Zipping Flies with Papa Hemingway
This probably sounds like a fish story already and I haven’t even really begun it yet, but it’s a true account of part of my childhood that leaps out of the polluted stream of my life like a ghostly mutant Koi from a toxic and stagnant backwater of past remembrance.
I was just a kid at the time the events described here took place, a precocious young under-achiever of an orfink-to-be. You’ll recall perhaps that ‘orfink’ was what Popeye the Sailor Man called little ‘Swee’pea’, the orfink infink adopted by him and Olive Oyl, but it’s more likely that the term won’t make any sense at all to attention challenged Twitterers, those totally possessed by the evil commercial spirits that haunt their cellphones, individuals who think that reversed ball caps and gang signs are rilly kool, and 20-somethings with multiple frontal lobe piercings to compliment their full-brain tattoos. But let’s not dwell on these inalterable facts, since today you can be an orfink and still have a living biological father and mother present (well, the term ‘present’ is arguable, of course, and subject to highly variable interpretation) in your own home! My own orfinkhood came about some time after this story took place, but that’s an entirely different tale.
In 1950, my own Da—a career military officer--shuffled off this mortal coil about 4 years into my post-VJ Day life as an infink, leaving Ma to keep on keeping on as both a parent and a wage-earner despite the sudden and unanticipated absence of our primary familial income. Fortunately for both of us, she had gotten her undergraduate degree as a teacher in Idaho some years before being swept off her feet by Da’s highly corrosive Irish charm and after his funeral was able to leave the San Francisco Presidio officers’ quarters without further delay (where we had been not uncomfortably ensconced) and take an available teaching position in the San Joaquin Valley with me in tow.
Since Ma spent most of her waking hours driving herself crazy in a hopeless effort to come up with meaningful (emphasis, emphasis) lesson plans for the education of vicious little inbred idiots (the offspring of Dust Bowl agricultural workers who’d settled in Steinbeck’s wrathful bowl of grapes), she was in no mood to spend a lot of quality time with me (her own little vicious, inbred chile), most of the time. To this day, I well recall how the daily ritual of ‘coming home after school each day’ played out. She’d walk in the door looking like she’d been hit by a Greyhound Bus, muttering about how abysmally stupid the ‘Oakies’, ‘Arkies’, and ‘Ozarkies’ were, how ‘fat people’ (one of her favorite subjects of disdain) were to be pitied, and how the swarms of little Black pickanninies were taking over the town’s school classrooms.
Ma, you see, was the product of a higher-aspiring, upper-middle class Caucasian Presbyterian family (from the classic ‘WASP’ mold) of French Huguenots, the college educated daughter of a college educated mother, who had fallen for a handsome, already once previously married Irish-American Army officer in that uncertain lead-up to the outbreak of war with Japan. She had inherited strong artistic sensitivities and a considerable amount of graphics talent from her own mother. She was broadly educated, but finding herself suddenly cast adrift in the uncertain vagaries of Central California life in the 1950s had somehow fueled a smoldering sense of resentment within her over being forced to cope with the proletarian necessities of survival in the male-dominated working world as a female school system employee and single parent.
Not in the least helpful was the fact that Ma’s family took inordinate pride in their pedigreed line of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, a family that wasn’t just satisfied with an ancestor on the Mayflower (no less than a relative of Captain John Smith) and being a cousin to the notorious Boston Witch Trials prosecutor, Reverend Cotton Mather, but that claimed another, earlier one (Sir John Tewes) who actually helped finalise the much-amended Magna Carta, back in 1297. You just don’t get much more hoity-toity as a honkie than this, but let me further intrigue you with the fact that Ma was also a fervent, card-carrying member of that arch WASPish organisation of blue-nosed American female flag-wavers, the ‘Daughters of the American Revolution’ (who still think their archetypal, patriotic red/white/blue knickers don't get dirty like everyone elses). Last, but by no means least, her recently demised husband (my Da), had been a regimental drummer boy with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders when they had stormed San Juan Hill in 1898 and she drew a widow's pension (small, but noteworthy) for that. Taken together, it was a heady mix of pedigrees for an impoverished school marm down on her luck to be mindful of in the midst of middle-class impoverishment.
