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Saturday, 25 February 2012

On The Way To Hemmingways

It was getting near the end of 1978 and I didn’t have any plans for Christmas. I was single and living in North Vancouver and most of my family was back east. I was working as a sales rep and around the holiday season business usually dried up. It had been raining almost every day for months and I started to think more and more about going somewhere sunny and warm.

I chose Florida. I caught a plane to Miami a few days after Christmas. I hadn’t made any reservations and thought I would just rent a car and head out on the highway and see where I ended up each night.
I found the cheapest car I could, a Chevette, at the car rental place at the Miami airport.  A piece of crap with wheels. It had a top speed of about 60 miles an hour and would whine like a cat in heat when the pedal was to the metal. I threw my suitcase in the back seat and headed north on the coast highway.

Chevrolet Chevette
Unknowingly, I had picked a bad year as far as the weather goes for my vacation in the tropics. Most of the days were overcast, the wind was howling, and the temperature, particularly at night, was mostly chilly. In fact, it got so cold that there were crop warnings.
Having never been to southern Florida before, I was surprised at how little public access there was to the beaches. Driving up the coastal highway I passed mile after mile of waterfront high rise condos and hotels. I saw lots of yachts moored at the marinas along the canals to the left of me. There was no doubt there was a lot of heavy duty money in the area.
I spent my first night in Fort Lauderdale. Spring break and the college kids were a few months away and there wasn’t much happening. I was a bit too old for that crowd anyway. In the morning, I went for a stroll along the beach. It was quite windy that day and there was only a few other brave souls out and about. I was out of luck as far as seeing bronzed bikinied babes.

I poked around a bit for a few days. I ventured across the interstate highway inland and discovered that this was where a lot of the poorer black people lived. I remember passing an old house with about a dozen people on the front porch. I looked at them and they looked at me. It was almost as if they were saying “This ain’t no tourist trap area.”
One night I went to the dog track in Hollywood Florida. “Here comes Fluffy” the announcer said and with that a pack of greyhounds took off with wild abandon. The only thing that stopped them from running until they burst was a huge net at the finish line.

I was sitting on a park bench between races and noticed a guy put his foot up on the bench repeatedly. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I realized later that he was jiggling my camera out of my pocket. I hope he enjoyed the camera. I never saw it again.
I drove up to West Palm Beach. I asked some people if they knew of any shaking night spots and they told me about a place that had two for one “specials” that were such a good deal that it was common to see people puking in the parking lot. Sounded like a good place to me. I decided to spend New Year’s Eve there.
I ended up at the bar and met a couple from of all places, Alaska. It turned out that they were divorced but still friends. I kind of jiggled that around in my head. We chit-chatted for about an hour or so and the gal asked me if I would like to dance. We were on the dance floor for about a half an hour and I kind of thought I might have lucked out. I was wrong. When we returned to the bar the ex hubby’s mood had changed completely. They both disappeared into the night before the clock struck twelve. I guess he wasn’t thrilled about passing his ex off to a complete stranger.
Pretty well everyone in the club was paired off and I hung around until about 2 a.m. I wasn’t sure what my next move should be. I didn’t have a hotel room. Maybe I would just sleep in the car. People were milled about outside waiting for the valet to bring their cars around. My Chevette turned up. My laundry stuffed in the back window must have impressed the New Year’s revellers.
I wasn’t really drunk but I was getting tired. I decided to head back towards Miami with the idea of going to the Florida Keys the following morning. I got a bit confused about where I was and ended up near an air force base just south of Miami called Homestead. I pulled into a shopping mall parking lot and thought I would sleep it off for a few hours.
I was wrong. It was bitterly cold outside and there was no way I was going to fall asleep with the engine running. I got no sleep at all. This wasn’t good. Finally, I decided to head back out on the highway and find my way to the Florida Keys. My end destination was Key West and I had read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway had owned a house there fifty odd years before.
It must have been dark when I passed the Everglades. The sun came up and I found myself on a two lane highway that connected the Keys to one another. I later found out that this highway was built on a surface that was once a railway line that had been wiped out by hurricane in the late 1930s.

