It must have been in the early years of the Depression, perhaps in '33 or '34, that we all went over to Bimini from Key West. I had developed some kind of intermittent disease described as rheumatic fever and the quacks recommended winters south of the Tropic. There never was a pleasanter prescription. Key West wasn't quite on the Tropic of Cancer, but it was near enough to fill the bill.
By that time the railroad had folded and you arrived by car ferry from a point below Homestead on the mainland. There were three separate ferry rides and sandy roads through the scrubby keys between. It took half a day and was a most delightful trip, with long cues of pelicans scrambling up off the water and man-o'-war birds in the sky and booby gulls on the buoys, and mullet jumping in the milky shallows.
We planned a trip to Bimini all that winter, but it kept having to be put off for some reason or other. The first time we started we'd barely reached the purple water of the Gulf Stream when poor old Hem shot himself in the leg—in the fleshy part, fortunately—with his own rifle trying to shoot a shark that was making for a sailfish somebody had alongside and was trying to gaff. Old Hem was the most accident-prone man I ever knew in my life. We had to turn back and take him to the sawbones at the hospital. We were so mad we'd hardly speak to him.
I can't remember whether it was on Bra's boat or on the first of Hemingway's Pilars that we finally made it to the Bahamas. The big-money fishing camp at Cat Cay had gone broke in the collapse of the first great Florida boom and was still closed down. There were a few yachtsmen and sports fishermen about but the tiny island of Bimini proper was very much out of the world. There was a wharf and some native shacks under the coconut palms and a store that had some kind of a barroom attached, where we drank rum in the evenings, and a magnificent broad beach on the Gulf Stream side. There was an official residency and a couple of sun-eaten bungalows screened against the sand flies up on the dunes. My wife Katy and I occupied one of them for a week.
We called Hem the Old Master in those days because nobody could stop him from laying down the law, or sometimes the Mahatma on account of his having appeared in a rowboat with a towel wrapped around his head to keep off the sun. He had his crotchety moments even then, but he was still a barrel of monkeys to be with.
This was a period when life seemed enormously comical to all of us. Nobody ever got so mad that some fresh crack didn't bring him around. We drank a good deal but only cheerfully. We carried things off with great fits of laughing. Everybody was known by a succession of nicknames. If I remember rightly it was during this period that I was myself known as Muttonfish. And it stuck for years. I was never much of a fisherman. I freely admitted that. The part of it I enjoyed was being out in a boat and the sights and the smells and the sounds. While the more sporting members of the party were mad for sailfish, I was particularly interested in the muttonfish we caught just inside the reefs. The Florida muttonfish is a great pale snapper and extraordinarily good to eat.
If I'm not mistaken this trip to Bimini was the first time the Old Master really went out after tuna. He'd been reading Zane Grey's book about catching great tuna on the seven seas (and a surprisingly well-written book it is) and wanted to go Zane Grey one better. The Old Master had always been serious about trout streams, but in our early days around Key West he tried out deep-sea fishing for the fun of it like the rest of us. It was only gradually that competitive fishing for tuna and marlin took such a hold on him.
It seems to me that we'd caught a few smallish yellow-fins along with some beautiful rainbow-colored dolphins on the way over across the Gulf Stream from the upper end of Hawk Channel. Anyway it was in the spring of the year and the wiseacres all claimed that the tuna were running. Katy and I were delighted with the island. We never tired of walking on the beach and watching the high-slung land crabs shuttle like harness racers among the fallen coconuts. We did a lot of bathing in the comfortable surf on the great beach. Ernest was very scornful of our shell collection.
We got hold of an agreeable storytelling Negro with a small sailboat who took us sailing over the pearly waters of the Great Bahama Bank and fishing for bonefish in the shallows between the coral heads. The Mahatma used to kid us about our taste for going out in rowboats together, said people did that before they were married, not after.
The Bimini Negroes were great fun. They made up songs about every little incident of the day. Every little job like hauling a boat ashore was a choral event. It was the first time any of us had heard: