Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Pilar

The first time I heard about the Pilar or actively spoke about it was in 1974 when I was living with my great-uncle Leicester in Miami Beach. If my father mentioned it I was either too young to understand what he was talking about or it was just another boat that he and his dad happened to be fishing on when he was a boy in Bimini in the 1930s. Leicester was much more descriptive and in his biography of his brother there was a passage where he sees Ernest sitting in the fighting chair of the Pilar at sunset in Key West taking swigs from a bottle of rum. My grandfather was a tall man, as tall as my great-uncle, 6 ft., and strongly built, and back then his hair was still black and he had a moustache. The white beard would come later and the potbelly too. He was lean and young and Leicester writes that that was the first time that he noticed all the shrapnel wounds in his legs from the Austrian shell that had nearly killed him during the First World War.

It was a powerful image and one that stuck with me as I moved from one house to another from Florida to Connecticut to Los Angeles and then finally to Europe as a man. I could easily see him sitting there and smell the salt water in the bay and feel the slight rocking of a heavily built wooden boat in the waves.

Eventually my father would also write about the Pilar and the Nazi U-Boat hunting expeditions that Ernest would organize with a few friends and his captain, Gregorio Fuentes. Packing everyone aboard the Pilar with supplies and a homemade bomb that they intended to drop into the conning tower of an unsuspecting German sub, they would set out from Cojimar in search of trouble. A slightly suicidal mission if there ever was one. How they ever thought that they might get close enough to the U-boat to pull it off before they were machine-gunned into the Gulf Stream is beyond me, but that was the plan.

Luckily they never found the Germans except for my grandfather’s fatal encounter with them at the end of his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream. They were never shot at, the boat survived and Ernest fished aboard her until he left Cuba in 1960.

Today the Pilar is in dry dock on the grounds of his house the Finca Vigía outside of Havana. It was painstakingly restored in 2007 and is kept under a steel awning that protects it somewhat from the elements. I say somewhat because when I saw it for the first time last Thursday I noticed that the varnish on the wood in the cabin had already started to chip and peel. What impressed me though was the size of the boat, something that photographs can never really convey. I could finally see it with my own eyes and imagine my grandfather standing on the flying bridge above the cabin because it was obvious now that it was strong enough to support someone as big as Ernest. Likewise I could see my Uncle Patrick as a young boy sitting in the fighting chair as he wrestled with a huge marlin for hours, just like the second son of the protagonist of Islands in the Stream does.

But the Pilar itself was an archive of dreams and past lives, which I could not avoid now in her presence. I could feel my father and my Uncle Leicester. I could sense their energy and their pathos and I knew that while they were gone and I missed them dearly that they would always be here in this place, with this boat.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ending the blockade

There is in fact an American blockade of Cuba, a somewhat surreal and Kafkaesque relic of the Cold War, but it isn’t total. Close to half a million Cuban-Americans visit the island every year, usually bringing gifts and/or money to their family and friends. I don’t know exactly how much is being brought over but I would imagine that it is a lot. Yet, from what I could see walking around the streets of Old Havana last week it is nowhere near enough.

In the capital city of this country the slow demise of its beautiful architecture could almost be defined as systemic, as it’s just about everywhere you look. Of course, Cuba isn’t the only place on the planet in urgent need of urban renewal. The United States also has its rough spots with cities in an advanced state of decay, Detroit for instance, but Havana takes that decay to a whole new level. I remember seeing some buildings and thinking that it was a miracle that they were still standing and that no one had died from a crumbling roof or balcony. Cuban friends of mine would then explain that it was much worse a decade ago before the government started to rebuild a few of the more historic plazas. But frankly it’s hard for me, a foreigner, to imagine how anything could be worse than this.

While I was born and raised in Miami I am not one of those who are in favor of maintaining the embargo for as long as the Castro brothers remain in power. At the same time I do not believe that the removal of the embargo will automatically solve all of Cuba’s cash flow problems. Especially because I do not think that the United States can be blamed for everything that needs fixing in Cuba.

My hope is that someday the Cubans themselves will rebuild Havana and for me, that includes the Cuban exiles in Miami. If the two governments on either side of the Florida straits will politely get out of the way and let the Cuban people do what needs to be done then Havana could easily become again one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014



Thanks to an invitation from Adriano Ossola and his annual event, éStoria, I was finally able to visit Gorizia and Caporetto and many of the other towns that are featured so prominently in my grandfather’s novel “A Farewell To Arms”. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and Ernest Hemingway and his brilliant, anti-militarist, portrait of the Italian defeat at Caporetto have not been forgotten.

