I’ll Be Looking at the Moon..

I’m always a little sentimental on July 20th.  All right.  A lot sentimental.  It’s impossible for me not to remember the high pitch of excitement in our house the afternoon that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Mom and Dad, like most parents back then, grew up during the Great Depression.  My mother still looked up every time an airplane flew across the sky. The atmosphere still boomed regularly as military jets zoomed through the supersonic sound barrier.  To her, these remained miracles almost too great to take in, but a man on the moon?  It was the stuff of science fiction.

My father, the engineer, was fascinated with the science of propulsion, the calculations of orbit, the use of centrifugal force to propel a spacecraft back into space.  He taught us about anti-gravity.  “If you drop a hammer and a feather at the same time on the moon,” he said, “they’ll hit the ground at the same time.”  Later, when we saw the astronauts demonstrate it, our skepticism diminished as our respect for our father’s intelligence bloomed.

The 1960’s were all about America’s space program.  Prince Charming appeared as an astronaut in my 1963 kindergarten rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  We begged our mother to buy us Tang, the artificial orange drink, because it was developed for the astronauts.  My 1968 Sears bicycle was marketed as “The Spaceliner.”    And the Russians?  They may have beaten us into space with the first satellite, but the moon would be ours, dang it all!

Prior to Apollo 11’s historic flight, we’d watched as many of the other Apollo lift-offs as we possibly could— if not live, then on the evening news with Walter Cronkite.  The four Lundquist kids would gather around the television set and watch as Mission Control updated us on the departure time. “We’re T minus whatever minutes from ignition,” a NASA spokesperson would alert us.  We formed a chorus for the final ten seconds of count down.  Three…two…one…ignition… Lift off!  We have lift-off!  On one hand, we were completely spellbound by the rocket there on the launch pad, smoke curling out from the thrusters at the bottom.  On the other hand, we could barely contain ourselves, wanting to race around the room or simply jumping up and down.

Later Apollo flights lost none of their allure for our family.  I‘ve framed a crayon picture my little brother drew of Apollo 13.  “Lift Off!”  exclaims the caption in the cartoon bubble coming from the capsule.  He had drawn this picture before we knew that, “Houston:  We have a problem.

But in 1969, there we were, an entire family gathered around the TV, Daddy adjusting the horizontal hold knob when necessary.  Commander Neil Armstrong was about to step out of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon.  Tears brightened my parents’ eyelids.

One month later, Hurricane Camille would tear through rural Nelson County, killing over 120 people, catching meteorologists completely by surprise as more rain fell in 3 hours than they had (until that night) thought possible.  America had put a man on the moon, but early warning systems for storms such as this were still years away.

The Viet Nam War raged on, Virginia had yet to integrate its schools, the Clean Water and Clean Air acts were prospects for the 1970’s.  Personal computers were decades away. For all practical purposes, NASA engineers used slide rules to send men into space.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Who could ever gaze at the moon in the same way?  Some fundamental hope hung in the air, and we had a new American hero among heroes.  Yet here is what he had to say as he stood on the moon looking toward home, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Neil Armstrong died last year and it still chokes me up to think of it.  Jazz singer Diana Krall sang at his memorial service, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which seemed so perfect. But it’s the last line from another song of my parent’s generation that plays in my head these days

I’ll be looking at the moon…. but I’ll be seeing you.



Worse Ways to Go

If I die during one of these wet weeks we’ve been having lately, it will be from driving off the road while looking for mushrooms.  Yesterday I was motoring home to Nelson County from Hopewell along Route 60 West, in despair because I couldn’t pull safely off the road to collect all the chanterelles that dotted the forest edge.

Most of my spare time these past weeks has been spent out of doors in pursuit of mushrooms. I’m not reading, I’m not writing, I’m not canning.  I’ve abandoned all scruples concerning private property rights.  If I don’t know the landowner, I sneak.  As a forester, I’ve worked in or around the woods all of my adult life, so I’ll have a believable story ready in the unlikely event that I’m caught.  “Sorry, but I had to go to the bathroom.” Or, “My dog ran into these woods – have you seen him?”  But hardly anyone spends much time outside these days— especially this time of year— in the heat and humidity, with the spiders, mosquitoes, tics, biting flies and chiggers.  I’ve yet to encounter anyone.

The record rainfall along with the warm temperatures this time of year have created a bumper crop of fungi.  Step just inside the forest and you will be transported to a wonderland of shape and color.  Whimsical red toadstools worthy of  Tinkerbelle, white fungi that branch for all the world like underwater coral, brilliant orange and yellow shelf fungi on the trunks of rotted stumps, purple, green and red caps.  Mushrooms with gills, mushrooms with pores, mushrooms with spines on their undersides—even a mushroom with a yellow surface that turns inky blue when injured; you can actually write notes on this bottom of this mushroom.

Although it’s fun to identify them all, I am searching in particular for those I can eat. I’m not worried about stealing food from someone else’s property because I find that most people hold mushrooms in the same regard they hold snakes:  all of them are suspicious and some of them will kill you.  They tend to avoid them at all costs.  When you ask if you can collect their mushrooms, they tell you to help yourself.  When you offer to share your edible finds with them, they say “No thank you!”

Mushrooms can kill you.  That’s for sure.  Some are so deadly that even if you make it to the hospital, all the doctor can do is monitor your demise.  Many others will make you wish you were dead.  But I’m not worried about that for two reasons.

