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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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It was getting darker and darker. The wind had dropped but a nasty-looking squall was making up on the horizon. In the last gloaming the Old Master was inching the fish alongside. Nobody had seen him yet. One man was ready with the gaff. The rest of us, hunched on top of the cabin to be certain that we were out of the way, peered into the water with our flashlights.

We all saw him at once, dark, silvery and immense. Eight hundred pounds, nine hundred pounds, a thousand pounds, people guessed in hornswoggled whispers. He was just one gigantic tuna. All I knew was that he was a very big fish. He was moving sluggishly. He seemed licked. The man with the gaff made a lunge and missed. The silver flash was gone. The reel whined as the fish sounded.

The Old Master's expletives were sibilant and low.

The fish took half the reel; then the Old Master began hauling in on him again. He didn't feel right. Somebody suggested he might be dead. Now was the time to look out for sharks. The Old Master reeled and reeled.

Meanwhile the storm cloud had eaten up a third of the starry sky. Lightning flickered on its fringes. Most of the small boats had put back to shore.

William B. Leeds from his speedboat was inviting us to take cover on his yacht but the Old Master was doggedly reeling in.

At last in a great wash of silver and spume the tuna came to the surface 10 or 15 yards astern of the boat. The sharks hadn't touched him. We could see his whole great smooth length. The Old Master was reeling in fast. Then suddenly they came. In the light of the searchlight we could see the sharks streaking in across the dark water. Like torpedoes. Like speedboats. One struck. Another. Another. The water was murky with blood. By the time we hauled the tuna in over the stern there was nothing left but his head and his backbone and his tail.

Looking back on it, this day's work may well have sown the seed that grew into The Old Man and the Sea. The Canary Island fisherman's stories played their part, but there is nothing like personal experience.

Getting us aboard the Leeds yacht was a real victory for Old Hem. He'd been trying to cotton up to William B. Leeds on account of that machine gun, and maybe too because Leeds was so stinking rich. Katy, who'd known Ernest since he was a pup and treated him like a slightly half-witted younger brother, took a scunner to poor Leeds and declared she'd rather die than go aboard his yacht. There was an oily and rather pimpish old Spaniard in the party whom we called Don Propina. We'd both taken a scunner to him, and neither of us liked the blondes. Anyway, Ernest won. The squall blew up so hard there was nothing for it but to take refuge on the yacht. We climbed up the gangplank in the first horizontal sheets of rain and sat wet and shivering in the air-conditioned saloon. To serve us right for being so snooty we both caught head colds from the air conditioning. Leeds hospitably put us up for the night, but there are some people you just can't get cozy with. We were so damned uncomfortable we turned in early, so we never knew exactly how it happened; but when we shoved off from the yacht in the lovely early-morning sunlight the Old Master had the submachine gun affectionately cradled in the crotch of his arm. Maybe he traded the backbone of the tuna for it.

Ernest was occasionally a very good shot with a rifle. After all, he was essentially a man of letters with a gift for dramatics, which became dangerous when he applied it to himself instead of to the characters in his stories. What made his company so delightful in his younger days was that outside of his literary gifts—being able to write doesn't mean that a man's fun to be with—he had real talents. He had the instinct of a hunter and the knack for topography that goes with it. Since he didn't smoke he had a sharp nose. He could smell game like a bird dog. He had a crafty but warmhearted understanding of many different kinds of people. These are the qualities that make up a guerrilla leader. When he was fishing he had all the patience in the world. He could see the funny sides of things in those days. At his best he was really a crack shot.

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