All of Ma’s subconscious sense of resentment, dented dignity, and impugned self-worth (I am convinced) came pouring out of her in her daily ranting disparagements of fat people, ‘savage’ little Black kids…and even worse, apparently…the ignorant offspring of White, trailer-trash agricultural laborers that had filled up the Central and Coastal California schools (and thereby given John Steinbeck with his immortally enduring subject material). And I, despite my feeling that as an only son I deserved some loving nurturing from me own mum, found myself the unwilling audience for these daily, post meridian diatribes that began (5 times each week) immediately school had ended for the day. You see, by the time Ma got home each afternoon, she was 'taught-out' and had little energy left over for sharing much of her wealth of insightful knowledge with me.
Despite my attempts to largely block, or at least divert these poisonous rivulets of bias through construction of a virtual Grand Coulee Thought Dam in my mind, I have no doubt that I nevertheless eventually became quite heavily contaminated by all that emotionally toxic sludge that flowed my way. It probably explains, at least in part, why I have a hard time relating comfortably to Blacks in my own life today (despite being one of those "liberal white bastards" everyone loves to vituperate), as well as the sharp stabs of deeply subconscious, liberal guilt I feel whenever I am confronted by the arch forces of politically correct reactionism (in all their indignant righteousness). It definitely had something to do with my obsessive efforts to keep myself lean, not to mention an almost palpable dislike I still harbor for excess body fat (on myself and others), but hey…we all have our little personal demons and shoulder monkeys, eh? As long as those little wraiths don’t whisper hateful things into our ears and encourage us to commit random acts of gratuitous homicidal rage, I figure they’re relatively harmless on the broader scale of human buggaboos!
Of course, being a teacher’s son (with no father), I also had the unfortunate handicap of being mercilessly bullied by those same little ‘diverse’ thugs in school that my mother so intensely disdained. Since they all likely thought of my ma as a hateful representation of the dominant White culture that made their little disprivileged lives so wretched (her being all that and a female teacher, as well!), and in view of the fact that she also represented relatively unassailable educational authority, I became the logical scapegoat for all their reactive frustrations and delinquent resentments in my own classes.
As an intelligent and sensitive little guy, even disregarding the liabilities visited upon me by my attention-deficit affliction, and without a male role model to fall back on for pugilistic advice, I was left largely out there on the raging battlefield of male post-pubescent adolescence to my own devices. With no Da handy to coach me on how to land a good left hook on a bully’s chin and lacking (apparently) any vestige of my Irish blood’s vaunted heritage of giving back as good as I got (or worse), my usual inpromptu defense was a verbal disparagement of my tormenter that had far too rich an eloquence to be ignored, and which invariably prompted more black eyes. Thus, I silently endured more than my share of completely undeserved abuse for being their hated teacher’s smart (and vulnerable) little kid with an unnaturally large vocabulary.
But all of this is just some requisite background upon which to build the story that follows. Suffice it to conclude all the foregoing remarks by saying I didn’t have a very happy or secure childhood in California, a fact that still lurks in my nature like some sort of rough beast that has learned in that darkly repressed sanctum of my lifetime to pull all the right strings that cause self-hurt, personal guilt, generalised insecurity and free-floating unhappiness.
Despite all the emotional and ancestral baggage that came with being me in the childhood phase of my life, however, the one great saving blessing I could be grateful for was having an uncle (Ma’s younger brother) named 'Charlie'. Uncle Charlie, as I unfailingly addressed him, was a successful physician and surgeon in the small Idaho farming community of Burley, a town located about 24 miles southeast of Twin Falls and situated just 75 miles or so above the trashy little it-stop of an Idaho/Nevada border portal illustriously named 'Contact'. [At the time, Contact was a bump in the trail that had only a last-chance gas station, combined with a part-time indian souvenir shop. The road through it, from Nevada to Idaho was originally a stage trail that back in indian days was routinely attacked by renegade Shoshones; when we passed over it, parts of the road were still oiled gravel. Sections of it, just past Contact proper, were surrounded on both sides by large rock formations that would have been perfect for ambushes by redskins looking to add a few blond scalps to the collection! Today, Contact has grown into a large, somewhat sprawling little complex, full of neon and glitz, shops and stores, crowding the edges of several large indian-owned gambling casinos. Now the indians collect dollars instead of scalps! Redskins' revenge!].