As anyone who has read his book knows the young protagonist Frederic Henry gives a very detailed description of Gorizia and of the Austrian front and most people assumed when it was first published that like “The Sun Also Rises” here was yet another autobiographical novel from the young American author. But Ernest never visited Gorizia or Caporetto, nor did he ever set foot in the town of Plava where Frederic Henry is wounded in the knee from a bomb blast. Nor did my grandfather stagger away from that blast with a bleeding Italian soldier over his shoulder, at least not on that front. He was wounded near Fossalta di Piave almost a year after the battle of Caporetto.

Still, even today there are many people who are convinced that Hemingway was there. In Gorizia a volunteer at the event told me that he had proof that Ernest had been in town and that there was a photograph of him standing next to his ambulance with a group of friends. “Era qui! Proprio qui!” He said excitedly, “right here”, forgetting as many admirers of my grandfather often do that Ernest was as good a journalist as he was a writer.  He researched his books extensively and in this case he interviewed people who had fought in the battle of Caporetto and he read whatever accounts of it he could find.

The battle represented a turning point for the Italian army, its nadir, which would then be followed by a renaissance in terms of tactics, leaders and general good fortune. Over a hundred thousand soldiers would be killed or wounded on both sides. The destruction was immense, with whole towns and forests pounded to the ground by non-stop shelling, the dead bodies of men and animals littering the roadsides and mountains and the river Isonzo. To go there today it’s hard to imagine the kind of insanity that had gripped this part of Europe for so many months. The trees have grown back, the towns have been rebuilt, the Isonzo is as clean as it ever was with its emerald blue waters that are the delight of fly-fishermen the world over, myself included. But traces of the war remain. In the woods and by the riverside you can still find pieces of shrapnel and bullets and occasionally, if you have to dig, the odd unexploded shell.

Fishing on the Isonzo

On the morning that I went fishing it was a beautiful day with a few clouds that were covering the highest peaks in a white mist. The water was ice cold with the snow-melt from the mountains and as I cast my line out into the stream I thought of the scene from my grandfather’s novel where the Carabinieri (the military police) are interrogating and summarily executing all the ufficiali or officers who had somehow lost their units, whether it was through desertion or just the chaos of battle, it didn’t matter to them. Frederic Henry hearing the gunshots understands that if he doesn’t move he’ll die and he runs as fast as he can towards the river, diving in and staying under water for as long as he can hold his breath to avoid the bullets above him. This is not his war he tells himself and all the things they say to get you to join up about honor and bravery, king and country are obscenities.

He had made his separate peace.

John Hemingway Copyright 2014

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Taking it to the streets

I recently returned from Spain and I have to say that one thing that I really like about the Spanish is that when they get fed up with something, usually having to do with their government (local or national), they protest. And when that doesn’t work, when their elected representatives either ignore them or tell them where they can go stuff it, they riot. Of course, for someone like myself, politically more an anarchist than anything else, this kind of “in your face” response to bureaucratic obtuseness is most refreshing. In fact, when I heard about the recent riots in Burgos (250 kilometers due north of Madrid) and the 40 people who were arrested and the 11 injured policemen and how it went on for three days I wondered why nothing like that ever happens in the USA? Burgos, a town with a population of 179,000, is currently a half a billion euros in debt, and because the town doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around many of the social programs that its citizens depend upon have been curtailed or eliminated. These are hard times in Spain and while most people can certainly understand the need for frugality, the decision by the city government to build a parking lot under the town’s main road to the tune of eight million euros is not being frugal and was probably seen by many of the protestors as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

But as I was saying, if this can happen in Spain, in a small town with serious cash-flow problems, why aren’t people in the USA taking to the streets in the towns and cities that have filed for bankruptcy? Why aren’t the citizens of Detroit in Michigan and San Bernardino and Stockton in California as mad as hell and burning cars and trash cans like their cousins in Spain? Not only are their cities in debt (in Detroit’s case for over 18.5 billion dollars) but their government in Washington has been spending trillions since the crash of 2008 to bail out the infamous “too big to fail banks” and to fund the country’s never ending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Some observers have called this orgy of “quantitative easing” (printing money like there was no tomorrow) the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the history of mankind. But in the midst of this historic theft, with all this money going to the Nation’s defense contractors and bankers why haven’t Americans reached their point of no-return? Why haven’t they taken to the streets to demand a fair share of what their tax dollars have been subsidizing all these years? I hate to sound like a communist, but if the wealth of any nation is created by the people who actually live and work in that country then it seems to me that the average American is getting royally screwed.

Indeed, for all the vaunted superiority of the American system and way of life we have forgotten that the government belongs to the people and that if it doesn’t respond to our needs and to our communities then it must be changed. In Spain they haven’t forgotten this and I am sure that as the economic crisis grows so will the protests.