A once-told memoir that is as good a recollection of an unforgettable encounter on Great Guana Cay in the Abacos as I can muster.
By Capt. Ken Kreisler
Author’s note: The following is a work of fiction based on a loose collection of factual information, personal experience, and extensive travel. Literary license has most definitely been taken. To protect anonymity, some names have been changed and some have not. That’s for you to figure out. I can’t do all the work for you.
I hope you enjoy it. –Capt. Ken
This is how it happened.
“So?” I said, not yet three sheets to the wind but getting there fairly quickly on the latest round of rum drinks that had come my way. The first one was a Good Mojito; or maybe it was a Mojito Perfecto.
Anyway, it was definitely a Mojito and I know the one before Shaggy’s Hana Bay was something called a Belt of Orion. Go figure.
“Now there boy-o,” Conlan countered, his musical, Irish-lilted accent wrapping softly around my ears like silky, sweet caramel; the big paw of one hand gently resting on my shoulder while his other one waved in the air about us as if he were bringing in the string section of a symphonic orchestra.
Conlan was one Capt. Rowan Conlan, a great bear of a man, full and thick through the neck, shoulders, and chest; an ex-pat’s ex-pat, he had seen what had to be seen, been where he had to have been, and done what needed to be done. These days, as he mellowed like fine, single malt Irish whisky, he contented himself with running big, expensive yachts, both power and sail, from the rich haunts of the likes of Palm Beach, Florida, to all of the islands and out islands of the South Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. If it floated, Rowan Conlan could handle it with his eyes closed; which, by the way, was often the case. But in all the time he has been skippering, he has never once put so much as a scratch on a hull, bumped a coral reef, nor delivered his charge in any condition other than Bristol fashion. And when he needed an extra hand, as with the 140-footer we had picked up in Hilton Head, SC, I got the first call.
“As I see it,” he continued after first downing the last of the backwash of his Captain’s Vacation, “The greatest western film shootout…Yank, of course…was that which occurred between Cherry Valance and Matt Garth, played by John Ireland and Montgomery Clift respectively, in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River.” The statement was delivered with the utmost finality, ending any chance of a subsequent retort or counter thesis on the matter. Said and done. Done and said. Conlan was not a man to be trifled with.
“Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt!” I replied, perhaps a bit too loud and laced with the kind of over enthusiasm, taking into consideration my present state of inebriation, which resulted in a very poor imitation of Tom Dunson, the John Wayne character. Very poor indeed. Embarrassingly so. Pathetic, in fact. Circle the wagons pilgrim.
“Better than Alan Ladd as Shane, drawing down on Jack Palance as gunslinger Jack Wilson in the 1953 George Stevens directed film of the same name?” I said, perhaps an octave or two too high. “Or how about Will Kane doing Ben Miller and Jack Colby, played by Gary Cooper, Sheb Wooley, and Lee Van Cleef, in that order, thank you very much, at High Noon in Zinnemann’s 1952 film? Oh, and let’s not forget Clint Eastwood/William Munny blowing away Gene Hackman/Little Bill with Ned Logan’s Spencer rifle—played by God himself, Morgan Freeman—along with several others in the climactic Big Whiskey saloon shootout in 1992’s Unforgiven? “
With a bit of self-consciousness, I managed to get control of my pitch and felt assured my words were still coming out of my mouth with some regularity of cadence and semblance of coherency. Yet I knew they were very close to finding themselves flopping around on the floor as they spilled, rushing river-like, from my grinning oral cavity and my condition moved steadily up a notch at a time on the Idiot-O-Meter.
“Better’n than the lot of ‘em, boy-o!” he said, smiling broadly and giving the barkeep at Nippers Beach Bar & Grill on Great
Guana Cay, Jonny the Boss Man himself—after we had rolled in from a stop at Grabbers to first get ‘toasty’—the ‘another round’ signal. “Reunion rum punch this time, Jonny,” said Conlan. “And let’s be kind with the pour, eh?”
“You’re forgetting The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy,” said Jonny as he set up two new glasses and went about concocting a most pleasurable libation for us. The warm evening breeze swept landward across the water and I heard Thong Gone Wrong segue into Fake Boobs and Belly Buttons, both memorable Barefoot Man tunes, playing in the background. Could it get any better? In a scant few moments from then, it would. By leaps and bounds.
Now, being a writer I am hard-wired to tune into conversations within earshot; letting my scribe’s internal radar unit pick up nuance, inflection, attitude, emotion, personality, and a host of other stimulating and often-provocative auditory experiences I can then filter and translate into words, sentences, and paragraphs, and will hopefully result in being motivated with self-urging to embark on a meaningful creative endeavor, ultimately ending in something worthwhile coming out of the morass. And the lively and spirited tête-à-tête taking place down the bar from where we were now parked had definitely peaked my attention.
“Whaddya mean, it wobbles,” said the smaller of the two men, this one wearing a tuna-themed, faded blue Guy Harvey t-shirt, a pair of salt-stained cargo shorts, and well-worn sneakers. No socks. His sandy colored hair was a wild, wind-swept tangle sitting on top of his head, his Ocean Waves sunglasses hung from around his neck by a length of 80-pound monofilament fishing line.
“The earth…it,” the other man said, bald, his tattered baseball-style fishing hat pushed back on his head and somewhat taller with a bit more flesh on his bones, now illustrated with one hand flitting about in front of his face, making the point. “Wobbles. And that, my friend,” he said emphatically and Oliver Hardy-like to an unenlightened Stan Laurel, “Changes its orientation towards the sun, thus affecting the amount of sunlight reaching higher latitudes.” He was similarly dressed except his muted yellow Life Is Good t-shirt featured a stick character holding a fishing rod and he wore the familiar sunglass outline of many a flats water guide on a deeply tanned face.
“I don’t feel no wobbling,” Stan said, hunkering down for a moment before downing the last of his beer and reaching, squinting with one eye as if trying to steady the bottle hovering before his outstretched arm, for his back up. “A bit of spinning now and then but no…wobbling.”
“The point is,” his buddy continued, adjusting his hat a bit more back on his head, “That’s what caused the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. And even where we come from, down in the Keys? Once the ice receded, it left, well the land exposed.”
“Damn,” Stan whispered, almost reverently, as if he had just had some sort of insightful revelation; some deep understanding of a most complex, unsolved mystery. “That’s why I run aground off a’Lignumvitae Key. Damn ice receded.”
I quickly grabbed a handful of bar naps and hit all my pockets looking for something to write with, knowing full well that as the seconds ticked by, I would be in jeopardy of not getting down, word for word, a transcription of the conversation I had just overheard. And that’s when a small note pad, followed by a vintage Pelikan fountain pen, a 1937 101N Brown Tortoise Shell to be exact, came sliding down the bar, its top on of course, and stopped just to my right. Lest I digress and go off on a tangent I may not come back from, my tie to this particular pen and in fact, my fascination with this specific writing instrument is for another story.
“Y’see sonny, it’s like this,” the old guy sitting two stools away from me said, first down to his almost done drink and then, lifting his head slightly and looking straight ahead, to no one in particular. Jonny, who just happened to be passing by at the time, was stopped in his tracks by the old man’s now-outstretched finger; for the record, the pointer finger of his left hand.
Jonny stood for a moment and waited. The old man slipped three fingers around the base of the glass, indicating the amount of pour he wanted. Jonny turned, grabbed an unmarked clear bottle of some deep amber liquid off the shelf, lifted the already corked stopper off and dispensed the requested quantity. The old man nodded as Jonny left to tend to some business at the far end of the bar, then lifted his glass, hesitating for a moment that I construed to be a ‘thank you’, took a slow and careful sip and placed the glass back down on the bar.
“Y’get a coupon in the mail,” he continued, turning a bit in my direction to three-quarter face me. “It’s for $30. But as you read the fine print, you find out you gotta spend $50 to get the deal. But you don’t need to because all you want is the goods for $30. But, hey, what the hell, ‘I can find something for $20 more’, you figure. So you do. And maybe, a bit more. Now, they got you reeled in ‘cause the items you’re adding ain’t really what you need or want. And it don’t cost them jack ‘cause most of the stuff they’re offering is on some preferred-only, leftover list they limit you to pick from. Leftovers. What they gotta get rid of. Do the math. You catch my drift here?”
He stopped and took another measured sip. “Writer, ain’t ya,” he stated with no interrogative slant to his query. “Can smell you a mile away,” he said before I could answer. “Go on now. Take up that pen and pad there, write what suddenly got you all in a tizzy, thinking what you heard might of meant something and then take your piece of paper and put it in your pocket and read it later. Like tomorrow or, even better, next week. See if it still has the relevance it did when you first heard it; see if it still strikes the same chord and has the same colors, smell, feel and touch. Pay attention to the background as well as what’s going on in front now. If it does, you may have something there. If not, well…” he said, turned fully towards me and smiled. “You catch my drift here. Don’t ya.” Another sip. “And I’ll be having that pen and pad back when you’re done.”
