Somewhere east of Lost River, along a narrow ribbon of slippery asphalt that dipped and climbed and meandered like a goat trail through the George Washington National Forest, I pulled my rented TrailBlazer to a stop before a line of mailboxes--a pitted, muddy road called Sager Hollow.
The rain was falling harder now, a thick mist against a white-gray sky, visible above the bare trees and high ridges. The engine idled, burning low-test, $2.59 a gallon. It was Easter Sunday. I was in West Virginia. I'd been driving for hours through the Appalachian Mountains, through the fog and the rain, eyes glued to the center line for navigation, big rigs pushing up on my tail. My nerves were frayed; I needed to take a piss. I needed to finish this job and get back home.
I lowered the window, peered down the road into the gloomy afternoon, not quite sure what to do next. The air was heavy with the smells of earth and mold, woodsmoke and wet livestock. I felt a pang of self-doubt. Maybe this whole thing was foolhardy. Maybe I hadn't done enough prep. Maybe I should have called first. It was, after all, the holiest day on the Christian calendar. (And here I come, a member of the Hebrew tribe, a reputed Christ killer.) There'd been no telephone number listed on the Web site and no e-mail contact. Just a street address--and I use the word street generously--for the Salem Mennonite Church, average weekly attendance twenty, which turned out to be a picturesque whitewashed meetinghouse on a sweet little hill, with a volleyball net out front and a graveyard behind but not a living soul in evidence. I searched my personal data banks for any knowledge of Mennonite customs and practices. Are Mennonites the same as Amish? Do they wear those bonnets? Do they carry firearms? Do they even have telephones?
Beyond the mailboxes, the denuded winter forest revealed its underlying topography, a large depression on the down side of a mountain slope, known in geologic terms as a hollow, pronounced holler in movies like Coal Miner's Daughter, a sort of backwoods cul-de-sac, this one home to an eclectic collection of buildings and ruins: here a ramshackle barn; there an A-frame log cabin; a wood shack, smoke curling from its crooked chimney; a tarpaper outhouse; a suburban-grade rancher with whitewashed siding ... all of it landscaped with an assortment of junked autos and rusted farm vehicles, discarded major appliances, trailers--occupied and not-and every manner of truck from every era. Presently the dogs appeared, prancing beside the road, barking, talking shit, tracking my progress through their territory like so many homeboys dogging a stranger in the 'hood. I could feel the human eyes watching me from the windows. I wondered: Had my message preceded me? Did they even know I was coming?
Down the road a piece, I came upon the place, exactly as described: "A little house with tan siding and a white picket fence, with a green sofa settin' yonder beneath an oak tree."
I parked and gathered my things. Before I could reach the steps to the front porch, the door swung open. Out stepped a ruddy-faced man in a camouflage hunting cap. Next came a woman in an ankle-length denim skirt. Her hair was swept back primly, pinned atop her head. Atop that was pinned a small piece of black lace. It reminded me of a doily. They stood side by side.
"Afternoon, folks." I tipped the edge of my knit watch cap with my first two fingers, playing it casual, down-home. In fact, this was my home, my ancestral home, or nearly so. My great-grandfather, Yaakov Labe "Louis" Sager, born in 1869 in a shtetl in Lithuania, had raised his ten children not far from here, just on the other side of the mountains, in Front Royal, Virginia, where I'd spent last night.
Of course, the man on the porch knew nothing of this. He went about six foot two, 230. The way the house was built, upon a little rise, the porch was elevated, six steep steps. Looming there on high, like a preacher in a pulpit, he eyeballed me in my North Face ski shell, Gap cargo pants, and Dr. Martens boots, the strap of my man-purse slung across my chest like a bandolier. He uncricked his neck, an audible pop. "How can we help you today, friend?"
The way he said friend ... it didn't sound very friendly. Clearly, my message had not gotten through. I rose up to my full five foot five and put on an earnest smile. "I'm lookin' for a guy named Mike Sager."
The couple exchanged glances. "Who wants to know?" the man asked.
"Well," I said, "you're not gonna believe this...."
Call me Mike Sager.
