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 color of the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”
— Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea
These were the words novelist 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 him the Nobel Prize for literature almost 50 years ago.
Captain Gregorio Fuentes, the man who Hemingway admitted was his model for Santiago, as well as Antino from Islands in the Stream. The novelist docked his boat the Pilar from the 1930s until his death in 1961. Fuentes, who was Hemingway’s boat captain for 30 years.
The temperature was in the high 80s (F.) as we entered Cojimar on a sun-filled, breezy morning. The village was spread out along the shore, the weathered and unpainted stone cottages clapped together along narrow streets, and there was the sullen whisper of a calm sea just beyond a small, decaying fortress that guards the entrance to the bay. With directions from boys playing in the street, my friend John Bayfield and I went to Capt. Fuentes’s house at 209 Calle Pasuela. When we rapped on his front door, a pleasant woman in her seventies, Fuentes’s daughter, answered.
We asked to see Capt. Fuentes, and she said softly, “He is now sleeping, but if you want to come back in an hour, he will see you.” She apologized for the inconvenience.
We thanked her and walked down the street to the La Terraza bar, the centerpiece of this little village, and a place made popular in the aforementioned novels as well as the movie To Have and Have Not. We ordered Mojitos and sat and watched the sea and the rickety jetty where the fishermen tied their boats and from which someone was rigging up a skiff to go out.
The bartender said that this famous old village, which had always been blessed by the sea, was the place where Ernest Hemingway, Errol Flynn, Sarita Montiel, and Spencer Tracy hung out to experience first-hand the Cuban fisherman’s experience.
She said Fidel Castro was a great friend to Ernest Hemingway and Capt. Fuentes. Castro said he envied Hemingway because of the traveling he had done and the many experiences he had had. She told us that when Hemingway held his first broadbill fishing tournament, Castro came out to fish with him and won the competition. I had seen the wall posters in Havana: Hemingway and Castro, shaking hands, smiling.
On the walls of La Terraza, bottles of liquor lined the mahogany shelving behind the bar. There was a mirror and a painting of the gray-bearded Hemingway in a khaki shirt. In the dining area out back, there were giant black-and-white photographs of trophy swordfish, marlin, and broadbill, distorted and grainy from being enlarged from pocket-size prints. There were images of old wooden boats riding the waves with lines in the water, and shores piled with giant fish and men standing, Fuentes and Hemingway among them. There were photos of fish hanging on ropes and men cranking giant catches to the decks of boats. And overhead, the big ceiling fans moved in slow motion. I was enjoying the scenery inside and outside the bar and was content to spend my Sunday there, perhaps order some pickled eggs or sawfish from the jar, or even a daiquiri. I had given up hope of meeting Capt. Fuentes.
But then the old man’s daughter came into the bar. She had walked down the hill to tell us her father was up and would like to meet us. So we left together and walked back up to the Fuentes home. Capt. 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 graced the room in that way that important people always do. On the peak of his baseball cap are the words, “Capitan Gregorio Fuentes.” He stood and shook our hands and his grip was strong.
I asked him about his years at sea. And I asked him about Ernest Hemingway.
He told us in Spanish how he loved the sea, and how he loved Hemingway, the man who had lived in Cuba for twenty-some years, and visited there a great deal before that, and who was greatly admired by all the Cuban people. He spoke only Spanish, and with my limited knowledge of the language, I was fortunate to have made contact on a day when his grandson (who speaks English) was there.
Capt. Fuentes’s memory appeared keen as he talked about his old fishing companions, Hemingway in particular, and how from 1938 until Hemingway’s death in 1961 he was captain of the writer’s boat, the Pilar (named after a Spanish saint). “His absence is still painful to me,” he said and looked down at the floor.
Then he said, “Ernest Hemingway was just as important to me as any member of my family. I could never have had a better friend than that!”
Capt. Fuentes came to Cuba at the age of ten. As a youth, he joined a cargo-sailing company. He married Delores Perez in 1922 and they raised four daughters. (Delores died in 1990.) He met Ernest Hemingway in 1931 on Tortuga, in the Bahamas, where the two men were sheltering from a storm. They became virtually inseparable from then until 1961. During World War II, they patrolled the Cuban coast for German U-boats. Years later, says Fuentes, he and Hemingway patrolled the same coast to assist Castro’s rebel army. Their birthdays were 11 days apart and the two always celebrated them together with a bottle of whiskey.
He got a photo album from a shelf and showed us photographs of him and Hemingway, pie-eyed, walking up the hill from the La Terraza. He said he still keeps that birthday tradition alive by having a little nip down by the memorial bust of Hemingway.
He told us that his biggest fish was a 1,560-pound black marlin caught off the coast of Peru. He and Hemingway battled the fish for more than three hours. The marlin was mounted and put on display in Peru. It is a record that has not been broken.
“I have also taken a good many marlin of the five- and six-hundred-pound size and many broadbill twelve feet long, and sailfish and swordfish right here off Cojimar.” He said this and he shook his head and chuckled.
Capt. Fuentes said that once when he and Hemingway were near Cayo Paraiso, they came across an old man and a youngster fighting a large swordfish. This was about 70 kilometers east of Havana. They stopped and offered to help the old fisherman, but they were angrily refused the opportunity. Capt. Fuentes said that he had always believed that that incident was what inspired his friend to write The Old Man and the Sea.
When Ernest Hemingway died, Capt. Fuentes promised himself never to fish again. It is a promise that he has kept.
Hemingway had left his possessions, including his house and the Nobel Prize, to the people of Cuba. But the Pilar was left to Capt. 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. That brass was melted into a bronze bust of the novelist, which now stands among white pillars looking out to sea just a stone’s throw from the La Terraza where Hemingway drank his Mojitos, and a block from Capt. Fuentes’s comfortable white-stone bungalow.
As we took some photos and Capt. Fuentes stood with us and smiled for the camera, I could not help but notice that this man was still agile and lean, with high cheekbones. He now has thinning gray hair beneath the cap. And as I stood beside him, I glanced at the back of his neck for the wrinkles that were still there and the sun-blotched skin, and at his face for the deep-blue, undefeated eyes that were still young.
And when I knew, too soon, we had better leave, I gave the old man a firm hug. And his arms were hard and strong around my shoulders.
Wayne Curtis is author of River Guides of the Miramichi and other books. He lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.