My Uncle Jonathan was a wonderful writer and an even better storyteller. By that I mean he was gifted with a vivid imagination when recounting events from his colorful past. How much of his writing was accurate has always been up for debate. But if only half of what he swore to be the truth were true, the man lived a rich and fortunate life.
He socialized with a long list of celebrities – from presidents and poets, to musicians and artists. He began his writing career on humdrum TV sitcoms in Hollywood before becoming the prolific author of twenty-seven novels, literary narratives, and short story collections. From his vast collection of work, which I have read in complete, I would say the one about his first encounter with Ernest Hemingway ranks as my all-time favorite.
Here is an excerpt from his narrative “Traveling in Style”:
I had traveled to Havana for one purpose – to meet Ernest Hemingway. The year was 1948 and Hemingway’s whereabouts were available to anyone who read the newspapers. Cuba was a popular destination for American expatriates and Hemingway was one of the island’s most distinguished residents.
I entered the Floridita, a well-known Hemingway hangout. The ceiling fans did little to combat the heat and humidity. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a local brew, as strolling musicians made their way around the uncrowded room.
I was on my second beer when the man himself walked into the bar. I was not more than five feet from my literary hero.
“Mr. Hemingway,” I said, extending a nervous hand.
“And you are?” he asked, giving me an all-too-firm handshake.
“Jonathan Brooks, sir. From Los Angeles. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”
“What brings you to Havana, Mr. Brooks?”
“Actually, I was hoping to get some advice from you.”
“Yes, sir. I’m a writer…”
“And you’ve traveled all the way from California for my advice?”
The bartender placed two frosted glasses, along with two shot glasses, on the bar.
“Young man,” Hemingway said. “If you call me sir one more time I’m going to toss you into the street.”
He slid a shot glass towards me.
We downed the shots.
“Whew,” I said, not accustomed to morning drinking.
“Local rum. Now try this,” he said, handing me one of the frosted glasses. “The two are meant to be drunk together.”
Against my better judgement, I took a sip. Then another.
“This is excellent. What is it?” I asked.
“A little something I concocted.”
“Mr. Hemingway, if I may be honest, I am a comedy writer but I’ve written a dramatic manuscript. My agent has shown little interest in trying to get it published since it’s not at all funny. I was hoping you would read it and give me your honest assessment of its merits.”
“Hmm,” he said, barely acknowledging the manuscript I had placed on the bar.
The bartender presented us with a platter of shrimp.
Hemingway lifted a shrimp to his mouth and bit its head off. He then devoured the remains, tail and all.
“Nothing to it. Now, your turn.”
I hesitated longer than I probably should have before placing a shrimp’s head in my mouth and biting down, amusing Hemingway with my contorted expression. I took a long gulp of beer, then finishing off the slimy crustacean.
“Bravo. Well done. Dos mas, por favor,” he said to our bartender, pointing to the empty glasses.
Hemingway was all about testing the fortitude of other men. I seemed to have passed the first challenge.
We left the bar and walked along Calle Obispo. While I had had too much to drink, Hemingway acted as if he had been sipping water.
“Where are we headed?” I asked.
“To the harbor. It’s a perfect day for fishing. Are you game?”
“Why not. I don’t think my legs would feel any wobblier on a boat than they do right now.”
“You’re okay,” he said, giving me a hearty backslap that nearly knocked me off my feet.
We made our way down the pier’s ramp and were soon at Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar.
“Buenos Dias, Gregorio,” Hemingway said to the man assisting me aboard.
“Buenos Dias, Papa.”
“Jonathan Brooks, may I introduce you to Gregorio Fuentes. He has been my loyal captain and dear friend for many years.”
“A fisherman?” Gregorio queried.
“You bet,” I said.
“We’ll see,” Gregorio responded.
Hemingway retrieved two glasses and a bottle of tequila. He poured generous amounts and handed one to me. The Pilar motored out of the harbor and headed for open sea.
An hour later, the boat was gently rocking on the aqua blue waters of the Caribbean with its engines off. Two heavy-action fishing rods rested in their holders at the stern, their lines penetrating the tranquil sea.
“Tell me about your manuscript,” Hemingway said, as we relaxed on wooden fighting chairs.
“Well, it’s a murder mystery set in San Francisco. Three men, one woman, with hopefully a surprise ending. I think it’s a good story, but I can’t get my agent to see me as a serious writer.”
“Serious? I believe so.”
“You must know so. Serious writing is serious business. Words you write today will be available for generations to read. You can’t hold anything back. The world needs good writers, drama and comedy. If you’re good enough, your words will find an audience. Hopefully while you’re still alive.”
A sudden jerk on my fishing line brought a wide grin to Hemingway’s sunbaked face and great terror to mine.
“Time for battle,” he said, raising his voice with anticipation.
He strapped me into the fighting chair.
“Make sure he’s hooked. Can you feel him?”
“I certainly feel something.”
