July 19, 1999

The real old man and the sea

Wayne Curtis, National Post
Saturday, July 17, 1999

Like the Cuban fishing villages he grew up in, Capitan Gregorio Fuentes -- forever immortalized as Ernest Hemingway's Santiago -- may be worn and weathered, but his spirit is still strong

'The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflections on the tropic sea were on his cheeks . . . everything about him was old, except his eyes and they were the same colour of the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

These were the words Ernest Hemingway used to describe Santiago, the fisherman cursed by Salao (the worst form of bad luck), in his profound novel, The Old Man and the Sea, which won the famed author the Nobel prize for literature 45 years ago.

Gregorio Fuentes, the man whom Hemingway admitted was his model for Santiago, as well as Antonio from Islands in the Stream, is still living in Cojimar, the tiny village just outside Havana where the novelist docked his boat, the Pilar, from the 1930s until his death. Capitan Gregorio Fuentes, who was Hemingway's boat captain for 30 years, will be 102 this summer.

The temperature is in the high 20s as we enter Cojimar on a sun-filled, breezy Sunday morning. The village is spread out along the shore, with the weathered, unpainted stone cottages clapped together along narrow streets. There is the sullen whisper of a calm sea just beyond a small, decaying fortress that guards the entrance to the bay. With directions from the boys playing in the street, my friend John Bayfield and I go to Capitan Fuentes' house at 209 Calle Pasuela. When we rap on his front door, a pleasant woman in her late 70s, Fuentes' daughter, answers. We ask to see Senor Fuentes, and she says softly, "He is now sleeping, but if you come back in an hour he will see you." And she apologizes for the inconvenience.

We thank her and walk down the street to La Terraza bar, the centrepiece of this little village -- and a place made popular in the aforementioned novels as well as in To Have and Have Not. We order Mojitos and sit and watch the sea and the rickety jetty where the fishermen tie their boats and from which someone is rigging up a skiff On the street behind us, there seem to be very few people. But the bartender says the population of Cojimar is close to 8,000 ebecause of the many apartment buildings that we cannot see from the town. She says this famous old village, which has always been so blessed by the sea, is the place where Errol Flynn, Sarita Montiel and Spencer Tracy once hung out, along with Hemingway, to experience first-hand the Cuban fisherman's experience.

She says Fidel Castro was a great friend to Hemingway and Fuentes. Castro said he envied Hemingway because of the travelling he had done She tells us that when Hemingway held his first broadbill fishing tournament, Castro came out to fish with him and won the competition. I have seen the wall posters in Havana; Ernest and Fidel, shaking hands, smiling.

Here on the walls of La Terraza, bottles of liquor line the mahogany shelving behind the bar. There is a mirror and a painting of the grey-bearded Hemingway in a khaki shirt. In the dining area out back, there are giant black and white photographs of trophy swordfish, marlin and broadbill, distorted and grainy from their enlargements from the pocket-sized prints. There are old wooden boats riding the waves with lines in the water, and shores piled with giant fish and men standing, Gregorio Fuentes and Ernest Hemingway among them. There are fish hanging on ropes and men cranking giant catches to the decks of boats. And overhead, the big ceiling fans move in slow motion. I am enjoying the scenery inside and outside the bar and am now content to spend my Sunday here, perhaps order some pickled eggs or sawfish from the jar, or even a daiquiri. I have given up hope of meeting Gregorio Fuentes.

But then the old man's daughter comes into the bar. She has walked down the hill to tell us her father is up and would like to meet us. So we leave together and walk back up to the Fuentes home. Capitan Fuentes is sitting in a cane chair in his small living room. He is tall and rugged, his face leathery even now. And his presence graces the room in the way important people always do. On the peak of his baseball cap are the words, Capitan Gregorio Fuentes. He stands and shakes our hands and his grip is strong.

I ask him about his years at sea. And I ask him about Hemingway.

And he tells us in Spanish how he loved the sea. And how he loved Hemingway, the man who had lived in Cuba for 20-odd years, and visited there a great deal before that, and who was greatly admired by all the Cuban people. And Capitan Fuentes' memory appears keen as he talks about his old fishing companions, Hemingway in particular."His absence is still painful to me," he says and looks down at the floor.

The old man says he had started his sea life at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands when he was just four years old. His father had been a labourer on a cargo ship and had been crushed to death by a falling mast while Gregorio, then a small boy, was with him. Fuentes had come to Cuba at the age of 10. As a youth he had joined a cargo sailing company. He married Delores Perez in 1922 and they raised four daughters. (Delores died in 1990.) Capitan Fuentes met Hemingway in 1931 on the island of Tortuga, where the two men were sheltering from a storm. They became virtually inseparable from then until Hemingway's death in 1961.

During the Second World War, they patrolled the coast for German U-boats. Years later, Fuentes says, he and Hemingway patrolled the same coast to assist Castro's rebel army. Their birthdays were 11 days apart and they always celebrated these together with a bottle of whisky. He stands and gets an album from a shelf and shows us photographs of him and Hemingway, pie-eyed walking up the hill from the La Terraza. He says he still keeps that tradition alive by having a little nip on his birthday, down by the writer's memorial bust.

He tells us that his biggest fish was a 700-kilogram black marlin caught off the coast of Peru. That he and Hemingway had battled the fish for more than three hours. The marlin was mounted and put on display in Peru. It is a record that has still not been broken.

"I have also taken a good many marlin of the 500- and 600-pound size, and many broadbill 12 feet long, and sailfish and swordfish right here off Cojimar," he says with a chuckle.

Capitan Fuentes says that once when he and Hemingway were docked at Cayo Paraiso, they came upon an old man and a youngster fighting a large swordfish. They stopped and offered to help the old fisherman, but they were angrily refused. Senor Fuentes says he always believed that incident was what inspired his friend to write The Old Man and the Sea.

When Hemingway died, Gregorio Fuentes promised himself never to fish again. It is a promise he has kept.

Hemingway left his possessions, including his house and the Nobel prize, to the people of Cuba. But the Pilar was left to Capitan Fuentes. Today the boat, which is considered a national monument, is dry-docked at the Hemingway Museum in San Francisco de Paula.

In return for Hemingway's generosity to the people of Cuba, every fisherman in the village of Cojimar donated a piece of brass from their boat, which was melted into a bronze bust of the novelist. This stands among white pillars looking out to sea just a stone's throw from La Terraza where Hemingway drank his Mojitos, a block from Fuentes' comfortable, white, stone bungalow.

Capitan Fuentes still enjoys a good Cuban cigar, such as the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. He also visits the bar daily and loves to get his picture taken and chat about his days at sea, and Hemingway. He speaks only Spanish and with my limited knowledge of the language, I am fortunate to make contact on a day when his grandson (who speaks good English) is at home. As we take some photos and Gregorio Fuentes stands and smiles with us for the camera, I cannot help but notice how this old man is still agile and lean. I glance at the back of his neck for the wrinkles that are still there and at the sun-blotched skin and at the deep blue undefeated eyes that are still young. As we leave I give the old man a firm hug. And his arms are hard and strong around my shoulders.

Copyright © Southam Inc. All rights reserved.



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