The very ‘special relationship’: A British-American pact for end-of-life care

Englishman Andy Martin has a special American friend, Sam – a bear hunter who lives out in the woods. The two have a ‘health insurance plan’ that perhaps Trump and May will approve of. It’s called Montana-care, and when their time is done Andy and Sam will venture out into the wilderness – and blow each other’s brains out

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The Independent Online

He’s going to be eaten by a bear one day. Or wolves. Of that I am fairly sure. Not too soon though, I hope, because we have a plan, Sam and I. Long-term health insurance. Maybe now President Trump is terminating Obamacare, he might want to offer something along these lines to Theresa May. You can call it Montanacare. My version of the “special relationship”.

Sam Fussell taught me to shoot. Which is going to come in handy, given the terms of our arrangement. He lives way out in the backwoods of America, beside a lake, half-way up a mountain. Not everyone would agree, but personally I find his habit of dousing himself in elk urine really quite endearing. He doesn’t do it that often and tends to give it a rest when I go and stay with him at his place near Big Fork. He says he has to be careful how he pronounces that name over the phone because people have a habit of misunderstanding.

Sam has lived several lives already. He started out as a reedy poet, with a life-size photo of Jacqueline Bissett blu-tacked to the wall of his study-bedroom. He was the son of Ivy League professors, did a stint at Oxford, and lived the ultimate student’s dream of having sexual congress with one of his tutors (a woman, to be specific) in the hushed precincts of the Bodleian Library. He was duly discovered by an ascetic librarian, denounced, and ejected.

Thence to New York, where he turned into a born-again bodybuilder. It has to be understood that this was the eighties. The era of Death Wish. The struggle for survival was at its most nakedly Darwinian. The subway was like Dante’s Inferno. Just walking along the street was asking for trouble. Muggers, murderers, rapists, rampaged freely around the land. Joggers in Central Park were just moving targets, easy meat.

Sam Fussell (R) taught Andy Martin (L) how to shoot and hunt

Sam had an important insight at this point. He needed to big himself up. It was something I had been taught around the same time only a few blocks away by natives concerned for my well-being as I took my life in my hands and opened my front door on the Lower East Side: you have to look mean enough and ugly enough that all the bad dudes out there will pick on some other poor devil. It was a good basic principle and it saw me through, almost unscathed. Sam went a step further: several highly enhanced steps further.

In England they called him “Beanpole” or “Lofty”. In New York he looked like a stick insect among buffaloes. Having witnessed the customary random street violence, among the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen, his first thought was to wear armour as he ventured out. His second thought was to armour-plate from the ground up, to re-engineer his body and make himself invulnerable to attack.

He hit the gym and attained his immediate goal, to put on at least another 50 or 60 lbs of solid muscle, readily enough. No one in his right mind was going to mess with this guy. Abs like a cobbled city street. Arms like Popeye’s. But Sam had unleashed a monster. Big was not enough, it had to be huge. Huge was not enough, it had to be colossal. His quest for bodily metamorphosis assumed the form of an obsession. Hours every day in the gym, a ridiculous consumption of steaks and raw eggs, and still he hungered for more. He had (to his now absurdly distorted way of thinking) “plateau’d out”. Thus he took off to the Mecca of pharmaceutical supplements, otherwise known as the West Coast. Here he gorged on steroids and took to performing adequately in body-building contests, before the bubble finally burst and he wrote his unforgettable account of his own experiences, Muscle.

His book attracted innumerable admirers (I, reading it back in England, was one), but Sam also found that he was threatened and hunted by gangs of steroidally overgrown maniacs all determined to deny, destroy and annihilate any hint or whisper that any of them were on drugs. The Hard Men wanted legend, not truth. They didn’t want anyone deconstructing their “protein” shakes. So Sam went on the run. He bought himself a big old motorbike and toured the nation, easy-rider style, from east to west, north to south. He went up to Alaska and way down to Louisiana, picking up odd jobs here and there, and keeping out of harm’s way, by and large.

Fussell hunts bears in the woods of Montana (Rex)

Then he went truly primitive, building himself a log cabin somewhere in the wilds of Montana, fully resolved to live off the land and hunting lunch with a bow and arrow. And, for a living, diving down into deep frozen lakes to fish up dead bodies for the local police department. He is the only guy I know who thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a “lightweight” and “small”.

