The old home movie begins with white-block letters on a black screen: Mushroom Hunt / Illinois 1995. The mushrooms my father hunted with his buddies for over fifty years aren’t of the hallucinogenic kind, not portabellas, or of the sort you’d find on a pizza. Sometimes called sponge mushrooms, the surface of a morel is pitted and can take the shape of a honeycomb-looking Christmas tree. In the home video I watch, Mom and Dad are in the garage of a house they don’t own anymore. Dad recaps the hunt while Mom films. Although she has cut Dad’s face out of the shot from the nose up, I can see he holds two giant mushrooms, each of them at least as thick as my fist and three times as tall. He wears a nylon jacket he’d say protects him from the clutches of the thorns and briars in the woods. A cheap rainbow-colored lawn chair is folded against the wall where a long bamboo cane pole hangs on a pair of hooks. As a kid, I remember standing behind our house and using that very pole to hook little sunfish and pull them from the Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Indiana.
“Day after Mother’s Day,” Dad announces. I would have been living in Kankakee, Illinois at the time this was shot having finished up my student teaching and the year I worked as a graduate assistant basketball coach at Olivet Nazarene University. I wonder if I drove home to see Mom for Mother’s Day. I hope I at least sent her a card.
“Vic and I went out this morning,” Dad says. Vic is his friend from high school. Dad graduated from Winamac in ’56, Vic two years after that, and me in ’89. “We left kind of late, like 9:00,” Dad continues. “We went to the Army Woods for the third time in three days.” Of course the actual place Dad hunted doesn’t bear the name Army Woods. Nicknames rise organically, in this case because the woods bordered some kind of military installation.
Mom pans the camera to the floor of the garage where Dad has put newspapers down on the concrete and spread out several hundred morel mushrooms. This represents half of the day’s find in that Vic has already taken his share home. Mom zooms in on the pile of roonies.
“As you can see,” Dad says, “we found some giants. It was wet and muddy and everything else.”
That Dad began to make these videos as he grew older became one of the catalysts for the mushroom project he and I hatched for the spring of 2012, in which we would make a short film about the art of hunting mushrooms. Having never made a film, I thought with the purchase of a camera and some Apple editing software maybe I could cobble something together that would be good enough to screen at a festival. My career transition had taken me first to Georgia for graduate school and then to New York City where I taught English composition courses at St. John’s University. Once, Dad was my assistant basketball coach and I saw him almost everyday. After my move to New York to teach first year writing, I saw my parents two or three times a year. Mom was the one who usually answered the phone when I called. Once in a while she would pass it to Dad. She was the one who wrote almost all of the emails. No matter how our film turned out, the mushroom project would serve as a vehicle for Dad and me to spend more time together. Dad and I made our plans for May, when I’d have a little extra time between the end of the semester and the start of final exams. Mother Nature quickly reminded us we weren’t in charge of when the mushrooms would appear.
The month of April brought lots of rain and warm weather, perfect conditions for mushrooms to grow. Dad called me with concern in his voice. “If you want to find any mushrooms, you better come this weekend.” Whether through increased land development, changes in the climate, or more fierce competition from other hunters, the amount of morels to be found each season seemed to be on the decline. More frequently, early warm weather followed by a dry cold snap would cut the mushroom season short. And so, with Dad’s warning reverberating in my ears, I taught my Thursday classes in New York and then loaded up the family in our cardinal-red Buick Rendezvous for the long journey to Indiana. My daughters, ages five and eight, were excited to hunt Easter eggs in the company of their grandparents and great grandmother while Dad and I turned our attention to a hunt of a different kind.
From France Park, Indiana...
It was a cold morning the day before Easter when I stood in an expansive gravel parking lot with a video camera pointed at my father. With the driver’s side door open, Dad sits in his Ford Escape changing out of tennis shoes into a pair of boots. At seventy-four, Dad stays in pretty good shape by going for regular walks each morning, when the weather isn’t too cold. Unlike me, he still has a full head of gray hair that he combs over to the side. We don’t know it yet, but a Parkinson’s diagnosis is on the way. We’re waiting for Dad’s friend Vic and two of his grandchildren who will join us for a hunt in a place called France Park. Located just outside of Logansport, Indiana, the park’s main attraction is a body of water that was formerly a rock quarry. Twenty-five years before as a teenager, I used to climb the cliffs and jump into the water, a practice that has since been forbidden. Dad looks to the lens of the camera—and to me behind it—and begins to explain why he’s changing out of his sneakers.
“I don’t like to wear my boots on the way to the hunt. If something happened, and I had to be taken to the hospital, I’d have to go with my boots on. So I always wait to put my boots on when I get to the woods.”
That Dad tells me this without any awareness that others might find his line of thinking on the morbid side, or at least a bit quirky, is one of the reasons I thought our little film project could work. A distinctive personality can carry a viewer’s interest beyond any shaky camera work or poor lighting. Before my father gets into a car, he asks himself What if I’m in a wreck? True, Dad has reasons for concern beyond the random traffic accident. Seventeen years ago from the time of this writing, back in 1997, Dad felt pressure in his chest and went to the doctor who sent him to Indianapolis where he had a stent placed in his left descending artery. It’s understandable that Dad might consider the possibility of having a heart attack behind the wheel, but then to have that concern alter his choice of footwear? Is this a matter of comfort, fashion sense, or something else?
Vic arrives to France Park with his granddaughter Camryn and grandson Caleb. The only thing I know about Vic’s grandchildren is that they play basketball. I’m sure Camryn and Caleb have other interests, but basketball matters a lot to Vic. Dad believes his friend has probably seen more Winamac High School basketball games (boys and girls) than anyone else who has ever lived. I can go years without seeing Vic and in the first five minutes I am in his company he will launch into a discussion about a high school basketball game played twenty years before. For men such as Vic and my father, what somebody can do on a basketball court has always carried an enormous weight. Once, when I was an assistant coach for a team that made a state title run in North Carolina, Dad drove down from Indiana each weekend for a month to watch the games. The next year, when I stopped coaching, Dad didn’t make any trips to the state. I repeated this sort of behavior, making consecutive trips home to Asheville, North Carolina from New York to help coach my daughter’s Under 10 basketball team at the YMCA.
