MEMORIAL DAY 1998
[This account is extracted from Nyerges’ book, “Til Death Do Us Part?”, available from Kindle, or from the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]
It was Memorial Day, and I had scheduled to conduct a wild food outing at Pasadena’s Hahamongna Watershed Park. Since it was Memorial Day, my topic for a short discussion at the end of the outing was “death.” Hahamongna Park is the site of one of the Gabrielino Indian villages along the Arroyo Seco. I have found many handstones under the oak groves, used by people millennia ago to crack and grind their acorns and perform other tasks. Down in the bottom of the wash, on the far side of the canyon, I have read that archaeologists had found Indian bodies and believed the site was an old Gabrielino cemetery.
I have always liked the grandeur and openness of this park. When I grew up, this was a short bicycle ride away, and I regarded it as my extended back yard.
It was a cool and overcast day as participants for the wild food outing gathered in the parking area of the park. Among the half-dozen participants who showed up for the outing was Martin Kruse, a bearded, burly bear of a man who looked like he’d be more at home in the 19th century. He introduced himself and told me that he’d long wanted to meet me, that we both wrote for many of the same publications and had many friends in common, such as Ron Hood. Martin and I chatted as the other outing participants listened, and he told me about his work with archery and primitive bow-making.
I was struggling with almost-a-cold and with a stiff back, and so I felt almost not there. I wanted to just keep walking and to breathe deeply of the fresh air of the overcast day, but we walked slowly as everyone asked me countless questions about wild flowers, weeds, flowers, mushrooms, ground squirrels, and poisonous plants.
We walked down in the flat area of the large expanse of the park, where the wet mud had hardened, capturing countless animal tracks. Martin told us how to differentiate between coyote and dog tracks. He identified crow and other birds, showed us how to recognize the tracks of squirrel and rabbit. He’d obviously done a lot of tracking during his time hunting with a bow.
I later learned from Martin’s father that this was a favorite place of Martin’s when he was much younger. He’d come here and spend a week or two and study nature and tracks and practice with his bow. When we saw the deer tracks, Martin showed us how the deer’s hind foot had stepped into its own track just laid by its front foot. Martin said that only the female walks this way, that the male’s gait is different. He told us that the size of the hoof print meant it was a female deer about a year and a half old. I could tell that Martin enjoyed telling us all about the track.
We walked out to the middle of the flat area to see some old shelters I’d built with one of my classes a few years earlier. When we got there, there was absolutely no evidence of them. The heavy rains of the previous season had completely changed and altered the landscape, and a tributary of the Arroyo Seco now flowed where our shelters once stood. We headed back to the picnic area with the plan to continue identifying wild greens, and collecting enough for our wild food meal that is customary on all these walks. Then I’d share my brief Memorial Day commentary that I described on the printed schedule as “Considering Death.”
I led the way back to the oak trees. Within seconds, someone in the rear called out. Martin had fallen. I first thought it was a joke, and ran to him. It was no joke. His face already looked purple. The man who had been walking with him said he’d not tripped -- he just fell. You could tell by his hand position that he didn’t trip. I tried to rouse him, but it was quickly obvious that he was “out.”
Several of us moved Martin into what we assumed would be a more comfortable position, and that wasn’t easy! Martin was a big guy. And then -- since I was the only one who knew the area -- I ran to a phone to call 911. This was before the days of ubiquitous cell phones. Within 10 minutes, before I even got back to the group and Martin’s flat body -- paramedics from the City of Pasadena were on the scene, attempting to revive him. They all worked like a highly-coordinated team, speaking among themselves only briefly and in terms we didn’t understand. They were what we call a “well-oiled machine.” They carried him into the ambulance and took him away.
I could tell that the remainder of the outing participants were in varying degrees of shock. It had all been like a dream, and now Martin was gone. We discussed whether we thought Martin would revive or not. The paramedics had been fairly tight-lipped. When one was asked what he thought about Martin’s chances of recovery, he only said “I can’t do that.” Still, we all knew it was serious.
So there we stood in the cool afternoon breeze, contemplating death in the most sobering manner possible. I explained to everyone my death lesson -- which hardly seemed appropriate now. I didn’t talk everyone through the intended exercise -- I just explained a process that I’d done many times on Memorial Day.
Write a list of all those close people in your life. Then, close your eyes, and imagine getting a phone call telling you that they have just died. For most people, there are tears and a feeling of regret that they never told that person something. You write down all those things you wanted to say to that person. Then, since these folks are still alive, you then go and call them or write them or see them in person and tell them. This is a very profound exercise, and in many ways can be called “healing.”