“But that’s a…” I stammered, looking down at the pen sitting there on the bar.
“I know what it is,” he said. “And I see, so do you.”
“Thanks. I will. Absolutely. No worries,” I said, slowly picking it up and holding it in my hand as if I’d just touched an undeniable piece of the original cross.
“Make sure you see to it,” he nodded into his glass again. “You Aussie?”
“No. From the States.”
“Uh huh,” he smiled and seemed to enjoy his next sip a bit more than the others.
Bars like Nipper’s tend to fill up around you rather quickly as the night wears on, especially when you’re somewhat distracted by the effects of alcohol, as in my present case, the various and sundry rum drinks and the fact that I was trying so hard, so very hard, to get my transcription just right.
Therefore, it came to no surprise to me that by the time I had finished my scribbling, or thought I had, and my Captain’s Vacation, which had now, unseen and as if by wizardry, become a Dark & Stormy, both Conlan and I found ourselves pushed shoulder to shoulder to make room for the crush of patrons growing to six deep at the bar, the thrum of some incoherent and incessant Reggae beat somewhere in the background and just audible scattered here and there in the din of the press of people.
Rowan had definitely attracted the attention of a rather lovely cinnamon-toned woman whose male companion had been ignoring her, instead to get involved in a spirited political conversation with some yachties from various ports of call. “Cap,” I said, my tongue starting to feel a bit like a balled up pair of old, long forgotten socks. He wasn’t listening. No, just couldn’t hear me. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned towards me, a wide grin slowly creeping across his face as he tried to keep his eyes focused.
“Eh?” he said as his head began a slow but steady dive towards the bar as he gallantly tried to fight off the gravitational pull of the earth.
“Rowan. Come on, stay with me here.”
“Oh yeah. Okay,” he grinned, up again. “Okay. Yeah. What? I’m good. ‘Sides, she’s far better looking than the likes of you boy-o.”
“You see where the old geezer went?”
“Weezer? Don’t know anybody goes by the name of Weezer ‘cept that L.A. band…you know which one I’m talkin’ ‘bout?” he more or less slurred and would have kept on going, getting this current jag moving along and headed off in several directions had I not stopped him. “Hey,” he said with a sudden bolt from the blue, “Wasn’t there one of them Our Gang kids named Weezer? In them old black and white films made in the 1930’s? I kind of remember one of them kids nameaweezer.”
“Nah. Geezer. Geezer. Old guy, sitting down there a bit,” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder and in that general direction. “Looked like Willie Nelson ‘cept no braids.”
“Tweezer? Freezer? What ‘chu sayin? Can’t hear ya bud. Makin’ no sense.”
He looked around, saw the crowd that had grown, amoeba-like, around us, smiled, picked up and downed his drink, and said, “Time to blow this taco stand pal.” Before he gave up his stool, he gently tapped the lovely cinnamon-toned woman on the shoulder. “Here now love,” and he whispered something to her and she smiled, nodded her head and slowly, lightly, planted a soft angel’s kiss on his cheek. Rowan had the gift.
Outside, the air was cool and the soft swish of palm fronds and the gentle lapping of the water at the nearby shoreline, helped there by a calm breeze, quickly overtook the din of the crowd and music. An endless carpet of stars stretched above us and looking up I saw the gossamer-veiled and ghostly cloudy remnants of long gone galaxies seemingly drifting by as I readily handed myself over to the giddy inertia and vertigo, slowly spinning around to take in the vastness of it all. And somehow, as we always did, Conlan and I made it back to our boat where we would sleep the contented sleep of the thoroughly plastered.
I heard the knocking but oh, no, did not want to heed its call. No! Please, no! I had been
deep. Very deep in a vast whirling, swirling, floating, spiraling, caressed and cared for, protected, most blissfully peaceful sleep. And then it came again, this time more insistent, pulling me back as I turned my head down and looked from where I was now receding; from where I was being called to answer for my sins.
I saw my outstretched arms, my fingers rapidly tapping away on their own as if playing the Rachmaninoff #3 on the piano, pleading not to go and desperately trying to hold on to the ethereal slumber. I was really doing a great job, by the way, with the complex piece as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein sat nearby, listening to and discussing my work; “What do you think, Vlad?” I had heard Artie ask. “Ach, maybe there’s hope. If he practices a bit more,” said Horowitz as he sipped his Arnold Palmer Lite through a squiggly crazy straw out of a jumbo cup. “Mmmm. I like this. Very refreshing,” he said and smiling, lifted his glass in my direction. And then I was awake.
My eyes opened, that is as best they could, and inside my head there began an incessant pounding that morphed into a throbbing and, quickly changing tempo, became a hammering punctuated by a Doppler effect echoing. I don’t remember sitting up, but there I was, feeling the blood, tsunami-like, rushing into my skull. Surely it would explode if I did not lie back down. And what was that thing dangling out of my mouth? Panicked I had terminal hanging tongue syndrome, I frantically reached for my face and tried stuffing the floppy mass of flesh back where it belonged. Ha! It would fit as long as I could move all the wads of cotton out of the way. Reality was still a ways off, if ever I could recover it.
Self-preservation kicked in and I was attempting a slow recline, back to the supine position when my right arm hit something hard and unyielding. Something cold. Metal. I propped myself up on my elbows and took a peek. Damn! I was in the engine room. On the deck. On the thick, black, rubber mat that protected the shiny aluminum diamond cross-cut pattern deck plating between the two main engines. The bright, ultra blue-white, LED lights were on and the whole space hummed with the constant, low dB purr of our dockside electrical system. I quickly shielded my eyes with one arm. “Okay. Okay,” I yelled. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Troop strength. Where the artillery is. Chain of command. Anything. Just, no more. No more!”
The knocking. I clamped my hand over my mouth to keep myself from allowing any further foolishness to be uttered and, grabbing onto a rather sturdy engine part, lifted myself off the deck and, slowly, like the Frankenstein monster taking his first baby steps, made my way out of the engine room, shuffled through the crew quarters, past the crew galley, and up the four steps to the transom door leading out to the stern deck. The sunlight hit me like a bolt of lightning and I covered up as best I could.
“I’d like my goods back, sonny,” said a voice, seemingly coming from the center of the life-giving orb hanging in the sky.
“Huh? What?” was all I could muster while trying to protect myself from the radiance.
“The pen and pad,” I heard as I squinted at a shadowy figure that was slowly ambling towards me. “The ones I gave you at Nipper’s last night during your literary revelation. Here. Try these.” I saw an extended arm and hand appear holding a pair of sunglasses. I took them and slipped them on.
Shielded from the daylight, I saw Walsh standing there as my synapses, still misfiring, kicked in to some recognition. “Oh. Oh yeah. Yeah! I got it. I remember. Something about running aground in the Keys during the ice age…”
“Whatever. The pen and pad please.”
“Right. Okay. Uh, I know I got them somewhere…” I stammered and began looking for my pockets…pockets? What pockets? Pockets! What pockets! I wasn’t wearing any shorts. I glanced down. Shorts? I was naked! No shirt. No shorts. No shoes. No socks. Naked.
“Unless you got ‘em stuffed somewhere I can’t see, you best get yourself inside and find them. And what the hell did you sleep with last night? Looks like you was lying down with a sizable octopus or a pretty big squid.” I looked down at myself again and saw I was covered with perfectly symmetrical circular red outlines. The engine room’s rubber mat.
“Alright, now that we got that settled…” he said.
“Wow. Uh, why don’t I…” I said, turning a bit back towards the open transom door.
“Yeah. Good idea.”
“Uh, so, why don’t you come aboard then, right through here and up the stairs on the starboard side. Keep walking forward and you’ll get to the main deck galley. Meet you there?”
“That’d be fine. Go on now. And I won’t be following behind you. I done a lot of things in my time and don’t mean to start doing something like that. Go on now, give you some time to find your way.”
“Okay. Go on now.”
I stood there.
“Go on now.”
I turned and stepped through the door.
“No. Not at all,” I said and handed him back his sunglasses. I had mine in place and was now, fully dressed.
“Thanks. Almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” he smiled. “Coffee?”
“Uh, no. Never touch the stuff. Had a bad experience when I was a kid…kind of never got over it.”