It's the way I answer the phone, the way I introduce myself. It's how I think of myself--my symbol, my logo, my brand name, like Prince's glyph. Mike Sager. A random collection of nine Latin letters arranged into two groups, one space in between, the first group upthrust and masculine, like the monuments of the West, the second group rounded and feminine, like those of the East. Mike Sager, the yin and the yang. Three syllables, easy to say. Short and sweet--which my wife, in one of her occasional playful moods, would say describes me perfectly. Mike Sager. A simple name. A name that leaves room in a conversation for the next sentence. Not a fancy show-off name like Brandon Miller-de la Cuesta. Not a cool, exotic name like William Least Heat-Moon. Not a tragic name like Richard Kuntz, a kid who went to my high school. His parents called him Dick. He called himself Dick. I always wondered: What were they thinking?
Mike Sager. A name with no baggage, no connotation. Just a name, an ordinary name. Not too Jewish sounding, thank God--my mother's line; the first anti-Semite I ever knew. A name like a blank canvas or raw hunk of granite, a name you can work with, chisel into something. Mike Sager. A name of my own choosing.
My given name, of course, is not Mike Sager: It is Michael Andrew Sager. Mi-kul, as people in Baltimore said. Miiiii-kuuuuullllll, one of eight Michaels in my first-grade class, an overweight boy in husky-size corduroys who cried easily but never backed down from a fight, who spent his entire third-grade year sitting in the front of the room, his desk pushed against the teacher's.
Then, in junior high, I discovered sports; I ended up on the soccer team at Emory University. I made varsity my freshman year. They listed me on the roster as Mike Sager.
From there, things began to turn around. Mike Sager was not Michael Sager. Mike Sager was a winner. He was popular. He did well. He got a job at one of the world's best newspapers, albeit as a copy boy on the graveyard shift. And then, in 1978, the really big thing happened: I got my first big-league credit.
By Mike Sager.
A body of work. A lifetime of actions large and small.
What's in a name?
To me, everything.
So you can imagine my surprise on that day some years ago when I typed the nine Latin letters of my name into Google.
I was gut shot. There were other Mike Sagers. Tons of them. I mean, Mike Sager is not exactly John Smith. How could there be others? What right did they have to use my name? A name I'd built from the ground up.
Time passed. I tried to forget them. But as is often the case, the things you hate become a prickly fascination. I found myself wondering: Who are these guys?
I started clicking around. There were 3,650 Google entries for "Mike Sager," fifty-three pages. Going through them over a period of several days, I identified thirty-nine other Mike Sagers. This did not include the hundreds of still more Mike and Michael Sagers listed in various telephone databases on the Web.
There was Lutheran pastor Mike Sager in Spokane; motorcycle racer/sound technician Mike Sager in Wenatchee, Washington; car salesman Mike Sager in Perrysburg, Ohio; rock 'n' roll roadie/blogger/political-campaign worker Mike Sager in Reston, Virginia; and high-tech-company owner Mike Sager in southern California, who declined a meeting through his personal assistant, saying he preferred not to divulge any personal details. Third-generation plasterer Mike Sager lives on a small island near Vancouver with five hundred other humans and a large number of bald eagles. There were three Captain Mike Sagers: a Louisiana state police officer; a jail warden (he also played semipro baseball) in Virginia; and an avid poet, ex-Navy, sailboat enthusiast, and all-around renaissance man (just ask!) living in early retirement in a river town called Daphne, Alabama. And then there was help-desk coordinator Mike Sager, who works for a tire and auto business in Tampa and calls himself mIKEY[TM], a name he is attempting to trademark.
All of them Mike Sager.
None of them me.
What's in a name?
I needed to find out.
Mike Sager twisted my arm behind my back, slapped on a pair of handcuffs. "This guy claims his name is Mike Sager," he drawled.
Louisiana state police captain Mike Sager was wearing an enormous straw campaign-style hat, royal blue, the type seen on lonely highways in bygone days, usually in the company of mirrored sunglasses.
His lieutenant stepped forward, seeking a more strategic position. "Smile," he ordered. He snapped our picture with my wife's digital camera.
We'd just returned from Drusilla Seafood, a Baton Rouge landmark, where Mike and I had fallen quickly into a comfortable state of familiarity, like long-lost kin. Forty-eight years old, Mike is an imposing six foot two and a half, 230, with silver hair. His uniform shirt was festooned with ribbons and medals collected over his twenty-three years of service, during which time he has seen action as a road trooper, SWAT-team member, hazmat expert, tactics instructor, and member of the headquarters brass. Beneath the shirt, he wore a bulky Kevlar vest, as is regulation, despite his current, rear-eschelon position as training-academy commander. On his right hip was strapped a .45 SIG Sauer with an eight-shot clip. He prefers it over the 9mm because, he said, "The .45 has a little bit more knockdown power to it--you can be a little off target."
