THE OLD MAN
by Richard Louv

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COJIMAR, Cuba - Raphael stationed his grandfather's yellow plastic bucket on the floor next to the wheelchair. He handed a cigar to the old man, whose hand shook as he slowly placed it in his mouth.

"I am honored to meet you," said the visitor, reaching to shake his hand. Gregorio Fuentes' eyes smiled but the skin on his face did not move.

Long ago, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck..." Blotches "ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish...They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

Hemingway was describing Santiago, the central character in his book, "The Old Man and the Sea," a slim volume that became reading for just about every high school student during the past half century. Gregorio was Hemingway's fishing boat captain, and probably served as partial inspiration for the book. Back then, he was barely in his fifties. But now Hemingways' description fit him perfectly.

When I visited Gregorio five weeks ago, he was 104 and looked it. Except for his eyes.

In pain, he barely talked. When asked his formula for long life, he rasped, "Cigars, rum and women." Then, with sweet and slow ceremony, he grasped the hand of a woman visitor, took the cigar from his mouth, and lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Never mind that, as new pilgrims approached, he leaned over his yellow plastic spittoon; the woman was charmed. The Americans who came to see him that day left with a peculiar look in their eyes, as if they had met the Pope. A Pope with a spittoon.

Gregorio died on Sunday. Worldwide reaction to his death was surprising. Sidekicks aren't supposed to get such headlines. Certainly not in The Wall Street Journal or The Times of London.

So why the outsized notation of his passing? Why the pilgrimage?

One reason is fame by association. This was the man who, for two decades, spent more time with Hemingway than anyone else. The author named one of his sons after him. Later, Gregorio saved the son's life by firing a machine gun at an attacking shark. (Gregory Hemingway, who died last year in a jail cell, went on to become a famous cross-dresser.) This is a man who, during World War II, hunted German U-boats off Cuba's Coast with Hemingway.

They were only a year apart in age. Each year, Gregorio and "Ernesto," as the captain called the author, would share a bottle of whiskey to celebrate their births. After Hemingway died, Gregorio continued the tradition. He would drink his Scotch -- hard to find in revolutionary Cuba -- and pour Hemingway's share over a bust of the author.

But fame by association is only one piece to the puzz le. Here's another: the sense that something authentic about our relationship with nature has passed, or we are passing it, as we sail into the new millennium. Gregorio was the real deal. He never claimed that he was the only model for "The Old Man and the Sea." In fact, he often told how he and Ernesto encountered an old man in a small boat. Struggling to reel in a marlin, fighting off circling sharks, the fisherman refused help from Ernesto and Gregorio. That moment was the germ of Hemingway's story -- which was about courage and futility, love of nature and the killing of it.

Such metaphorical - some say macho -- thinking is out of fashion. For some.

Not long ago, I interviewed a fishing guide in New Mexico who explained why he had fled corporate life for the precarious but "direct and immediate" experience of guiding on a river.

"It's one of the basic things people want, to directly experience being alive," he said. "But life is getting to be like watching a ballgame; you're not really playing ball. Your life is going by and you're just watching." Electronic reality has replaced direct experience, he said. "You almost believe it's real. You finish the day thinking you did a lot of stuff and really you did nothing. You're sitting in front of a screen or punching buttons, but as far as life goes, you didn't directly experience anything. What's the saying about most men living lives of quiet desperation? That's the reason I became a fishing guide. Life was becoming too easy for me, too detached."
This from a man whose prior job had been corporate jet pilot.

Ironically, Hemingway came to lead a life of less than quiet desperation.

A couple years ago, I asked Patrick Hemingway about his father's death. Patrick rejected the widely held assumption that his father was mentally ill. Yes, alcohol had had its way with his father, he said. But there was something else, said Patrick. Of all the places he had lived, his father loved Cuba the most. His favorite house and boat were there, and his best friend. Because of the revolution, he could not return to Cuba.

"I think the prospect of his life without that was very grim," Patrick said. "To live a sort of suburban existence, or urban existence, was just unthinkable to him. The Bay of Pigs was in April of 1961, OK? And my dad shot himself in July of '61, OK? And the Bay of Pigs really was the end of any hope of him getting back to his home."
Perhaps Fuentes' death signals that most of us will never be able to get back there: to that romantic notion that nature is our best friend and worst enemy, that life is best lived on the edge of open seas. On the other hand, now that terrorism defines the times, perhaps we're closer to the edge than we think.

The Americans left the little house, where Gregorio still sat. He raised his scarred hand, and waved goodbye.

RICHARD LOUV writes about the future on Sundays. He is also the author of "Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An American Journey." He can be reached by e-mail at rlouv@cts.com