Burley was in fact my mother’s home, having been born there along with Charlie after Granpa and Granma had (in the 1860s) left Savannah (Missouri) by wagon to settle in southern Idaho. Since Granpa was a pharmacist by profession (and therefore able to make a quite respectable living amidst all the dirt-poor farmers and cattle-poor cowboys, selling patent snake-oil and remedies), he operated a drug store that he later upgraded by associating it with the nation-wide Rexall Drug Store chain of the early 1900s. Grampa, whose given name was ‘Charles Alfred’, had named his son (my uncle) Charles as well and packed him off back east to Northwestern University, where Uncle Charles Alfred II soon finished up his academic studies by taking honors as a graduate of their (at the time VERY) prestigious medical school.
After graduation, Uncle Charlie returned to Burley and set up his practice as a physician and general surgeon on the town’s main drag, just down the street from his father’s pharmacy and sandwiched between a house of ill repute coyly named the ‘Lee Rooms’ and the local Grange office. Between father and son, they pretty much had the town of 3000 or so’s health care business completely wrapped up. It was a cozy arrangement that brought the family quite a bit of both money and local prestige, but it didn’t much help Ma’s composure or self-regard as a suddenly widowed mother with a small dependent son who lived almost a thousand or more miles further west and awkwardly removed from any direct support by her family.
But since Ma had already been relocated out there in California for some time and with her eye directed towards eventually collecting a generous California State Teacher’s Association retirement pension, she decided to remain where she was and settled for spending her available vacation time in Idaho. Since despite relatively modest pay, California teachers have traditionally (and up until recent decades) had the priceless benefit of a fully-paid three month annual vacation during summer recess, this meant that every June we’d pack up Da’s prized old 1940 Oldsmobile and leave clouds of dust across the sere Nevada alkalai wastes (some of the main roads were actually still unpaved then) in our haste to get back to the JR Simplot owned potato fields of beautiful, bucolic, rural (and intensely Mormon) southern Idaho.
As Uncle Charlie’s less economically blessed older sister, Ma was grateful for being able to stay with the family for three months every summer. For this reason, most of the really close childhood chums I counted had been in Burley and not in California, since in Idaho I wasn’t identified as the onerous offspring of a poor, single parent/teacher, but a first cousin of one of the wealthiest and most reputable families in town (and therefore not as heavily subject to prejudice by my peers). Those languid, relaxed and idyllic summers in Idaho almost made up for the bitter rigors of adolescent life in the Central Valley of California and since Burley was such a small town, despite our staying at Granma’s relatively modest wood-framed house (Granpa had since passed on), Uncle Charlie’s expensive brick mansion and my three first cousins were only a few blocks removed and easy to visit.
Uncle Charlie’s life had, like that of most Americans and my mother, been substantially affected by the uncertainties of the Second World War. Following the lead of the majority of patriotic Americans immediately after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place, Uncle Charlie offered his medical expertise to the US Army, receiving a commission as a Captain in the medical corps. After a number of adventures serving as an army surgeon (first in the North African and later in the European campaigns) he finally mustered out of the Army in 1946 as a Lt. Colonel and returned home to Burley with a fairly generous separation bonus and plans to start Burley's first formal hospital (named "The Cottage Hospital").
