I met Don Mason in 1984 in the cafeteria of New Hampshire College. I would go for breakfast, as would he, and he said later that he chatted me up because he sensed a Puritan soul in me that might need a bit of liberation. He was right, as he was right about so many things.
Thus started a multi-decade friendship that was so precious to me because it is so rare to be gifted with a gift as rare as having a Don Mason in your life.
We traveled to Crete in search of Minoan ruins, which we found, while also drinking ouzo in a neighborhood restaurant in Matala and dancing like Zorbas amid the cigarette smoke and clashing music, and mistakenly driving up a goat path in our little Suzuki, having to drive in reverse back to the main road with a steep drop on one side and the hillside to the other. We made it just fine.
We went in search of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior, determined to write a screenplay about him. We never wrote the screenplay – we figured two white Anglos had no right, much less talent, to capture the spirit of a man who spoke to eagles for guidance. However, we discovered plenty of other good stuff: the final summer picnic held by extras from the movie Dances with Wolves, which took place on the abandoned set of Fort McHenry and featured all of them dressed in the clothes they got to wear in the movie; Alzada, Montana, consisting of a convenience store run by a woman from Troy, New York, and the Stoneville Saloon, three deep in Harleys and featuring a wet tee-shirt contest (which we did not attend, fearing for our lives); chicken-fried steak; more deer than people in Montana; gambling in Deadwood, South Dakota (Don wearing his cowboy hat playing cards beneath a chair hanging from the ceiling claiming to the
chair Wild Bill Hickock was sitting in when he was shot by Jack McCall). We drove 1600 miles in four days.
Don introduced me to the wonders of Vietnamese food. He had been doing community development work in San Francisco with Vietnamese groups, who then took him out for meals. When he got back, he said we had to find this food. We usually took a monthly day trip to Boston from New Hampshire to prowl through the book stores and get an urban fix. On our next trip, we walked every byway in Chinatown we could find until, miracles of miracles, we found one literal hole-in-the-wall eatery. He proceeded to order at least a dozen dishes, and I said that we would never eat all that food. He said we would, and probably more. Again, he was right: we ate all of it.
When he had moved to Florida and I was still in the north, Ida had me come down for a surprise visit for his birthday – but only if I bore a large bag of take-out Vietnamese food. I duly made my purchase and got on the plane, filling the cabin with the redolent aromas of pho and summer rolls and spring rolls and vermicelli dishes. All of us feasted well.
I made many trips to visit the family in Florida, and we would go out for a day of fishing, bringing in the catch at the end of the day, watching while the captain filleted it, then driving back to the house to fry it up and dine like royalty.
Or the time he took me on his Belle Glade tour, driving us around in a red convertible as we visited the places of his triumphs and dangers, including the grounds of US Sugar, where we were chased off the premises by a battered pick-up as we tried to get close enough to talk to the workers housed in concrete dungeons in the middle of nowhere.
And who can forget the eatfests and gabfests at the Mason household in Hooksett, when I would come over, and we’d all spend a day preparing some enormous repast while arguing about books and ideas and philosophies and all sorts of inanities. Young Matthew would jump in, trying to hold his own, and he would often succeed, astonishing us with his insights and his stamina as he tried to keep up with two non-stop-talking autodidacts who enjoyed the fencing while not taking themselves too seriously. Helen and Byron, in the meantime, would go about their own business – I loved being in the presence of their sweet and dynamic selves, each of them in different ways so like their father: serious, calm, tender, engaged. In the course of one of these visits, we’d all feed our bodies with delicious food and feed our souls with comradeship.
The Marvelous María Beatriz and I were so happy when Beth came into Don’s life because we could see how happy he was to have Beth as his partner, how her life re-engaged him in life and renewed his sense of purpose and drive. Just as I had had the luck of having a one-of-a-kind Don Mason as my mate, Don had the luck of having a one-of-a-kind Beth as his wife and confidant.
There is so much more to recall, but it would all come to the same thing: a declaration of love for this man who, even though he was flawed as we all are, was generous, decent and kind, who put his life on the line and changed for the better what he could change for the better. I will miss him, miss him, miss him so much.