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The Day Hemingway Died - Vic DiGenti

by Vic DiGenti

No one knew when or why old Gundy Gunderson became Ernest Hemingway. According to the old timers, he’d been that way for at least ten years when we moved to Fernandina Beach in 1960. I was nine years old at the time, and Harold was twelve.

Fernandina Beach, our new temporary home, was a jutting spit of sand, swamp, and slash pines just north of Jacksonville. Dad followed some internal beacon and every other year or so packed the three of us in the 1956 Buick wagon with real wooden sides faded the color of dirty ginger ale and moved on. Harold would later say Dad received the calling to visit every bar on the East Coast. He was a bartender by trade, and, according to him, a damn good one, so the Palace Saloon was lucky to get him.

I was sitting at the end of the bar, doing my homework, the first time I saw old Gundy Gunderson. A silver-veined mirror ran the entire thirty-five feet behind the length of the bar, a massive mahogany slab that curved at both ends and rippled subtly in the middle like the muscled backs of the dock workers.

“Look what Mamma Mary dropped into this den of iniquity,” a booming voice called out from behind me.

A leathery hand dropped heavily on my shoulder, and I peered in the mirror and saw the most imposing figure I’d ever seen in my young life. He was well over six-feet tall, with a head the size of a June melon made even more imposing by a fine thatch of gray hair hanging down in waves and almost melting into his grizzled, snowy beard. The grimy safari jacket completed the illusion.

“And who might you be, little missy?” he asked, giving my arm a squeeze like he was trying to judge the size of my muscle.

“My name is Barbara Ruth,” I replied. Sooner or later he and everyone else would call me Babroot, which is a hateful thing to do to a child. Somewhere in his infancy, when Harold was missing his front teeth and good sense, Barbara Ruth came out as Babroot. And that’s how it stayed. I won’t tell you some of the things I call Harold.

“That’s an awful grown-up name for such a little girl,” he said.

“Well…” I said, hesitating. I wasn’t really going to tell him, was I?

“They call me Babroot.”

Gundy Gunderson stared at me a moment and let out a whooping laugh that shook the pressed tin ceiling, and caused all the patrons to turn toward us expectantly as though they were waiting for a brawl to break out. The big man grabbed me under the arms, lifted me off the stool and tossed me up toward the ceiling between a pair of lazily twirling four-bladed fans covered with fly specks.

He caught me in a bear hug and set me back on my stool. Sticking out a hand the size of a dinner plate, he said, “Babroot it is, girl. Let’s shake on it. Folks around here call me all kinds of things, but not to my face,” he said, turning and winking at the regulars at the bar. “You can call me Papa, if you want, or just plain old Hemingway.”

And that’s how I was introduced to Warren Harding Gunderson, which was Papa’s real name. I sometimes called him Papa, but he was always Gundy to me. I came to learn that some of the residents of Fernandina Beach thought Gundy was a fool and nothing more. Most people, however, had come to accept his eccentricities. Still, the questions remained about why this shrimp boat captain chose to take on a new persona late in life. It was like he went shopping for a new coat, tried on a few, rejecting this one because of its color, that because of the style. Apparently, Ernest Hemingway fit Gundy Gunderson perfectly, and that was who he became.

I recall some of the fishermen sitting in the shadows of the Palace Saloon, practicing their amateur psychology, offering up theories that grew increasingly more rational the longer they drank. Of course, Gundy was never around as they made their boozy diagnoses.

“Some people can’t believe there isn’t more in this life than what they have,” said one elderly sage with a ragged scar above his left eyebrow that glowed in rosy tones after his third beer. “And they look for ways to make their lives more interesting. That’s what Gundy is doing.”

“Nah, it’s a mental thing, I tell you,” retorted a younger dock worker with long blond hair nearly touching his shoulders. He gave the older man a look that seemed to say he was spouting complete nonsense. “Gundy’s got one of those split-up personalities you hear about, and needs a shock transfusion to get his head straight.” He paused and drained his mug, looking at the querulous faces around him. “You know, where they put that gadget on your head and fire up the brain so it rights itself.”