Now just before Uncle Charlie had gone off to sew arms and legs back on wounded American soldiers (and about the time Ma had been swept off her feet by Da), wealthy American businessman (and Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad Board) W. Averell Harriman had decided, in view of the great success of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932, to create a hybrid American counterpart to some of the most famous European winter resorts (like those found in Switzerland and Austria) known. By the end of 1936, his magnificent and exclusive new, year-round vacation resort of the Union Pacific's ‘Sun Valley’ was ready to open (at least in its early phase) its doors to well-heeled, wealthy members of upper-class American and international society.
Located in Idaho's beautiful but poor Blane County, a vast range of sheep and cattle lands some hundred miles north of Burley and nestled near the spectacularly beautiful Sawtooth and Salmon River Wilderness regions of the Challis National Forest, Sun Valley was at once a sensational recreational success with what soon became known in the 60s as ‘jet setters’. Equally attractive to summer or winter visitors and providing a broad range of varied sports activities for the wealthy and well-connected, Averell's Sun Valley Resort was at that time principally accessed via his Union Pacific Railway, resulting in considerable profit for both the resort and the railroad. With some of the finest hunting, golfing, fishing, skiing, and riding available anywhere in the entire country all clustered together near the spectacular backdrop of the Idaho Rocky Mountains, Sun Valley instantly became the favored ‘watering hole’ of the nation’s wealthy spoiled darlings, Hollywood movie stars, and upper-class members of society. A number of movies were shot there (one most memorably named 'Sun Valley Serenade', starring Sonje Henie and featuring Glenn Miller's band) and before long, the name 'Sun Valley' had come to be firmly associated with leisured wealth and upper-class society.
Although use of the facilities was restricted temporarily during the war while Sun Valley was pressed into use as a US Navy casualty recovery hospital by the government, as soon as the war had ended the Union Pacific Railroad resort of Sun Valley again opened its doors to the pleasure-seeking privileged members of affluent American society in an even grander and more expanded form. It is worth noting in passing here that Harriman’s Sun Valley, aside from proving to be positively visionary in its concept, later served as the singular inspiration for all of today’s modern outdoor super resorts (esp. Vail, Aspen, Sugar Bowl, and other major recreational resort enclaves across the country.
At any rate, Uncle Charlie had returned home after the war, more than ready to forget all the sadness and violence he had witnessed and again resume civilian life. Endowed with a separation bonus that, combined with his normally substantial income as a community surgeon, provided considerable wherewithal, he enthusiastically plunged back into civilian medicine. As one of the founding members of what eventually became the Idaho Chapter of the American Medical Association, and in addition to being highly regarded by his medical peers, Charlie was known for having quite a bit of personal savoir-faire and was immediately attracted to the breathtakingly scenic rural environs that surrounded Sun Valley. With a keen and lifelong passion for fly fishing, golf, and skiing, the convenient location of the small little post silver-boom town of Ketchum, located directly adjacent to Sun Valley, prompted him to purchase a site there on which to build a vacation home for the family to enjoy.
Although the small town site of Ketchum (present population now about several thousand) is today as ritzy and expensive as Sun Valley itself is to settle in, at that time it was a very small community of a few hundred souls who were mostly left over dregs from the silver and lead mining boom that had figured chiefly in the region’s economy, a few decades earlier. Property was reasonably inexpensive and all the wealth of Sun Valley’s world-class recreational gate-way lay virtually at Ketchum's doorstep.
His appetite considerably whetted by the promise of the great shooting and fishing recreational offerings to be found near Ketchum, Charlie finally bought a piece of property located right along the water’s edge of the Big Wood River and directly at the foot of Bald Mountain, a 9150 foot high peak of spectacular natural beauty that is regarded by skiers and winter recreation sportsmen as perhaps the all-around best ski-mountain to be found in the entire nation. On this strip of scenically blessed land, Uncle Charlie contracted for a local fellow to construct a two-story ‘log-cabin’ that we would thereafter come to regard as our summertime home-away-from-home. While I reference it as a ‘log-cabin’, it would be more appropriate perhaps to describe it as a ‘log-mansion’, since it incorporated every modern convenience and luxury then known (1948) to a post-war America that was just discovering the joy of consuming unlimited amounts of material stuff. The new digs included a separate 2-car garage and a ski loft fitted out with a pair of brand new ‘Head’ metal downhill skis for my aunt and my three older cousins (John, Corinne, and Charles Alfred III, who also became a surgeon like his dad). [I felt lucky to be able to borrow a pair of the beaten up old bear-trap binding, ex-10th Mountain Division surplus skis my cousins had formerly used. To his credit, Charlie had promised me a pair of the new Head skis if I made straight A grades at school, but that was as unlikely as Joseph Stalin suddenly becoming a Franciscan monk!]
