In Quest of Hemingway: Hoping for Superman/Settling for Batman
The radar showed us heading toward Florida’s Big Pine Key and I said to Rob, “I hope the hell we don’t get stopped by the Cuban Coast Guard.” The sun blazed silently and the bow of our Cuban fishing boat cleanly cut the bright verdigris swells. An unreal copper sulfite sea. Out of sight of land the sea looks a lot like a blue Rub al Khali. Waves on a sea of sand, on a sea of water.
“I’m more concerned about the American Coast Guard.” Rob said, “How do we explain being on a Cuban fishing boat.”
“What do you mean we, gringo?” I said, knowing we were covered by a General Treasury License that covered the research we were doing on Ernest Hemingway.
“I’ll tell you what,” Rob said. “If we get boarded we’ll tell them we own the boat and are smuggling these guys to freedom.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” I said. “The Cubans didn’t stamp your passport when you entered so we’ll tell the Coast Guard our boat sank and the Cubans picked us up.”
Sure,” Rob said. “They’ll believe that.”
Leonadis, the first mate, busy checking lines and baiting hooks, didn’t know why we laughed, and Captain Santiago, drove the boat from the flying bridge out of earshot. Rob and I were tucked away from the sun under the lower bridge where Leonadis kept a small cooler full of chopped mackerel bait, and a larger cooler holding our ration of booze, beer, and mixer. I asked Leonadis about the Cuban coastguard and he assured me, “Eas no probelem.” He explained that our boat was owned by the government and he and Captain Santiago were licensed government employees. “Eef you go weeth fishermans, then si you have the problema.” And we almost did go with bootleg fisherman but they backed out at the last minute. Seems they were recently busted by the government for illegally taking tourists fishing and given one last warning to stop. It worked out in the end. The bootleggers would have been cheaper, but we would not be in such a well-appointed boat, and would not be this far out in the Gulf Stream.
This morning we left Cuba from the Varadero marina and had been trolling without a strike for two hours. It was not the season for deep-sea fishing but catching fish would be a bonus; we were content to be working the waters where Superman once fished. After all those years of fishing the Great Lakes, including the Michigan locations where Nick Adams caught walleye and whitefish, we were finally plying the Gulf Stream, what Hemingway called The Great Blue River, sandwiched between Cuba and the Florida Keys.
I looked at the forlorn fish-fighting chair bolted to the stern deck and wondered if it would get used.
Stocky Leonadis, striped to the top of his bleached home-sewn muslin shorts, was burned reddish brown from his head to his bare feet. He opened the liquor cooler and mixed three cold Cuba Libres that we gulped while waiting for something to happen. The sweet coke laced with Cuban rum simultaneously warmed and cooled my throat and settled my sea-churned stomach. I held the drink against my forehead to feel the cold drops that formed on the outside of the glass. We stared in silence at the baited lines creasing the surface and causing puffs of sea spray as they hopped the boat’s wake crests. Leonadis spoke only a little English but knew enough to initiate a toast. “To Papa Hemingway,” he laughed and at once downed the entire drink. He had overheard me say Hemingway’s name to Rob, and Leonadis knew that in the right company allusions to Hemingway established rapport and rapport foreshadowed big tips.
I cut my adult teeth on the Nick Adams stories, but I didn’t just read them over and over, I lived them. When Nick rowed to the shore of Horton Bay and “…reeled in the slack line so the line ran taut out to where the bait rested on the sandy floor of the channel and set the click on the reel” he did more than speak to me, I became him. At the same age I discovered Superman and though I tried living up to that hero as well I had to settle for Nick Adams as my alter ego, placing Superman on the same looming tower where unapproachable Hemingway sat. As they say in Cuba, Nick and I were simpatico because we were both kids that loved fishing, and both loved Nature’s beauty and benign evil. Yet we drew different conclusions.
If Hemingway was like anyone real in my life it would be my Father (who for a short while I also thought was Superman), though my Dad was not such a bastard. Sure Dad drank, but he had a dangerous chemical factory job and restricted his boozing to evenings at home. Besides, Dad was a quiet happy drunk in contrast to Hemingway, whose fourth and final wife Mary told him he was “gay and charming and sturdy in spirit…when you are not drunk” and when drinking, which was most of the time, he hid behind “petulant irritability, protecting your steel-bound ego, if your rectitude or infallibility should be questioned.”
