dinner with him and Mich. Our lunches were great little chat sessions – arguing about the footy, discussing politics, bragging about children and grandchildren. It was an easy friendship. You know, there are some friendships you have that are high maintenance. Ours was the opposite. It didn’t matter how much time had elapsed since our previous phone call, lunch, dinner, Facebook chat – we just took up where we had left off. One night at around 4 am I couldn’t sleep as is pretty common – I was sitting at my laptop and I saw a photo of him and his grandson Arthur on Facebook. I commented “Nice pic”. Immediately a reply came “GO TO BED!!!”
And that pretty much summed him up. I don’t remember ever having to look for him. If you called him, he answered! Simple as that. On the odd occasion he didn’t, well, he’d call back within a minute. If you messaged him, he’d message back immediately. And if I asked him what he was doing that evening and he already had an arrangement, he’d call the people he had that arrangement with and arrange to have two more chairs available. “Come too. Don’t worry. We’ll squeeze in. No problem. They’re nice people. You’ll love ‘em”. And I’m sure he said something similar to them about us.
None of this was confined to just us, either. He was the same with all our children, helping them countless times – whether it was connecting them with his awesome and vast network of friends, or giving some advice, or encouraging and motivating them. My daughter Sarah went to speak to him about something recently, and she came home with a list of names of people to call, and an order from Sluggo – “Don’t come back without having done this!” Needless to say, she got into action straight away.
The last few years, after both of my aunties had died, my parents became the patriarch and matriarch of our family. Not a week went by without Sluggo calling them or dropping in. And geography was irrelevant. Just two weeks ago, when he was in New York, he called my mother to see how she was doing. She asked him if he shouldn’t slow down a bit and his response was along the lines of “What? And miss all the fun? What am I going to do? Retire? Sit around waiting to die?”
Yep, he lived his life to the fullest. He really was a great man. He had panache, he had zest, and he managed untold achievements. But above all, and especially to us, he was an awesome cousin, an awesome uncle, and an awesome nephew.
Farewell Moola – it’ll never be the same without you!