At that time and prior to the introduction of the new metal ski technology (resulting from wartime advances in aircraft metal fabrication), all snow skis had been made of wood and had been fitted with what we now aspersively refer to as ‘bear-trap’ bindings (since they’d break your leg just about as effectively as a bear-trap, in the event of a fall). In fact, most skis then available were white-painted surplus relics of the Amy's 10th Mountain Division ski troops. With the new metal technology that sandwiched aluminum upper and lower layers over a wood core for maximum strength and flexibility, Head Skis overnight and single-handedly revolutionized the sport of downhill skiing and established the company as the premier, leading-edge supplier of high-quality winter sports gear for the well-to-do. Here then was Uncle Charlie, with a scenically sited to-die-for river front vacation home at the foot of Bald Mountain, surrounded by nothing but the splendid solitude of a thick, luxurious pine forest and the soothing rush of water down coursing down one of the finest trout streams to be found anywhere. Best of all, it was located just a spit out the window from America’s newest and most stylishly fashionable vacation resort development.
I don’t think it would be hard to believe me if I stated that in having access to all this, I counted myself as perhaps one of the luckiest kids in the world (despite all the unhappy circumstances of life in California as a hated teacher’s kid). Almost as soon as we arrived in Idaho each summer, we’d start getting things together to relocate to Ketchum for several weeks at a time, making the long drive up from Burley through the spectacularly desolate Shoshone volcanic lava fields (‘Craters of the Moon’ National Monument) and ready to settle back into Charlie’s new digs. The first thing I usually did on arrival was to rush out to the river's edge and check out the prominant rocky spur situated above 500 feet above the cabin and across the river, on the side of Mt. Baldy. Each year I'd delight to find the same family of American Bald Eagles comfortably nested there in a huge and well-protected nest that was safely inaccessible to any ground-based predators who might have a taste for unfledged eaglets. My attention would usually next turn to the prolific 'water skimmer' and Mayfly nymph populations that inhabited the slow-moving shallows (along with the myriad other little water critters living amongst the rocks). After that, the local horsetail ('Equisetum', a vascular plant that is essentially a living fossil often found growing in damp areas) patches demanded inspection, and the list of subsequent diversions was endless. It was, you see, a kid's paradise for discovery and it was...all...mine!
As for Uncle Charlie, as circumstances developed, his new post-war practice in Burley kept him typically so busy that he hardly had any time to get away to the psychically healing environs of his new cabin, but when he did manage to briefly tear himself away from his surgeries and AMA affairs, he was in his element. The trout fishing in particular was sensational, since the Big Wood River held healthy populations of large, fat Rainbow, Golden, and German Brown trout. Fly fishing was the name of the game, naturally, and all one had to do was step out the front door, walk across the lawn to the river, and wade out into its shallows with a creel and pole in hand. A few flicks of the wrist later and the wicker creel (filled with wet rushes) would soon be gorged to capacity with these beauteous piscatorial prizes. With hardly any game wardens to patrol the area, it was every fisherman’s dream of an unfettered paradise and in retrospect it sometimes seemed as if we’d had trout for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…all fresh and right out of the sparkling waters of the river. Fortunately, we all loved fresh trout.
My own fly fishing techniques left a lot to be desired, of course, since I was only this California-raised kid who more often than not had only read about fish in books, rather than caught them in rivers with a real hook and line. For the most part I was satisfied with an ordinary spin-casting rod and reel my uncle bought me, since I’d used one at Scout Camp to lake fish and knew a bit about spin-casting. And so, armed with cheese balls and a bottle of salmon eggs, I’d set forth to try my luck. Given the fact that I’ve never been much of a Nimrod (I was more like a numb-rod, actually), I usually felt fortunate if I caught a couple of Rainbows over the course of a few hours, out in front of the cabin. The one faded Kodacolor picture I still have of myself thus outfitted as an ace fisherman (at age 11--posted at the top) shows me wearing a broad grin that belies the actual difficulties with which I managed to get something on my hook that didn’t regularly wiggle off and escape. [The smiling elderly woman on my right is Granma, who graduated Summa cum Laude from Lake Erie Women's College back in the 1800s, a time when most women were lucky to be allowed to attend high school by parents who sternly believed they should be mothers and not intellectuals. Granma was quite a world traveler, having ridden camels in Egypt at age 85! She even knew Gertrude Bell, famed post-Victorian adventurer and mentor of T. E. Lawrence, whom we know today as 'Lawrence of Arabia'.]
Sometimes, if Uncle Charlie had been able to join us at the cabin, he would let me accompany him in a perpetually unsuccessful effort to learn how to fish with artificial flies, which was then one of those arcane mysteries of the male sports world that the fishing adept took much secret pride in. At such times we’d wander up and down river, trying various prime fishing holes along the way, and Charlie would share ‘instructive’ stories with me about local fishermen who had drowned due to various careless acts of aquatic impropriety (such as wearing laced-up hip waders and stepping into an unexpected river hole). Brrrrrr! Great confidence-building stories for little kids! Mostly I learned to keep my trap shut and just try hard not to scare the fish away for Charlie, since just about everything I did was somehow disruptive of the unspoken rules that govern fly fishing in streams by groups of fishermen.
Big Wood River’s bountiful fishing wasn’t just a local secret, naturally, as over the course of years from its inception through the 1960s, the absolutely great angling opportunities to be found therein drew large numbers of economically well-off seasonal visitors who regularly sought out exceptional fishing and hunting venues across the country for personal recreation. Among them were an appreciable number of the most well-known American and international motion picture stars and entertainment celebrities, as well as many well-known luminaries from the world of writing and literature, politicians of note, and a wide array of prominant public note-worthies.
Chief among the latter ranks was renown ‘Lost Generation’ author 'Papa' Ernest Hemingway, who had completed For Whom the Bell Tolls (considered by many to be his greatest novel) while originally staying in suite 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge in the fall of 1939. At Sun Valley’s inception, Averell Harriman had invited Hemingway and other celebrities friends (principally from Hollywood) to the resort to help promote it. With all his writing and screen-writing successes, Hemingway had quickly cultivated a following of a number of Hollywood's favorite stars, who were in turn quickly captivated by the man's larger than life personality. Gary Cooper was a particularly frequent visitor and favored Hemingway hunting/fishing partner, as were Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and a number of members of the extended Joseph Kennedy family (just to name a very few).
Since ‘Coop’ and ‘Papa Hemingway’ were great friends and shooting partners, they were often to be seen in and around Sun Valley, either hunting or fishing together, but aside from Uncle Charlie’s family and one or two other physicians’ families who had built cabins near Uncle Charlie’s property (after hearing of his real estate acquisition there), we rarely ran into others fishing along that long and serene stretch of the Big Wood River that lay at the foot of Bald Mountain. Thus, when we did run into a few other fishermen, it would more often than not be Papa Hemingway with some of his buddies.