I position Vic and his grandkids at the edge of the parking lot with the woods behind them. “Who did you bring?” I ask Vic. He wears a green swishy jacket of the same material Dad has always worn to hunt mushrooms. The jacket is the color of spring leaves--not so great for the camera--and he has on a baseball cap. Vic holds a found (rather than purchased) walking stick. He introduces Caleb, who is a freshman at Winamac High School. At about 6’0 tall and relatively muscled, Caleb is already taller and thicker than his grandfather. Caleb looks straight into the camera and smiles. Vic’s granddaughter Camryn is an eighth grader, and more shy, giving a half-hearted wave in my direction. I’m impressed that these kids want to get up early on a Saturday morning to hunt mushrooms with their grandfather. It says a lot about Vic and the kids.
“You don’t like your jacket?” I ask Caleb. I’d heard him complaining about it before he stepped in front of the camera. He and his sister’s windbreakers are also the color of spring leaves. Caleb responds with a grunt of agreement. “What kind of jacket would you wear if it were up to you?”
“My Adidas jacket; a nice cloth-y one.”
“What’s that one supposed to do?” I ask, fishing for the piece of advice Vic and Dad have offered me many times.
“This one?” Caleb asks, looking down helplessly at his clothes, as if he can’t believe he’s actually wearing this decidedly unstylish attire in public, let alone on camera.
Caleb and Vic answer my question at the same time: “To keep the briars off.”
“So Vic,” I say, “I’m in trouble in this one, right?” I’m wearing a brown North Face fleece that will probably act as a magnet for every prickly thing in the woods.
“Well,” Vic hesitates, unable to think of a tactful way to put what he has to say. “You’re probably in trouble.” As Vic says this, he reaches over and brushes a strand of hair from his granddaughter’s face. During the entirety of our hunt, we all call Camryn by the name of Cammie. It’s only later that my mom tells me she prefers Camryn.
“Cammie,” I ask, “are you a mushroom hunter?”
“Yes.” She looks my way and smiles before looking back to the ground.
“Your grandfather didn’t have to force you out here?”
“No.” Everyone laughs at that. Vic looks pleased.
From Bob and Sharon’s Basement…
Bob March was my dad’s high school teammate on the basketball team and a fellow mushroom hunter. He went on to play ball for Tulane University, was the athletic director and Dean of Students when I was in high school, and passed away in 2008. When Bob married Sharon, she became a regular for golf outings and mushroom hunts. Although Sharon couldn’t join us for this particular mushroom project, she did have her brother Jeff--surprise, surprise also a mushroom hunter--open up her basement the night before our hunt so that I could ask the guys questions about hunting mushrooms and record some of their stories.
The basement was a particularly good setting with its bar counter, row of stools, and loads of sports memorabilia. It even has a jukebox and a small black and white-tiled dance floor. Filled with trophies, golf-ball souvenirs to commemorate great shots or visits to legendary courses, pictures of winning teams, and loads of Purdue University souvenirs, Bob and Sharon’s basement would probably do great as a sports bar if plunked down in West Lafayette, where the school is located.
“What is the theory with elm trees?” I ask. About the only little detail I know when it comes to finding morel mushrooms is that they often grow near almost-dead elm trees. “They have to be slightly dead?”
“One with a gray streak in it,” Sharon’s brother Jeff says. He’s wearing a plaid shirt in shades of brown with a bright orange t-shirt underneath.
“How about that brown stuff?” Dad asks.
“Brown and white,” Vic says. “That’s a good one.”
These answers have given me nothing when it comes to introducing a potential viewer of our film to what a morel mushroom is and how a person might get started finding them.
“It’s got to have some bark on it though,” Dad says. “It can’t be just a bony skeleton of a tree.”
“The first year they die,” Casey begins. I wait for him to finish this sentence, but instead he just raises his eyebrows and nods his head knowingly as we share a secret.
That’s when you want them…” I offer.
“That’s when you can have the big bonanzas,” Casey says.
“The big bunches,” my dad adds.
From France Park...
Still in the parking lot, I ask Vic to read something for the camera that he wrote on a set of questions I passed out the night before in Bob and Sharon’s basement. I’ve marked the lines of his writing I want him to read. I’m thinking I’ll use this as voice over for some of Dad’s home videos, and what I shoot today of him and Vic in the woods.
“The only ones still able to hunt,” Vic says, “and it’s a sad thing, from our older friends is Torg and me. With me being able to hunt for mushrooms with Torg is a blessing. It’s a pretty daunting task to keep up with him because he’s fast. He knows where the trees are and if he doesn’t, he still finds them.” Vic mumbles an aside. “That last part wasn’t in here, but I said it anyway.” He resumes reading from the paper. “All of our fellow hunters were very determined and all had great abilities to root out these elusive fungi. People like Butch Reutebuch, Casey Jones, Kenny Hattery, Bob and Sharon March, Doug Blastic, and, of course, Martin Torgerson here, have filled my memories with endless tales for the quest of the mushroom.”
I’ve marked two more sections for Vic to read: “When I was a young kid, my Great Uncle Chet was about seventy years old, and he used to use a stick and put it in the weeds.” Vic demonstrates by taking his walking stick and touching it down to the gravel in front of him. I realize that I’m receiving a tip that has been passed down through at least three generations. “He’d tell me to follow the stick with my eyes and that’s where the mushrooms were.”
A few more lines for Vic to read: “Another reason I still hunt, in addition to, of course, Torg, is I like to take our grandkids. We’ve got eleven and some of them are past the ages of these guys. We go into the woods, and we keep alive the thrill of mushroom hunting and all the tales I’ve gathered in the last forty years with Torg, Casey, and the guys. We have many memories, and it’s kind of nice to share them with my grandkids because I want to keep that going forever.”