And so it went.

The Palace Saloon was certainly the sort of place Ernest Hemingway would have patronized. It was a working man’s bar, although the tourists would soon discover its quaint charms. In 1964, the new owner would commission a fanciful mural of Spanish explorers and bare breasted Indian women. Much later, I heard that it nearly burned down. But in 1960 when Dad was behind the bar and I was learning about life in a small town, it was the place where Gundy Gunderson would hold court. He’d lean his chair against the old brick wall and rail out at his tormentors.

“Goddamn know-nothin’ critics,” Gundy would exclaim after he had a few drinks. This was, I soon learned, his favorite way to start a sentence and an occasional free-for-all. He balled up a section of the paper he was reading, stood and threw it behind the bar with an exaggerated pitching motion like he was on the mound for the Atlanta Braves.

“What do they know about writing? Or real life, for that matter? They ride around in taxis and go to their fancy dinners then say that old Hemingway has lost his touch. That he can’t write anymore.”

Gundy sat down again, swallowed the remains of his beer and glared around the room, daring anyone to disagree with him. On the juke box, Marty Robbins was falling in love with a Mexican girl in Rosa’s Cantina, but few of the patrons in the Palace Saloon thought about the cowboy in El Paso as they waited for the next eruption from Gundy Gunderson. They didn’t have long to wait.

“Balls,” he roared out to no one in particular. “Have they ever fought a blue marlin for three hours then watch it slip away beneath the waves, leaving you with nothing but aching shoulders? Or lie in a bloody trench trying to hold a soldier’s guts in while shells are kicking dirt in your face? Hell, no, they haven’t. Hell, no,” he repeated in a voice that sounded like he was running out of breath.

The Palace was filled with shrimpers that day fresh from their boats, and the saloon was redolent with the tang of salt water and three-day old crustaceans. They sat there in crusted overalls and Levi’s, studying the foam in their glasses or watching the traffic on Centre Street. Anywhere but at Gundy.

At this point, Gundy would retreat to some safe harbor of his mind and re-write his illusory battles with critics and marlins.

I witnessed this afternoon ritual from my stool at the bar, where I perched myself atop a Sears catalog and did my homework every day under the watchful eye of my dad. Some people might argue that a bar was no place for a child, but Dad thought it provided a better education than a schoolhouse.

When Gundy finally settled down to some serious drinking, Dad nodded at me, and I would climb down from my stool to go find Wilson, another of those mysteries we discovered in Fernandina Beach. He was only twelve, but he didn’t act like any twelve-year-old boy I’d ever known, and I’d been pretty close to one in particular to know what jerks they can be.

Like the Hemingway enigma, the locals were unsure where Wilson came from. Some seemed to think he was a stray that Gundy took in four or five years ago, while others believed he might be the old man’s illegitimate child by a housekeeper that had worked for him some years ago. Gundy himself never felt the need to explain, and Wilson didn’t think there was anything unusual about his relationship with a shrimper who thought he was Ernest Hemingway.

I found Wilson aboard Gundy’s boat, the Kilimanjaro, with the back off the short wave radio. He was recoiling the copper wire on the antenna and didn’t look up when I sat down next to him.

“Lo, Babroot,” he said.

“He’s puttin’ them down pretty good, Wilson. Maybe you should take him home.”

“Okay,” he said, and continued working on the coil. Wilson had an incredible knack for holding his tongue.

He was a whiz with anything electronic or mechanical. Naturally, Gundy helped with the heavy stuff, but Wilson always seemed to know what the problem was, and Gundy had learned to trust the boy’s instincts.

He was a dark, slim kid with this funny cowlick that sprayed brown hair across his forehead. And he didn’t do it much, but when he smiled, his green eyes, with the lashes I would kill for six years later, glistened like luminous pools. It was a smile there was no mistaking, and I just loved it.