As a kid of 11 I had, of course, no clear idea of who precisely Ernest Hemingway was, other than a vague impression based upon the sparse information Uncle Charlie gave me in answer to my naïve questions. He’d simply pass it off with a casual “He’s a well known writer” and let it go at that, but since he had personally attended the big man (and other celebrities) at Sun Valley for miscellaneous odd ailments and aches on the occasion of Papa’s frequent returns to the resort, Charlie knew Hemingway on more than a casual basis. Mostly their associations in the river were limited to the sort of masculine bonding conversations that characterise just about any male sports activity, consisting mostly of brief discussions and exchanges on the effects of weather on the fish, the day’s catches, how they were biting, the merits of certain baits and flies that seemed to work better than others, and so forth. Since Charlie didn’t drink and Papa did, they were not accustomed to socialising over a bottle of expensive Cognac after a days’ catch, as most of Papa’s other buddies did.
Hemingway towered over me, even as an older man in his early 60s, but then so did everyone else, my being this little kid to whom all others were usually adult and therefore large-sized people. I well remember a couple of occasions when Charlie and I were on the river fishing, when around the bend came Papa with a few of his well 'lubricated' close confreres. On one occasion it was Gary Cooper that Papa had in tow, a particularly familiar confidant of Papa’s from what I was told, and Coop stood so tall that it seemed to me in person to be every bit the gaunt, laconic, giant cowboy he came across as in the movie 'High Noon'.
Being a small boy, I rarely spoke to anyone unless spoken to, since that was the adult etiquette of my time spent in Burley with stentorian Uncle Charlie and I was also a sort of shy little guy by nature. One time when we were out there, we rounded the downstream northeast bend in the river to stumble upon non other than Papa, poised in the shallows and artfully framed by the day's fading sunlight, taking a whiz by the water’s edge. Totally unconcerned about the sudden invasion of his privacy, Hemingway nodded at my uncle with his famously broad and toothy smile, shook a few last drops from his prodigeous willie, and zipped up his fly with the natural satisfaction of someone who has drunk a few too many glasses of lager before happy hour had officially begun. [Now you will perhaps better understand the title of this piece: ‘Zipping Flies with Papa Hemingway’.]
With that, he reached into his creel with the same coarse brown fingers he’d just shaken his willie with and pulled out a couple of the biggest Brown Trout I’d ever seen, saying “Here, take these Brown Trout off my hands, boy, but don’t be surprised if they put up a fight in your frying pan! Even dead, they're due respect with each bite” (or something approximating this, since it’s been almost 50 years now since the incident occurred). Taking the big fish from him a bit tentatively, I smiled my best little kid smile at Papa and glanced anxiously back at Uncle Charlie as if to say "OK...now what?" We had the fish for dinner that night (along with some Rainbows Charlie caught) and I still remember how good they tasted. In the background while we dined on trout, Charlie's old Zenith phonograph was playing a 78 RPM recording of Gershwin's 'American in Paris', a song that would doubtless have pleased Papa greatly, had he been there to share our moveable fishy feast.
At any rate, Hemingway had also fallen under the enchanting spell of the Big Wood River’s relaxed ambience shortly after discovering the recreational paradise that was Sun Valley and it wasn’t long before he also bought a home situated a bit further downstream and not too far from the old Warm Springs Resort (since closed down) on Big Wood River. We could walk to it easily from our own cabin and would occasionally pass by it as we ambled along in the shallows of the river. I recall that the place had had a sort of strangely modern appearance, being of a squat and incongruous concrete construction and not quite the perfect woodsy setting I would today imagine as suitable for a man of Hemingway’s illustriously outdoorsy affect. Uncle Charlie pointed it out to me on several occasions during the course of our now-and-then fishing excursions, since in the intervening several years I had studied literature in my first year or two of high school and by then had acquired a somewhat better idea of exactly who and what ‘Papa’ Hemingway was in the world of modern literature.
