I lost a good friend and mentor yesterday

Jim Harstad was my 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher. He’s been a huge influence in my life, one of the big reasons why I ended up majoring in English. I dedicated my PhD dissertation to Jim and my high-school art teacher, Shige Yamada.

Back in 2011, in celebration of the publication of their 100th volume of Hawai’i literature and art, Bamboo Ridge Press held a Wine and Words book launch reception. I had the pleasure of introducing Jim Harstad to read his piece in the book. Here’s what I said by way of introducing him (Yeah, I know, it was a very long introduction — and I made mugs, too.) I called it:

Mr. James R. Harstad: He Can Bring the Water — and a (space) Lot More

It’s always an honor to be able to introduce our next reader. I have known Jim Harstad for more than 40 years. In Fall 1970, I was an 11th-grade student in the first English class Jim taught at University High School, and I was lucky enough to have him as my 12th-grade English teacher as well. I did my first creative writing during those years. Before coming to us, he had been out at Waianae High School. Jim retired from the Lab School at the end of the 2008 – 2009 academic year after teaching Jr. Bows for 40 years.

Some 20 years ago, I had the honor of introducing Jim at a Hawaii Review reading. For that occasion, I wrote a story about Jim’s first day teaching my class at University High. That piece is called, “He Taught Us How To Do It.” I have to confess to all of you that this story is in fact fiction. In it, I portray Mr. Harstad as a little bit of a scary person. This simply was not true. Jim Harstad wasn’t a little bit scary; he absolutely terrified us.

For instance, almost every Friday we had to write full-period multi-question essay exams on what we’d read that week, and Jim always cautioned us that he did not want to see any bull being shoveled. Essay exams! I’d never written an essay exam in my life. It was horrifying. For our Junior class, TGIF quickly became only G! — IF.

One time during class, Jim, ah . . . accidentally knocked one of my more high-spirited classmates clear over a row of desks and flat on his back. I believe Jim’s line to that stunned student was, “So you call that stuff you’re doing karate, huh?”

And it didn’t stop there. Jim continued to frighten us with literature. I vividly recall, after finishing One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest, that I immediately quit fantasizing about one day dating nurses who worked in psychiatric wards.

The harrowing saga of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels? I retired my Hog and my leather jacket, resigned from my motorcycle gang, and had all of my tatoos – except MOM – surgically removed.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yes. I thought long and hard about flushing all my LSD down the toilet . . . but I finally decided just to use up what I had left and then never ever to buy any more ever again.

And then there was Portnoy’s Complaint. I tell you true, I swore off eating liver FOREVER.

Yes, “He Taught Us How To Do It” was fiction, but a few months back I decided to write a piece about Jim Harstad that is 100% fact.

Have you all noticed how much it’s been raining for the past 10 months or so? Back in September of last year, I lamented that all the Lab School lawns were in bad shape. Hardly any grass grew anywhere; mostly what they had were vast patches of dirt. I mentioned that I would begin watering the Lab School lawns on Sundays. Jim congratulated me on my resolve, and told me quote, My contribution to the effort will be to pray, hard, for rain unquote.

When I first read this thoughtful and most moving message, I have to admit that I was momentarily skeptical about the efficacy of Jim’s plan. But then something awoke in my memory, at first faintly, and then suddenly flowering into vivid, full bloom. Aha! Yes! Then I remembered that story about Jim and rain, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lab School lawns were as good as recovered. You all can see the result for yourselves today. This is the best they’ve looked in July for as far back as I can remember. This certainly has been the wettest winter and spring — and now summer — we’ve had in a good long while.

Thank you, Mr. Harstad.

Oh, and that story about the last time Jim Harstad had announced he would pray for rain, hard? It happened back when Jim was going to college at UDub. That’s the true story I want to tell you tonight. I call it, “He Can Bring the Water — and a (space) Lot More.”

A not so very long time ago, Mr. James R. Harstad lived in a state on the US continent called DryCleanington. Some of you here are perhaps too young to remember DryCleanington; that state is now called Washington.

Thanks to Jim Harstad.

In his salad days, Jim and some of his friends were attending the University of DryCleanington — already affectionately called UDub — note the “D.” They were known back then not as the Huskies but as the Thirsties.

Anyway, Mr. Harstad and his college chums were hanging out at the UD student union one day, when one of them – maybe it was Gary Everist? — declared that he’d found some prime real estate in the town called Tum where he thought they could build a good-sized brewery.

Back then, DryCleanington was a very dry state — in two ways. Not only was it often mistaken for the Sahara Desert due to the lack of rain, but water was always in such critically short supply that hardly a gallon or two could be spared to brew beer.

So Jim and his study buddies pledged to open a brewery in the city of Tum, but with little water to brew, what were they to do?

Well, Mr. Harstad announced to his parched pals, “Hey look, I tell you what. I’m going to pray for rain. Hard. I’m talking lots of rain, all the time, so we can get this brewery up and running pronto.”

Jim’s boon companions were somewhat dubious as they wandered off to their classes, but what they forgot to remember was that Jim Harstad is a die-hard born and bred Lutheran. Immediately he began to bring the awesome power of Lutheran prayer to bear on the water situation. I mean Jim prayed Martin Luther hard, and believe me, there is no prayer more formidably powerful than hardcore German Martin Lutheran prayer — especially when it comes to the possibility of turning water into beer.

And do you all know what happened?

The rest, as they say, is history. Rain came to the State of DryCleanington — and it never ever left. Jim and his entrepreneurial crew successfully launched the Olympia Brewery. His ardent prayers for rain were so effective, in fact, that the state changed its name from DryCleanington to Washington.

More amazing, many towns in the newly redubbed state also changed their names. For example, the town of Tum, where the Olympia Brewery began to thrive, became TumWATER. The town of Wood, became LAKEwood. West Stevens became West LAKE Stevens. Gultch View became BAY View, Salt became Morton, Despair became Hope, and the town of Limestone very quickly had to change its name to Concrete, Washington.

I know you’re probably all dying to jump on Wikipedia to check that what I’ve said is true. Don’t you know they’ll let any moron publish all kinds of ridiculous nonsense on that site. Don’t believe anything you read on Wikipedia.

Just believe me. It now rains all the time in the state of Washington because of Mr. James R. Harstad. In fact DryCleanington wanted to name themselves JimHarstadington in his honor, but you know Jim. He’s much too humble. He told them if they really had to do something, they could maybe name a hall at a college after him, or something. So Pacific Lutheran University proudly named one of their buildings Harstad Hall. That is a fact. You can check it out the next time you visit the Pacific Lutheran campus.

I give you the man who has taught so many, many, many students how to do it. One of my heroes, Mr. James R. Harstad.

Photos of my Drycleanington Thirsties mug


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