But we didn’t actually go through this exercise. We were in no mood for an “exercise.” Someone had just died in our midst. We had to deal with it. We talked about how important it is to live each moment with intent, with joy, with soberness. We talked about how Martin may have wanted to say things to those he loved, but no longer could. After all, it isn’t necessarily others who might die. We talked about the stages that one passes through in the after death state, and how Martin will experience peace, but will also experience a life-review, a state of purgation, a state of heaven, and eventually another embodiment. One guy muttered, “I don’t believe in reincarnation.” I knew with this last point that I was treading on ground that some categorize as “religious beliefs,” so I didn’t push the matter. I just suggested that anyone interested read about it in Harold Percival’s Thinking and Destiny and decide for themselves.
Each person commented how “coincidental” it was that the lecture topic that I’d chosen for the day, and listed on the schedule, was “Death.” We kept reflecting on Martin. At that moment, none of us knew yet that Martin would not recover, that he had in fact died, and that he died in a place he loved. Nor had we known that Martin had a heart pacer, and an artery to his heart that was narrow. We were aware that he’d had surgery -- probably to the heart -- because we opened his shirt and saw the scar. I noted that Martin had been smoking his pipe during most of the outing. That couldn’t have been good for his health. What had really brought Martin there on that day? I felt goose bumps at first, thinking that on some level he wanted to be with me, enjoying the natural world, meeting as two souls in the place he loved, near the old Indian burial ground, on his final day.
A German woman who’d been on the outing, Walti, told me that we should not feel sad.
“It was quick,” she told me later. “What better place to die.” I could not help but agree with her. Martin’s death was apparently sudden, and his last memory would have been looking at the willows and the rushing stream and the cloudy sky and the sand flats of the Hahamongna Watershed Park. In his final moments, he was surrounded with friends that he’d only met that day, trail compadres who shared a common love of the outdoors, all brought together at this time and this place to witness his passing. Though I barely knew him, I felt closer to him in death.
Of course, I told Dolores about this when I got home. I was a bit shaken by the experience. In fact, it was not until late that night that I learned the name of who had died on my outing. Yes, he’d told me his name when he arrived, but so did a dozen other people who’d I’d just met that day. By calling around to the fire department and to the hospital, I learned Martin’s identity, and I managed to figure out his phone number through process of elimination in my phone log. Of course, I was partly worried about legal ramifications. It was Martin’s wife who told me that Martin died doing what he loved doing, and that it was probably the best of all possible outcomes that he died in that manner. She also said that the family felt Martin was living on “borrowed time,” that they felt he should have died (according to what the doctors said) five years earlier.
A few days later, Dolores and I and a few others were discussing this incident, and wondering about the series of choices that brought Martin to me on his last day. Dolores seemed very thoughtful about all this, and said that possibly Martin’s Doer (his spiritual Self) knew that his body was going to die. Coming to my outdoor outing brought him into contact with my Doer, my spiritual Self, which could have been a final uplifting act, whether or not each of us realized it.
In the days that followed, I would often see Martin’s face in my mind. I eventually learned that he taught archery and other primitive skills to children. How lucky those children must have been to have learned with such a man. His teaching will live on through those children, and through those who knew him.
A few days after Martin’s death, I wrote to one of his close friends, Ron Hood, to tell him what happened. Here is Ron’s response:
“I hope things went well for you today and that you found some peace. I can feel the pain and helplessness of your letter. I think that what you experienced must be the most common nightmare for all of us who take folks into the wilderness. For all those years I took my students into the mountains, each and every time we left for the experience, I worried. When we returned, I rejoiced. No injuries, and thank God, no deaths. I never lost the fear.
RON HOOD AND NYERGES
“One thing I knew for certain, there is no way to stop fate. All I could ever do was attempt to reduce the potential for accidents and hope that fate would leave me alone. I was lucky.
“You have been at this business for so long, with so many people, that the chances of encountering fate increased to the point where an encounter was unavoidable.
“I’m certain that you know you were not responsible for Martin’s death. It was due. I’ve known Martin for many years. During that time, Martin abused his body in many ways. Martin breathed fumes from his forge, from his cigarettes, and other things. He had a few of this and some of that and I was with him for part of that time. Martin always lived life in the fullest way he knew how. It was only later, after the damage was done, that he began to slow down. His heart operation, his physical condition, and his legendary consumption of things that gave him pleasure finally conspired to release him for the greatest experience of all. You just happened to be there when it happened. That was good for Martin, and bad for you. I am sorry. I wish I could exchange places with you. Martin was my friend and I would have understood his journey because I understood him.
“I can say one unalterable thing about Martin: He was a good man and a good friend. Everything else is part of the legend.
“A friend. Dr. Ron Hood.”