ALICE TOWN, Bahamas — Bonefish Willie wrapped his gnarled old hands around a cup of scalding black coffee, and his watery eyes rolled in his head as he spoke of evil and how man must repent.
As bishop of the Church of God on the island of Bimini, Bonefish Willie Duncombe says flat out, "Man must change his ways or he's a goner."
Before he got the calling, Bonefish Willie used to play the banjo down by the waterfront in the old Sugar Foot Bar. This was years ago, of course.
Willie shakes his head in amazement. "One night the Lord spoke to me while I was playin' my banjo, sayin' to me: 'Willie, follow me, follow me!' And I dropped my banjo and walked out the door of that bar singing 'Hark My Soul, It Is the Lord,' and y'know, I've never looked back."
Tears well in the black man's eyes as he speaks, for beyond the door of the Sugar Foot bar Bonefish Willie found prosperity as well as religion. Besides preaching the Gospel he became a guide for fishermen, and that's what Bimini's all about--fishing. If you're not a fisherman, well, then try Nassau or one of the quieter islands in the Bahamas.
As a guide, Bonefish Willie became a confidant of Ernest Hemingway, and speaking of Papa, Bonefish Willie tells you flat out, "That man put this island on the map!"
And indeed Papa did--only Hemingway was more addicted to the bottle than he was to the Scriptures, which Bonefish Willie quotes without pause. No, Willie didn't follow Papa as the writer drank and brawled his way through the bars of Bimini. Whenever he wasn't in the pulpit Willie was aboard his Boston whaler steering other fishermen to waters that boil with bonefish and marlin, and this he still does.
As for Hemingway, he lived on Bimini as he did elsewhere that his travels took him--furiously. Except no one smoked grass or sniffed cocaine then. Instead, Papa and his companions drank rum. By the gallons. This was in the '30s while Bimini was still living down its earlier reputation as a one-time haven for bootleggers. It was years later that it became known for drug drops that still occur, although not so frequently anymore, Willie insists.
Still, if one is searching for the sort of characters who roar through the pages of a Hemingway tale, then Bimini is not a bad choice. Some insist it was here that Nobel Prize-winning Papa got the inspiration for his novel about "The Old Man and the Sea."
Walls at the Compleat Angler are crowded with pictures of Papa. One in particular shows Hemingway puffed up beside a huge marlin that had been mauled by a shark, exactly as he related the incident in "The Old Man and the Sea."
Words gleaned from the novel are pinned to the walls along with the pictures of the mauled game fish.
\o7 The shark was not an accident. He had come up from down deep in the waters as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mild deep sea. He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution that he broke the surface of the blue water and was in the sun. Then he fell back into the sea and picked up the scent and started swimming on the course the skiff and the fish had taken. Then astern of the bow and off to the starboard, the calm of the ocean broke open and the great fish rose out of it, rising, shining dark blue and silver--seeming to come endlessly out of the water, unbelievable as his length and bulk rose out of the sea and into the air and seemed to hang there until he fell with a splash that drove the water up high and white.
\f7 Bimini, everyone agrees, is a man's island. This isn't a statement of chauvinism. It's a fact. One sees few girls in their bikinis on Bimini, or their suntanned surfing companions. Alice Town, a mere whisper of a village, is no more than a mile, end to end, and in between it's crowded with fishermen and marinas and a scattering of inns and hotels that line King's Highway, which is not a highway really but a narrow, hot, noisy lane lined with shops and stores. And then there's Queen's Highway, which is quieter and which skirts the beach with its sunbathers.
In places Bimini is no more than 500 yards wide, a puny sand bar that draws hundreds of anglers annually, particularly wealthy corporate types who sail over in their sleek yachts from the Florida coast, a mere 50 miles away. The locals insist that Bimini is the "fishing capital of the world," and few dispute the claim, what with nearly a dozen tournaments on the books this year alone (one that's named for Bonefish Willie, and another, for Papa Hemingway).
For non-fisherfolk there is a certain depraved fascination with visiting Bimini. It's worth a couple of days, soaking up the atmosphere along with a few rays.
At the far end of King's Highway the rattle of dominoes splits the dank air at the seedy, open-air End of the World Bar where profanities are penciled on the walls, which gives an indication of its character. A single fan spins over the sandy floor where one afternoon recently a couple of tourists sat around a teetering table soaking up booze.