“Yeah. Know what you mean. Kid stuff, that is; unresolved kid stuff,” he said with a knowing trace in his voice and a bit of a wry smile on his craggy, deep-lined face, “Can have a long-lasting effect on you if you don’t straighten it out that is.” He dipped the other half of his biscotti in his coffee cup and gingerly, carefully, slowly, somewhat politely, lifted it and, again, with that same feigned, almost-elegant mannerism, put it in his mouth. “Sooner rather than later, if you catch my drift.”
I went to the refrigerator, took out a container of vanilla almond soy milk, and made myself a respectable bowl of cereal consisting of a combination of several whole grain offerings topped off by some home-made granola, a just-right banana, a spoonful of wheat germ, and a sprinkle of blue berries.
“Done that before, haven’t you?” he asked.
“You noticed,” I said as I sat down opposite him and proceeded to replenish my internal ships stores with the right proper nourishment. It was a good start and in direct concord with the First Law of Life on Earth: Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, Go Out Drinking With Captain Rowan Conlan. There is no Second Law.
“I didn’t get your name last night,” I thought I had mumbled, my mouth full as several streams of the vanilla soy milk dripped from my chin and back into the cereal bowl that, positioned just right under my outstretched neck and round-shouldered sitting position, waited for just such mishaps. “Flmmid yurnim listnt,” is what actually came out. “Sorry,” I said.
“Guess you also had a problem with speaking with your mouth full? Still up in the air on that as well I see. Walsh. Name is Walsh.”
“Walsh?” I asked as I wiped my chin and sat up straight.
“Just Walsh will do.”
I was ready to dive back down into my bowl of cereal when I suddenly became aware of a rapid change in the atmospheric pressure of the room and, at the same time, that so much of the available oxygen was being sucked out at an alarming rate; so fast, in fact, that I imagined myself getting ready to breathe my last breath. Conlan had entered the room.
“Well now, boy-o!” he boomed, winked, and smiled, placing one hand on my shoulder while he held my neck in a gentle squeeze with the other. “How did y’fare with them sixteen cylinder engines? Oh, you were a sight there! Now, tell yer old pal Rowan,” he leaned in close, “You favor the port or the starboard?” he loud-whispered and somewhat conspiratorial. “Ha! You were a sight boy-o. Good thing the owners are due in tomorrow.”
Looking across from me, he saw Walsh. “Ah then, ‘tis Mr. Freezer as I remember,” said Conlan, offering a big, wavering hand across the space before I could introduce Walsh to him. “’And a strange kind of name ya got there, but, as the Bard said, ‘What’s in a name…a rose is but a rose.”
“That’d be Act II, Scene II. ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet’. Romeo and Juliet,” he said as he reached across and met Conlan’s hand with his.
“Hmmm. Right fine grip you have there Mr. Freezer…that is, for a man your age now.”
“Uh, Just Walsh, Rowan Conlan,” I said pointing back and forth between Walsh and, then over my shoulder, at Rowan. My headache, dulled a bit by a quick shower and a couple of whatevers for pain, was coming back in spades.
Rowan was as unfazed and untouched by the effects of the monumental drinking we had done as I imagined Mother Theresa would have been had she been out and making the rounds with us, even with all the foot washing and such, and I was always amazed at his ability, dexterity, and stamina in avoiding the horrors of the following day, and sometimes days after, that plagued mere mortals such as myself.
“Well then, that’s a fine Irish name y’got there, Just Walsh. And a tad better’n Freezer I’d say. Just Walsh. And honorable to boot!”
“It’s a long story,” I said to Walsh as I once again lifted an ample spoonful up from the cereal bowl and hesitated a moment before partaking in its wonderful flavors and consistency, hoping the wholesome and nutritional sustenance would soon replace the hellish brew that had presently taken up residency in my entire gastrointestinal tract.
“I believe the lad borrowed these from you,” Conlan said as he first reached into his shirt pocket and then around back, to his shorts. I saw the pen and pad as they were pushed across the marble top to well within an arm’s length of where Walsh sat.
“Thank you,” he said and picking up the pen and pad, got off the stool. “Nice vessel you boys lookin’ after. Fair winds now.”
He turned, stopped, and said, “Mind?’ and pointed to one of the two biscotti left on the plate. “Be my guest,” I said. “Mighty tasty,” he said and, picking it up, walked out of the galley towards the aft door.
“We’ve barely met but I like that you’re a man of very few words, Mr. Just Walsh,” Conlan called out.
Walsh stopped. “You’d be surprised cap,” he smiled and then turned to me. “When you get your little ditty there fleshed out and want to discuss writing, come look me up. Your magazine stuff ain’t half bad what with it being limited by the subject matter and the constraints of article length. Also might want to put a lid on that internal editor, most likely from years of corporate filtering, and let yourself go. I got a place over the other end of the bay there. Y’get turned around, just ask anyone where Walsh lives.”
And then he left.
Later that afternoon, after we had finished some work in the pump-room clearing out a bit of growth in the sea chest and making sure the air conditioning intakes were free of any fouling as well, Rowan and I drifted over to the Orchid Bay Yacht Club and while a bit tony and pricey for the likes of us, we sat at the outdoor bar and had one of their signature burgers and one beer. Well, at least I had one beer. A root beer soda, for the record.
“Owners’ll be flying into Marsh Harbour in the morning and I’ll be taking the big dinghy over. They’ll be stopping in at Green Turtle for a business meeting and we should be back by, oh, around 4 p.m.,” he said as we strolled on the ocean side beach to where our boat was docked at the head of the T of the Guana Marina Village.
I always welcomed Conlan’s companionship and I can’t think of a time when I didn’t look forward to being with him. Truth be absolutely told, there is no one, but no one I would rather be at sea with than him. Daring, brave, and absolutely fearless, he is nonetheless totally focused and in tune with what is going on above, on, around, and under the water and is the consummate professional aboard the boats in his command. And while a risk taker he will never compromise safety. Never. But he is a force of nature and getting caught up in his inexorable vortex can sometimes be trying.
I needed to get some writing done—having left the corporate editorial offices a while back, I often freelance for many of the marine industry’s consumer magazines and knew there were several deadlines looming on the horizon for me—and so I begged off the afternoon fishing trip that Rowan had set up with a couple of local fellows from the Albury Brothers boat building crew over on Man O’ War Cay, knowing full well what the après event would inevitably lead to.
And then, as if a neon sign came crackling to life inside my head, I remembered what Walsh had said to Rowan as he left us earlier this morning. “You’d be surprised cap.” It wasn’t so much the words but more, how he phrased and said them. My internal radar screen was pinging away and I knew there was more to Walsh than first experienced even though our initial chance meeting was a rather uniquely coincidental one at that. Or was it? Unique, yes. Coincidental? I began to try and do the math in my head and put my writer’s chops out there to test the deep waters of creative imagination. What were the chances of his pulling out a classic 1937 Pelikan and me knowing just what kind of pen it was? For me, the game was definitely, afoot. Oh, and, by the way, that quote is from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I, circa 1597: “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.” My English lit mentor, Professor Eastmond would have approved, and for a moment, though I did not know why, a thought passed my mind that Walsh would have been very proud of me as well. In fact, I was kind of pleased with myself for pulling that one out of the hat. I’ll drink to that—but not just now.
“Walsh?” the old woman asked as her beautiful plum-blue face erupted in a huge smile and her eyes seemed to glow for a moment. “Why, honey, dat whare Walsh live. Ovah dare,” she sang and pointed, her words a wonderful, lilting melody of bygone and inherited Lucayan, British Loyalist, African, and a smattering of this and that influences gathered from contact with here and there. I could listen to her speak all day. “An you tell dat ole man, Mama gonna bring him fresh bake johnny cake and sommeme crack’d conch jus’ soon as I cotchin’ Krayco’s shirt. Ha ha ha!” she laughed, shook her head from side to side, and continued walking in the opposite direction. “He know what I mean. You tell him. Right ovah dare, dat whare he live,” she stopped and pointed again, nodding her head up and down and wiggling one arm and hand and urging me to turn around. I heard her warm and pleasing laugh once more before she disappeared around the curve in the road.
It was a spectacular sunny and mild afternoon with great, puffy-white fair weather clouds slowly drifting by like some unbelievably immense and never-ending mountain range. Everest, K2 and Lhotse flanked to both sides and being convoyed above the earth by a myriad procession of other formations. The wind was off the sea and the air was satisfyingly pungent with the salt smell and I could hear the muffled and delicate caress of the water on what I knew was the soft white sand of the small beach front just on the other side of the road.
The crumbled and bleached bits of shell, pounded and walked on for decades and most likely generations, crunched away underfoot in a familiar and satisfying manner as I followed a small bend which opened up onto a peninsula-like formation of land that on one side, faced the ocean and on the other, a small bay. I could see where the grading rose, forming a rather wide, flat-topped cliff built on solid crater-like coral rock, perhaps some forty feet off the high tide mark and populated by native scrub and a host of coconut palm trees. This is where the house stood and I had a sudden feeling that quickly swept over me, and as quickly left; that this setting was all too familiar but for some reason, I could not yet put it together. Perhaps it was a variation on a George Carlin quip, and I was having a vuja-de: I’ve never been here before but would very much have liked to.
