(Note: All the talk and tributes about the death of writer Jim Harrison this week shook my memory. Perhaps you will enjoy this little story from August 29, 1998. To understand everything, you should know I was still a public school teacher at the time the column appeared in The Oakland Press, Pontiac, Michigan.)
A Legend Before Fall
“This one’s on me, pal,” my friend Joe at the Shamrock Pub said the other day.
I gratefully accepted my usual Saturday morning cup of coffee but noted I never pay for it anyway.
“What gives, Joe? What’s the special occasion?”
“Just read about you in Ginny Stolicker’s column. Way to go!”
Ginny is the book reviewer for the Oakland Press. A couple weeks ago she mentioned that an essay of mine had been selected to appear in a new anthology, Michigan Seasons: Classic Tales of Life Outdoors, due out in November. That’s pretty cool. It’s even more thrilling when I consider some of the other authors with Michigan ties or roots my work will be joining: Tom Huggler, Jerry Dennis, Ben East, Tom McGuane.
“Yeah, you and Jim Harrison in the same book. That’s got to make you feel good,” Joe said.
“Just a little. But you know what?”
“What’s that, Tom?”
“I was at my cabin last week, you know, just a decompression trip before school began, and I came to a realization: I’m not Jim Harrison.”
“Golly perfessor, you shore coulda’ fooled me,” Joe aped. “Hey, pal, what was your first clue, that by the time he was your age Harrison had made enough off of screenplays that had never been produced to be practically a millionaire?”
“Hey, that’s another point of contrast, Joe. Thanks. You want to know the rest?”
I explained: The latitude of Harrison’s home base in the Leelenau peninsula matches that of my cabin, approximately the 45th parallel. When he completes a writing project, however, he often heads far into the U.P. to his wilderness get away. I, on the other hand, leave southeastern Michigan and aim for the 45th. I have used much of the time there recently to complete some writing tasks of my own. His cabin has no electricity except some power from a Koehler generator at night. Mine came complete with a dishwasher, satellite dish and two color TVs.
Harrison has admitted a life of excess in the areas of food, drink and drugs. Yet he has written, “I have chosen the weight of 135 pounds as appropriate and have stuck to it.” Then there’s me who’s practiced abstinence where drugs are concerned and relative moderation as far as drink. Yet, I haven’t visited 135’s neighborhood since eighth grade when I had to run laps wearing a dozen sweatshirts so I could sweat off enough to make the weight limit for our C.Y.O. football games. What gives?
I think I remember one Harrison essay where he takes a walk through the woods all day, holes up during a storm for an hour or two, returns to his cabin late in the evening then prepares a four or five course meal with a couple bottles of Montrachets or Chateau Montelena as a rinse. Those are wines, I do believe.
He is as fluent with terms like calvados, Beaujolais, Stolichnaya, beluga malassol, carpaccio, grappa, Bordeaux and flageolet as I am with mushrooms, Italian sausage, black olives, double cheese and extra-thick crust.
“What brought about this revelation, O wise one?” Joe asked.
“Well, Joe, I was cogitating over my haute cuisine while at the cabin and I realized how he and I diverge in our approaches. The rest just fell in to place.”
You see, Joe subscribes to Harrison’s dictum: “You simply can’t hike through rugged territory for eight hours and be satisfied with three poached mussels and an asparagus mousse.”
I subscribe to Carney’s dictum: “The less you dirty, the less you have to clean up.”
Joe motioned for more of an explanation.
All you have to do is read a few of Harrison’s essays and you’ll realize, though he’d box as a lightweight, Harrison is certainly a heavyweight when it comes to food preparation. Consider how he once spent three days preparing a meal for his pal, Guy de la Valdene. To satisfy the two of them he “increased the recipe using nineteen duck legs and thighs, a couple of heads of garlic, two pounds of lean salt pork …, a half-cup of Armagnac, a bottle of Echezeaux, and so on.” Just imagine the mess and the dishes and pots and pans he has to clean up afterward.
“So what did you eat?” Joe asked.
“For which meal?”
“Start with breakfast.”
“Cold pizza and coffee.”
“What about lunch?”
“I had half a canary melon. Plus I found some of those silver, hard candy balls you decorate a cake with.”
Joe tried to resist but asked anyway: “Dinner?”
“Plums and potato chips. Ice cream.”
“The best part is I only used one knife and one spoon for the whole day. Those I just wiped off and put away. Didn’t have to do any dishes. My coffee mug I could just rinse out since I’d be using it the next day.”
“Didn’t you use any plates? What did you eat off of?”
“Well, I mixed the plums and chips in with the ice cream in its tub. For the rest, I just kept using that pizza box. It’s pretty sturdy. You can usually get one to last an entire week. Providing you don’t heat up any chili or oatmeal, of course.”
The conversation shifted slightly.
“You know Joe, we’re at the end of our sixth summer in that cabin now, and you and Ron still haven’t come up for our ‘guys only’ week. When’s that going to happen?”
“When Jim Harrison is one of the guys.”