Some years later, when I was 15 (1961), Ma and I had once more returned to Sun Valley and Ketchum for a summer stay and were installed in Uncle Charlie’s cabin in the shadowed lee of Mt. Baldy when Papa decided to bring the final chapter of his storied life to a premature and spectacular climax. Having long suffered from the combined effects of alcoholism, depression (undoubtedly augmented by his many years of ETOH abuse), free-floating fears of aging, the latent after-effects of electroshock therapy, fears of his own fame, and perhaps a little known form of metabolic disease known as ‘bronze diabetes’ (hemochromatosis), in the quiet and peaceful early Sunday morning hours of July 2nd, Papa got up before his wife Mary and went downstairs. Reaching into his gun cabinet in the cabin’s hallway, he put the barrels of his favorite double-barreled shotgun to his head and pulled the triggers. Startled awake by the resounding blast in that solidly constructed house, Mary Hemingway hurried down the stairs and found Papa dead of a single 12 gauge shell's discharge (only one of the two barrels had fired). It was a particularly gruesome scene (according to medical reports), for he had rested his forehead on the barrels, braced the butt of the gun on the floor, and blown the upper half of his head entirely off. At the age of 61, Hemingway had scripted the final chapter in his life’s story, joining several other members of his family who at various times also chose suicide as an exit from life.
The first those of us at Charlie’s cabin had known of this event was when the wail of the local sheriff’s squad car broke the peaceful languor that had settled in on the river that morning, but nothing definitive in terms of what had happened was initially circulated, other than a rumor that “...it appears as if author Ernest Hemingway has died from an accidental gun injury”. As we later found out, that was Mary Hemingway’s desperately hopeful interpretation of what had happened, albeit a false hope entirely understandable by virtue of the shock she had experienced over the violent nature of his death. The actual truth of papa's suicide was kept obscured from public scrutiny for a significant while after that, although no one who knew him was really fooled by the 'gun accident' cover story. Eventually everyone came to learn the unhappy facts behind the circumstances of Papa’s demise.
After all the hubbub had subsided, Papa Hemingway was laid to rest in the Ketchum Cemetery near a large old tree. Mysteriously, almost as soon as his remains had been interred, it was noticed by locals that the level of his grave appeared to be sinking rather more precipitously each day, or at least a lot more than one would expect from mere subsidence of freshly dug soil placed on a recent grave. This bizarre circumstance continued over the next few weeks despite the almost daily replenishment of dirt over his plot by cemetery caretakers and stories soon began to circulate speculating on all sorts of strange and mysterious causes.
Finally, it was noticed that some visitors to Papa's grave were physically removing dirt in some quantity from the site as macabre 'remembrances' of the literary giant and his near-legendary life. One unconscionably clever fellow in particular was in fact actually making off with the grave’s soil by the bucketful for the purpose of selling little souvenir bottles of it to Hemingway fans across the nation (and overseas). After this fact came to light, the gravesite was quickly enclosed by a suitably protective fence, although eventually that was removed as soon as the public's rabid fascination with his violent demise had lessened. Papa’s last wife, Mary, was eventually laid to rest near him.
Today, the grave remains a quiet and unremarkable place of calm and picturesque serenity, flanked by two large sentinel trees and backed by the natural beauty of Idaho's Sawtooth Range. The last time I was there, a number of years ago on a foggy morning, in my imagination I fancied I could see Papa’s grizzled ghost standing there behind one of those tall, dark trees that stand guard on either side of him, zipping up his trousers with gusto and saying “Boy, there’s only one thing better than catching a Brownie and that’s taking a whiz downstream with your best dog, on the banks of your favorite fishing hole...”
Papa would be the first to affirm the simple pleasures of those possibilities, were he alive today, I remain convinced...
(I returned to Sun valley and Ketchum a few years ago, on a nostalgic trip to that best-loved part of my childhood. The changes everywhere were palpable and dramatic. Ketchum and Sun Valley are now well beyond the economic reach of most 'ordinary' people to enjoy and predictably Ketchum is now an art colony and haven for high-roller realtors and wealthy families who apparently need 'artsiness' in their expensive lives. As for Uncle Charlie's cabin on Big Wood River Road (it's now a paved street), it had been so 'improved' as to render it almost unrecognisable and had been put on the market for sale at a modest 3.5 million dollars. I seem to recall that Charlie had originally paid $9,000 for both property and cabin, back in the late 40s, and in 1976 he sold it for the princely sum of $125,000, dividing the return on it among his three children, my first cousins).