by Richard Louv
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
"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
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
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 email@example.com