I was about twenty feet from the steps that led up to the porch; one that wrapped around the entire front of the house, a handsome two-story, white with a deep green trim clap board affair offering a prominent widow’s walk above, when the screen door opened and Walsh stepped out. It squeaked a bit, about half way through being opened and once again, on the way back to being closed. Squeak. Squeak. A little WD-40 would solve that but in the same moment, I thought, no; it should be there, as is. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.
“Glad you could make it,” he said, his hands stuck down into the front pockets of his khaki shorts. He wore a plain white T-shirt and had a pair of reading glasses hanging from his neck. Dark leather boat shoes completed the outfit. He was clean-shaven with sparse and wispy silver hair on top and his stature was a bit thinner than my mind’s eye remembered but then again, given my altered state last night, I couldn’t be too sure. “Come on in.” Squeak. Squeak.
There was no foyer, only a large living room with several, well-placed seating areas and a sizeable stone fireplace. The interior, as far as I could see, was painted everywhere in a flat white color. And as I looked up and saw the slowly spinning rattan-bladed fan and then at the eclectic collection of wood and leather furniture, large planked wood flooring, and well into the next room with wainscoted walls and a considerable dining table that could easily seat twelve, and the commanding views of the ocean out the front and side windows, the wood-slat blinds open and letting in both the incredible light and the breeze and the tanginess of the air, and the storm shutters propped in the up position, it came to me. Ernest Hemingway.
“You noticed?” he said. “You got that look on your face.”
“It’s the Bimini house. From the opening of Islands In The Stream,” I said, nodding a bit as I continued to look around and take it all in. “Some of what his home in Key West looked like too?”
“To some extent.”
“I got a good laugh out of those two fellas at the bar. I mean, runnin’ aground because of the receding waters at the end of the last ice age…well, ya just gotta smile at that now, don’t ya?” he said. “Come on, have a seat,” he motioned at a well-worn leather chair and sat down on a matching two-seater just opposite.
“Well, look at me, being a poor host. Can I get you something?”
“No thanks,” I said as I sat down. “I’m…”
“Been there. Done that. And more times than I’d like to remember,” he smiled, nodded, and held up one, knowing hand. “Looked like you fellas really hung one on after I left. I always go before the crowds get there anyway. I’ve had enough of those shenanigans. Made a damn fool of myself more times than I’d like to think of. Say now, sounds like I’m repeating some of my phrases. Don’t like to do that. Stuff like that’s got to be avoided. In your conversation as well as your writing. How about an ice tea? Seltzer water?”
“Seltzer’d be fine.”
He got up and went into the dining room and turned right, for what I assumed was the kitchen.
“Lime?” he called out.
“Sure,” I said, a bit too loud.
“No need to yell there, young fella. I can hear just fine.”
He came back in and put a small tray with two glasses, and what looked like several fried something’s on a plate, down on a side table, its wooden corners trimmed with brass fittings.
“Black grouper fingers. Fresh caught by one of my neighbors’ boys last night. And try that sauce there. Puts a right nice kick to it,” he leaned over, took one, dipped it, picked up a glass, and sat back down.
“Oh,” I said. “I ran into someone down the road called, Mama? She told me she’s bringing you some johnny cake and cracked conch as soon as she can, uh, once she gets someone’s shirt?, I think she said.”
He didn’t say anything but just smiled, nodded, and took a bite.
“You peaked my interest son. ‘Sides that amusing conversation we both overheard…I got it down pretty much word for word if you’ve a mind to compare notes…it was more you knowing about the pen.”
“A vintage Pelikan? Brown tortoise-shell? What I wouldn’t give…”
“I’ve had that pen since 1937, when it was first released,” he said. “That’s when he give it to me. I was twelve years old.”
“An’ you didn’t call him Ernest or Ernie or Hem or Mr. Hemingway, I can tell you that. He was, Papa.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, leaning forward in my chair.
“Once sat right there, in the very chair you’re sitting in too. Remember it…well, as sure as you and me is sitting here now. I picked it up years back when they closed up the Key West house.”
“This here one I’m sitting in as well. After all, couldn’t break up the set. Now I know this is a bit much for you to take in but hear me out first, and then decide for yourself.”
The rattan-bladed fan spun ever so slowly and the breeze, now warmer with the late afternoon sun, came in off the water somewhat tangier to the scent and, heard through the open windows and blinds, the palm fronds with their long green, brown-tipped lengths, sitting full and on top of the bent tree trunks, whispered softly outside.
My glass, with the piece of squeezed lime caught, suspended in the middle of the drink by several ice cubes, sweated as a rivulet of water tracked down the outside to land on the coaster that protected the top of the wooden table.
I took in another look at my surroundings; and while there were neither animal heads nor facsimiles of dead fish mounted on the walls, the undeniable presence of the writer was there.
And then Walsh began to tell me the story.
“I first met him in 1935, when he took Pilar down to Key West from Miami. He had bought her from the Wheeler boat building company, up there in Brooklyn, New York, where she was built the year before and wanted them to make some alterations to her like putting in a live well, some sort of engine work, and a big roller across the transom for hauling in all the huge fish he was going to catch. Catch, not release. Only time he ever released a fish was when it broke the line or spit a hook.
“Well, he come over to Bimini three times with the boat; the first being in April of 1935. Hear tell he shot himself in both legs on that crossing, trying to boat a shark he hooked and had to go back to Key West for medical attention. We were all waiting at the Navy Pier where he docked the boat and not so far from Whitehead Street, where he and Pauline and Patrick and Gregory lived. The dock crew strung up the carcass while Papa limped from the boat and got his wounds tended to.
“I remember a fella by the name of Mike Strater was aboard there along with John Dos Passos. Carlos Gutiérrez of course, Pauline and the kids too. I kind of liked her the best of all his wives. Papa called her Pilar, it was her nickname and he named the boat after her. That major character in For Whom The Bell Tolls as well. She was most settled in her mind to me, thinking about it now. Never knew Hadley; her real first name was Elizabeth, by the way. Elizabeth Hadley Richardson. Martha Gellhorn, whom he first met over at Sloppy Joe’s, was wound too tight and Mary, well Mary got him at the end. But what the hell did I know back then what with me being ten years old. Kid stuff, eh? But we already spoke about that.
“Hey,” he said to me as I stood there as they helped him up on the dock. “I know you. You’re young Walsh, right? Live near my house over there on Whitehead?”
“Uh huh. You catch it?” I said, pointing to the hanging fish, its skin now tight and dry and faded in color, its maw open and dripping slime, its eyes dead, a gaping bullet hole with dried blood in its head just above the left side.
“Yes I did. Killed it too.”
I looked at the shark again and then back at him.
“You can help my friends clean up the boat. How’s that? They tell me you do a good job, I’ll get you one of them big teeth. Okay?”
“He carried a Thompson submachine gun onboard. I saw it, lying there on the bunk in the cabin. Told me later on he used it to chase away the sharks when they had a big fish on. Probably had some other weapons with him as well, including the Colt revolver he killed the shark with and shot his legs. Kind of figures. And I was sure looking forward to getting that tooth.
“But enough of that crap. Now…” he said, adjusting his seated position some to emphasize what he was about to say and I suspect, to get somewhat more comfortable.
“This story I’m going to tell you? Well, I ain’t spending time on all the stuff we already know; the countless detractors, the analysis of his writing, the legend, the myth, the carousing and drinking and infidelities and what may or may not be the truth. Been done to death already. No. What I’m about to tell you is the time he was fishing out of Key West on a bet against a woman.
“That’s right. You see, two of his many fishing pals were Alfred Glassell and a fella by the name of S. Kip Farrington. Now Kip was a Wall Street stockbroker who gave it all up to be a writer and fisherman. And did a right proper job of it, he did. Garnered quite a notable reputation for what he brought to the sport and how he conducted himself during tournaments. Set lots of angling records, was the editor of Field & Stream magazine for some thirty-five years, and wrote a whole bunch of books to boot. Well liked and a real gentleman.
“So, what we’re talking about here got nothing to do with them and instead with Kip’s wife. Now don’t go raising your eyebrows. This is one time where the woman got the best of him without, well, giving it up. You’ll see what I mean.