Mike comes from a cop family. His grandfather Bill Sager immigrated to America from Canada and eventually became a Brooklyn police-precinct captain. Mike is married to the wife of a cop who killed himself in a gun-cleaning accident. They met at a party. She came up to him and asked how tall he was. When he told her, she said: "That's good. You'll do." They have a daughter, Amanda, with whom Mike sometimes shares a ride to classes at Louisiana State University. By the time you read this, he will have received his bachelor's degree in sociology.
Having grown up in Garden City, Long Island (he moved to Louisiana his senior year of high school, when his father took a job as a sales manager at a chemical company), he remembers the delights of living near the Westbury Music Fair, seeing Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel and Man of La Mancha with Howard Keel and Lainie Kazan. After he gets his degree, Mike hopes to audition for an upcoming show at the Baton Rouge Little Theater, where he had a nonspeaking part a few years back in Inherit the Wind.
Invariably, when Mike talks with civilians, they ask him about his most dangerous moments. This is the story he likes to tell:
Early in his career, Mike was a Baton Rouge City police officer working a one-man car. A call came in--armed robbery at a fried-chicken establishment. By the time he arrived, the suspect had already fled, a black man in a brown leather bebop hat, last seen entering the bar across the street.
Mike called for backup, waited outside the bar. While he was standing there, the door swung open. A guy in a leather bebop hat was drinking at the bar. He saw Mike. He bolted.
Mike caught up with him at the back of the joint, grabbed him by the collar of his jacket with his gun hand, his right. His gun was still in his holster. The suspect was a short guy, about five foot five. As Mike struggled to control him, the suspect started to turn to his left, toward Mike, coming around to face him. Then Mike noticed: He had a gun.
"I grabbed the gun with my left hand, still holding him by the scruff of his neck with my right. I kept telling him to drop it, 'Drop the gun! Drop the gun!' but he kept on fighting. The next thing I knew, I had him lifted off the ground by his neck with one hand, still holding on to the gun with the other, and I was hitting him against the wall, banging him again and again, until finally he dropped the weapon and I fell on top of him.
"I took out my radio and called immediately: 'Officer needs help!' Then I sort of crouched there for a few seconds, holding him down on the ground, my knee in his back, catching my breath. As my adrenaline began to subside, I started to look around. This was not a very good neighborhood. There were a lot of thugs in the bar, and here I am, I've got one of their fellow thugs held to the ground. I could feel them closing in on me.
"I drew my weapon and I yelled at the top of my voice: 'I want this bar emptied. Now!'"
He looked at me with a crooked grin. "You never saw a bunch of skels move so fast."
Mike Sager and I stood on a flatbed trailer decorated with felt and bunting, rolling slowly through the streets of Kansas City, Missouri, each of us wearing a green plastic derby with large, furry mule ears attached to the brim.
Stretching before us on either side of the street, the throngs cheered the city's annual Saint Patrick's Day parade. According to politician Mike Sager, who'd invited me to ride with him on this float, 40 percent of the population hereabouts is Irish. Mike is full of numbers and useful facts, which he recites while waving to the crowd. How he was the first Democrat to hold his seat in the Missouri state legislature in sixteen years. How he won by 416 votes out of 12,903 cast in 2002. How his opponent, during his failed reelection campaign in 2004, ran eleven different ads against Mike after he voted against a bill banning gay marriage, making charges on the order off "He's a fag lover. If you elect Mike Sager, men and women are going to be kissing each other in the street."
Politician Mike is forty years old, five foot nine, 165. He majored in business in college, then worked as an environmental consultant, then chucked it all to market a card game he'd invented, a sword-fighting simulation called Highlander, based on the movie. For seven years, his game was one of the top ten sellers on the market; Mike was a big player in the gaming world, attending conventions, winning big competitions, doing whatever it is that gamers do. He still collects a modest sum in royalties.
Currently, Mike is focused on one mission: returning to public service. He is trying this time for Kansas City alderman, representing the blue-collar district of Raytown. Lucky for Mike, his wife makes a "sufficient living" as a history professor, allowing him to campaign full-time. He describes her unabashedly as "a beautiful, large-breasted Vietnamese woman" whom he married, he likes to say, "for her mind, something that will still be there when everything else is sagging." In addition to his wife, he shares his house with five other females--three daughters, a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law. "Seven if you count the dog."