Eventually, Wilson finished with the radio, and we strolled down to the Palace to lead Gundy home. They shared a two-story white clapboard house that Gunderson’s father had built some fifty years before. The locals called it Papa's Place in friendly mockery of Gundy, but he thought it only proper.

By the spring of 1961, Wilson, Harold, and I were inseparable. We’d taken to playing at Papa’s Place most of the time, and on Sundays we’d all scramble aboard Gundy’s shrimp boat and help scrub her down. Gundy’s two strikers kept the boat pretty clean, but he always spent Sunday on the boat, repairing the trawling nets and oiling the winches.

On this particular Sunday, we’d already mopped the decks and were playing in the outriggers. Gundy was below us in a folding chair, drinking beer, his feet propped up on an overturned bucket, a mangled copy of The Old Man and the Sea on his lap.

“They thought I was washed up when I wrote this. Isn’t that right, Wilson?”

“Yes, Papa,” Wilson called down.

“I showed them, though, didn’t I? Won the damn Nobel Prize.” Gundy carried that copy of The Old Man and the Sea with him wherever he went, reading it over and over.

I remember that the outriggers were slippery from a fleeting thundershower that blew in that morning, paused briefly and continued on its way inland, like a neighbor stopping by to say hello. Gundy looked up from his book and yelled at us to be careful as we shimmied up the poles. Harold and I crawled forward a few feet, our arms wrapped tightly around the outriggers, but Wilson liked to scamper to the top and slide down the rigging to the deck. Wilson knew what he was doing, so you can imagine how surprised I was when he fell.

He was near the top of the outrigger – his left leg scissored around it while he reached out for the line with his other leg. I guess he let go of the pole too soon because I saw his leg slip from the rope, pulling him off balance and banging his head against the outrigger. He dangled upside down for a moment, almost acrobatically, then slid off.

That’s when I screamed.

Old man Gunderson made a frantic dive for Wilson and managed to get one arm between the deck and Wilson’s crashing body. It was just enough to break his fall and Gundy’s wrist.

At the hospital, they x-rayed then wrapped Wilson’s bird-like chest, sewed up the cut on his forehead and put him to bed. They put a cast on Gundy’s wrist.

Harold and I were sitting in the lobby of the small hospital when Dad came to take us home, but there was one thing I had to do first. I ran back down the hall and tiptoed into Wilson’s room. He was asleep and Gundy was sitting on the bed, holding his hand.

“Goodnight, Wilson,” I whispered, leaning over to kiss him on the mouth. Then I hugged Gundy and kissed him on the cheek.

“Goodnight, Mr. Hemingway. Thank you for saving Wilson’s life.” Both of our faces were wet.

Fernandina Beach stands out vividly among the beery line-up of bars I called home when I was growing up. At the time, I thought it would be the perfect place to settle down and raise a family. Everything would change soon.

That next weekend after Wilson’s accident, it rained like there was never going to be another sunny day. It was a classic North Florida thunderstorm erupting before the moon disappeared from the morning sky and continuing until bedtime. The gloom was periodically slashed by sheets of lightning crackling across the sky like fiery spider webs. From my bedroom window, I could see the marina at the end of Centre Street, and in those milliseconds of brightness, I glimpsed the shrimp boats straining at their moorings and pitching back against the old automobile tires lining the wharf. I knew it was my imagination, but in one of those incendiary flashes, I thought I saw a small figure climbing along the outrigger poles of the Kilimanjaro.

Sunday dawned with even less promise than Saturday. A dung-colored sky caught the stink from the Raytheon factory and held it head high all morning. The day passed so slowly I even did my homework to break the boredom. I can still remember what everyone was doing that evening: Dad was reading the paper, Harold was shooting marbles, and I was petting my calico cat, Princess, while the TV set droned on in the background.