I pan the camera over to where Dad stands. He’s fully changed now into his mushroom hunting gear, standing there in a gray sock hat, worn blue jeans, and a brown coat. Behind Dad is the woods, predominantly brown with the tree trunks but also sprinkled green with spring leaves and a sycamore tree white as bone against the otherwise dull background.
“So this is the trail we’ll use over here?” I ask Dad. The night before I heard about how the trail is new and the climb up the hill used to be much tougher.
“What do you want to do with that paper?” Dad asks. He means the paper Vic just read from. Although Dad isn’t always aware of his sometimes aggressive sounding tone (a trait my wife Megan also attributes to me), Dad brings up the paper as if it’s an important issue that must be tackled immediately. Where in the world can we put this paper?
“I’ll take it,” I tell Dad. I don’t want to put the camera down so I put Vic’s paper in my pocket. “Tell me about this trail.” Dad is at least ten yards away from Vic, Caleb, and Camryn. I have been talking to him, and the camera is still pointed directly at him.
“You talking to me?” The way Dad asks this reminds me of Robert De Niro practicing the line in the mirror--You talking to me?--in the film Taxi. Dad isn’t trying to be confrontational. It’s just his natural default tone. He points in the direction of a wide mulch-lined trail that looks like pretty easy walking, much easier than what I recall from one of the few times I ever joined Dad on a mushroom hunt. I was a high school student then, and I remember Dad waking me up around midnight after I’d only been in bed a few hours. We picked up Vic at his house and rode north four hundred and forty miles (I looked it up) to Durand, Wisconsin and some woods Vic and Dad call Knife Man Hill. On a previous trip, they’d seen a man walking along the side of the road peeling an apple with a huge knife. Thus, the nickname was born.
I remember arriving to Knife Man Hill just as the sun was beginning to rise. Although it was way too dark to find a brown morel the color of the forest floor, we went into the woods anyway so that we could be at the first good tree. Over the years, most of the mushrooms my father has found were near dying elm trees, the result of Dutch elm disease, a plight that has killed millions of trees and contributed to the vast treasures of roonies claimed by my dad and his friends over a lifetime of hunting.
Although many elm trees have disappeared from the woods, lots of mushrooms still get found. I used to think Dad just went out into the woods, any old woods, and started looking around on the ground for mushrooms. Now, I realize, Dad hunts for mushrooms the way somebody else might fish. Just as an angler would have their favorite fishing holes on the river or lake, Dad and his friends have their favorite trees or clusters of trees they check in on each year. When Dad heads into the woods, he’s returning to familiar haunts and keeping his eyes peeled for dead elm trees he’s missed or forgotten. Dad even looks for dead elms in the summertime when they are easy to pick out from the otherwise lush treetops. As a kid, we could have been zipping down Interstate 65 on our way to a late-July vacation at Kings Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, and Dad would remark, Look at that elm. What a beauty!
From Bob and Sharon’s Basement…
From his perch on the bar stool, Vic announces a problem he has with my Dad. “I always follow Torg and a couple of years ago he tells me he’s got a good place for us to go mushroom hunting. I ask him where it is. ‘Memphis, Tennessee,’ he tells me.”
There’s a cackle of laughter from the other guys. Memphis is a long way from Winamac.
“I go to Arkansas a couple times a year and that’s a lot of driving. We get down in the area around St. Louis. There’s a sign. Memphis 428 miles.”
Vic has exaggerated here. It’s true that the total distance from Winamac to Memphis is as far as he’s claimed, but from the St. Louis area to their final destination was more like 280 miles.
“Torg, I’m already tired,” Vic tells Dad in the car.
“Four hundred more miles,” Dad is said to have responded. “We’ll be there.”
Vic and Dad finally arrive to the woods near Memphis.
“We find one or two pounds,” Vic reports.
“Not very many,” Dad agrees. “I’m done with that trip.”
“Yeah he’s done,” Vic says. “Five years in a row he still goes down there. This year, Torg, I told you, don’t go down to Southern Illinois. I get back from Arkansas just a couple weeks ago, Torg tells me, ‘I’ve already been down there.’”
I ask how the hunters know when the time is right to start looking around Winamac. Vic tells me he and Dad will drive on highway thirty five toward Logansport near where France Park is located. At the intersection of State Road Twenty Four, there is a row of trees and bushes. Vic says if the view from the road is obstructed because of new spring growth on the trees and bushes--and of course if the lilacs are in bloom--then the time to hunt mushrooms has arrived.
From France Park, Indiana…
I’m down in a crouch in the middle of the trail as the hunters walk toward me in a single file line. “We’re going to go off this way to look for a tree,” Vic says, more to the others than to me. Vic’s grandson Caleb exits the trail opposite the direction his grandfather wants to go. Caleb has a pretty good idea of what an elm tree looks like, and he’s perfectly capable of finding mushrooms on his own. “Caleb,” Vic says, “this way.” Caleb continues away from Vic. “He’s going to go look for a tree in the other direction,” Vic says, almost as if this is a ludicrous idea. Vic goes his way and ducks under a low hanging branch. “Watch your eyes, Honey,” Vic says to Cammie. She follows her grandfather who holds a branch so it won’t flip back at her. “It’s going to be wet in here.”
Dad is right behind Vic and Camryn. Sunlight shines through openings in the trees overhead. “Boy, is it sunny,” Dad says. We learn later than sensitivity to sunlight can be a symptom of Parkinson’s. Dad also has a resting tremor that had us concerned. He follows Camryn under the low hanging branch. Our day is a contrast of the bright wall of light out in the open spaces and the darkness that hangs under the canopy formed by the treetops. Caleb has already turned around to follow the group. Watching him, I consider all the advice I have resisted from my parents over the years, whether it’s about the subject matter of the books I write or the turn lane I choose getting off the highway. As a forty four year old husband and father, I can see now that I too will have a tough time not offering up my observations to my girls for the rest of my life.
