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OLD HEM WAS A SPORT
John Dos Passos
June 29, 1964
One of America's foremost authors presents an often warm and occasionally tart reminiscence of Ernest Hemingway 30 years ago, a period when the living was easy, the fishing was frantic and the Old Master was coveting a submachine gun
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June 29, 1964

Old Hem Was A Sport

One of America's foremost authors presents an often warm and occasionally tart reminiscence of Ernest Hemingway 30 years ago, a period when the living was easy, the fishing was frantic and the Old Master was coveting a submachine gun

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My Mama don't want no peas no rice no coconut oil All she wants is handy brandy and champagne.

They immediately made up songs about Old Hem. I wish I remembered the words. All my recollections of that week are laced with the lilt of those Bimini songs.

Anyway, while Katy and I were unashamedly sightseeing and sailing and rowing and dabbling in folklore—all occupations frowned on by serious fishermen—the Old Master was cruising the deep trolling for tuna. He'd brought tuna rigs along and was going after the tuna with that implacable impatient persistence of his. We had somehow gotten the use of an extra skiff so that we more frivolous members of the party could commute back and forth from the shore to the boat while the serious fishermen cruised and cruised and sat and sat and trolled and trolled.

If I'm not mistaken we were actually aboard when the Old Master hooked his great tuna. It was quite early in the morning. It was obviously an enormous fish because it immediately sounded and ran out all the line. The Old Master's tackle was far too light for it. Everybody was walking on eggs while he played it.

For some reason—maybe I had work to do or maybe it was only for a swim and lunch and a nap—Katy and I decided to go back to shore. It was already early afternoon. The Old Master was still hooked into his tuna.

The news had spread among such dignitaries of the sporting world as were anchored off the island. Their launches and dinghies began to gather in the wake of the Old Master's boat.

Tuna fishing was something new off the Atlantic coast. The great bluefin tuna had been there forever but few people thought of trying to catch them with rod and reel. Commercial trawlers off Cape Cod tangled with them in their nets every year. They sold them for canning but they complained that the damage to their nets was more than the fish brought in. Horse mackerel they called them derisively. The idea of hauling an eight-or nine-hundred-pounder into the boat with rod and reel filled fishermen with awe.

Among the assembled yachtsmen there was a gentleman named William B. Leeds. The name cropped up in every Sunday supplement. The Tin Plate King. Royal marriages. A milliondollar divorce. This particular member of the Leeds family had a very large white yacht stuffed with machinery and an occasional blonde. He had invited the Old Master aboard for drinks a couple of days before. The Old Master had come away charmed by Mr. Leeds's hospitality but even more charmed by the fact that he had a submachine gun aboard. Just at that moment a submachine gun was what the Old Master wanted more than anything in the world.

From a boy he had been fond of firearms but now he was particularly interested in a submachine gun as a way of fighting the sharks. Bimini was infested with sharks that season. They even bothered us bathing on the beach but the worst thing was their exasperating way of cutting off a hooked fish just as you were about to get him into the boat. The Old Master tried potting them with his rifle but unless you shoot him right through his tiny brain a rifle bullet doesn't make much impression on a shark. The night before he hooked his tuna he'd been trying all sorts of expedients over the rum Collinses to get William B. Leeds to part with his submachine gun. He kept suggesting that they match for it or that they cut a hand of poker for it or shoot at a target for it. I believe he even offered to buy it. But William B. Leeds was holding on to his submachine gun.

It was already dusk, the day the Old Master hooked his great tuna, by the time we got out to the fishing boat again. At last the tuna was weakening. The Old Master was reeling in on him. A couple of other men had spelled him during the afternoon. Everybody was on the ropes but the tuna was still hooked. We were very much excited to be in for the kill. There was quite a ring of spectator boats around. The speedboat from the Leeds yacht had rigged up a searchlight.

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