Mike is Irish on his non-Sager side; he sports a trim red beard and an elfin grin, easily evoked. On the Sager side he is German--the beakish nose, the almond eyes, the glasses ... he looks very much like a photo I'd eventually come across in Illinois, of one Georg Michael Sager, known in America as Mike, born in Pfaltz, in Bavaria, Germany, in 1816, more about whom later.
Mike's dad was a carpenter. He walked out on Mike and his mom and little sister. His mom put herself through college, worked up the corporate ladder. She retired from her corner office in 1999, at the age of fifty-five. She died of cancer one year later. It hit Mike very hard.
"Not a day goes by that I don't hear her, the things she taught me. I never leave home without an extra jacket or something. I look both ways before I cross the street. I never pick a fight, but I never back down from a bully, especially if he's going to pick a fight with someone else. That is my mother in me, speaking to me every day. Probably the most dangerous thing I ever did in my political career was vote against the ban on gay marriage. But gay and lesbian people had worked for me. They'd voted for me. You don't prove that you're somebody's friend by standing with them when things are going well. You prove it by standing with them when nobody else will. That's how my mom raised me. I know she was up there cheering."
On April 5, Mike lost his race, finishing a distant second in a three-candidate field.
"I was on the sidelines, like usual, just watching the game," said Mike Sager. "Then somebody yelled down the line: 'Hey, Sager! Get in there!' And I'm like, 'What?' This was my second year on the team; I'd never once left the bench. I ran over and found my helmet and then ran out onto the field."
Tulane University backup placekicker Mike Sager is a twenty-year-old walk-on from Bird City, Kansas, population 482, where his family owns the second-tallest grain elevator in town, McDougal- Sager Grains. He was sitting in a little restaurant off campus, the kind of place college girls like to be taken, with tofu and brown rice on the menu. Mike is five foot ten, 194. His eyes are "bluish greenish grayish"; a handsome kid with a strong jaw, a slight underbite. In high school he always got red in the face at the Scholars' Bowl matches, probably caused, he says, by "the scrutiny, you know, of having all eyes upon you."
A former member of Future Farmers of America, Mike still works every summer at a Methodist-church camp and also at Bird City's famous tractor show. He's thinking of becoming a lawyer. He is known to his Tulane football buddies as Woody for his resemblance to the actor Woody Harrelson. He earned their respect about midseason of his freshman year, in 2003, when he started dating the senior captain of the women's varsity soccer team. That Halloween, Mike and his soccer girl went to several big parties, then went back to her place. He woke up the next morning in her housemate's bed. The housemate was lying next to him naked. He still had all his clothes on. "It was one of those moments, you know, when you're like, Whoa, what happened here?"
Kind of like his big football moment.
Tulane was leading Navy 42 to 10 last November, on its way to one of its five victories (in eleven games) last season. "I got out there on the field and I was just lost," Mike recalled. "The holder's like, 'Sager! Get over here.'
"He showed me the spot. It wasn't very far, twenty-eight yards. I did it all the time in practice. I was really nervous. The roar of the crowd. It made me feel kind of dizzy."
The center hiked the ball. The holder placed it down. "I guess I was too excited," Mike said. "I attacked too quickly. My leg swung right to left instead of just swinging through." Wide left.
"Everybody came up to me and groaned. They all said, 'Sager, that's the only chance you're ever gonna get.' But I didn't care. I was like, 'At least now I'm in the record books.'"
Mike Sager strode long-legged through the clatter and din of the new Maloof brothers casino, the theme of which seemed to have something vaguely to do with large-breasted women.
At six foot four, Las Vegas Mike Sager was the tallest of the Mikes. Twenty-three years old, he is, like me, descended from Lithuanian Jews, with black hair and green eyes. He was wearing a white shirt and a purple patterned tie beneath a windbreaker. He had just punched out from his job as a food-and-beverage shift supervisor at Sam's Town, an off-strip gambling hall that caters to locals. The parent corporation has casino properties all over the U.S.--meaning lots of future career options if he plays his cards right, so to speak.
Having grown up in Canarsie, in Brooklyn, New York, Mike speaks with an accent that is distinct and musical, the vowels turned inward, the consonants swallowed--Manhattan comes out sounding like Mah-hattan. In college, at Widener University in Pennsylvania, people always remarked on Mike's accent. Because there were so many other Mikes at his school, he became known as Brooklyn Mike, and later as just Brooklyn. "And then they started calling me Brooklyn Zoo, and then Zoo, and then all kinds of crazy names," he said. "And I'm like: I'm not strange, youse guys are strange. Where I come from I'm normal."
