- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Some of the best times I ever had in my life were with Ernest Hemingway in Key West. I'd first been through there sometime in the early '20s when, in the course of a walking hitchhiking trip down Florida, being dead-tired, thirsty and horribly hot, I got on a train at a little station and asked the conductor where the train was going. He said Key West and I said fine and by some miracle I had the cash for the fare. I'll never forget the dreamlike crossing of the Keys on the old Flagler viaduct.
In those days Key West really was an island. It was a coaling station. As I remember, there was a good deal of shipping in the harbor. The air smelt of the Gulf Stream. It was like no other place in Florida.
Cayo Hueso, as half the people called it, was linked by car ferries with Havana. Cigar factories had attracted a part-Cuban, part-Spanish population. Hand-rolling cigars was skilled work. The cigar workers were interesting people to talk to, well informed and often surprisingly well read. They had a habit of hiring somebody to read to them at each long table while they worked. They listened with avidity, not only to the Socialist newspapers but to the 19th century Spanish novelists and to translations of Dostoyevski and Tolstoi. They were people who had their own ideas about things.
The English-speaking population was made up of railroad men, old Florida settlers, a few descendants of New Englanders from the days when it was a whaling port, and fishermen from all-white settlements like Spanish Wells in the Bahamas. There was no trace of a cracker drawl in their speech. One remembered that Key West had been Northern territory all through the Civil War.
There were a couple of drowsy hotels where passengers on their way to Cuba or the Caribbean occasionally stopped over. Palms and pepper trees. The shady streets of unpainted frame houses had a faintly New England look. Automobiles were rare because there was no highway to the mainland, only the causeway that carried the single-track railroad. The Navy Yard was closed down. The custodian used to let us go swimming off the stone steps in the deep azure water of the inner basin. You had to watch for barracuda. Otherwise it was delicious. There was really abundant fishing on the reefs and in the Gulf Stream. A couple of Spaniards ran good little restaurants well furnished with Rioja wine. Nobody seemed ever to have heard of Prohibition or game laws. The place suited Ernest to a T.
I've forgotten whether I told Ernest about Key West or whether he discovered it on his own, but the second time I landed there, off a boat from New York, I found Ernest and Pauline established with their two small boys in a frame house on a sandy back street. He knew all the barkeeps in the little bars. He was cozy with the Spaniards who ran the restaurants. He'd made friends with the family that owned the hardware store where they sold fishing tackle, and he was a conch with the conchs, as the Bahamian whites were called, who handled the commercial fishing boats.
There was an ice plant but most of the fishermen kept their fish fresh in live-boxes built into the hulls of their motorboats. At the fish market they scooped up live yellow-tails for you out of a vat. Shipping sea turtles was an important industry. There was a big tank of them at the end of the wharf.
Nobody had thought of a party boat. Captain Saunders, a native of Spanish Wells, known as Bra on the waterfront, a skinny sarcastic thin-faced man with a keen taste for rum and a rich line of yarns, used to take us out fishing occasionally, more or less as a personal favor. Charles and Lorine Thompson, of a family that operated the hardware and marine stores emporium, would take us out after tarpon in the evening. We'd troll back and forth along the wharves and the marly shores clumped with mangroves in the sunset. The gaudiest sunsets I ever saw. When the trade wind dropped, an incredible sweetness of blossoming limes would come off the land along with the mosquitoes.
Sometimes we kept fishing right on into the moonlight. A hooked tarpon would leap in an arc of dark silver against the moon's sheen on the water. Often we had a couple of bottles of champagne among the mullet in the bait bucket. Nobody was allowed a drink until somebody had caught a fish.
Ernest had not gone to college and resented the fact though I used to tell him it was a great advantage. He read a great deal. The experiences of his life made a continual impact on things he read and his reading threw light on the events and people he came across. He had, in those days, the best kind of self-educated mind. He was canny about boxing and baseball. He had an eye for good painting. There was a passionate accuracy about his knowledge of hunting and fishing but he hadn't become the professional sportsman, not yet. He'd learned more current history than you can imagine in the short time he worked as a foreign correspondent in Europe. He claimed that politics bored him but his cracks about politics and politicians, national and international, were sharp, shrewd and to the point. We would drink and fish and talk and talk late into the moonstruck night. Then the Thompsons would get to yawning and Charles would remark that he had to go to work next morning and head into the dock. It was a shame to see the great shining tarpon lying there in the dust. They aren't fit to eat. About the only use is for mounting. Some people make knickknacks out of the dried scales. Catching tarpon is sheer vanity.