“Her name was Sara Houston Chisholm and to those of us who knew her, she was always ‘Chisie.’ Word was, the day she started her fishing career was the day she met Kip. They got married in 1934 and a year later, while up there in Nova Scotia, she became the first woman to catch a giant tuna on rod and reel. By the time the news made its way down here, well to Key West that is, Papa had a fit, got in touch with Kip and told them to meet him there and he would take Pilar over to Bimini to settle the issue on just who was the better angler.
“Imagine that. He got himself all turned around ‘cause of some fish caught by a woman. But she was not just any woman. No sir. This was Chisie Farrington and I guess that’s what got it stuck in his craw.
“Y’see, she and a bunch of her contemporaries, the likes of Babe Didrikson, Helene Madison, Kit Klein, Helen Wills Moody, Ginny Van Wie, and of course there was Amelia, were shooting and flying and fishing and golfing and writing and getting out in front of life in much the same manner as he was.”
He stopped for a moment and sat back in the chair, looked over to his right, to where the sun streamed in through the open wood slats of the blinds. “Imagine that,” he said. “Seems a bit silly now, to be carrying on like that. Damn silly.”
He turned back to face me and smiled.
“I’m running on a little, ain’t I? Well, come on, hold that thought and let me show you something,” he said and lifting himself up out of the chair, shuffled right along into the dining room.
I followed and as I entered, in the corner and off to the left, was a small, alcove-like second room, with two open windows; one looking out over the ocean and the other of the bay.
“Right in there,” he said.
There were books and the three walls of the room were hung with framed, black and white photographs. Papa with fish, boxing, in Paris and in Africa, Idaho and Havana and Spain, New York City, the Key West house, with his wives and the kids, Carlos Gutiérrez, Capt. Gregorio Fuentes, on Pilar, with boat builder John Rybovich, Dos Passos, the Life magazine cover, and at the Finca in Cuba and others. So many others. The center of the desk was positioned under the window and gave anyone who sat in the Shaker-like chair a commanding view of the ocean. Atop the desk were an old typewriter, a writing pad, and a Deco-styled reading lamp. A pen, the pen, was lying closed, on the pad with a bottle of ink nearby.
“That there is his Corona 3. I tried to get the Underwood and most likely would have settled for the Royal; should’ve had them years back, but I hear tell one of them Hollywood stars got it for her husband. The Underwood that is. Missed opportunities son, remember that. Like first impressions, eh? You never get a second chance to make one. Funny,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“His view about having regrets. ‘Those with the least are the closest to being happy. I guess I’m not very happy then,’ I recall him saying.”
He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if remembering something he needed to spend some time with.
“Anyway, Hadley gave him that one in 1921. That very one. I know. I know. Someone’s
always saying they got it but, that there’s the one. And look here,” he said and stepped forward and picked up something that was lying on the desk.
He opened up his palm and showed me a large shark’s tooth. “The very same,” he smiled and placed it back down on the desk.
“Let’s go out on the deck and I’ll tell you the rest of it. Getting on to the nicest time of day. Of course, that’s my opinion now. Some would argue though. But that’s what makes for point of view, eh?”
The wide, teak-planked porch wrapped around the entire front of the house and made turns down each side so that commanding views of sea, sky, and land could be seen no matter where one sat.
“Guess you were wondering about this big house I got here and me being the only one living in it,” Walsh said as we sat in big, comfortable wicker chairs.
“Came to mind but I’m still overwhelmed by the Papa moment.”
“Yeah, I get it. Most react the same way but I gotta tell ya there son, ain’t too many heard it like you’re hearing it. Gets back to you knowing about that pen. That done it for you…if you catch my drift.”
“Now don’t be short-changing yourself. Facts like that deserve to be tucked away and brought out when you need ‘em. Like you done at the bar. The way I got it figured, we wouldn’t be sitting here but for that.”
I nodded and turned away, looking out past the wind-bent palm trees, the fragrant frangipani, the spiky aloe plants and white-flowered Beggar’s Tick; beyond the blue-purple of the pea vine and giant spider lilies, to the scrub weeds on the edge of the cliff and out, where I could see the shallow water, all light green and reflecting the white sandy bottom with dark, grassy spots here and there and then off, into the deeper water, where the coral reef began.
“Been staring at water like that all my life. Never tire of it neither. ‘Cept when I got myself sent overseas. Didn’t like that water at all. Signed up when I was 18 with a buddy of mine by the name of Tom Scanlon and we hit the beaches in Normandy in ’44. I was an infantry grunt and he was a combat medic, not much older than me. We saw things later on that I still don’t talk about. Got out in ’46, married my high school sweetheart and used all that GI benefit stuff to get us going. I finished my schooling and made a good living. We had a couple of investments pay off but I always came back to the boats and my writing. Managed to get some books published; mostly for the kids. Bette and I had seven of them; kids that is. We lost Henry in Iraq in 1991. Got plenty of grandkids and a couple of great-grandchildren. It was her who found this place; time was right, price was right. They all still visit; school holidays and whenever they can. Quite a gathering it is and I’m glad of that since the cancer took the wife a few years back. Sails luffed a bit, again, if you catch my drift.”
We were both now staring out at the water and the pause was neither awkward nor uncomfortable. Instead, it was purposeful and necessary.
“Well then,” he said, the breeze freshening a bit as it shifted around from due east to favoring the north. “There I go again. Now, I’m going to tell you how the rest of it went as best I can remember and just to be above board, I’ll be takin’ some literary license here and there, ‘specially to what was said, to fill in the blank spaces.
“So after that, I became a regular at 907 Whitehead in Key West, coming and going whenever I wanted. Got to fish with him and John, when he was around and who was about my age, and Patrick, who was a couple of years younger than I was. I fished with them quite a lot, especially when school was out. Gregory was there too but he was, oh I think four at the time and Pauline kept him with her whenever Papa went out on the boat.
“The Farrington’s showed up just after he was planning to get on over to Bimini again. We were sitting around one afternoon on the boat going through some old hooks and frayed line to throw out and stuff like that when we saw them coming down the dock. Kip was a dapper sort of guy, well-groomed and well spoken as I remember, but it was Chisie who was the head-turner. Now, it’s not that she was a drop-dead beauty; yes, a good-looking, attractive woman, but there was so much more to her that if you didn’t see it, didn’t look for it, you were really missing out on something special.
“It was the way she carried herself and the way she presented who she was and why she was doing something that really seemed to matter. And because of that, you immediately paid attention to her. You see, young as I was back then? I could tell. Something else I could tell too; and that was how Papa was literally bristling at the notion of a woman besting him at anything let alone his fishing.
“He mumbled something to us as she approached and he stepped off Pilar and on to the dock. Sounded like ‘Didn’t know she was a gimp’ or something like that and he smiled that big smile of his at us that said, ‘I got this one boys’. I didn’t like that. Didn’t like it one bit. You see, I think Chisie had a type of polio when she was in her teens and it left her with a touch of a limp in one leg and, as I noticed when we were out there in the Stream fishing, she had some trouble with one of her hands.
“There was a lot of ‘hellos’ and vigorous hand shaking and conversation punctuated by shoulder slapping all around before Papa invited them aboard to show off the boat and his fishing gear. Kip was a bit shorter and a bit more slender than Papa and Chisie was almost a head smaller than her husband. I remember she wore her fishing hat somewhat cocked to one side and when she stepped aboard, it was with all the assurance and confidence of someone who had done this before, many times, and had not the slightest fear of being on a boat and away from the dock. Papa saw it too.
“And who is this?’ she said to me, smiling my way after tussling Patrick’s hair some. Before I could answer, Papa looked up from the helm where he and Kip and Carlos Gutiérrez had been talking it up some. ‘That there is Walsh. One of the neighborhood kids. Right handy ‘round a boat and got all the makings of being pretty fair with rod and reel. That is, if he keeps at it,’ he said, giving me a wink and a smile. ‘Well now, we’ll just have to see how it goes once we get out there, won’t we Walsh.’ ‘Yes ma’m’, I said noting how her statement was not a question and with my cheeks all flushed, I stood there grinning like some sideshow idiot and feeling as if my clothes were now ill-fitting and my sneakers way too big for my feet.
“It was Chisie who suggested we go out that afternoon and I got the feeling it caught Papa a bit off his game as Pilar pulled away from the dock. She got right to rigging up several large and small hooks, and along with Kip, our trolling baits.
“Papa, Carlos, and Patrick and I watched as they expertly tied their knots while balancing themselves with the pitch and yaw of the boat as it moved out through the channel, rounded the corner, picked up the sea buoy, and headed out into the Stream and deeper water. There was a moderate chop that day, and further off, a bit of a swell coming from the north by northwest being driven by a front that would sweep down and in from the west over the lower Keys chain that evening.
