Greg "Animal" Nowak, R.I.P.
On Saturday morning at WisCon (report follows), we got the terrible news that our good friend, Greg Nowak, known to Midwestern SF fans as "Animal", had died that morning, evidently of "heart failure." Greg had had poor health lately, with a most recent bout a month ago, which included a severe inflammation, bowel upset, and a blood clot in the lung. He had been being treated for Type 2 diabetes, and at roughly 350 pounds, was severely overweight, which for him had been a long-standing condition.
I have known Animal since I came to Milwaukee in 1982, when he was already a part of the fannish scene. Like all the Milwaukee group, he made me welcome immediately. Animal in a lot of ways had the "typical" fannish stigmata. (In those days, "geek" or "fanboy" in this context did not exist.) He was large, loud, hairy, sometimes lacking in social grace, and, in all honesty, sometimes smelled a bit. He could and would talk at length and in detail to anyone who would listen about his latest role-playing game escapades, and/or the latest book, movie, or TV show he had experienced. In part due to these eccentricities, he was always a poor man and chronically underemployed in comparison to his intelligence and ability. (He was also hindered by poor writing skills, something he was working on correcting at the time of his death.) He was also, like many of us, outwardly brash but inwardly shy. Until the end of his life, he shared a home with members of his profoundly dysfunctional family, including his empty hulk of a father (since deceased) and alcoholic ne'er-do-well brother, but I knew him for years before I learned any of this.
To Milwaukee-area fans, he was literally the soul of hospitality. He was in charge of con suites for more conventions than I can name, including WorldCons, and took on that frequently thankless task repeatedly with only the necessary colorful griping. In the days when there was an X-Con, and we served alcoholic "blog" (and "blog" was something you drank instead of read), Animal was the Keeper of the Blue Stuff recipe and the master mixer of it. He served on con committees for X-Con, First Contact, DuckCon, multiple ChiCons, CostumeCon, and many others.
"Animal's House" was a regular 'zine in Milwaukee's MilwAPA since its inception in 1984 until now, and although his pieces were usually short and grammatically eccentric, they were always amusing and his pithy book reviews were informative. Animal was the creator of "Mercenary Imp," his alter-ego, familiar, and best enemy, who has since been given visual form by Georgie Schnobrich and appeared in the APA's annual "Mayhem Illustrated" parody issue as well as being a comment voice in Greg's own writing.
In 1992, though the Church of the Helping Hand, we met a Lakota shaman and Pipe Carrier known as White Owl. To be a Pipe Carrier means that you have been selected by the spirits to possess pipestone, the holy stone from which the bowls of "peace pipes" are carved. Greg was interested in Native American spirituality, and, after many discussions between them, White Owl came to me and asked me if, it were up to me, I would give Greg pipestone. I knew this was a very serious question: not only is being a Pipe Carrier an honor, it implies certain duties and responsibilities. After some deliberation, I replied that, as I knew him, Greg was good, honest, a true friend, and a straight talker, and that, yes, I would give Pipestone to him. White Owl agreed, and handed the stone to Greg, much to his surprise. Animal took this 'gift' in the spirit given, and, thereafter, pursued his studies into the Native American ways further. He made a pilgrimage to Bear Butte, the 'holy mountain' of the Lakota, and, I believe, had a vision there in which the Bear spirit appeared to him. I also, in my capacity as Bishop of the Milwaukee Diocese of the Church of the Helping Hand, inducted Animal as a Minister and Deacon for his services to the community, and in that capacity he officiated at at least one wedding.
Despite his addiction to Military SF and "shoot-em-up" thrillers, he was a gentle man, and I didn't even see him much at our shooting range. He loved role-playing games, and his tendency toward "gun-bunny" characters was a well-worn joke. In Tim Kozinski's 15+ year "Hellride" D&D campaign, Animal's character "Vito" was one of the original core, a pure straight-line fighter in a high-level world full of more awesome paladins, rangers, and sorcerous mixed classes. In Henry Osier's "Top Secret" games, Animal was "Jeremy," a happy-go-lucky SAS kick-out who was a frequent thorn in the side of my bloody-minded sergeant major, "Crazy Harry." We still talk about the episode wherein he exuberantly fired a rocket-launcher at pursuing bad-guys from INSIDE the van we were escaping in, forgetting (until it was too late) about the backblast--. Ah, good times--. (Animal also had a good sense of humor and could take a ribbing as well as anyone.)
I feel angry about Animal's death, angry with myself because I believe he need not have died now, and I could have done more to prevent it. I've watched him get heavier and have more trouble walking, and I didn't say anything until this last scare with the blood clot. Then I told him how afraid I was for him, and asked if he would work with me and some others in mutual encouragement to lose weight. He agreed. I told him he'd used up his luck. I'd didn't know how right I was then. If I'd had the guts and will to say this a year ago and more when it first occurred to me, maybe he'd be alive and in better health today. I don't know, we can't know.
Is electronic media better than paper? I don't know that either, but the tears I am shedding as I write this will not stain the page, and the letters will not have run, so you can still read it. I let my friend down and now he is dead, and all my tears are worthless.
Good-bye, old friend. May the Grandfathers receive you joyously.