We check a couple of spots where, earlier in the week, Dad and Vic jammed some sticks into the ground to mark where they’d covered some little mushrooms with leaves with hopes they’d grow during the week. I think maybe Vic and Caleb came back and marked a couple of additional spots. Vic has guessed there might be forty or so mushrooms in one of these locations. I find myself remembering a television special from the mid-eighties hosted by Geraldo Rivera where viewers were invited to see what was in a vault previously owned by the notorious gangster Al Capone. After two hours, the vault was opened, and it contained no treasure. I’m concerned we might be making just such a program. If we don’t find any morels, the payout for the audience could be as big of a dud as the contents of Capone’s vault. Now that I’m out here in the woods surrounded by ten miles of hiking trails, I think it’s a rather crazy plan to think we’ll find a brown stick stuck down into the mostly brown ground covered with a layer of last year’s decaying brown leaves. Dad walks around the area looking up in the air for a tree and then to the ground for the stick.
“I think I’m standing by it, Torg,” Vic says. He means one of the elm trees.
“Do you really?” Dad asks. He sounds skeptical.
“Oh I don’t know,” Vic says.
“Is that a dead elm?” Dad asks.
“It’s an elm tree,” Vic says.
“But it’s not dead,” Dad notes. Only a mushroom hunter can be a little disappointed that a tree has escaped Dutch Elm disease. “That’s why we’re kind of wandering around. It’s a pretty good tree, and we left a couple of mushrooms here earlier in the week. So that’s what we’re doing. Things will get easier in a few minutes.”
We never do find the good elm tree in this particular spot or any sticks in the ground, or any mushrooms for that matter. We move on, and after a ten-minute walk, we’re off the trail and Vic stands up to his knees in green plants that look to me like massive seven-leaf clovers. “What are these?” I ask.
“Why do they matter?”
“When the Mayapples are up,” Vic explains, “the mushrooms are up.”
Ten or so yards away, Dad pokes with his walking stick at the new growth on the forest floor. He pushes aside plants, sometimes moving the leaves around where he thinks the spot is especially promising. My dad’s plan is straightforward. Find the mostly dead elm trees and then use his walking stick to inspect the ground closely. Dad doesn’t pay much attention to the ground until he finds a dead elm, and then he’ll really take his time almost seeming to look under every leaf within ten yards of a tree.
Dad hollers over to Vic. “It’s too hard to mark them in this place.”
“Oh it is,” Vic says, sounding disgusted and disappointed.
“This is not a good place where you mark where they are and try to find them later,” Dad says. “You know it?”
“Well, I’m finding that out,” Vic answers. Then he calls out, “Camryn where are you?” She’s less than five feet away and directly behind her grandfather. She says something I can’t hear. “Oh, hi Honey,” Vic says.
With my dad, there’s no Found one! cry of delight when he discovers the first roonie of the day. He’s low-key in the same way he is when he hits a jackpot on the poker machine at the casino. “Do you remember the mushroom we left here?” Dad asks. “He did grow.”
“Did he really?” Vic asks. He’s hopeful in the face of the unlikely possibility that a mushroom could grow in the cold and dry weather that immediately preceded the days before our hunt. “I’m coming.” Vic makes his way through a thicker part of the woods to come see the mushroom.
“I remember he was a gray,” Dad says, “and now he turned yellow.” Most seasons the smaller grays come first followed by the larger yellows. There is the occasional wacky season where all the mushrooms seem to come at once.
“I was about to give up,” Vic says. “I was all the way down there by the path again.” Vic is pointing out just how far he was from where he was supposed to be. The mushroom is small, and I can’t see it in the viewfinder of the camera until I practically touch the lens to its tip.
“Where is it?” Vic asks. Dad points at the mushroom with the tip of his walking stick. “Well for Pete’s sake,” Vic exclaims. “That’s a dandy!”
“Remember how it was a tiny little gray?” Dad asks.
“If we can find the ones we left over in the other spot,” Dad says, “we’ll be in business.”
“Way to go!” Vic says, as if he and Dad are teammates on the hardwood and Dad has just made a steal to tie the game.
“But why aren’t there more?” Dad asks, wonder in his voice. Vic says he doesn’t know. “That’s a mystery,” Dad says. “There should be more mushrooms around here.”
“That’s exciting right there!” Vic says. You’d think these two have uncovered gold coins on the forest floor for all of their enthusiasm. Then Vic yells, “Kids, where are you?”
In the distance, I can barely hear Caleb’s voice. “We’re right here.”
“Caleb!” Vic yells. I don’t know if Vic hasn’t heard him, or if he’s angry at how far away Caleb’s voices sounded.
“Yes!,” Caleb calls again, “I said we’re right here.”
“Don’t go any farther.”
I point the lens of the camera back to the mushroom. “Do you have a preferred way to pick it?” I ask.
Dad readies his hand. “You don’t want to pull them out by the roots. You pinch them near the ground, and that’s about all there is to it. Some people cut them with knives, but we aren’t into that.” Dad pinches with his thumb and forefinger just above the dirt and leaves the stump of the mushroom in the ground. He holds his find up to the lens of the camera. It’s about as tall as his thumb and just a little bit wider. He pinches off the end of the trunk of the mushroom. “I don’t want to get dirt in my sack.” Dad uses plastic bread sacks to collect his mushrooms. This is a source of contention among some hunters who argue everyone should use some kind of breathable or netted bag (like what you buy potatoes in) so that a mushroom hunter walking around the woods will spread spores for future years. Later, at a morel festival in Brown County in Southern Indiana, I’ll hear several mycologists--those who study fungi--say that a mushroom picked for consumption is probably too early in its life cycle to spread any spores.
“You know what?” Vic asks.
“This is amazing,” Dad says. He’s still admiring the find, so excited to find ONE mushroom.
“That thing is four times as big,” Vic says.