“Patrick and I were assigned to be the lookouts for any significant weed line indicating a good opportunity to pick up any schooling dorado and it was at least a half hour later that we saw the first promising signs. ‘There,’ I nudged him as I spied a large patch of floating yellow flopping around ahead and to port. ‘Where? Where?’ whispered Patrick. ‘I don’t’ see it Walsh. Where?’ ‘Right there. Over there, see?’ I put an arm around his shoulders and brought him in closer to me so he could follow what I was looking at. ‘Oh yeah! I see it now. Hey Papa! Look, over there!’ he cried out and pointed. ‘I see it son. Good boy. Good eyes. Now, let’s go get some fish!’
“I didn’t mind that he didn’t say it was me that saw the weed line first. In the short time I was hanging out with him, I liked Patrick and knowing he was younger than I was, thought it was all okay. Besides, I guess I figured he needed all the help he could get what with a father like Papa to contend with.
“Carlos swung the wheel to port, cut the engines down before putting them in neutral and brought us, with enough forward momentum, right near the floating weed line.
’We’ll try for the schoolies first and then rig up for some bigger fish’, Papa said as he moved aft where the smaller, shorter, light weight rods were stacked on the inside and to either side of the cockpit area. His larger gear was secured in the overhead in the main cabin.
’Let the boys have at it,’ Papa said as he handed the rods over to Patrick and me. ‘Sounds good,’ Chisie jumped right in. ‘And how about we team up as well. Me and Walsh here and you and Patrick. We’ll let Kip and the captain there tend to the boat?
“No sooner did I get my line drifting out than I got a hit; sudden and strong as the fish strike startled me and started to run the line off my reel. ‘Watch it now, they’ll be schooling up with…’ Papa never got to finish what he was saying as Patrick’s line also started to disappear and the little boy was trying his best to fight for control.
“Unable to overpower or gain anything on the fish, he pointed his rod at the water. ‘Pick it up!’ Papa yelled. ‘Pick it up or you’re gonna lose that fish!’ And sure enough, he did as the line went slack and the fish spit the hook. Patrick stumbled backwards and would have hit the deck had Carlos not been there to catch him.
“I managed to get my fish close to the boat and looking into the water, saw the iridescent green and blue and yellow of the colorful fish and flashes of the others as they gathered around the hooked and struggling dorado.
“Chisie had the gaff out and, leaning over the gunwale, was getting ready to lift the fish out of the water when it darted away, went back down, and snapped the line. She straightened up, put a cork back on the sharp hook, and looked at me and smiled. ‘Well, that’s one for the fish.’
‘That’s enough for them,’ Papa said grimly, no longer smiling.
‘Ah come on, they’re only kids.’ Kip said. ‘Sides, that’s why they call it fishing and not catching,’ he laughed and gave us both a gentle touch on the shoulder.
‘They won’t always be,’ Papa said and busied himself with bringing down some of the big gear from the overhead. ‘Carlos, we’ll troll on the other side of the reef, out in the deeper water.’
“The boat swung off the weed line and headed offshore. Papa set up three trolling rods, one on each side and another affixed to a rod holder on the chair.
‘You want weedless or Horse Ballyhoo on the rigs?’ Chisie asked.
‘How about we mix them up? See what we get. Y’never know what might be swimming out there,’ Kip said, trying to change the serious mood that suddenly occupied much of the space aboard the boat.
‘That’s okay. I’ll see to it,’ Papa said, his jaw tight as he got busy with the work.
“And he did. Rigged up all three rods just the way he wanted them and for the rest of the day, or what was left of it, we trolled east and then north, a bit to the west, and then back around to the south without so much as a tickle to any of the lines. Patrick and I played Go Fish—he beat me three times in a row before I gained a game on him—while Kip and Chisie and Carlos talked it up at the helm trading stories of their fishing travels. Papa sat by himself in the fighting chair staring out at the rolling ocean.
“Pauline had invited everyone back to the house that evening and besides the Farrington’s, the place was crammed with some of the local denizens, as well as a smattering of neighbors and friends, and literary types both pseudo, fawning, and genuine. I remember the radio being on; Astaire singing Cheek to Cheek, then there was the Lombardo orchestra’s Red Sails in The Sunset, Johnny Green with She’s A Latin from Manhattan, the Dorsey Brothers’ You Are My Lucky Star, Fats Waller doing Lulu’s Back in Town, and a whole bunch more. Always liked music. Guess that’s why I remember it so well.
“Anyway, me and Patrick and some of the other kids were sitting outside, on the steps a little ways down from the wide open front door. The house was lit up on the inside and the light spilled out all around it. There was lots of cigarette and cigar smoking going on, of course drinking, and we could hear the din of the party inside, the music, and now and again, some loud laughing from both men and women.
“There was someone talking about some new singer named Sinatra and another conversation on whether Detroit’s Hank Greenberg would be the MVP for the American League by the end of the baseball season with that same team taking the World Series.
“We had some dessert things we were munching on when we heard the door open and shut and Papa and Pauline stepped out, she leading the way, turning right, and walking to that corner of the wooden porch. They didn’t see us and we all kind of stopped eating when she started yelling at him.
“’You think I don’t know what’s going on? You think I’m going to stand by and sit here while you…’”
“’I will do with my time what I want,’ he said to her, his voice sounding mean and angry as if he were speaking through his teeth without opening his mouth.
“’I remember Patrick looking at me for a moment and what I saw in his eyes, even though he was only seven years old at the time, troubled me. Papa then turned away from her and, striding across the porch, his steps making a steady, deep, and decisive sound on the wood, stepped down right by us as if we weren’t there and walked away from the house, most likely, from what I could tell, in the direction of Duval Street. Pauline stood for a moment and then as she moved towards the door, stopped and then saw us on the steps.
“’Patrick,” she said, her voice a bit timorous and strained. “Time for bed and time for the rest of you boys to get yourselves on home. Your folks are most likely wondering where you are anyway.’”
“And with that, he got up, met and held his mother’s outstretched hand, and went on inside without looking back.”
“When Kip, Chisie, and Papa arrived at the dock the next morning, Carlos had the boat ready. We would fish this side of the Stream and then go across to Bimini, arriving at the Compleat Angler Hotel late in the afternoon.
“Where’s Patrick,” I asked him.
“Not going today,” was all Papa said without looking at me and I sensed, not really knowing why, I should leave it at that. And so I did. He was the kind of man, and as I would find out for myself as I grew older and moved out into the world, who was easy to read if you paid attention to the signs.
“The morning fishing quickly took on a competitive air and uneasy as it felt, there was an excitement aboard as we headed out past the reef into the deeper offshore waters on the west side of the Stream. Kip, Chisie, and Papa randomly selected which trolling rod, port, starboard or center and all rigged with Julius vom Hafe B-Ocean Size 12/0 reels, would be theirs for the day and bets were placed on the first, biggest, and last fish caught. Papa didn’t want me to go but Carlos said he could use the extra hands, even though they were small, just in case. ‘Okay, but you stay out of my way Walsh. Understand?’ I really didn’t, but I did what he said.
“The wind was calm and the Stream was down and the sun was alone in a cloudless sky. Far off to the eastern horizon, a line of haze was just visible coming from the direction of Bimini and the Bahamas and presented no change in weather so far but could indicate a front was due in. We would have to keep it in mind and sight as the day progressed.
“The cobalt blue of the deep water was littered here and there with floating weeds but our concern was not for anything swimming or feeding just beneath them. Our quarry was something bigger; something that hunted in the cold water at the 1,000 foot drop-off below our hull and would be searching in the thermoclines, on the edges of all the temperature gradients, and come up close to the surface when it sensed prey.
“Our giant Ballyhoo baits were strung out on rigs that made their pull through the water look as if a small school of the fish were moving along just as they should and unaware of the danger from below. And that’s how it must have appeared to the sailfish that came up very suddenly, showed his head, and took a swipe at Kip’s bait.
“He had good reflexes and had his rod out of its holder, snapped off the port outrigger, and affixed to his waist belt in just a few seconds, then, while keeping his eyes out on the water, dropped back some line in hopes the fish would take it again.
“Easing off the drag just enough to let the force of the rig take it further out about twenty feet, he reset the tension and waited. Sure enough, he had a strike, lifted the rod high in the air, and the fish was hooked.
“Chisie and Papa, he reluctantly by both the look on his face as well as his none-to-eager reaction, pulled in their lines so that the fish could be fought properly without getting it tangled up with the other rigs. I could see that Kip was good at what he did and played the fish well, taking line when he could, especially when it tail-walked several times, and giving it up when he needed to. Carlos kept a sharp eye at the stern of the boat where Kip had now positioned himself, still standing up instead of using the chair, and made sure we stayed on course.