But Dad loved the outdoors and taught me how to fish. I don’t know who taught Nick, but hope it was his distant and withdrawn father. It’s possible because fishing is deliberate, even contemplative, and suited to lonely people -- something shown not told. Dad and I fished the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario for what we could catch, which were usually yellow perch and blue pike. Like Nick we also caught walleye and bass, but it wasn’t until I was an adult fishing Michigan lakes and streams that I too caught whitefish and assorted trout. By then Dad was dead and I fished with Nell, my son Alex, and now Grandson Andrew. It’s infectious, fishing is.
I learned patience from Dad and how to read fast broad rivers and imposing Great Lakes, and from Nick I learned about small streams and inland lakes, and how to use the time fishing to understand people and bring order to the universe. To think.
Suicide never crossed my Dad’s mind because he saw life as something that had to be endured, not a thing to triumph over; an attitude that manifest itself in me as a need to encounter and understand life with all its allure and sadness. Nick’s father killed himself and forever Nick fended off death’s siren song with an exigency to push on. I would read Nick’s stories with my arm around his shoulders saying, “Take it easy. It’s okay.”
I had read The Big Two-Hearted many times but it wasn’t until my late twenties, when Dad died, that I understood it and buried Nick Adams. I have been to the Fox River several times and have wadded its pebbled bottom and sat on its undercut banks letting the cold water numb my bare feet while expectantly threading a hook through a grasshopper. He called it the Big Two-Hearted but it was really the Fox, and it was the place that Hemingway brought a war-broken Nick Adams to heal. This small Michigan Upper Peninsula river holds great Anishinaabe medicine, something Nick knew about from his extensive contact with Michigan Native Americans. It was here, on the Fox, that Nick realized he had time to do what he wanted to do with his life. It was here, rubbing the brown juice between my fingers spit-up by the impaled grasshopper that I saw Nick Adams fade from my mind and Hemingway the man came into focus.
But enduring life is an immigrant thing and Dad’s stolid attitude was balanced against the expectations mounded on the first generation natural born that prohibited mere enduring and demanded that I aggressively engage with the world. Yet there is the awareness of just how close to the rootstock I lived, a proximity that judged suicide a coward’s act no matter how honorable the intent. That was the rub: I knew Hemingway was sick and didn’t want to be seen as weak and dependent; I knew others told him he was being paranoid in his thinking that the FBI was after him. He feared senilities destruction of his crafted world of strength and honor and independence. Yet we all have such fears and they are usually not enough to make us kill ourselves instead of checking into assisted living, from enduring by embracing the defeats and declines in our lives as we had the successes and expansions. I wanted Cuba to help me understand Hemingway’s suicide.
Earlier in the week we hired a guide and Hemingway enthusiast named Keith to drive us to various locations related to Papa’s life. Keith works as a Cuban government tourist guide, but is allowed to take on private clients during his off time. Our first visit was to Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s hill top home in San Francisco de Paula, a poor suburb of Havana. I have been to the Hemingway home in Key West and left with that hokey feeling of having done something touristy. I expected Finca Vigía would be the same but I was wrong. Finca Vigía is a compact white stucco house settled in the soft gloom of large old trees. We could not enter the house but we didn’t have to: large open windows allowed us unobstructed views of the interior; the interior, adorned with comfortable furniture, wall art, and Papa’s hunting trophies had an elegant simplicity that welcomed a ruminating inspection; the placement of personal items such as books, eyeglasses, and pen and pencil holders, suggested the owners were in the next room and would soon be back. Finca Vigía is in all these ways the seat of Papa’s soul, a place defined by the Hemingway’s trophies, props, and illusions.
Finca Vigía overlooks a tropical valley. Dense hot storms come in from the east and are blocked by the big trees Hemingway refused to have pruned. And from the rear of the house the lush green land slopes to distant Havana and the still sunlit blue sea. Storm lightening is heard before it is seen, and seen tearing a black wall of clouds only when its jagged teeth sweep over the house toward Havana. Next to the house is a tower built by Mary Hemingway as a place for Papa to write. He found the tower too quiet, instead preferring to write standing up in his bedroom using a shelf for a desk while listening to the house’s domestic sounds. He gave his pet cats the run of the tower, referring to it as the cat house. Papa also kept a small telescope in the tower that he used to look at naked starlets cavorting in the swiming pool.
