Memory is a weird thing and the things which trigger it can be even weirder—like cutting vegetables. One evening—the day before I was leaving for a trip to Fiji—I was making a salad and as I tried to slice a tomato the knife slipped and I cut my finger badly. I probably should have gone to the emergency room for stitches but I patched it together with Band-Aids and it was a problem my whole trip. Now, whenever I slice a tomato for a salad, I think of Fiji and my wounded finger. I can’t help it.
But tomatoes aren’t the only vegetable that triggers memories. The slicing of mushrooms connects to a different story which I’ll get to shortly, and which has to do with my 2nd cousin Gary Hallock.
Gary died yesterday after a bout with lung cancer. He was one of the funniest people I know and—although puns were his specialty—Gary would never miss an opportunity to point out the humor in something. That’s how he saw the world—whatever happened you could always find something in there to laugh about. So I’m going to borrow that perspective and at least note the irony (perhaps a close substitute for humor) of Gary contracting lung cancer when he never smoked a day in his life. He certainly pointed out the irony!
We all pass, and I’m now at a point in life where friends, high school classmates, and even relatives my own age are doing so. It’s difficult to handle emotionally and better words than I can summon have been used to offer contemplative, philosophical insights into it all.
I won’t try to compete with them. But one of my favorite perspectives—on this least favorite of topics—came from James Clavell’s novel Shogun which takes place in medieval Japan. They had a different attitude towards life and death in that culture and looked at the act of dying as “preparing the way” for others. One Samurai soldier, about to fight a hopeless battle, might look to another and say: “I would be honored to prepare the way for you.” Meaning: “I’ll fight this rear-guard action, and die, so that you can escape.” But the “prepare the way” referred not to escape, but to dying. In other words: it’s a path we’re all going to take, and I’ll go first to prepare the trail.
For some reason I always loved that perspective because it turned the act of dying into one of generosity towards those left behind: I’ll go first, and prepare the trail. None of us know what that trail looks like, and it’s perhaps silly to anthropomorphize it into something from living, human experience such as a rocky path that can be de-cluttered for those in our wake. But human experience is all we have, and there’s something beautiful about drawing from it a gesture of selflessness to elevate the act of dying into something noble.
I never knew Gary well because we grew up a thousand miles apart, myself in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Gary in Austin, Texas, where most of my mom’s relatives lived. But occasionally family vacations would yield time together and Gary and I found a common passion: the board game Monopoly. We’d play it for hours—days, actually. Why would the games go so long? Well, has anyone ever actually finished a game of Monopoly? As long as you can keep borrowing money from the bank or each other (and boy did we), the game can continue forever. And that suited both of us. I remember we got sneaky about it and “hid” those oh-so-precious $500 orange bills under the board. We each must have suffered from the same miser’s instinct to hoard our wealth, or at least be discreet about it. So we never really knew how much money we had, since most of it was always sub-rosa.
When we had to pay money, we’d delicately raise the board itself oh-so-carefully (so the pieces wouldn’t slide off) and retrieve one or more orange pieces of paper from our “stash” without letting the other person know how much we actually had. Perhaps all this solemn attention to financial matters bestowed some healthy attitude towards assets, for later in life Gary—at least—seemed responsible with respect to such things.
Back to mushrooms.
It was one of those days you look back on in life as a “perfect day,” even if you don’t realize it’s happening at the time. One of the things Gary and I had in common other than Monopoly was a love of white-water canoeing. We were both somewhat expert at navigating canoes down rapids and today we were joining forces to do it together. Gary owned an aluminum canoe. And—conveniently—there was a suitable river not too far away, the Guadalupe north of San Antonio.
I came to Gary’s house that morning for breakfast and the plan was: mushroom omelets. But the mushrooms themselves were in bad shape, all dark brown, black, and kind of slimy. I’d have thrown them out. But Gary still had some of that financial prudence learned at the Monopoly table and he pronounced the verdict: “they actually taste better like this.” Really?
He deftly chopped them up (you’d not have wanted to slice them as they were too icky to hold), adroitly fried them up in butter, added eggs, and I had to admit it was perhaps the most delicious omelet ever.
The canoeing turned out to be far more challenging than expected. The dam had been opened and the normal, gentle Class 1 rapids of the Guadalupe had turned into a raging Class 3 torrent. Class 3 rapids are at the outer edge of what an open canoe can handle—being better suited for kayaks or rafts which have positive flotation and can’t sink. Canoes can sink.
But Gary and I were in our early twenties, felt invincible, and were determined to take on the challenge. Well, it was magnificent. As expert white-water canoeists we beat that river into submission—for hours. At one point the rooster-tails (those high “haystack-shaped” waves formed by too much water in too small an area) overcame us temporarily and—although we handled them perfectly—so much water splashed into the canoe it literally sank out from under us.
There’s nothing more unstable than a canoe half-filled with water. Sneeze and it will tip over, but Gary and I managed to keep the damn thing upright as we carefully paddled the boat—now entirely under water—over to the nearest bank.
We dragged the canoe onto dry land, poured the water out, and put it back in the river. And here’s the famous quote that I attribute to Gary but he attributes to me. “Well, Pierre,” one of us said. “We lost the furs, but we saved the canoe!”
And on down the Guadalupe we went. No time for lunch, but those delicious mushroom omelets gave us the energy we needed. Arriving at the takeout spot where we’d left a car, it was time for dinner and we had the kind of appetite only hours of paddling hard down a whitewater river will produce.
Could the day get any better? Why, yes it could. We found an all-you-can-eat catfish place near New Braunfels (we knew we could eat a lot), and—walking up the steps—Gary’s conservationist mentality got rewarded. Here were two (count them two!) ten dollar bills on the steps. This being the early seventies, that was more than enough to pay for dinner, so we got a free meal out of it on top of everything else. Never has catfish tasted better, and rarely had a day been so perfect.
So now, whenever I’m in my kitchen slicing mushrooms for a salad, a side dish, or especially for an omelet I think of Gary and the too-ripe vegetables he refused to throw away. And if my mushrooms are ever themselves a little past-their-prime I apply the Gary test: “Would Gary Hallock throw these away? Why, no he wouldn’t. He’d treasure them no less than he would one of those $500 bills under the Monopoly table.” And with that perspective, I happily add the mushrooms to whatever’s being prepared, knowing I’m a better person for it.
Equally, whenever I cook catfish I think about that day on the river, the Class 3 white-water we conquered, and that amazing mana-from-heaven cash we found in the parking lot outside the restaurant. It was Gary who found the restaurant, found the cash, and quite generously used it to pay for both our meals.
Now he’s gone ahead to prepare the way on another journey.
“We saved the canoe, Pierre, but we lost the furs!”
No we didn’t, Gary. No we didn’t.