“Four or five days ago, it was only about that big.” Dad holds his fingers apart no more than two inches. Vic starts to poke around the area with his walking stick looking for more mushrooms.
“Look at that Vic!” Dad’s poker-face demeanor has vanished. He’s spotted another one from where he is on his knees having picked the first. Dad has energy in the woods looking for mushrooms I don’t really see anywhere else in his life. I think about what I’ve read about Charles Dickens, how although the writer was in poor health for his American tour, he’d come alive reading his work. That’s what finding mushrooms does to Dad. It injects him with youthful energy and enthusiasm.
“Where?” Vic asks.
“Right there.” Dad points again with his walking stick.
“Right where I’m stepping?” Now Vic sees it. “For Pete’s sake,” he says again.
“It’s burned on the top,” Dad tells me. “You might not even want to take a picture of it.” This mushroom has dried out, probably due to a lack of water more than its age. It is black and crumbly near the top like a newspaper used to start a fire.
Since this is only the second mushroom we’ve found, I film it. Now I have a movie in which at least two mushrooms can star.
Dad notices Vic wears tennis shoes, and that they are enveloped in mud. Vic’s feet have to be wet, cold, and uncomfortable. “Why didn’t you wear your boots?”
“I gave them to Caleb,” Vic says, almost as if he’s embarrassed to admit what he has done. I remember when I was a kid, Vic put in a concrete basketball court in our back yard. When Dad tried to force money on him, Vic said he’d tear the cash up if he gave it to him. Over the years, all of the small sacrifices Vic has made over the years have contributed to the relationship Vic has with his grandchildren. All of these acts of generosity have piled up to create Vic’s character.
Dad picks the “burnt” mushroom. “I wonder what happened to this one?” he asks. “It’s fried and the other one...you know, it was covered by leaves and kept out of the sun. I wonder if that has anything to do with it?” Dad holds the mushroom up to the lens of the camera. “It’s probably no good.” There’s some dejection in his voice. “I’m going to save it anyway. Maybe I’ll throw it away later. Let’s see how it does in the sack.”
“Hey kids!” Vic yells. “Caleb?” he calls for his grandson.
“Yes, I’m right here,” Caleb answers. He sounds like he might be twenty yards off in the woods. I think about Vic’s need to have Caleb close while remembering the freedom I had as a child. Back when I was in elementary school, maybe third or fourth grade, we lived out in the country with a barn and woods. I would spend long hours out there by myself with my dog. Mom would ring a cowbell from the back door, and I’d know it was time to come in. Maybe grandparents tend to be more protective of their grandkids than they are of their children.
As we walk through the woods, Dad stops to look around. “Not enough foliage on the ground,” he says. Most of the trees have just the beginnings of buds and leaves. There is green foliage on the ground, but the walking is easy. The brush isn’t thick, never any taller than the knee. Many bushes are green.
Vic finds the stump of a fresh mushroom that someone else has picked, possibly even earlier this morning. Earlier in the morning, we crossed paths with a lone hunter, probably the driver of the one truck in the parking lot. “Isn’t that something?” Vic asks. “Let’s find that guy and get him to put that roonie back down here.” Vic finds the third mushroom of the day. “Here’s one, a horrible looking thing.”
“Did I step on him?” Dad asks.
“No.” Vic picks the mushroom and hands it over to dad. He brings it my way and holds it up to the camera. It’s a lopsided morel, more stalk than the spongy part we’d eat, and its body is flat as if smashed.
“This is called a Hattery,” Dad explains, invoking the last name of his friend and fellow mushroom hunter Kenny Hattery. Having passed away in 2010, Kenny’s obituary noted his passion for “ice fishing in the winter, mushroom hunting in the spring, and gardening in the summer.”
From Bob and Sharon’s Basement…
Casey does his best Kenny Hattery impression, pretending to grab hold of the straps of a pair of bib overalls. He’s explaining how his friend would convince farmers in Michigan and Wisconsin to give permission for the group to hunt on private land. “Kenny’s wearing that green John Deere hat of his and he’d say, ‘Oh, we’re just farmers from Indiana. The rain has kept us out of the fields so we thought we’d come mushroom hunting.’” The guys laugh remembering the man who served in Korea and worked for many years as a baseball and softball umpire, and a high school guidance counselor. “By the time Kenny was through talking to the farmer, we’d been in the kitchen having a cup of coffee.”
“Do you remember the first time we went to Richland Center?” Vic asks. He’s talking about a town of 5,000 or so people three hundred miles to the Northwest of Winamac and located in central Wisconsin. Some guys take golf vacations, trips to Vegas or to NFL football games with their buddies. These guys tour woods like indie rock bands hit dive bars. “Some of us got lost,” Vic remembers, “and we had to sit at that gas station until somebody came by. We went out in this field. Hattery was with us. This is back when he had that El Camino. Torg and Casey were up on the hill, mad, because they were finding these huge old mushrooms.”
Excited by his own story, Vic rises from the stool. “We’re throwing mushrooms over our shoulders.” Vic tosses imaginary mushrooms over his shoulder behind the bar in the basement. Casey and Dad begin to do the same. At least in their imaginations, they’re all back in the woods.
“This is an ugly mushroom,” Dad says, tossing another roonie over his shoulder each time he repeats the line. “This is an ugly. This is an ugly. This is an ugly.”
“Hey,” Casey calls out. He uses the pointer finger of each hand to show us an eight-inch mushroom. “They’re that big.”
“Yeah!” Vic says. He points at Casey’s hands as if this proves the veracity of the story. “And what is Kenny doing?” Vic asks.
“Hattery is on his hands and knees,” Dad says, barely able to get the words out, “picking them up and putting them in his bag.” Dad acts this out too, as if he is Kenny stuffing ugly mushrooms into his bread sack.
“So that’s how Torg came up with the name of a horrible looking mushroom,” Vic explains, “which is a Hattery.”