Mike makes about fifteen dollars an hour at Sam's Town. He drives a '98 Infinity I30 because he wanted a car that was business-like. His one-bedroom condo cost $135,000--why throw away money on rent? In his spare time, he does charity stuff, like delivering food to the poor. He'd like to take some university classes. He'd like to learn to make sushi. He'd like to have a steady girlfriend but doesn't think it's in his budget, not at the moment. But give him a little time. All things come in time.
"You say to yourself, When I'm thirty years old, this is my goal. When I'm forty, this is my goal," Mike said, yelling over the disco music at the in-house Asian restaurant between sips of his Komodo Dragon, a mix of Baileys Irish Cream and Jagermeister that tasted like an oatmeal cookie.
"When I was first here, one of my bosses told me, 'Mike, you're a great worker, I can see you as a food-and-beverage director someday'--which is a top position. So that gave me a lot of anticipation to work."
He wants to be a VP one day. Maybe a general manager. "I'm willing to work hard for it. That's my deal."
Mika Sager lives a couple of miles outside the town of Kell, in southern Illinois, population 231. It is quiet country, rolling and wooded, closer to Kentucky than it is to Chicago in both mileage and state of mind.
Pistol-packin' Mike Sager--so dubbed by his uncle Mike Sager for his habit of walking in the woods with a stout stick and a .22-caliber handgun--is forty-nine, five foot seven, 180. His left eye is hazel, the right one is brown. While most of the other Mike Sagers, including me, pronounce our names with a long a, pistol-packin' Mike pronounces his name as if it were spelled with an o, as in blogger.
Mike's father, Pete Sager, who is Uncle Mike's brother, lives two miles away, across Sager-owned woods and fields. Pete spent most of his life as a farmer, logger, and sawmill worker, as have most of the Sagers here for generations. The name Sager, according to genealogy experts, is derived from several sources, one of them being the Dutch and North German occupational name sager, meaning "sawyer," a person who works with wood. Other roots include: French/Germanic, from sag, meaning "quarrel" or "lawsuit," and hari, meaning "army"; Jewish/German, from sagen, "to say"; Yiddish, from zeiger, meaning "clock" or "timepiece"; Russian, a person from the village of Zhagory, in Lithuania; German, a person from the village of Zager, near Wollin.
Like his father--who in his later life became an expert leather craftsman--Mike started as a farmer. It was tough. He ended up having to borrow money just to pay his taxes. Now he works as a farm advisor for the USDA, focusing mostly on ag-waste systems. You can imagine what a big problem ag waste can be on a dairy farm.
Mike and his wife, Deann, grew up together and share a lot of history. They also have a nine-year-old son, Jacob. And they have something else in common: They're cousins.
Deann's maiden name is Sager. Her people own Sager Farms, known for its sweet peaches. They pronounce the name with the long a. Deann Sayger-Sogger. Mike and Deann's common ancestor is another Pete Sager, after whom pistol-packin' Mike's father was named. Old Pete Sager outlived three different wives, had three different families. Mike is a descendant of one wife; Deann is a descendant of another. Old Pete, it turns out, was the son of Georg Mike Sager, the beak-nosed German fellow who, I mentioned earlier, resembled politician Mike (and who, pistol-packin' Mike and Uncle Mike agree, looks very Jewish in pictures).
According to family lore, Georg Mike Sager immigrated from Germany in the 1840s on a boat called the Wester. He settled for a period in New York, but then killed a man and fled west to the banks of the Missouri, where he worked in a logging camp. There, the story goes, Georg Mike killed another man and then fled to Kell. Around the time of the Civil War, Kell and its environs had a reputation as a "butcher-knife town," a hole-up for renegades and people on the run. Nearby Horse Creek was known for a big old sycamore tree used by vigilantes for hangings. The tree was still standing when pistol-pack-in' Mike was a kid.
According to Deann--who had come home from work, nearly twenty miles one way, curious to meet a man with her husband's name--pistol-packin' Mike is happiest when he's in the woods. Sitting at the kitchen table, the aroma of Deann's frying pork chops filling the air, we watched the purple finches and titmice at the bird feeders just outside the window. "I can spend all day in them woods," he said. "Sometimes I come in and eat and go back out."
"Just like your son," Deann said.
Mike smiled. "One time, I was coming through the woods, creeping through the underbrush. I bent down to go under a limb, you know, and here's this little bitty bird sittin' up literally right under my nose. Only this far away. And he just set there and looked at me, you know how birds do? And I looked at him. I studied him, 'cause I had never seen that particular bird in these parts, and you know I been walkin' these woods my entire life. I come back to the house and get out my bird book. And wouldn't you know ... it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet. That really tickled me."