‘That’s it Kip, keep it coming,’ Chisie spoke quietly and smoothly as the fish, now tired from its struggle, began to swim from side to side as Kip eased his stance and moved from port to starboard and back again. ‘It’s going to go for the bottom once you get it closer,’ Papa said as he watched carefully. ‘Carlos?’ he called without looking forward to the helm. ‘I have it Papa,’ Carlos said.
‘A little closer and I can grab the leader,’ Chisie said, now positioning herself just in front of Kip with the dancing rod now alive with the struggling fish. ‘Okay, okay. One more turn in,’ she said and leaning over so far I thought she might pitch right overboard, grabbed the line, wrapped it once, then twice around her gloved hand, and the fish was alongside, just like that.
‘Walsh,’ Kip called out to me. I literally ran the distance from where I was standing with Carlos and was at his side. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Hold the rod.’ He gave it to me and from where I was positioned, I could see the fish near the transom. Kip leaned over and took the line from Chisie, gave it a tug and a turn and popped the hook right out of its mouth and I watched as the fish, its sail peaked, floated just below the surface, its dark blue and gray and black colors wavering in the water, realized it was free and slowly, undulated its slim, strong body, disappeared back into the deep.
‘Good fish there,’ Papa said and, taking out his wallet from a back pocket, took out a $20 bill and handed it over. ‘Your first is always the one you remember most, eh Farrington?’ he laughed heartedly and slapped Kip on the shoulder. ‘Now, let’s look for something really big!’ he added. ‘Something we can boat.’
“Never once, that time, or for the rest of that day, did he acknowledge Chisie’s expert line handling and the way she skillfully conducted herself during the action, no matter who had a fish on the line.
“Papa caught the next two; a small hammerhead and then a Wahoo, none of which had him in the running for biggest. He wanted to shoot the shark in the water in hopes the blood and ruckus would raise a big mako but Kip cut the line and it swam away before the weapon could be drawn.
“The day dragged on and those once far off clouds were now piling up, one on top of the other, massive and imposing. ‘I think it’s best we stay on this side of the Stream,’ Papa said, nodding upwards at the sky. ‘Looks like Bimini is out.’ Everyone agreed.
“Kip lost a king mackerel right at the boat, a very small sail spit Chisie’s hook, two more Wahoo, one for Papa and one for Chisie. We ate lunch, they all drank beer, and I spelled Carlos at the wheel for a time, climbing up on the stool he sat on and sitting on my knees so I could see out the forward windows. And it was then, while I had my hands on the wheel, intently watching the swing of the compass needle and looking out as several gulls hovered and picked at the surface of the water, that Chisie’s line got hit and hit hard.
“Carlos was quickly back at the helm and lifted me off, carefully placing me on the deck. ‘This is a big fish Walsh,’ he said without ever taking his eyes off Chisie as she lifted her rod out of its holder and placed herself in the fighting chair aft. ‘This is a big fish,’ he said again as she watched the line disappear from the reel.
“Papa and Kip brought their lines in and once the rigs were aboard, placed the rods on the deck. ‘Take those baits off the hooks, tie things up, and move the rods inside the cabin and put them below and make sure they are out of the way,’ Papa said to me, leaning over and looking me straight in the eye. ‘Right now,’ he said and then turned and watched Chisie’s back as she seemed to have stopped the fish and leaned into it, trying to raise the rod some but unable to do so.
“I heard the pitch of the engines diminish and then there was nothing for anyone to do but wait. Pilar moved through the water, wallowing some in the gentle swell as Carlos kept her on course. I started to say something, to break the monotony of the droning, of watching Chisie in the chair one hand placed above the reel of the bent rod with the other gently covering the handle and gear mechanism, but Carlos looked at me and shook his head back and forth. I walked aft and stopped just short of the cockpit.
“Papa was sitting on the port gunwale and Kip stood to starboard, holding onto the outrigger on that side with one arm while he looked out into the water. He took a step over to the chair.”
‘What do you think Chis?’ he said quietly. The boat dipped, rose, and dipped again.
‘Think?’ she said as she held on to one, then another muscular tug. ‘Whatever it is, it feels pretty big.’
‘Could be,’ said Papa. ‘Could be. Bull shark maybe. Pretty deep though. We sent that rig down further than the rest. Mine was mid way and Kip’s was just below the surface and sometimes skipping out of the water. Do you want us to take it for a while?’
“Chisie pulled back on the rod and Kip locked each side of the reel to the chair.”
‘No way,’ she said. ‘I got this.’
“She had been at it for almost an hour before we all saw the line start to straighten out.”
‘That fish is coming up,’ Carlos said as he worked the wheel to keep her in the best position while we motored ahead enough to maintain just the right tension on the line.
“And it did. Exploded right out of the water about a hundred yards aft and off to port. A big Atlantic blue marlin, wriggling its massive body once then twice, trying to shake the hook from the side of its mouth.”
‘Wow!’ was all I could say. Papa looked away for a moment, leaning over the side of the boat and down into the water before he got himself back into what was happening on deck. Kip stood behind his wife and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders.
“Chisie held the rod high and reeled furiously, trying to take up as much of the line as she could, knowing full well that the fish would quickly hit the water, maybe run a bit before jumping again and perhaps make another dive. Either way, she was in for it.
“The fish did not dive deep but did go under, now pulling steadily on the line and we could all see the strain Chisie was undergoing especially with her bad hand. She smiled up and over at Kip and he kissed her gently on the top of her fishing hat.
‘You can take a break; there’s three of us that can hold it while you rest,’ he said to her. ‘No one is going to think any less of you for doing so. And you know that.’
“She nodded her head up and down, smiled, and leaned back in the chair. ‘A little while longer. Just a little while,’ she said.
“About a half hour later, the fish came up again, this time not leaping up out of the water but instead, with its head held high, kept shaking back and forth.”
‘I think we can turn it now Carlos. Get it close in on the boat so we can put a stick in it,’ Papa said as he began rigging the long harpoon. ‘Then we’ll slide it up over the transom rollers. May not be able to sling it up on the gin pole. Looks like 400 pounds to me so we better make sure it’s dead.’
“Chisie had gained some more and the distance between the fish and the back of the boat was getting closer and closer. She pulled back and held the rod up high and in to her body.”
‘Carlos, let’s back down a little, slowly, and let her get some more line in,’ Papa said.
‘The engines went into neutral and then into reverse. Chisie dipped and pulled and the fish turned and we watched as it began circling, its huge head and a great deal of its body on the surface.
‘I hope the sharks don’t come up after it,’ Chisie said.
‘I haven’t seen any,’ Kip said.
“Closer. The fish was very close now and I could see how really big it was and where the hook had taken hold. In a very short time, it would be close enough to get a line slipped over its head and put the harpoon into it. And then it would be over and it would be dead.
‘I don’t think I want this one stuck,’ Chisie said to Kip.
‘What?’ Papa almost cried out, the harpoon ready in his hands.
‘It’s my fish and I’ll do with it as I please.’
‘You damn women are all the same!’ He was furious.
‘It’s your call Chis,’ Kip said to her, having already dropped the stout line that he would have used to hold the fish against the boat’s hull.
“By the time we got back to the dock, the weather had closed in with low, gray clouds replacing what had been a mostly blue sky and the air was thick with humidity. Papa left the boat before anyone else saying he had something to take care of in town and that he would see us all for dinner back at the house.
“The wind-driven rain started later that night and we never did make it over to Bimini the next day. Dinner was just that with no crowds and no party atmosphere. Pauline insisted I ask my parents and my younger brother and sister as well and the evening was rather sedate and somewhat boring for us kids with some lively table conversation usually coached and radiating from the Farrington’s. Chisie sat next to my mother and Kip was on the other side of the table, flanking Pauline, who had several of her friends over as well. Papa was not there and nobody asked why nor asked where he was.
“On their way out, and as everyone said goodnight, Kip took Pauline on the side and handed her an envelope. I saw them exchange a few words as she nodded and placed it on a small table by the front door. I didn’t know what it was but I kind of guessed, thinking about it later on, that it was the money they had rightly won from the fishing bet.
“Kip and Chisie left Key West the next day but came back a few weeks later and did get across to fish Bimini during that time. You’ve seen the photos of them and Papa on the dock with those big marlin hanging by their tails and everybody smiling,” he said and paused a moment. “I never did hear anything else said about the fish she let go, that night at the house, or about the money I imagined was in the envelope. “But I do remember when she came back there in 1936 and was on board another boat with Kip when she caught a 542 pound blue fin tuna,” he said and paused. “Now that’s a coincidence.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, most likely nothing. But that year, September, 1936? That’s when he published The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber in Cosmopolitan magazine. Kind of funny when something like that sneaks right up on you. Maybe should have seen that coming a long time ago.”
“I’m not following you,” I said.