1.  There are worse ways to die.  For that knowledge, I have my father to thank.

Watching him struggle with Alzheimer’s in his last few years was difficult for me, but it was excruciating for him.  My determination not to go that way has given me the freedom to embark on riskier endeavors here in my fifties.  If the river’s up and I want to be on it, I don’t wait until someone can go with me.  There are worse deaths than drowning.  If I make a mistake in mushroom identification, so be it.  At least I was sauntering through peaceful woods, dog at my side.

2.  I have a guidebook.  For that, I have my friend Ann’s father to thank.

Dr. Easterling was a surgeon in my hometown of Hopewell.  His daughter is one of my best friends.  When I was a kid, I felt intimidated by him.  Once we went sailing with him and when he went to trim the sails, he began to bark out orders.  I didn’t know the name of all the lines and couldn’t respond as quickly as he would have liked.  We could see his frustration mounting like an ocean wave.  Not knowing where it might break made me nervous. It was easy to imagine him in the operating room, snapping out commands, “Scalpel!”  And woe be unto the nurse that wasn’t Johnny-on-the-spot.

But as Ann and I became competent adults, it was easy to be around him, to converse with him.  When I married Kevin, Dr. Easterling gave us a knife as a wedding gift.  “I always thought every kitchen should have a good carving knife,” he wrote.  This is the best I’ve ever found.  Ever the surgeon.

He and I shared a love of the outdoors.  When he retired, he took classes with Tom Brown, the tracker, and though I didn’t realize it until after he died, he’d taken a mushroom class as well.

Ann phoned me one day when she was going through his things.  “Daddy had quite a collection of guidebooks,” she said.  “Would you like them?” Trees, ferns, wildflowers, snakes, insects.  I filed them all on a shelf for future reference.  A couple of years ago, when strange fungi popped up in our wooded yard, I wondered.  Did he have a mushroom book?  He did.  And he took notes in it.

Ann was not surprised when I told her this.  He took notes on everything, according to her.  He would sit on the side of a patient’s bed prior to surgery and sketch the organ that was to be removed, or the bone to be reset, drawing a literal picture for the person, all in ink, right there on the white bed sheet.

The book contains a key that allows me to determine the exact mushroom that I have based on a number of characteristics such as shape, texture, color, and whether the underside of the cap has gills or pores. Once I think I’ve identified my mushroom, the authors tell me the type of habitat in which the fungus typically grows, what time of year I’m likely to find it, and whether or not it is considered edible.  That’s where Dr. Easterling’s notes come in handy.

He must have been a wonderful student in class.  He was certainly a copious note taker.  His careful printing further instructs me:  Choice, a note will read.  Sometime the word choice will be underlined once or twice, and sometimes followed by one to three exclamation points.  “Edible, but few like it,” he writes under the picture of a dark warty mushroom aptly named Old Man of the Woods.  “Disagreeable,” he advises me about another.  “Poisonous,” he writes under a mushroom that looks like bleached coral.  “Good, choice, cook it!” he scribbles under the honey mushroom.  “Caution,” he warns me in red, beneath the early morel.  It resembles another mushroom which is poisonous.  “Deadly poisonous!!” he shouts about the mushroom known as the destroying angel.

The time I’ve spent in the woods with his guidebook, his handwriting, his instructions, makes me feel as if I’ve had the pleasure of his company for the afternoon— a decade after his passing.

As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters.  But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.  I haven’t taken a class, and Dr. Easterling’s not here, so my rule is to collect only those mushrooms under which he has written, “Safe for beginners.”  This leaves me with more choices than one might expect.

The black morel is safe for beginners, as are the sponge mushroom and the thick-footed morel.  The brightly colored sulphur shelf and the subdued hen-of-the woods, along with the black horn-of-plenty and the yellow-orange chanterelles are all safe for amateurs like me.

This week, that is all I need to know.  The chanterelles have risen from the ground as quickly as the water has risen in the Tye River after all this rain, and I come home daily with baskets of yellow-orange trumpets and black horns-of-plenty.  Kevin is as excited as I am as we chop them up with our carving knife, then sauté them with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Delicious!


Land of the Free

A great man lies dying and it seems impossible to go about my day without thinking about what he lived through—how in this world he managed it—and where we are today.

I look about my room and wonder how I’d deal with it if someone said, “you may not leave this room for one year.”  Suppose that someone said, “for the rest of your life.”  Suppose it was not my room, but a tiny prison cell.  Nelson Mandela was 44 years old when his life sentence was handed down. The year was 1962. Thirty-two years later, he was the president of his country.

In 1962, I was toddling through the Apartheid South, better known as the Jim Crow South.  Separate (and not equal) schools, parks, bathroom facilities, building entrances, theater and buss seats.  No admittance to most restaurants and motels.   The Civil Rights Act was two violent years from presidential signature.

In 2008, my family and I stood in the VCU basketball arena in Richmond, Virginia, where Governor Tim Kaine introduced musician Dave Mathews, who was playing a free concert for volunteers trying to elect presidential candidate Barack Obama.

To be clear, that’s a white governor in a former Massive Resistance state, introducing a white man from South African who was working to elect the first black president of the United States of America.  Yes we can.

Here we are in 2013, fifty years after the death of Medgar Evers.  Shot dead for working to end racism.  Fifty-eight years after a weary Rosa Parks declined to move to the back of the bus, the same year that 14-year old Emmett Till was beaten to death for looking at a white woman in a way that displeased her.

Last week, the US Supreme Court repealed portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the part that requires the most racist states in the union to obtain federal approval before changing their voting requirements—once again putting, as columnist Paula B. Mays wrote, “the rock in the hands of Goliath.”  No fewer than five southern states are now proceeding with changes to their voter identification requirements.

Here in the land of the free where we celebrate our own independence this week, we would do well to remember a quote by President Mandela:  “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”