“Good. Now let him run with it for a while. Give him some slack. You will need to wear him down.”
“It feels like the whole world is on the other end,” I said after twenty minutes, struggling to maintain a firm hold on the fishing rod.
“Not the whole world, Mr. Brooks, just that,” he said, pointing to a magnificent marlin as it leapt from the water, struggling with the embedded hook.
As the time passed, I could barely hold on as my strength continued to diminish.
“He’s a monster,” Hemingway yelled out, as the fish showed itself again. “A beautiful monster. Bring him in. Slowly. Take hold of the situation and show him who’s boss. Bend down, reel him in. Use your legs. It doesn’t get any better than this. Man versus nature. Enjoy the moment, because nature most often is the victor.”
After another half-hour, my face was blood-red, caked in salt-watered sweat.
“I can’t feel my arms,” I cried out.
“Keep going,” Hemingway said. “He’s yours for the taking. You’ve come this far. Don’t give up now.”
But that’s exactly what I did do. I gave up, releasing my hold on the reel. The majestic marlin twisted furiously out of the water and managed to snap the line, returning to its rightful place in the depths of the sea.
I was bent over from exhaustion, relieved the battle was over. Hemingway stared out to where the marlin was last visible.
“God bless you,” he offered to the vanquished fish. “Your time will come.”
He then turned his attention to me.
“As you just witnessed, Mr. Brooks, that creature was more serious about keeping its life than you were about taking it. It’s the way of the world.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to rub feeling back into my arms and legs.
“Sorry for what?”
“For letting you down.”
“Only I can let me down. Besides, that fish out there thinks you’re a hero for sparing its life.”
The next morning I awoke to gentle knocking at my hotel door. A young boy, standing in the shadows of the hallway, handed me a note. It was from Hemingway asking me to join him that afternoon at his home.
I rode a taxi to the address that had been included in the note. I was greeted by Hemingway who showed me into his study. The room was cluttered with newspapers and magazines.
“My wife’s in Europe,” he said, clearing a place for me to sit. “I tend to let things go when I have the house to myself.”
He retreated to another room and returned with a tray containing a pot of coffee, two mugs, and a bottle of liquor.
“I find that a little rum balances the bitterness of this god-awful coffee.”
Hemingway poured two cups.
“About yesterday,” I began. “I really did try to catch that marlin, but I’m not unhappy it got away. I had my rod as a weapon, as well as intelligence on my side. In a fair fight, I would have been easily defeated. And, honestly, I had no reason to kill it.”
“Man sometimes needs a weapon,” Hemingway said, lost in the moment. “I read your manuscript, Mr. Brooks, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. The ending was worth the read alone. You are a good writer. If I may add one suggestion – a little humor wouldn’t hurt.”
I could only smile at those last few words as he excused himself to answer a knock at the door. I walked over to where my manuscript was laid open on a small table, complete with scribbled notes along the side of the page. I noticed another manuscript in a wastebasket and retrieved it. I was browsing through its pages when Hemingway reentered the room.
“I see you’ve discovered my latest masterpiece.”
“My apologies for snooping.”
“Put it back in the trash. That’s where it belongs. It’s utter rubbish. I’m afraid that was a telegraph from my wife. She wants me to join her in Venice as soon as possible. Europe, the mother of all art. Have you been?”
“Not as yet.”
“You must. She is beautiful. Cuba has beauty as well, but without the same creative stimuli that Europe offers. And at this point in my life I need all the stimulation I can get.”
“Then let me be on my way,” I offered. “I want to thank you, Mr. Hemingway, for everything. My visit here has been more than I could have ever hoped for.”
With my manuscript in hand, I followed Hemingway outside to my waiting cab. He extended his hand and we shook. I attempted to show more strength than I had the previous time we had partaken in this manly ritual but to no avail.
“You’re well on your way, Mr. Brooks. Keep up the good work. And remember, we’ll always have Havana.”
As the taxi drove off, I realized I would cherish his wry humor and boyish smile for the rest of my days. I also realized how fortunate I was I didn’t have to prove myself any further by running with the bulls in Pamplona, let alone having to fight them.
So, there you have it. I honestly don’t know how much of the story is factual and how much may have been my uncle’s creative mind blending in just the right amount of spice. Nor do I care. For me, just being in the same barroom as Ernest Hemingway would have been a story worthy of sharing with my friends. But I am not a writer. I am a reader. And a believer.
Banner Image: Hemingways’s desk taken by Nik
6 thoughts on “Testing the Waters by Fred Vogel”
Wonderful story telling!
I don’t know much about Hemingway but I found this very believable. It had a realism and charm to it that was infectious and made me want to believe.
Great to see you adding to your stories!
Very nice. The prose seems effortless and is all the more believable because of it. Naming the boat Pilar is an excllent touch.
Yes, rings with authenticity.
Love it. Got totally caught up in story. Really captured the Papa Hemingway gestalt.