From France Park, Indiana…
“Remember, kids, last year where we found them?” Vic asks. We’ve walked about halfway around the quarry. A complete lap will put us back at the car. I notice Dad has veered off the trail and is checking around on the ground.
“Is this the one?” Caleb asks. He’s talking about a specific elm tree.
“Look right here,” Vic says. He’s pointing with his walking stick. “Stop right now.” The green growth on the floor of the woods is thin and no more than ankle high. Ground cover and mushrooms grow at different rates depending on the side of the slope of the hill they are on in relation to the amount of sunlight they receive. We are in an open area shaded by few trees. “Come over here,” Vic says. “I see a mushroom.”
“I don’t even seem him,” Dad says.
Caleb squats down next to the mushroom.
“Wow,” Dad says. “You want us to uncover it, Bill?” he asks me.
“Well yeah,” Vic says.
I walk closer trying to spot the mushroom in the viewfinder of the camera. Three walking sticks poke at the ground moving leaves to uncover the mushroom. “Good eye, Vic!” Dad says. The mushroom is probably four inches tall, perfectly formed and looks fresh. “There’s got to be more mushrooms in here. It doesn’t really look like that guy walked around in here.” He means the hunter who allegedly picked the roonie for which Vic found the stump. Despite an intense search of the area, we find just the one mushroom.
Later, I’ve hustled to get up a hill ahead of the group so I can film their ascent. “What’s the point of climbing this hill?” I ask.
Dad is partially out of breath, but he answers. “There’s a certain tree Vic wants to check. A couple of trees!”
“Did I hear you say it’s Bob’s tree?”
“Bob found it first,” Dad says. Caleb is right behind him. Dad leans on a small tree, his hand on its slender trunk. He wears a gray sock hat and clutches at a bread sack that probably holds less than ten mushrooms.
“Why don’t you stop for a minute and tell me something about Bob March.”
Dad points with his walking stick to behind me where there is a path that runs along the top of the ridge. “Bob was hunting in here one day. We were walking down that path. Bob was a good hunter. He got off the path about thirty feet and all of the sudden he yelled, ‘I’m in ’em!’”
In Dad’s mushroom-hunting group parlance, I’m in ’em is the phrase that signals a bonanza, a massive find of morels. “We went over and helped him pick them. For about five years straight, we always found some. Now, it’s more rare to find any, but there could still be some there.”
“It was the first time we ever hunted around an elm tree,” Vic says.
“How long ago was it that Bob died?” I ask Dad. He looks to Vic.
“About three years ago, wasn’t it?” Dad asks.
“Three years just a couple of days ago,” Vic says. Easter has marked the time for them when it comes to Bob’s passing.
Dad walks away from me, almost shuffling. “Seems like he’s still alive,” Dad says, more to the woods than me, “but he isn’t.”
The crackle of leaves is loud in my earphones. Dad’s foot catches on a root. In retrospect, a shuffling gait or way of walking is a symptom of Parkinson’s. I can’t help but see it in the footage. Dad does a version of this too. The disease can be seen in everything when it’s probably not.
I find a mushroom on the side of the hill near Bob’s tree. It’s the biggest of the day tucked down into a bed of leaves with the tip poking through. It’s the first mushroom I ever remember finding. We don’t find any more mushrooms around Bob’s tree. We walk in silence for a while. I know we’re getting close to the car. I ask the group to stop along the trail.
“So we’re wrapping up here,” I say. “What’s left to do?”
“We think there are some elm trees on the path back to the car,” Dad says.
“And there’s a chance,” Vic adds, “we might find some trees we don’t know about.”
“Here’s to finding a couple more,” I say.
“Yeah, right,” Dad agrees, some enthusiasm in his voice.
We do find another mushroom. Dad uncovers it for me with his walking stick. “Oh wow,” he says. “It’s got perfect shape.” For Dad, and I tend to agree, the perfect shape for a mushroom is the symmetrical, yellow Christmas-tree shaped roonie. The fat trunk of the mushroom is paper white, and the pitted and ridged point is a yellow sponge. “That is far away from the tree,” Dad remarks. “Vic, look how far away you are.” Dad is surprised because usually a mushroom will grow pretty close to a dead elm.
“There is a tree right here,” Vic says. There’s no reaction from Dad about Vic’s comment. As far as I know, his hearing is excellent.
“Pick him, Cammie,” Dad says.
“Torgy,” Vic says, trying to get Dad’s attention.
Dad watches while Camryn picks the mushroom. Vic bangs his walking stick on a tree trying to get Dad to look.
“Shake the dirt off of him,” Dad tells Camryn.
“Torg,” Vic says again. He’s still rapping on the tree with his stick.
“Vic, he won’t listen to you,” I say.
“No,” Vic agrees. “He won’t. Torg, look here.”
Dad’s not five feet from Vic, but he absolutely ignores him. Maybe it’s just that Dad is completely focused on Camryn and the mushroom. I have friends who can’t hear me when they are watching a basketball game on television.
“You gotta get more dirt off than that,” Dad tells Camryn. Vic still holds the elm tree he wants Dad to see. “You might have to break off more of the mushroom.”
Camryn pinches off the end.
“There you go,” Dad says. Camryn hands over the mushroom to Dad. “That is the best one.” Dad tucks his walking stick under his arm and inspects the mushroom. “Look at that! Look at those ants.” Dad turns to me. “Get the ants,” he instructs. He wants me to film them. His voice has a touch of frantic in it as if he’s holding a match that has nearly burned to its nub. The ants are probably beginning to make their way from the end of the roonie onto Dad’s hand.
“Get it closer to the camera,” I say. “I can’t see the ants.”
“Shake ’em out,” Vic says.
Dad tries to blow the ants off the mushroom as if he’s blowing out a fire.
“Put it up to the lens more,” I say. Dad does push the mushroom up to the camera.
“Hey Torg,” Vic says, “give it to me.”
“Right here,” I say. My finger comes into the camera shot right in front of the lens. Dad tries to get the mushroom closer.
