I missed his birthday, again. This time I really feel bad about it; the other times didn’t bother me as much as it bothered his wife.
His birthday is February 21, and nearly every year for four decades we were on safari somewhere together on his birthday. It was my responsibility to organize the cake and staff dancing and singing and drumming that would raucously hop the birthday cake into the mess tent after dinner. I think I missed them all.
The picture at the top is of his 85th birthday in my mobile camp in Ndutu. I was one day late on February 22. Now give me some slack. Safari guides lose track of time not animals. You don’t only forget what day-of-the-week it is, but number of the month. So it was my chef, Balthazar, who shyly came up to me right after the first night’s dinner on February 21 and said, “Bwana, i siku ya kuzaliwa daktari?” Translation: Idiot. You’ve forgotten again.
So we were one day late.
My affliction was not just with Dr. Fisher’s birthday. I usually got all birthdays wrong. Les sent me all sorts of clients and one of them was a major zoo donor who wanted me to guide his entire family of nearly 20 up the Skeleton Coast of Namibia for his 70th birthday!
That wonderful opportunity struck terror into every moment that preceded the man’s 70th birthday. It was one thing missing Les’ birthday; quite another missing someone who paid his salary!
I had note cards in my wallet. Kathleen managed to call me from home. I even pasted a little birthday candle onto the right lens of my binoculars.
Fortunately we were staying at a lodge. My camps produced the most wonderful food imaginable but it was often on a charcoal fire pit and a big cake – something for 20 people would be very difficult.
But I was terrified of blowing this one nonetheless. It was a major donor for Les! So I returned to the kitchen throughout the day to emphasize the size of the cake and its message:
Line 1: “Happy 70th”
Line 2: “Al!”
Now I don’t speak any Namibian languages so unlike with my own staff in East Africa all I could do was what all Americans do when they can’t speak a foreign language. Yell English. I was satisfied I’d succeeded.
The dinner ended. The lights dimmed. The drumming and singing started and the little roman candles preceded an immense and beautiful chocolate cake as it was placed in front of a smiling Al.
Line 1: “Happy 70th”
Line 2: “Jim Heck”
Les’ cakes were always chocolate. Les was very picky about what he ate. He gave up fish after a disaster with trying to bring puffins into the zoo from Iceland where it was finally decided that the most minute amounts of toxins in our Lake Michigan fish that was their food had killed them.
And having given up fish, all the was left was beer and chocolate. It was from Les that I learned I could go a whole season of guiding with consuming nothing but beer and chocolate.
Les knew how embarrassed I was when I missed his birthday. So one year — when I missed his birthday — he made everything OK:
The cake came out a day late. Singing, dancing, clapping. It had been a wonderful dinner. Les asked me to cut the cake, so my staff looking unusually mischievous placed a wonderful chocolate rectangular cake in front of me and handed me a ridiculously large machete.
Les and they were all laughing and I felt more and more humiliated. Then I started to cut the cake. Balthazar had failed! The cake was so bad I couldn’t cut it! I sawed and sawed, and they laughed and laughed.
Have you ever tried to cut a cement block covered with icing?
Les’ 85th birthday safari was going to be his last one. So I just had to get everything right and in February you search for the great migration in the Serengeti, the prize of any trip. I had kept the group out for more than 12 hours and we hadn’t found the migration.
I stopped the cars at the Naabi Hill gate for a toilet stop. It was around 100 degrees. Everybody was grumbling or comatose. I felt awful. I jumped out of my rover and got Les out his car and walked him in the searing heat to the toilet. Then, I waited anxiously as 14 pairs of angry eyes stared at me from three of my rovers.
While he was doing his duty I started to reminisce about all the many wonderful places we’d been together: the first American group into the Ituri Forest, numerous gorilla trips (of course), chimps in the forests under the Mountains of the Moon, Luangwa before anyone but hunters knew about it, distant now long replaced wildernesses in the old Rhodesia, the mysterious desert river southern border of Angola, the Seychelles …and remote Alaska, Australia, Borneo, South America – you name it, Les and I were there, together! I spent more birthdays with Les than I had years to my name when I first met him.
I refined my apology waiting for him in that horrible heat. I knew he would discount it before I even finished. He is such a gentle and kind man. He always gets his way, but never without listening ad infinitum to all the protests and arguments with the patience of Job. And he never says anything without smiling.
So he appeared from the choo and I quickly walked up to him to explain how sorry I was, that I should have realized if we hadn’t found the herds in the Moru they wouldn’t be in the Gol, etc., etc., but he cut me off before I started:
“Jim, do you think you can take me and my family next year?”
Redemption was possible! I could get his birthday right for once!
Les had a number of safaris after that one, and I think I got most of the birthdays right! Each safari was going to be his “last one” which I’m sure he didn’t really mean, but said just so I got so terrified that I’d get his birthday right.
Happy 100th Dr. Fisher! What a wonderful blessing and privilege to us all for having known and learned so much from you. And what a special privilege it’s been for me to have been invited to so many of your birthday parties!
Doctor, can you forgive me? Won’t miss another one!