Hemingway’s Hawaii Letter
Miami, September 1982. Hot air clings wet to everything. Clouds build in the Everglades waiting to come roaring with thunder in a late afternoon assault on the beachfront. Somewhere in the Gulfstream below the Keys a low pressure forms, but on the isle of San Marino, tucked between mainland Miami and Miami Beach a faint breeze stirs off the Bay and is picked up inside the large house by the overhead fan above the dining room table.
He sits at the table sipping the glass of iced tea and swallowing the two pain pills that are supposed to numb his legs for a while. He opens the large folder that holds the letter from his brother from some forty years ago.
Feb 17, 1941
To: Les Hemingway
C/O PM Newsroom
Sixth Avenue and Bergen Street
Brooklyn, New York
I could tell you I'm writing this from the paradise of Hawaii, but that would be a goddamn lie. I'm sitting pretty, floating along at 180 miles an hour on this spacious airplane, a Pan American Clipper that has bunks for 36 people - a seaplane that they say will eventually get us to Hong Kong.
Miss Marty is anxious to see what all the fighting in China is about and I have enlisted as tour guide, caretaker, chauffeur and bartender for the duration.
Don't get me wrong; this is a Hawaii letter in which I will tell of the trials and tribulations involving this best-selling author and his wonderful missus. Yes, I know the book is doing well, although it's hard to get reports out here from Scribners. That whole crew is hard to contact over this large ocean. Must be all the saltwater jumbling things up.
I digress and will continue to digress in part so no one gets confused and tries to publish this as a dispatch to PM. Anyway, we had a time with Gary Cooper and crew in California. He'll be doing the movie version of Robert Jordan. Young Swede actress Ingrid Bergman will be co-starring. Saw her in San Francisco before getting on the ship that delivered us to Honolulu. Very talented. Even her ear lobes are perfect. Could be a big star.
We were supposed to have flown to Hawaii, but things got changed and we climbed onto a ship instead. Five days after departing the Golden Gate Bridge, we arrived at Aloha Tower February 5.
I'm sure that one of the great truths of life will be that it's impossible to sneak into Honolulu on the Matsonia. Our plans for a quiet stay in the tropics got their great comeuppance before we even set foot on shore. Blasts of the ships horn were returned by a shouting crowd of maniacs who soon would be hugging us while attempting to strangle us with about 18 flowered leis, a sure-fire way of giving us a fair sampling of insects to crawl about our necks.
After that, the biggest affront was getting "Aloha-ed" by every one capable of shouting it. The natives were way too friendly. I kept looking for the hustle or the knife. Chicago, New York, and Havana will do that to you. I told Miss Marty that I felt like spitting into the mouth of the next person who said "Aloha."
But before I could there was salvation. This big Hawaiian jumped out of the crowd and yelled that he could drink Hemingway under the table. Goddamn it, Les, I damn near pissed in my pants laughing. We ended up having our pictures taken together - the big guy, Miss Marty and me.
But, damn. The big guy didn't bring anything to drink with him and about that time reporters muscled in to ask all sorts of questions.
"How was For Whom the Bell Tolls doing?"
"Was there a movie from the book?"
"Would we get into the war?"
"What were we going to do in China?"
I did my best to answer the questions without sounding like some know-it-all. The book was doing fine, the movie was going to be great, there was a chance we'd get into the war and we were going to China to report on the war between Japan and the Chinese. I finally told them I wasn't in the predictions business. I was a guy who wrote about what happened.
We finally got to our beachside cabana in Waikiki where we got a chance to toss down some drinks before the next onslaught - English Professors from the University of Hawaii. Yes, they have a university and even more so they have English professors that would happily bore the bejeezus out of damn near everyone with their references to trochee, allusion, and any eighteen syllable term designed to kill whatever life might be found in the simplest and most sincere expressions of humanity.
The stuffed shirts gathered in a place called the Willows Restaurant. Were there any willow trees around the islands? No one seemed to know. No one seemed to care. They did what they could to strangle the life out of my work while being ever so polite. All this happened without so much as a glass of beer in my hands. I finally spotted a couple bottles of Chianti someone had tied to a rafter for decoration. "Me thirsty," I said. "Hemingway need drink," I cave-manned at them. Finally one of the waiters got the message and served up several glasses.
I had been hoping for salvation from this group, but I should have kept my hopes under wraps. A car pulled up to take us to another luncheon, this one at dear old Aunt Grace's house. Yes, that one!
Miss Marty got it right when she said our luncheon companions were too boring to even be missionaries. We endured and finally got to our beach digs, but again to be followed around by reporters who wanted to see me walk on coral. Jeezus! I thought maybe I should just walk on top of the water and get it over with. Second Coming! Hemingway Turns Water into Wine!
We escaped again. After enduring more pablum speech at another function, we returned to the hotel, but this time found a savior of our own, a young reporter from the Star-Bulletin who brought a short story from a friend and a bottle of Scotch. I found both to be more than worthy and the young reporter, Martin was a good companion as we talked our way through Gertrude Stein, Dos Passos and the civil war in Spain. We could have covered several other civil wars, but it was time for another dangerous foray into a luau dinner at Lady Dawson Johnson's, an old friend from Paris.
He put down the letter and sipped the iced tea. Paris. He remembered hooking up with Ernest as the Allies marched into the city. The Germans are done, he said, but they don't know it yet. Like wounded sharks, they still have a lot of kill left in them. They're ready to kill and they're ready to die. They just want to prolong the ugliness.
He thought about the wounded sharks and wondered if that's what he had become. Legs seemed to be there only to hurt and the pills were there only to lie about how bad things were.
He picked up the letter and was back four decades.
It was crowded, and the house was very expensive, but not very elegant according to Miss Marty. Somehow money tends to conflict with good taste. I mentioned that to one of the hangers-on, and he loudly announced that he took issue with me on that and said, "I'll take that up with you outside." He burst out the patio door toward the garden. I gulped my drink, not knowing if it would still be there when I got back from pummeling this guy and headed after him only to find that the only action in the garden was between a Navy lieutenant and one of the women hula dancers. Our offended friend had disappeared into the night.
The following morning we took a tour of the naval base at Pearl Harbor and the airfield adjoining it- Hickam Field. The great poobahs wanted us to be impressed with all the ships and planes lined up in neat rows, "displaying America's might," as they put it. The fact that Japanese fishing boats were just off shore didn't seem to bother anyone. "We're not at war with them," one of our scrambled eggs wearers said. "We'll have plenty of notice before they ever get this far, if there is a war with them."
The whole thing looked like someone playing a pat hand with three aces, not even caring if the other guy has a full house.
We were impressed by the pilots and their crews flying B-18s out of Hickam. Their latest exercises included instrument only night flying over Hawaii Island, the one they call the Big Island. I offered to go with on one of their flights, but got turned down. The higher ups didn't want Hemingway mucking up their war games.
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