Henry Heimlich and the moment of destiny

Last week Dr Henry Heimlich was in the dining room of his retirement home in Cincinatti, perhaps prudently blowing on a spoonful of cream of corn soup to cool it down, when his neighbor at the table, a certain Patty Ris, 87, started choking.

Reports do not reveal what she was choking on, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was a piece of green pepper. Green pepper is the devil’s vegetable. However it’s true that it’s not often the culprit in choking incidents – mainly because people spit it out too fast, the vile uningestible alleged comestible – so other suspects might include an unchewed grape, a small plastic Star Wars figurine, a salt shaker. Oh no, wait, later reports describe it as “a piece of meat”, so that’s disappointing.

Imagine how Hank Heimlich felt when Patty started gasping and going purple. At 96 years old, his glory days may be behind him but he’s still a pretty big wheel in the retirement home. You just know that he introduces himself to each new resident saying, “Hi, Henry Heimlich. I know what you’re thinking – yes, that Henry Heimlich. If ever you swallow something the wrong way, I’m the man to call, you betcha!”

If I was in that home, you can be sure I’d be the one sitting in the corner behind his newspaper, harbouring dark suspicions and fomenting dissent among the others. “That clown invented the Heimlich manouevre? A likely story. What kind of name is ‘Heimlich’ anyway? You know what that means? Secretive. I think ol’ Harry Furtive over there is playing us all for fools!”

It must be quite bizarre to live in a world in which everyone knows your name without really knowing who you are or if you even exist. I have met many lunatics in life who claim to have invented things. Once I encountered a chap on a boat in Turkey who insisted his family is still living the high life on the profits from having invented those little nets that you wrap around lemon slices so that when you squeeze them the pips don’t fall into your fish. Surely this was nonsense, but if it were true, if must drive him mad that his grandpappy didn’t ever attach his name to the invention. But even if he had, his whole life would be one frustrated conversation after another. Consider if the Oscars were named after an actual guy called Oscar, how often he must buttonhole people in bars on Oscar night and point to the TV screen and say, “That’s me, you know!”

“Okay, Oscar, whatever you say.”

“No, but it’s true!”

“Of course it is. And my name’s Billy Table and there’s a mountain named after me in Cape Town. Hey, barkeep, get Crazy Oscar here another drink.”

I would like to think that somewhere there’s an old-age home for household eponyms where Earl Silas Tupper and Joseph Pilates and Candido Jacuzzi and Major-General Henry Shrapnel sit around and dunk their digestive biscuits and complain about how they don’t get the respect they deserve.

“You think that’s bad?” Ignacio Anaya might butt in, regaling them with that time in 1943 when he was chef at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and was running short of ingredients so improvised a snack of tortilla chips covered in cheese for a group of army wives from Fort Duncan, just across the border in Eagle Pass, Texas.

“I’m telling you, Nacho is short for Ignacio!” he yells, stamping his tiny feet.

“Whatever you say, Iggy,” says Ferdinand von Zeppelin, helping himself to another chip.

“It all depends on how you look at it,” says Hermann Rorschach thoughtfully, and everyone rolls their eyes because jeez, get another catchphrase already, Hermann.

(Incidentally, the chap who perfected the safety razor was named King Camp Gillette, as though to prove that even in the game of Unhappy Eponyms, some people always have it harder than others.)

(Also, I would have liked to have included a South African resident but research reveals that there is regrettably no one actually named Hendrik Kreepy-Krawly.)

At any rate, when Patty Ris started choking you can be sure I would have leant forward in interest, watching that blowhard beside her. Your move, H. Heimlich, if that is indeed your real name.

And Heimlich himself must have felt a surge of anxiety. This is the first time I’m actually using my manouevre in the field! What if it doesn’t work? I’m nearly 100 years old, what if I lack the upper body strength? If I get this wrong, forget Henry Heimlich, my name around here will be mud!

So it must have felt like a culminating moment in his life, but Henry Heimlich rose to it. And no, he didn’t choke.

Times, 31 May 2016