The tedium of a rainy Sunday evening broke abruptly when a raspy baritone voice interrupted whatever program was on television with this announcement: “Nobel Prize winning author, Ernest Hemingway, is dead. The man who lived the adventures he wrote about, whose terse style placed him among the best American writers, was found dead today of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot, in his Ketchum, Idaho, home. He was sixty-two.”

It was a moment frozen in time. I looked across the room at Dad, then to Harold. No one said anything for what seemed like minutes, and then the substance of the report hit us all at once.

“Gundy,” I yelled and ran out the door into the stinging rain. All I could think about was Gundy and whether he’d heard the news report. Far behind me I could hear Dad calling my name.

A pulse pounded behind my left ear as I stumbled up the steps of number 3 Magnolia Street and banged on the screen door. I didn’t wait to be invited in but rushed into the darkened house. I could hear the television in the living room, see the flickering flashes from the screen reflecting off Wilson’s face. He was staring wildly at the bathroom. I knew I was too late—Fernandina’s Ernest Hemingway was dead.

Later that summer, Dad got the calling again. We packed the Buick and left Florida behind. In the years that followed, those adolescent times filled with roller-coaster emotions and the first tentative steps toward adulthood, a picture of shrimp boats and palm trees would often flash back to me, complete with a stern captain who looked like Ernest Hemingway.

It wasn’t until the 1972 Easter holidays, though, that I would see Fernandina Beach again. Frazzled by an especially lousy Michigan winter and a week of exams, I drove with two friends toward the Promised Land of Daytona Beach. My friends were only slightly petulant when I told them of the brief stop I wanted to make.

Fernandina Beach remained essentially the same as I remembered. Several stores had been added to the three-block town center, and the Palace Saloon now had a new coat of paint, but it still smelled and felt like the Fernandina I had tucked away in my memories.

Inside the Palace, we all had draft beer and boiled shrimp. I immediately disliked the mural which now covered the west wall, the spot where Gundy conducted his angry afternoon monologues. I carefully studied all the faces around us, but there was no one I recognized, so I excused myself from my friends and wandered toward the docks.

Paul Desmond’s Take Five caromed through my mind as I walked. The Dave Brubeck

Quartet had played at the university shortly before the holiday break, and the unusual polyrhythm piano signatures were stuck in my head, accompanying me down Centre Street.

The Kilimanjaro was tied up at the wharf, and a striker was hosing down the deck. It wasn’t Wilson, but I recognized him from those long-gone days.

“Hi,” I yelled. “Remember me?”

His name was Jesse, and he’d been in Harold’s seventh grade class. Messy-Jesse was how Harold and the other miscreants had referred to him because of the hand-me-downs he was forced to wear.

Jesse put down the hose and stepped over for a closer look. He wiped his hands on his jeans and leaned toward me like he was trying to hear something I might have whispered. “No, can’t say I do,” he drawled before spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the water.

I told him who I was. “Oh, yeah. You’re that dickweed’s sister,” he said. “What was his name, Hal?”

“Harold,” I said with a laugh. “But you’re right about the dickweed part.” After some preliminary conversation, I asked about Wilson.

He spit again before answering. “Wilson’s dead,” he said matter-of-factly. “Bought it in Nam couple years back at Khe Sahn. His chopper was dropping supplies when they were hit. Killed them all.”

I had told myself it was only curiosity that brought me back to Fernandina, but hiding very near the surface was a fantasy I’d created over the last few years. It was a childish notion that if I ever saw Wilson again, we’d fall madly in love and live happily ever after.

Stunned, I turned and walked away from Jesse and the Kilimanjaro. The 5/4 tempo of Brubeck’s piano kicked in again, the bass laying down strong lines, and now the alto breaking in with breathy, fluttery accents. I quickened my pace to the internal music, striding forward to meet the past. As I rounded the corner and saw Papa’s Place, it all came flooding back to me in flashes of memory so real I saw myself entering the darkened living room that night when Hemingway died.

