Friday, April 27, 2018


Sometimes when I’m busy doing something else I’ll get a flash of my Grandma Myrt’s hands.
I don’t usually notice people’s hands right off. My wife does. Hands are important to her. They may even be her most vivid memories of people. But not me. I notice their hands after I’ve known them for a while.
Grandma Myrt and I
But Grandma Myrt’s hands were exceptional—work-punished hands, but not like my mother’s or mine, thick-skinned and rough like Grandpa Vern’s. No, Grandma’s were delicate, if tortured, with translucent skin through which the blue veins were clearly visible. They were slim but strong and they were deft and quick when it came to embroidering or crocheting or darning, things she did while Grandpa Vern watched TV and she pretended to. Hands that were only idle when she slept.
She had one finger, the middle one on her right hand that wouldn’t lie straight. If she laid her hands palms down, flat on the table, that one hooved up like a small hillock in an otherwise plane topography. Sometimes, when I was small, I would lay my hand over hers and feel how that knuckle protruded. I didn’t ask her about it. I was a curious child and my mother, Reba Mae, always said I asked too many questions, that I shouldn’t be so nosy. So I withstood the temptation to ask when I first noticed that crooked finger. But I did ask her if it hurt.
“No, honey, not anymore,” she said.
I did eventually ask my mother about Grandma’s finger, however. She said it was from a bout of scarlet fever that developed into rheumatic fever. They were tenant farmers and medical attention was less than adequate in rural Ohio back then.
“I was little at the time,” Reba Mae said, “But I remember being scared because Mom had such a high fever and was in such pain that she was delirious. I remember her pacing and pacing the floor cradling one hand in the other and mumbling something about an old Chinaman all night long. The doctor, when he finally came, said she was lucky the fever had settled in her hand, that if not, it probably would have killed her.”
I could never look at my grandma’s twisted finger again without thinking of the pain that had left it that way and wondering who the Chinaman was that she had seen.

People are always telling me I look like Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway, the twentieth-century novelist. I don’t see it.
Hem in Cuba
I mean, okay, two gone-to-seed heavyweights with white beards and a crooked, sardonic grin. I get it. But that’s where the resemblance ends, I think. Papa Hemingway was brown-eyed and darker-skinned. In his youth his hair was dark brown, almost black. I am Teutonic pink sausage-skinned fair with blue eyes. True, however, we were both born with a stubborn jaw. And like me, he was already white-haired in his forties. Put a pair of steel-rimmed glasses on us both and there may be a slight a darkened bar after a shitload of margaritas.
But that doesn’t keep me from liking the comparison. As a boy, I ate up Hemingway’s Nick Adams series and went to the Wapa Theater in my hometown of Wapakoneta (the world’s only Wapakoneta) to see a movie called Adventures of a Young Man that was based on those short stories.
Dan in Patagonia
In it, the restless Nick Adams (Richard Beymer) strikes out from his rural Michigan home on a cross-country journey that ends up being the road to his coming of age. His purported goal is to bum his way to New York and land a job as a big city reporter, but this is a true life case of the journey’s not being about the destination but about the road to get there. While riding the rails and hitching, Nick—clearly young Hemingway’s alter ego—is touched and changed by his encounters with a punch-drunk ex-prizefighter (stunningly played by Paul Newman), a personable telegrapher and an alcoholic burlesque show barker. He eventually makes it to New York, where he thinks the world of journalism is waiting for him with bated breath, but is turned down for the reporting job.
Discouraged, he decides to become a soldier of fortune and, in an odd twist of events, ends up joining the Italian Army as an ambulance driver. This last, at least, is carbon-copy autobiographical as is what happens after that to Nick and what happened to a very young Ernest in real life. He ends up on the front lines in World War I, where he and his ambulance crew take a direct hit during shelling. Nick/Ernest ends up in an Italian hospital with a severe leg wound (Hemingway would carry shrapnel in that leg for the rest of his life). Despite his youth, he is now a hardened veteran of war and has learned about the camaraderie of men in battle, a lesson that will accompany him for the rest of his life. He also finds impassioned, lusty, first love, in the person of a nurse with whom he shares a furtive romance within the confines of the hospital where he is laid up for long weeks.
Hemingway in World  War I Italy 
When he walks out of that hospital, Nick/Ernest is no longer a boy. He has become a man.
Admittedly, I wanted—like many literate youths of my time—to be Hemingway, wanted to be the man and the legend. But most of all, I wanted to be even half the reporter and writer he was. And I have to admit I’ve worked toward that goal all my life. Early on, I read everything he ever wrote to try and see how he did what he did, something (some magic) that looked so simple but that was so utterly complex—a stroke of genius.
The last time somebody said I looked like Hemingway was last year in Florida. I was with a friend at the Coral Castle near Homestead, trying to ignore the constant stream of made-up bullshit coming out of the guides’ mouths and attempting to imagine for myself the madman who had built this monument to dementia in the early twentieth century. As my friend Saúl and I were leaving, one of the employees at the place said, “Hey buddy, did you ever get into the Hemingway look-alike contest down in Key West.”
“No,” I said.
“Anybody ever tell you you look like him?”
“No,” I lied, then added, “Not today at least.”
“Well, you do. Spittin’ image. You should join that contest.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Oh yeah, you’d win for sure.”
“Poor ol’ Hem,” I said. “He’d already been dead seven years by the time he was my age.” Then thought, suddenly a little depressed, “And had knocked the literary world on its ass.”

