Hemingway, Sloppy Joe's and Key West

August 13, 2011|By LLOYD WATERS

As my wife and I sat in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville in Key West, Fla., and watched the waiters deliver "cheeseburgers in paradise" to the many tables at the restaurant, I thought of another day and era.

Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers, lived in Key West in the late 1920s and '30s for about 10 years. During this time, he often would go fishing, drinking and carousing with his friends.

He wrote some of his greatest works while living here.

As you walk down Duval Street, which is estimated to have more than 300 bars, you might imagine Hemingway weaving in and out to have a drink or two and to share a few fishing tales with the locals.

His favorite bar, Sloppy Joe's, sits at the corner of Greene and Duval streets.

I managed to follow some of Hemingway's footsteps and stopped at Sloppy Joe's to spend a few minutes of nostalgic reflection. Although I didn't partake of Hemingway's favorite drink of cheap scotch and soda, I did enjoy my visit.

Throughout his years, Hemingway was always seeking the next adventure. He was a boxer in his youth; a journalist, where he honed his writing skills; and an ambulance driver in France during World War I, where he was seriously injured.

He was a fisherman, who often would catch a large fish and, upon returning to the docks of Key West, the story is told, would offer the fish to any man who could beat him in a fight.

He was a big game hunter who visited Africa and seemed always to live near the edge of life. He would dream of lions.

His most interesting book to me was "The Old Man and the Sea," which was written in the early '50s while he was in Havana. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this work and later received the Nobel Prize for literature.

I never tire of reading this book and actually took it along and read it once again on my flight to Key West.

It is a simple story about an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago, who had gone out 84 days without catching a big fish. The 85th day was to be different.

There are many themes in the book and, some years after it was published, a movie was made and Spencer Tracy played the role of Santiago.

As Santiago hooks the biggest fish of his life, an 18-foot Marlin, the story chronicles the old man's trials in bringing the fish alongside his small boat and then losing it to the sharks on his way back home.

It is a short book compared to Hemingway's other novels, but to me, it is perhaps his best work.

As the old man is suffering from his fight with the big fish, Hemingway offers one of the best lines of any book I have read.

"But man is not made for defeat," he wrote. "A man can be destroyed, but he cannot be defeated."

When confronting my own significant trials in life, I have been inspired by those words.

Key West is a most interesting place to visit.

In our neighborhood, you might see a sign that reads, "No shoes, no shirt, no service."

There are no such signs on Duval Street.  

Another interesting place to visit is Harry Truman's Little White House in Key West. Truman, during his presidency, often would travel south in the winter and spend time at this historical house.

A tale is told that Truman sometimes would sneak out and away from his Secret Service unit and stroll to Pepe's restaurant for some coffee and pastries.

Before my return home, I followed Truman's path and stopped with my wife to have a late dinner at Pepe's. Truman's picture still hangs on the wall.

I seem to have a fondness for those stories of yesterday.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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