“Hey Camryn,” Vic says, “gimme your water.”
Now I can see the ants, at least ten of them on the end of the mushroom. They don’t look like the red biting kind, but I’m not sure.
“I got to get the ants off of there, Bill.”
“I see them,” I say. Dad pulls the mushroom away and blows on the end of it again. His breath hisses in my ears.
“Boy,” Vic says. “They are all over your hand. You got any water?”
“That’s okay,” Dad answers. He keeps blowing hard on the mushroom trying to get the ants off.
Vic comes over to Dad with an open bottle of water. “Let me do this.”
“I’ll get ’em,” Dad objects.
“I was going to throw some water in there.” Vic starts to tip the bottle over Dad’s hand, but not so far that anything comes out.
I think Dad has freed himself and the mushroom of the ants. “I was thinking all that was mud,” Dad begins. “You got any ants on you, Cammie?” She doesn’t.
“There are three trees around here,” Caleb says.
“Quit finding….” Vic sounds flustered. “Quit finding ant trees!”
From Bob and Sharon’s Basement…
“We’ve always been aware of ticks,” Vic says. “ It was a couple days after our hunt, and I’d just got out of the shower. I was sitting there in my underwear when John walked by.”
Vic’s son-in-law John and I are fellow “Class of’ ’89” graduates of Winamac High School. Notice here that Vic is the kind of guy who sits around in his house clad only in his underwear. Vic tells us his son-in-law John noticed he had a target on his back.
“Bullseye!” Dad adds.
“I never look at my ass when I’m taking a shower,” Vic explains. The room fills with laughter. “I can’t get my head back there, you know? I was never aware of it [the bullseye], but it was a perfect circle.” Vic holds up his hand to demonstrate the size. “It must have been four inches across and deep red in the middle.
“Ugly,” Dad observes. I wonder if Dad ever saw Vic’s tick bite.
Vic tells us the bullseye wasn’t bothering him and so he went to bed. He remembers waking up in the night realizing he’d fallen out of bed. “That was strange,” Vic notes, but he still didn’t think too much about it. Vic estimates that he went to work for three or four days. He fell out of bed a couple more times. Then something happened at work: “I was telling the guys what I wanted them to do, and I just fell down. There I was passed out on the floor.” That night, Vic fell out of bed again. “They took me to the hospital. They didn’t use the ambulance because it’s pretty expensive to do that. We go in there, and there’s a guy [a doctor] from South Bend.”
“You’re kind of lucky I’m here,” the doctor told Vic. “You’ve been bitten by a tick.”
“He started giving me shots,” Vic says. I ask Vic about the shots he received, but he doesn’t know what was in the injections. I’ve read research that suggests long-term antibiotics can reduce the symptoms of Lyme Disease.
“In the next six months, I was forced to quit work,” Vic says.
I tell the guys about what I’ve read. “It’s a pretty controversial thing that some insurance companies financed some research which concluded there is no such thing as chronic Lyme Disease. Thus, the companies were empowered to deny claims.”
“I never had any of that problem,” Vic says.
“Great,” I say.
“It makes you wonder why we go mushroom hunting,” Dad says, “after you hear the stories with the ticks and the snakes.” He’s standing now, probably because his back gets pretty sore if he stays in one position too long. I’m the same way from too many seasons of adult recreation basketball leagues.
“The bad part about this,” Vic says, “is that you get the fever. Even when I had a TIF…” Vic looks around for help. He knows he’s got those letters wrong.
“TIA,” Dad says. Often referred to as a mini-stroke, Vic experienced a transient ischemic attack as a result of his Lyme Disease. The Mayo Clinic website informs me that TIAs do not cause lasting damage, but can serve as an indicator that a full stroke is to come.
“Whatever it’s called,” Vic says, “I want to go back [mushroom hunting] next week.”
Casey tells us that about seven years ago, after several heart surgeries he quit going mushroom hunting, but he still sometimes goes on the trips and sits in the car while the guys hunt.
“It gets in your blood,” Dad says.
“When you think about how many mushroom hunters there were to start,” Vic says. “Were there seven? Torg and I are the only ones left able to hunt.”
“Yeah,” Casey says. His arms are folded across his chest. I take him to be thinking about this hard.
“Every year,” Vic says, “it gets tougher.” He means to get out into the woods each year is more of a physical challenge.
“I told my wife the other day,” Dad says, “I’m going because it might be my last hunt.”
Casey puts his hand out as if he’s holding something. “I remember once,” he says, “we stopped to eat a sandwich at seven o’clock in the morning.” Casey is at the table of a diner now and holding a sandwich. His voice halts. None of us realize yet he is mostly losing a battle to hold back his emotions.
“On the way there?” Dad asks.
Casey’s hand shakes. “No, we’d just finished hunting. I’m sixty years old,” Casey says. He’s much older than that now, probably at least fifteen years older. He’s telling us about a moment he remembers, a moment when he paused to reflect on his time as a mushroom hunter. “Boy oh boy, how much longer can I do this?” We all wait for the answer, locked away in Casey’s thoughts like the punchline to a joke. “It turns out not much longer.”
Vic laughs. Although Casey set up his story as if it might have a funny conclusion, he’s not joking. It’s been mostly laughs and good memories tonight, but these memories come with friends who are now gone. “I had to have heart surgery the next year.”
Vic’s expression turns grave. He nods his head. “Quadruple bypass or something.”
Casey poses as if he’s flexing his muscles after a big lift. It’s bravado to take attention away from his emotion. “I came back stronger than ever.”
“You did,” Dad agrees.
“Torg had the same problem,” Vic adds. “You had that stent one year.”
“I missed a whole season,” Dad says. “They stuck a stent in there and said Get well Torgerson and don’t go mushroom hunting.”
Vic tells us about the year he didn’t have Dad to hunt with. “It was just me and Kenny Hattery who would go, and we had a hell of a time finding the woods.” Vic looks at Dad. “You were the one who always drove and knew where the woods were. We didn’t even know how to get there.”