In my mind I had pictured deep sea charters docks and roadside stands selling conch shells. Maybe some glass bottomed boats. Instead what I saw was a straight road that went from one island to another. I was starting to feel mesmerized by the white line down the middle of the highway.  The ocean, sometimes on either side of me, was churning away.
Key Largo. Bogey and Bacall. I must have seen that movie about 30 times.  I could picture a hurricane hitting there. Nothing caught my eye that made me want to stop and check things out.  I kept driving. My eyes were having trouble focusing. And then my eyes slammed shut. Somehow they popped open a moment later. It may have been the sound of the gravel while I was driving on the shoulder of the road. Maybe Hemingway was asking me to join him in eternity. Maybe not.

Key Largo, the movie
I pulled the car to a stop and gave my head a shake. I got out of the car and went down to the water and sprinkled a bit of the ocean in my eyes. I started to think about how close I had come to crashing the car and maybe injuring myself. I was kind of in the middle of nowhere and after thinking things over I decided to keep on driving.
You would think I had learned a lesson but I didn’t.  About 15 minutes later I started to doze off again but this time some little voice told me to stop the car. I went for a walk for about a half an hour and got some fresh air. I thought that maybe I should have been driving with all the windows open.
I have no idea as to why I was so stubborn. There was no urgency to get to Hemingway’s house. I got back in the car and made a third attempt to at getting to Key West. As luck would have it I spotted a hitchhiker up ahead. He turned out to be a German guy that spoke very little English and had been sleeping in a sleeping bag off of the highway.
Between trying to communicate with each other and his rank odor I had no trouble keeping awake this time. The German guy was into visiting Hemingway’s house too so the first thing I did when we got to Key West was find out where Mr. H’s house was located.
Ernest Hemingway. I had read most of his books. He certainly had a fascinating life. His First World War experiences, his time writing for a Toronto newspaper, Spain in the late 1930s, the Second World War, spending time in places like Africa and Cuba. He was truly a great writer. He was an avid deep sea fisherman and had dabbled in boxing. He had more than a few women in his life. He had been in a few bar fights and drinking was a big part of it all.
Ernest Hemmingway

Nobody is perfect. The man had a giant ego and could be a bit of a bragard.  I can’t say I was ever impressed with his big game hunting. The fact still remains that he is and was one of America’s best writers.
A few years before this trip I had spent several days in the Sun Valley, Idaho area skiing. We stayed in a very cheap motel in a place called Ketchum, Idaho. This was the same town where Hemingway ended his life with a shotgun. He was in bad health and couldn’t do the things he loved any longer. Maybe he thought it was a glorious way to exit this world. My guess is he probably didn’t give it much thought that somebody would have to clean up the mess.
The German guy and I found Hemingway’s house and coughed up a few bucks for the tour. The building was French Colonial with a second story veranda and had louvered shutters. The tour started at the back of the house by the pool. I desperately had to find a bathroom and there was one by the pool. As I sat on the throne I could hear the tour guide start with his introduction. The guide was obviously gay and as I sat there the thought crossed my mind that Hemingway was not the type to have too much compassion for gay people. He would probably roll over in his grave if he knew a gay guy was referring to him as Papa.
Hemmingway's house, Key West, Florida
The house was a wedding gift to one of Hemingway’s wives from her father. The only way to get to Key west when they lived there was by boat. The pool, when it was built, was the only one in the Keys and his wife at the time had it built at a costly expense while Hemmingway was away. He wasn’t thrilled about the cost to say the least.
Off to one side of the pool was a men’s urinal tilted on its side. This is where the famous six toed cats would get a drink of water. When Hemingway left Key West for good he either disposed or took all of his furniture with him. Everything from a writing desk to a manual typewriter had been acquired to make the house look like it might have in the 1930s.
I took the German guy for lunch in town and we parted ways. I checked out the sign by the ocean that pointed out that Cuba was only 90 miles away. Then I got back in my car and retraced by route back to Miami along the highway through the Keys.
It was a few years later that I learned that Key West is kind of a haven for homosexuals. I had no clue at the time. There is something to be said for good taste. Key West is one of those end of the world kind of places. Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island is another.
The weather mostly sucked but I saw quite a lot my first time in Florida. I’ve been to Florida a few times since. Both times on free trips from one of my business suppliers. On one trip I stayed at a hotel where they paraded ducks through the lobby every afternoon and I saw an amazing Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator at Universal City. On another trip I stayed at a golf club complex in the St. Petersburg area and while lazing poolside watched as Anthony Quinn did laps. Both of these times the weather was truer to form.
I still wouldn’t mind seeing the Everglades someday.