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The Other 'Old Man and the Sea'

March 07, 1997|PETE THOMAS

There was Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize-winning author, and there was Gregorio Fuentes, his lifelong friend and able skipper.

Much is known about Hemingway, an adventurous lover of life whose passion for writing might have been matched only by his passion for fishing. Never were both so evident as in 1952 when he wrote "The Old Man and the Sea," perhaps the finest novel about fishing ever written.

But little is known about Hemingway's relationship with Fuentes, his faithful Cuban friend who spent countless days at sea with the famous author in search of the enormous billfish and tuna.

Fuentes is still alive and, at 98, not only is able to vividly recall "Papa" Hemingway but takes great pleasure in doing so.

"The mention of Hemingway lit a fire in the old man's pale eyes," said John Kretschmer, who recently interviewed Fuentes in Cojimar, a fishing village in Cuba, for a story published in the March issue of Salt Water Sportsman magazine.

Fuentes met Hemingway in 1928 while waiting out a storm in the Dry Tortugas off Haiti.

Hemingway wanted to communicate with Key West and it was Fuentes, also waiting out the storm, who volunteered to escort him in his small sloop to a nearby lighthouse that was linked to Key West via submarine cable.

"Fuentes also had the good sense to serve Hemingway red wine and raw onions, his favorites," Kretschmer writes.

A bond was formed and in 1934, when an up-and-coming Hemingway used a $3,000 advance from Esquire magazine to buy the vessel Pilar, he made Fuentes his captain. The two became closer as the years passed.

Fuentes told of the long battles Hemingway had with powerful marlin, several of which weighed more than 1,000 pounds. The primitive gear used 60 years ago makes those stories all the more impressive.

"You had to be strong for the marlin in those days," Fuentes said. "And for the big tuna too. If you didn't get them into the boat fast, the sharks got them. Oh, Papa hated that. He would get out his Thompson machine gun and turn the water red."

Fuentes laughed and shook his head when asked if he were the old man of the sea. But he recalled an incident he said inspired Hemingway to write the epic novel, one of three--the others being "To Have and Have Not" and "Islands in the Stream"--inspired by his years in and around Cuba.

"We were steaming from Havana toward Cayo Paraiso when we came across an old man in a skiff fighting a big fish," Fuentes said. "Sharks were all around the boat and we tried to help him, but he was crazy and he shouted for us to get away.

"He was far out to sea and weary, but he wanted nothing. We finally gave him some food and a few Cokes and continued on. Later, when we heard the old man had died, Papa was very sad. I know that is why he wrote the book. It was a tribute to all the fishermen of Cojimar."


Like so many travelers before them, Bill and Janine Waggener of Placerville, Calif., had towed their trailer into the desert frontier to escape the stress of the city.

What they didn't know was that wolves were waiting.

The Waggeners, whose story appeared recently on the Amigos de Baja website, had pulled off Mexico 1 about 20 miles south of El Rosario to spend the night in their trailer. They awoke to the sound of thieves smashing their windows, slashing one of their tires and forcing the trailer door open.

"They were . . . armed with knives and a machete," the Waggeners said.

The three banditos ransacked the trailer and took $400.

They spoke no English, but the Waggeners got their drift.

"The only Spanish words we understood were when they left," the Waggeners said. "The leader said, 'Nada paso aqui!' [Nothing happened here!] Once they left in their car . . . we proceeded to try to leave, fearing they might come back to kill us. We were unable to do so because of the slashed tire."

They managed to get help putting on a spare from a passing Mexican family. Back in El Rosario, they found a policeman who was with a European tourist who said he had just been robbed of his money and car keys.

The next day, the Waggeners traveled south to Mulege, explaining to military authorities at checkpoints along the way what had happened. They were told that even in and around the sparsely populated towns of Baja, which have no crime rate to speak of, Highway 1 is the only tourist route and thus is occasionally staked out by bandits.

The Waggeners, though disillusioned, say they learned from the experience and offered this advice to anyone considering a trip down the Baja peninsula:

--"Split up your money. Ours was in five locations, so they didn't get it all.

--"If it is getting late and you must pull off the road, do so somewhere in a town. One group of soldiers suggested travelers stay near their encampments.

--"RVs are amazingly easy to open (they were inside ours in seconds). Beef up your inside locks."

It is also suggested that victims of crime in Baja contact the Attorney General's Office for the Protection of Tourists in Ensenada at 011-52-667-62222.


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