For most of ray career, I've followed the same basic routine when doing an interview. Having schmoozed my way through the door, having explained my intentions, I turn on the tape. And then I say, charmingly, open-endedly, "So: You were born in a log cabin...."
A little bit of levity to break the ice.
And so it went when I sat down with seventy-eight-year-old Mike Sager and his wife in their seldom-used living room in Eureka, Illinois, the town where Ronald Reagan attended college, five hours upstate from the home of his nephew, pistol-packin' Mike. Hearing my cute little opener, Uncle Mike Sager replied matter-of-factly: "That's right. Did my nephew show you the place?"
Mike Sager (also sounds like blogger) was born on September 29, 1926, making him the oldest Mike Sager I've met. He has been married to Genevia--whose mother spelled her name wrong, Mike likes to point out--for fifty-four years. They have four children, two grandkids. He calls her Granny. "She's wearing my first paycheck," he said, indicating her engagement ring.
Over the last decade or so, Mike has survived prostate cancer, heart surgery, glaucoma, and cataract surgery. He lost parts of the three center digits on his left hand to a workshop accident in 2002, after which he put the fingers in a bag and drove himself to the hospital. He still does beautiful work with wood, all of the standard stuff, and also more wondrous things, like a large, flexible link chain whittled entirely from a solid tree branch, and custom walking sticks, also made from branches, one of which he gave me as a gift, a beautiful piece of work with his name, Mike Sager, carved in script beneath the handle. Mike also insisted on giving me lunch, a savory local steak he grilled behind his house, meanwhile pointing out the suspension bridge over the creek and the freestanding workshop--both of which he'd built himself--the latter constructed in odd harmony with a huge old tree, as precious and irregular as a workshop for elves.
Mike grew up during the Depression, endured the proverbial hardships, leaving before sunup each morning from the family farm to attend a high school twenty miles away (where, incidentally, his classmate was former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick). He served in the Army toward the end of World War II, where his "ability to print real tiny" won him a job as a clerk in the general headquarters at Camp Robinson, Arkansas.
He is well known in some circles for his important contributions to agriculture. After attending the University of Illinois and becoming a farm-extension agent, Uncle Mike helped pioneer something called conservation tillage. Previously, farmers used a moldboard plow to turn over the soil before planting, thus exposing the rich soil underneath. In the fifties, as America began applying its scientific might to farming, it was discovered that much of the rich soil turned over by moldboard plowing was being eroded away by wind and rain. Hence, conservation tillage: no more plowing; the seeds are planted right on top of the stubble and residue from the last crop. Due to Mike Sager's efforts, most Illinois farmers now practice conservation tillage.
A few years back, when Mike Sager received the Illinois Farm Bureau's most prestigious award to commemorate his achievements, he was handed a trophy.
At the top of the marble base sat ... a large chrome replica of a moldboard plow.
Mike Sager wore a buzz cut and semi-baggy jeans, not baggy-baggy, like hip-hop, more just like casual, like preppy or whatever, which was how he characterized his style of dress, like American Eagle and stuff, like button-down shirts.
Seventeen years old, six foot two and still growing, he is a junior at Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania, where he plays varsity basketball and soccer. Though he is right-handed and shoots righty in hoops, his stronger foot in soccer is his left. The same is true of his sister, who is two years younger. "Having strong left feet, they've always been hot commodities in soccer-it's helped them to be starters," his mom explained.
High school Mike is sitting in the livingroom at the end of a half day of school. His mom makes him turn off the TV. He is willing to talk, a little shy, thinking maybe that this whole interview thing is a bit, like, freakish or whatever, this grown-up Mike Sager guy calling his high school vice-principal (who at first thought I was some kind of pervert), and then tracking him down, coming all the way across the country from San Diego, showing up at his door a few minutes before his mom got home.
Mike has lived in York all his life, as has his morn, who is divorced from his dad, meaning that Mike doesn't know a whole lot about his Sager history. He thinks they came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That's where his dad is from.
Mike hangs out with the soccer guys and some of the basketball guys. He likes poker, eating out, hanging out. Nobody goes to the mall anymore. It's all about texting, being online, IM. He met his girlfriend, Kasey, in a chat room. She goes to Eastern, where his mom teaches. His favorite dish is seafood au gratin. He likes watching sports on television; he likes his PlayStation 2. All-time favorite game: NBA Live 2005, followed by Madden Football. He is hoping to play college soccer; he wants to go into sports management and work for a pro team.