He did explain about the elk urine. He said that the key to all hunting was the tampon (fragrance-free). You soaked a few of them in said liquid and hung them on the branches of trees, like Christmas decorations. There was a method in his madness. But the reality was that he ended up soaked. In fact he was known to sprinkle it on the heels of his boots as he walked into the forest. Anyone who is going to jab a syringe into a dead coyote’s bladder or redistribute wolf excrement is never going to smell like a host of golden daffodils (as he once had so long ago). I floated the theory that just as so many drunks get drunk in order to cover up the fact that they would be idiots anyway, even without the drinking, so too it was possible that Sam was dousing himself in elk urine to give himself a solid alibi for his inadequacy where romance was concerned.

That got his goat all right. Any notion of seduction was “incompatible with his values”. In other words, he wanted to be a wild man of the woods, all alone in his log cabin. Just him and the bears and the elks. Wandering lonely as a cloud. But armed to the teeth with an arsenal of a dozen or so assorted handguns, rifles and shotguns. And a crossbow. He loved the hunting because it “intensified” his life. He could see better, hear better, think more clearly, he was living right on the edge, it wasn’t all “shoot, shoot, shoot’’. And it kept him leaping out of bed at 4am. Sam said: “You must have your own rules, in advance, just in case.”

I am not exactly a vegan pacifist. I would say more verging-on-vegan verging-on-pacifist. But for sure Sam Fussell is my living breathing antithesis. I generally scorn hunters. Maybe just for this once there was something almost legitimate about it, like the days when whalers threw a harpoon by hand from a rowing boat and it was 50-50 between man and whale. Sam is a kind of modern-day Captain Ahab. When I went to stay with him in Montana he promised not to shoot any bears for a few days. And when I went in search of a Starbucks to use their wifi (obviously, I had to buy a double tall latte too), he stayed outside and refused to come within 20 yards of the building in case it infected him in some obscure way. That is a man with integrity. (And a few phobias.)

He is not a total loner. Spending hours or days up a tree or down in a “blind”, huddling against the bitter cold, he has plenty of time, even while trying to focus on the next deer to wander by, to reminisce, to think about things that have happened, and other things that have not happened. Women that he has loved and some of whom had loved him. But there was one woman in particular that he often thought of. She had once told him, even while walking out on him: “In 20 or 30 years, I’m going to come knocking at your door and, because you love me and you will always love me, you will let me and my bags in.” Maybe one day she will come. I just hope she is not too fussy about elk urine.

Hundreds of grizzly bears call Montana their home (Rex)

Meanwhile, Sam adopted me as his token veggie in a land of cow pies and Desperate Dans. He initiated me into the wonders of the Magnum 350, several kinds of rifle, with sights, and a Mossberg hand-grip shotgun, guaranteed to blow several holes in about six bad guys simultaneously. Turns out I am reasonably competent up to around a 100 yards. I loved the smell, the jolt, the noise, the rough camaraderie, the discipline, the feeling of power at a distance. I once had a deer in my crosshairs and let it go. Even if I am not about to join the NRA (and neither is Sam), I think I get American gun culture.

This was our deal. We even shook hands on it. We agreed that when we are both feeling totally past it – many years from now – and the pain of life starts to outweigh the pain of death, we would meet up again in Montana and go out into the woods once more, going down some of those tracks he showed me, where bear and wolves and coyote prowl. We would be armed with a gun apiece. Probably a handgun would do. Then we would settle down in a small clearing somewhere. Maybe, I like to imagine, sitting at peace on a log or the fallen branch of a tree beneath an icy blue sky. Crack a beer or two, and clink bottles. Maybe even celebrate the enduring friendship between our two great nations. And then we would blow one another’s brains out.

Andy Martin prefers his and Sam’s plan to die by the gun over traditional end-of-life care options

It’s a good plan, I think. There would have to be a countdown, presumably, so we get the timing right. But there will be none of that ridiculous nonsense of a funeral, no box, no burial, no cremation, no sobbing relatives (or, worse, the non-sobbing kind). We will become carrion. The simple idea is that a big brown grizzly will sniff us out and find us there and rip us to pieces, scoff up the tastiest parts, and then the wolves and coyote will come along and finish what is left. Maybe there will something left over for the birds to peck at. Sam has eaten a few bears over the years. This way he will be paying back. It’s just recycling. Nothing is wasted. Nothing goes up in smoke. It’s freganism on the wild side. Just so long as I remember to click the safety off.

There’s only one flaw, one area of ambiguity I can see in this otherwise perfect plan. The question of simultaneity. What if one of us wants to finish it before the other? The way I see it, the other guy has to step up to the plate and help him out. At least bear witness maybe, that would be enough. That’s my special relationship. Everyone should have one. I’m grateful to America for mine.

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’ (Bantam Press, RRP £18.99). He teaches at Cambridge University. Follow him @andymartinink