Finca Vigía is not the kind of place one leaves lightly. Hemingway lived here over twenty years and broken after having survived two airplane crashes in Africa, and sick with organ failure from a life of profligate substance abuse, he faced the expropriation of all his property after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. How long can a man live without his soul?
Yesterday Keith took us to Cojimar, the fishing village near Havana where Hemingway often kept the Pilar, his 38-foot fishing boat named after the woman partisan leader in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Cojimar is the model for the fishing village in Old Man and The Sea, and Carlos Gutierrez, employed by Hemingway as a fishing guide and the Pilar’s first mate, is the model for the story’s protagonist, Santiago. Cojimar is dilapidated Soviet style apartment towers, a refuse strewn beach protected by a battered break-wall in need of repair, all guarded by the Torreón de Cojimar, a small ancient Spanish fortress silhouetted against an azure sky.
Old Cojimar fishermen were grateful for the attention and income Hemingway brought them so when he died they took the bronze propeller from the Pilar and had it melted down and recast as a bust of Papa. Hemingway sits atop a pedestal ringed by egg-shell blue Ionic columns: Papa is a privileged man in a privileged position honored by the people to whom he brought honor. With a wry smile he looks out past the Torreon, a testament to the Spanish despotism visited on these people; out past the break-wall that long ago sheltered Santiago and his mangled marlin. This too is what Hemingway was losing: the fidelity and approbation of simple people among whom he was the Gringo with the big nuts. It’s a lot to lose. Why not suicide?
The first barracuda hit one of our baited lures, snapping the line free of its downrigger. We just finished the ham and cheese sandwiches we packed at the hotel and Rob motioned me to take the fighting chair. I didn’t argue. I never used deep sea fishing gear with fifty pound test line and had trouble turning the reel crank until Leonadis seated the pole’s butt in the chair receptacle and reminded me to crank only on the rod’s downward fall. I quickly established the rhythm of upward pull and downward crank and landed the ‘cuda in about ten minutes. As far as I was concerned the twenty pound barracuda was equal to any thousand pound Marlin caught by Thomas Hudson, an even more thinly disguised Hemingway persona. Another point of this fishing expedition was to understand Hemingway’s infatuation with these waters, experience the adrenalin soaked challenge of fighting a game fish, and that post-coital hollowness once the fish was landed. How else could I understand why Hemingway via Thomas Hudson subordinated his marriage and family to his art and deep sea fishing? It was a first step in the quest.
You’d think we’d outgrow the fantasies of childhood but we don’t. We drag them into adulthood while watching them kicked and beaten. Take John Kennedy for instance: When he was elected President I was in high school immersed in a world where voting for Nixon meant you were a Protestant, and voting for Kennedy meant you were Roman Catholic. That was true throughout the Great Lakes Region. Life, simple. And despite the ceaseless revelations of Kennedy’s philandering, despite his disastrous expansion of the Vietnam War, his equally petulant Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent spiteful Cuban economic embargo, and my recovery from Catholicism, I still like the son-of-a-bitch. Likewise Nick Adams’ pure youth has given way to Thomas Hudson’s warts and bruises. The flawless power of Superman is replaced by mortal Batman with his wealth and street-smarts and techno tricks, but in the end with his mortality.
Leonadis used pliers to yank the lure from the barracuda’s fang filled mouth. The fish looked like a northern pike on steroids, with a bigger rapacious rep. When Leonadis threw the fish in the boats live well I asked why he was keeping it since ‘cuda flesh is toxic. Leonadis said barracuda caught in the shallows are okay to eat but those caught in the deep, like this one, may not be. It depends on season and the presence of certain algae the ‘cuda assimilate, and now is not the season for such algae.
“Aren’t you taking a risk?” Rob asked.
With a blank face Leonadis said yes, there was risk, but he minimized the risk by first feeding the fish to his wife, and if she was okay, then he ate it.
Rob and I looked at each other then laughed when we saw a broad gap-toothed grin invade Leonadis’ nut brown face. Then Leonadis said what he really did was sample a small piece of ‘cuda and if he didn’t get a stomach ache he would later eat the rest. I curled my nose in disgust and felt Thomas Hudson put his arm on my shoulder and say, “Take it easy, okay. This is Cuba.”