His mother calls him Michael. Like me, he prefers to be called Mike.
"He will deliberately tell people to call him Mike because he knows it bugs me," she said.
High school Mike shrugged. Then his cell phone started vibrating.
His mom shot him a look. "I thought I asked you to shut that off."
"Lemme just get this," Mike said.
Mike Sager spent much of his childhood looking out the window, watching the sky. "It drove my mother nuts," he recalled, stroking his trim goatee, sitting in the narrow living room of his starter house with his coat on.
The town was Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in the mountainous center of the state. The time was 7:30 P.M. The temperature was 34 degrees, the wind was from the north at six miles per hour, the humidity was 96 percent. Snow was falling--a three-inch accumulation since the afternoon, necessitating the use of my TrailBlazer's four-wheel option to negotiate the steep approach to Mike's driveway.
AccuWeather Mike is twenty-seven years old, five eleven, 180. He was born in Patterson, New Jersey, a half-Jewish Sager with dark hair and blue eyes like my own great-uncle Bill Sager. His great-grandfather Sager came from Lithuania or Romania, he's not sure. His grandfather lived in Brooklyn and drove a cab; he later became a calligrapher. Mike's parents split when he was two and a half. He lived with his mother most of the time. She remarried twice. Mike remembers "acting out" a lot. They moved frequently. He went to ten or eleven different schools.
"I'd remember weather events," AccuWeather Mike continued. His wife, Caitlin, was sitting with us. She has long red hair. She cradled one of their cats like ababy, listening intently--a newlywed still fascinated by her husband's childhood stories. "I'd be like, 'Remember that time when it was snowing really hard?' And my mother would be like, 'No, I don't remember that.' And I'd be like, 'Well, it was only a couple of years ago.'"
Now the unhappy boy is a Rutgers-trained meteorologist with the important title of Data Acquisition and Utilization Manager for AccuWeather, Inc., the forecasting service headquartered in nearby State College. Not only that. AccuWeather recently agreed to purchase from him something called Mike Sager's Weather Forecast Model Animator, which explains why he is always at the top of the list when you Google our name. Over the last several years, in fact, Mike Sager's Web-based forecastingtool--a software program that generates moving maps of weather systems-has become a favorite of meteorologists all over the nation, even the world.
"Part of the agreement," he told me proudly, "is that it's always going to have my name on it. So from now on, if you Google Mike Sager, you'll come to AccuWeather, along with my Web site."
Mike Sager and his son, Mike Sager--from Springfield and Mundelein, Illinois, respectively--are descendants of the most famous Sagers in history. Their story is the subject of a classic juvenile book, The Valiant Seven, a vivid historical novel based on the lives of the seven brave Sager children whose parents died while the family was en route by wagon train from Missouri to Oregon. A movie version, made in 1974, was called Seven Alone.
Warren Mike Sager is a youthful fifty-five, five foot eleven, 175, with brown eyes and brown hair done up in spikes. A former high school teacher turned corporate-communications and video guy, he is now self-employed as a distributor for Coach House Garages, an Amish concern that makes prefab garages and houses.
Mike Garth Sager is twenty-three, six foot, 160, a handsome kid with dreamy blue eyes and a little goatee, a backward baseball cap, a taste for the journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. An ag-business major with a degree from Illinois State University at Normal, he is working as a landscaper for a big company. By the time this is published, he will be a married man.
Through the years, Mike and Mike have found a common interest in canoeing, often taking trips together. Once, when Mike Garth was about ten or eleven, they were members of a small group plying the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Ontario, about thirty miles from Grand Marais, near the end of the Gunflint Trail--the absolute middle of nowhere.
They had pulled the canoes out of the water in order to carry them over a portage, a sandy strip between two lakes. Usually in the Boundary Waters, you could canoe for days and never see another human. As luck would have it, on this day there was another party already at the portage, six men.
The folks in Mike and Mike's party busied themselves carrying their canoes and equipment. Then someone in his group wanted Warren Mike's attention. He called out, "Hey, Mike Sager!"
Though Mike Garth was typically oblivious, Warren Mike heard this and turned around. As he did, he noticed two men from the other group looking his way quizzically. They walked over. The older one extended his hand to shake. "Mike Sager," he said, introducing himself. "Was someone calling me?"
Turned out he was a preacher from Minneapolis canoeing with a church group.