“Well, you read it again and when you do, consider that day we were out on Pilar and Chisie there lets that big fish go and how steamed he was at her for doing that.”
“I’m just saying. He often turned most of his women, whether between the pages or the bed sheets, into something else. And as he saw it, something not too nice. You just go read that story over again,” he smiled and, looking out at what was left of the light, went silent for a moment.
“Well, you know it all turned out. He went to Spain and met Gellhorn there, had his falling out with Dos Passos, came back to Key West, fished and divorced Pauline; she stayed there with Patrick and Gregory until 1951, the year she died,…” At that, he seemed to trail off, not wanting, I imagined, to bother with the rest of it.
“I think he really managed to settle things with himself and Chisie later on when she hooked and boated a broadbill swordfish. First woman angler to do so. Sent her a note; they called it a cable back in the day. ‘Perfection! The real record is to take the first one, because if you catch the biggest fish, someone eventually is going to catch a bigger one,’ he said to her. I remember it word for word because she showed it to me. But then again…ah, what’s the point?” he finally said to me as he looked out at the ocean as the last remaining daylight waned and began to slide down over the western horizon and disappear.
“Y’know,” he said as he got up from his chair and stepped to the side of the porch, now facing the bay to the west and the last arc of the sun as the earth slipped away into late dusk. For a moment, I saw him bathed in a warm red, orange glow. “For as long as I can remember, I never saw that green flash everyone talks about down here. Never once. How about that.”
“I tell you something; I’ve never seen one either,” I said
“Good news is you most likely got lots of time left. Me? I don’t buy green bananas these days. Well then, you keep looking and maybe, one sunset, you’ll get lucky. The thing is son, to keep on looking. You catch my drift?”
“Now look at the time. Flies when you’re having fun, eh? I guess Mama’ll be coming by pretty soon with that cracked conch of hers; course there’ll be some jerked chicken, fresh-baked johnnies, and some other tasty things. Might tasty things. Brings her family over as well, her son and her daughter and all their kids and, how do they say it these days? ‘Significant others?’ You’re welcome to stay.”
“Sounds like fun but I have to get back to the boat what with the owners most likely there and Conlan’s gonna need some help.”
“Open invitation. Anytime you’re in town then.”
I stood up, took the few steps over to where he was, and offered my hand.
“But what about the pen?”
“Oh yeah, that old pen. It’s what started things going between us, didn’t it? Well let’s save that story for the next time we catch up with one another. Whaddya say?”
“Deal. And, thank you. It’s been enlightening to say the least.” I took his firm grip.
“Well, you’re very welcome then. And thanks for listening to the ramblings of an old man.”
“That was far from ramblings.”
I turned to leave and got to the bottom step of the porch and stopped.
“I didn’t get your first name,” I said.
“Just Walsh will do son,” he smiled and laughed.
“Yes. It will.”
I held up my arm to say goodbye, turned and began walking away.
“You got plans to use what we overheard at the bar in anything you’re working on?” he said.
“I’ll let you know. Promise,” I said.
“You stay salty now,” he called out.
“Yeah, Just Walsh, you too,” I waved again and watched him open the screen door and move inside.
For the moment, I was able to still see him surrounded by the yellow glow of the lights inside the house where I imagined him crossing through the living room, past the dining room, maybe with a momentary glance towards that writing space and then into the kitchen, there to prepare things for his evening with his friends.
I smiled and continued walking down the crumbled seashell pathway, past the pastel-colored homes and stores of his little neighborhood and out on the main road where I thumbed a ride back to Guana Village Marina.
“All that because you knew what kind of pen it was? Well now boy-o, it looks like all that so-called well of useless information y’got stashed up there in your noggin paid you back some,” Conlan said as he gently poked at my forehead with one of his meaty, sausage-thick fingers as we sat at Grabber’s looking to most likely close the place pretty soon.
By the time I had gotten back to the boat, the owners, along with their guests, and Conlan holding court and regaling them with stories from near and far, were all gathered in the main salon. Some familiar jazz music I had heard before was playing in the background, soft and just below conversational tones and along with several bottles of wine, there was a nice assortment of hors d’oeuvres set out on the stylishly modern coffee table around the convivial and strategically placed seating arrangement, that, of course, was in total harmony and balance with the rest of the décor and artwork that adorned the interior.
According to Rowan, the wife, a self-taught and somewhat respectable gourmet chef in her social circle, was also a fung shuist. Balance, harmony, and of course flow. And as we were going over to Grand Bahama in the morning, it was a no brainer for us to excuse ourselves under the guise of getting things ready for the early morning crossing and checking our weather window. Hence the late night respite at Grabber’s.
“Troy, my boy, me and the lad here will have just one more of your excellent Guana Grabbers and then we’ll be off, to leave you and this fine establishment to the winds of chance as we let loose our lines and shove off for points unknown and to adventures yet…adventured!” Conlan said to our barkeep, he already in the midst of breaking down for the evening. “And that would be one each, my good man. One. Each.”
“Where you guys heading off to?“ Troy asked, hoping to hear of some distant and exotic port of call as he put our drinks together; a wonderfully poised and perfectly balanced blend of pineapple and grapefruit juice, a splash of Grenadine, light, dark, and coconut flavored rum, and a lime twist. Cherry garnish is optional.
“West End Grand Bahama,” I said wryly and with the beginnings of the idiotic grin of the slightly-but-getting-somewhat-more inebriated.
“Some real unknown parts you boys heading for there,” he smiled. “’Bout 75 nautical miles or so?”
“That’s from up there at Moraine Cay!” protested Conlan as he thrust out a feigned pugnacious chin. “And taking the route to the south of Mangrove and Great Sale Cays, I might add. ‘Sides, we’re sitting here in Great Guana. So, it’ll be a bit farther as I see it and the crow flies.”
“Enjoy. It’s on me,” Troy said, smiling and shaking his head with all the fun goings-on as he put our drinks on the bar, and got back to closing up.
“You sir, are a gentleman, and a scholar,” Conlan said and after a wobbly slide off the bar stool, stood up ramrod straight before leaning over and offering one big paw of a hand out to Troy. They shook. “Said and done and done and said,” said Conlan.
By the time we finished our drinks, we helped Troy fit the storm shutters in place and watched as he hit the main electrical breaker and shut off all the lights. It really was, time to go.
As we walked back to the marina, the conversation went back and forth between what each of us thought was the best movie fight scene. Rowan insisted it was the 1945 black & white Cagney flick, Blood On The Sun where the aforementioned lauded actor has a knock-down, no-holds barred judo brawl with the evil Oshima, and our hero ending it with a good old-fashioned series of American-style bare knuckle jabs and roundhouse punches. I countered with Scorsese’s 1980’s Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta’s doomed rematch with Sugar Ray Robinson is both surreal and brutal.
“Come on Rowan, after he gets his ass kicked, DeNiro’s LaMotta says to Johnny Barnes’ Robinson, ‘You never got me down, Ray!’ It’s all-time,” I said, not wanting to even bring up Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon or the fisticuff mastery of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s 007. I figured I’d save that for another flavored and alcohol-stoked one-to-one.
Back at the boat, I checked all the lines, quietly secured the doors and hatches, and after noting Conlan, already asleep in his wheelhouse quarters, and knowing he’d be right as rain as soon as dawn made an appearance, headed for the rack and a very good night’s sleep.
We spent two days at West End and then crossed over to Ft. Lauderdale for a haul-out at the Lauderdale Marine Center, there to check in with customs, deliver the boat for some scheduled work, and meet up with the first mate/engineer and her regular captain who had some family matters to take care of up in Boston.
Rowan went over the ship’s log with them, got us squared away with the owners, and just like that, we were at the airport’s departure terminal. I was going back to New York and he was bound for the offices of Edison Chouest Offshore in Cut Off, Louisiana, there to do a month’s stand-in on one of the company’s big supply ships running out to the oil rigs.
“Look up a good buddy of mine when you’re down there. Capt. Ed Baker. You two will definitely hit it off. Promise,” I said.
“Hey Rowan,” I said as I hitched my carry-on up to my shoulder and offered my hand out to him. I watched as it disappeared in his paw after which he grabbed me in a manly embrace. “I got one more thought for you.”
“Did you know that the first Godzilla suit worn by Haruo Nakajima in the original 1954 Toho production vanished and is still missing?”
“Did not know that boy-o, but I do now. And a better man I am because of it.” He smiled broadly, gave me a soft cuff on one shoulder, turned and strolled away.
“Stay salty Rowan,” I called out.
He didn’t look around but I knew, just by the one raised arm he gave me, what he was saying.
“Always was and always will be. Said and done. Done and said.”
Until the Muse and I share yet another encounter, fair winds, shipmates. Fair winds.