“You and Hattery were just lost souls.” Dad’s lost souls phrase isn’t meant to bear any extra connotations, but he is talking about a friend who has passed away. Dad only means lost like he’d be lost trying to pay the bills if my mom wasn’t around to do it. But that word soul pulls us all even further down the reflective path we’ve already been traversing. With perhaps the exception of me--will I make it to eighty-eight years of age?--everyone in the room has much less time to live than they have already lived. Casey is done mushroom hunting. Between Dad and Vic the list of impediments to hunting include muscle cramps, a fragile heart, a Parkinson’s diagnosis, the possibility of a TIA event, and general cardiovascular fitness. A gentle grade of twenty yards can some days be too steep of a challenge, never mind logs to climb over or shallow streams to cross. Every time Vic and Dad go into the woods they could be undertaking their last hunt. Of course, my time listening to the guys lends itself into thinking about my own time. It’s death, as we all likely know, that has the power to bring each day of life its spark of significance.
Casey sits on his stool, each hand resting on one of his legs, looking down at the floor. “Hatman,” he says. It’s the name they all used for Kenny Hattery. “Bob.” Casey grunts as if he’s knocked his head on a door-frame or someone has punched him too hard on the arm. It’s wonderful and painful for him to remember his friends via these stories.
“That’s the thing,” Vic says. “A lot of our friends who were great hunters are now gone and that’s sad.”
Casey strokes his leg. He’s still looking at the floor. “Shared a lot of memories with them.”
I can see in my mind all the old home video Dad (and sometimes Mom) have shot over the years. A blue plastic grocery sack full of mushrooms has been set down on the lush spring grass. Dad swings the camera up from the ground to Vic, decades ago, dressed in a blue coat and a camouflage cap. Behind Vic, there’s a narrow country road and the woods behind it. “Let me ask you a couple of questions Vic,” Dad narrates.
Vic grins. “Okay.”
“How do you feel after many months of hiatus on opening day?”
“Tired as hell.”
The hunters are out in the country between two fields walking on what isn’t quite a road, but two bare patches of tire tracks in the dirt with grass growing down the middle. Bob stands posing for the camera with his arm around Dad. Perhaps they were looking for mushrooms along the fence-row or even just walking from one wood to the next. Bob holds a big bag heavy with mushrooms. Full of jubilant enthusiasm, Dad takes his hat off and holds it up triumphantly. Bob tips his cap, and the two men turn to continue down the road. I keep seeing Dad and his friends--different guys in each shot--walking away from me and into the woods.
Now the hunters are in an old garage of ours. Kenny Hattery sits in a lawn chair holding a mushroom half the width of a loaf of bread and just as long. Dad is crouched down beside him holding up a giant mushroom of his own. Stretched out before them on a tarp--or is it a bed sheet?--is a big pile of mushrooms, hundreds and hundreds of them found on one trip. The guys would often spread out their treasure, pop a cold beer, and take turns pulling roonies from the pile as if making draft choices for a sports team.
Now a shot of Dad in a blue, turquoise, and black jacket that must be from the 80’s. He wears a black cap with the hood of the jacket pulled up too. Sometimes the weather for a mushroom hunt can be pretty cold. With a big smile, Dad holds up two of the largest finds of the day. He’s just told the story of one of my first and last mushroom hunts. Not yet ten years old, I picked the first mushroom of the day and proceeded to take a big bite out of it. Hamming it up for the camera--over the years Dad and Vic would often pass it back and forth between them--Dad pretends to take a big bite of the roonie as if it’s an apple.
One final video shot in another garage Mom and Dad used to own. They’ve moved eight times during the four decades of my life. There are three huge plastic containers of the kind I used to unload from milk trucks when I worked at what had been my grandfather and his brothers’ grocery store, Russell’s Old Trading Post. Rather than being full of gallons of milk, the crates are heaping with mushrooms. There are also three big paper grocery sacks full. “Vic drove his big Buick,” Dad says. “It was just a fantastic trip.” Dad has showered since his hunt, and he’s dressed in blue jeans and a brown coat. His hair is neatly combed over to the side, and he holds three giant mushrooms as he tells the story of his hunt to Mom and the camera. Watching now, I don’t think I realized back then how much footage Dad had been collecting of the hunts. During the years I was in middle and high school and then later college, I was obsessed with being a basketball player. I often went to practice, then home for a snack, then out to a barn to play more ball until maybe spending time with my girlfriend at night. I made no time for mushroom hunting. That’s for sure.
Following college, I gave my life to being a coach. Maybe, Dad must have thought, at some point his kids would be interested to see their father’s passion for hunting the morels, or maybe the films were just for him, to watch when he could no longer hunt. Neither Dad nor I could have ever guessed I’d spend so many hours combing through the footage for our film or at the keyboard writing about his experiences.
“We saw some tremendous elms, found some big bonanzas, and we just had a ball,” Dad says. All this time he’s been looking down to the garage floor in admiration of the treasure he collected from the woods. “It was one of the greatest trips we ever had.” Now Dad looks into the camera. With two roonies in one hand and the biggest in the other, Dad holds his mushrooms high like an Olympic athlete showing off his medals.
"Signing off," Dad proclaims, "The Mushroom Hunter.
Image #1: Martin Torgerson. 1976. Photograph by Vic Heater, kindly supplied by Bill Torgerson.
Image #2: Crates of Morel Mushrooms. 2004. Photograph by Martin Torgerson, kindly supplied by Bill Torgerson.
Image #3: Kenny Hattery, Casey Jones, and Vic Heater. Photograph kindly supplied by Bill Torgerson.
Image #4: Morel Mushroom in Ground. 1993. Photograph by Vic Heater, kindly supplied by Bill Torgerson.
Image #5: Martin Torgerson with Morel Mushroom. 1983. Photograph by Vic Heater, kindly supplied by Martin Torgerson.