With him was his son.
He was also named Mike Sager.
And so it was, on a rainy Easter Sunday, after seventeen days and sixty-eight hundred and forty-some-odd miles, that I found myself on Sager Hollow Road, in the Great North Mountain Range of West Virginia, face-to-face with a large man in a camouflage hunting cap and a woman in an ankle-length denim skirt, a black lace doily pinned to the top of her head. They loomed above me on their elevated porch.
Being a Mike Sager of diminutive stature (since meeting all these other Mikes, I'd begun thinking of myself as shrimp Mike Sager), I obviously posed no threat. Hearing me out, taking in the absurd but heartfelt explanation of my mission--fairly polished by now--the man on the porch proceeded to break out into a large smile, formidable in scope and completely infectious, appended at either end with deep dimples, the frequent appearance of which, I was soon to learn, had helped seal the election of one Michael Davis Sager--Mike to his friends, a lumberman, factory worker, elder of the Salem Mennonite Church-as Mathias High School class of '78's biggest flirt.
I took a seat in the living room, which was warm and filled with ladybugs, one of which proceeded to land on the top of my bald head, causing a ripple of ice-breaking laughter. Among the gathered were the Sagers' three daughters, age seventeen and up (two of them in hip-hugger jeans, the eldest in riding breeches), a son-in-law, and a family friend. They were getting ready to walk down to the end of Sager Hollow Road, to the home place--where Mike's dad grew up, bordered on three sides by the national forest--for their annual Easter-egg hunt.
I was about to pull out my tape recorder when Mike--for months I'd been thinking of him as Mennonite Mike, but he was nothing like I'd imagined--entered from the other room with a metal box. It was battered and oxidized, old as the hills. Out of it he retrieved a piece of sheepskin, a land grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia to John Sager Sr. for 640 acres, dated 1794.
Then Mike's wife, Patrice, was standing beside me with a genealogy book, showing me an article she'd written about John Sager Sr. When she left the room to make a copy for me, using her flatbed scanner and printer, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, a paralegal, stepped forward with Mennonite Mike's high school yearbook. Besides being biggest flirt, it turned out, Mike was all-state in basketball, with long, unruly hair and thick, muttonchop sideburns befitting the era.
After the initial flurry, everyone settled into chairs; all eyes turned to the stranger (though not that strange; I would learn later, at Easter dinner, that there are nothing but Sagers in Sager Hollow). I told them about Las Vegas Mike, police captain Mike, pistol-packin' Mike and his wife/cousin, Deann Sager-Sager, about politician Mike (I skipped the part about him being a "fag lover"), and, of course, about Georg Mike, the most colorful Mike Sager of all. I told them about the Jewish and non-Jewish Mike Sagers, and about Yaakov Labe "Louis" Sager, my great-grandfather, who'd lived just across the mountains from here. "He peddled fur pelts, I peddle stories," I told them, hamming it up a bit, feeling very much at home. "I guess I haven't come that far."
Patrice looked at me thoughtfully. "When I was doing my research for the article," she said, "I spoke to this expert in Texas, Bill Sayger. He said that all the Sagers in this country, no matter what the spelling, are related to one another if you go far enough back."
Everyone went quiet for a long beat, as happens during these types of living-room visits, the only sound the flutter of ladybug wings. Then Mennonite elder Mike spoke: "I guess we're all related under the skin."
Mike Sager: A collection of nine letters from the Latin alphabet, arranged into two groups, one space in between. Three syllables, easy to say. A name that leaves room in a conversation for the next sentence. Not a fancy show-off name, not a cool, exotic name, not a tragic name like Dick Kuntz. A name with no baggage, no connotation. A name I've built from the ground up.
Mike Sager: A name attached to a whole slew of us, it turns out.
Several grew up fatherless, most are tall, several have black hair and blue eyes. Some are Jews and some are Germans; one was a German who looked like a Jew. Several are men of religion; many are men of ideas; all of them were generous, at least with me. Accu-Weather Mike and Las Vegas Mike, both out of Brooklyn, apparently unrelated, had the same distinctive way of using their mouths, bringing to mind a Christmas nutcracker. Politician Mike's resemblance to old Georg Mike is just plain eerie. A random sampling of American men with nothing in common but a name. Yet with each meeting came an almost instant feeling of kinship. And each meeting ended, I don't mind revealing, with a manly bear hug-except with high school Mike, who gave me a pound.
What's in a name?
To me, everything.
Call us all Mike Sager.
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