There are things you don’t get over, no matter how old you get. Sometimes it’ll just sneak up on me when I’m not paying attention. If I see it coming I keep it at bay. But such thoughts are crafty that way. They waylay you when you least expect it. That’s the way it is with this memory of the time my dad, Whitie, told me he hated me and wished I’d never been born.
Wait, let me put it into context. He and I weren’t getting along at all at the time. I was a very rebellious and independent teen, and he was in the midst of one of his multiple mental crises. Sometimes his chronic depression took the form of a deep, paralyzing, suicidal sadness that drove him into hiding within our own house. Other times it filled him with almost murderous rage. This was one of those times and that day I was the target.
For me, however, at that age, it seemed to provide proof positive of what I had always suspected—that I was the source of his depression, that I was what was wrong with him, that I was what he most despised in a world that he saw as rigged against him.
Whitie and I
Now that I think about it, growing up I don’t ever remember Whitie specifically telling me that he loved me. But then, in that pre-sixties world, there was nothing surprising about that. That generation of men, World War II vets, tended to be sparing with expressions of any emotion that might be construed as weakness. But after he said the words, after he said, “Sometimes I hate you. Sometimes I wish you’d never been born,” I naturally figured he had never said he loved me because, well, he didn’t.
Our relationship improved greatly after I’d grown up and left home. Especially when I joined the Army. Military life was a subject we could mutually relate to. And absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder.
So this one time, when I was back for a visit, he and I were sitting at the kitchen table together smoking and drinking coffee and I brought the subject up. I asked him if he remembered telling me he hated me and wished I’d never been born. He looked at me as if I were insane and said, “Oh, Dan, I’m sure I never said anything like that!”
I could have shrugged it off and said, oh, okay, forget it. But I didn’t. I brought back the whole sordid scene, the shouting match, the where and the when, and his pronouncement that sometimes he hated me and wished I’d never been born.
“If I said that, Dan,” he said sadly, reaching over and taking hold of my hand, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was really ill back then. There are a lot of things I don’t remember.”
“That’s all right,” I said, taking a drag from my cigarette and then crushing it out in the ashtray for effect, “I’ve remembered for us both.”
In my adult years, my father often told me that he loved me. It was as if he were trying to make up for lost time. Every time I was leaving to go back to wherever I’d come from, he would say, “Hey Dan, I love ya buddy,” and he’d give me a bear hug.
And although in my head I’d always heard myself say, “Well, you sure took your sweet damn time to tell me so,” I’d hug him back and say, “I love you too, Dad.”
And it was true. No matter how long or how deep the hurt had been. I had always loved him. 


Jim Raines said...

Good read, Dan. I have never seen that picture of Hemmingway as a boxer. Thanks.

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks for reading it, Jim. Yes, Hemingway had a ring set up at his place in Cuba, and, don't quote me, but I think also in Key West. From what I understand, he was pretty handy, but he sometimes let his ego get in the way and fought professional athletes. A.E. Hotchner tells about one of those times in his Hemingway biography, Papa Hemingway, how Hem challenged a young pro ballplayer to a friendly sparring match before lunch and when the guy gave him an unceremonious shellacking, Papa raced into the house came back out with two sabers, threw one to the guy and said something like, "let's see how good you are with a sword." Quite a character, clearly, with an ego as big as his name.