There was the look of bewilderment on Wilson’s innocent young face, the light in the bathroom beckoning me like a moth to a candle. Old Gundy Gunderson stood in front of the mirror with a straight razor in his hand.

I willed myself back to the present and stared at the old house on Magnolia Street. The white, two-story clapboard was essentially the same, although it badly needed a coat of paint. It was obvious the azaleas hadn’t been trimmed in years, and they covered the entire front of the house, blocking any view of the windows. I knocked on the door and waited. When I didn’t get a response, I walked around to the back yard.

Gundy was carefully whittling slivers of wood from what looked to be a carving of a dolphin. He was still clean-shaven, just as he was the night Ernest Hemingway died – the night I had raced through the rain to find Wilson gaping at the man he had lived with for five years and thought he understood. Along with the beard, Gundy had trimmed his hair, shedding all claims to Hemingway.

He eventually looked up from his whittling and saw me standing there smiling at him. He smiled back and called me by name.

“Babroot. Good gawd, girl, just look at you.” He jumped up and wrapped me in his still-powerful arms.

I pulled up another lawn chair, and as we talked, he told me that after Hemingway died he had a hard time steering a straight course. He said the folks in Fernandina didn’t quite know what to make of him, and Wilson had difficulty adjusting to the change.

“Wilson even ran away from home once,” he said, a sad smile playing across his weathered face.

“Hell, for a while there I thought about becoming Douglas McArthur, but that just didn’t set right with me.” He shook his head at the foolishness of the notion.

“I sold the Kilimanjaro after –”

“After Wilson,” I said.

“You know about Wilson?” He looked into my eyes as though searching for an answer to his own question.

“Yes,” I told him, laying my hand on his arm.

“Well, I was going to give him the boat, so what’s the use of hanging on?”

He told me he was fully retired, except for his whittling. “I guess you can say I’m finally comfortable with myself.”

Gundy gave me a wan smile, his eyes slipping away to study the dolphin in his hand. I wondered if he was remembering those years when people called him Papa. Did he still carry the picture of the bearded fisherman cursing his imaginary devils? Or was he thinking about Wilson?

I found myself dredging up my own memories, seeing again the slim boy with the funny cowlick and green eyes. While Take Five played an encore in my head, I pictured Wilson climbing the outriggers – saw him slipping and falling, and imagined I could still feel the touch of his lips against mine when I kissed him in the hospital. Looking at Gundy, I wanted to offer him solace, take away his pain, but in the end all I could say was, “I’m so sorry.”

I watched the old man turn the dolphin over and over in huge hands now covered with liver spots, and knew he was thinking about what might have been. In the end, we parted with a hug and a few tears of friendship. I gave him my address, and we promised to stay in touch. He said he’d send me the dolphin when it was finished.

As I walked back to the Palace Saloon, an image of the old Gundy broke through my reverie—Gundy of the full beard and grimy safari jacket striking out at his imaginary adversaries, a beer in one hand and The Old Man and the Sea in the other. I smiled to myself, no longer confused by the unexpected turns our lives take. Even the bravest of sailors, faced with one too many storm fronts, foundering and swimming for safety, might find shelter in strange places. Like the compelling 5/4 meter of Take Five, I was swept away by a sense of inevitability, a natural progression of life that carried everyone along, prepared for it or not.

I stood outside the Palace Saloon, embracing the Florida heat and humidity. I wasn’t ready to tell my friends what I’d learned of Wilson’s death or Gundy’s new life. Perhaps later, when we returned to the university, the excitement of our Florida vacation behind us. But the past could wait. My future was still unfolding, and maybe I’d be permitted a brief glimpse into that future tomorrow as we lay on the sands of Daytona Beach. It might bring sunburn, or it might bring romance. Either way, I could thank Papa for helping me to understand that life was more than a straight path, that it held surprises and discoveries. That I should be prepared to improvise.

I looked forward to those new uncertainties, took one last look down Centre Street, shook my head almost imperceptibly, and walked inside the Palace Saloon.