Destination Story Bronze Winner: Looking for Ernest Hemingway

by James Michael Dorsey

Grand Bahama, while grand, is a tiny speck of Bahamian Island soaked in rum and populated by those searching for a lifestyle that does not require their presence.

Soon after arriving, I was smitten with the large and beautiful shells known as Conches.  These are the shells you always see bare breasted natives blowing to warn of the impending arrival of white men in the movies.  When clean and polished they are very beautiful and sell for a pretty penny all over the Bahamas to tourists dumb enough to pay tourist prices for them.

After seeing what they cost in the stores, I was determined to find my own on the beach no matter how long the search.  Lo and behold, no sooner had I set foot on the virgin sand than a Conch was laid at my feet by an incoming wave.

The only problem with this Conch is that it still had a live animal inside it.  In fact, the animal itself is called a conch and the shell takes its name from its inhabitant.  In the Bahamas, Conch is the local delicacy and it is prepared as many ways as Bubba had recipes for Shrimp in Forrest Gump.  It is a tasty, white colored mollusk.

Had I not been in such a hurry to procure my own shell I would have discovered the restaurants have giant piles of discarded Conch shell outside in the back all over the island.  They are there for the taking.  So much for patience.

Now a Conch is not just going to give up its home and slither out because a tourist wants its shell for a souvenir.  My Conch in particular had withdrawn deep into the inner recess of its shell and curled up tight in defiance.  After prodding and poking to no avail, I came up with a grand strategy.

Being quite young and stupid at the time, I decided the best way to get the Conch out of the shell was to put it in the shower stall of my condo, plug the drain and fill the shower with several inches of Lysol.  Don’t ask why.  That is how my juvenile brain worked back then, especially after a liberal lubrication of local rum.

Feeling good that I had outwitted my stubborn mollusk friend and would have my souvenir Conch soon, I departed with my wife on our motorbike for a local bar.

Now this was not just any bar, but a well-used local watering hole known as Harry’s.

Back in the old days when Ernest Hemingway used to come to these waters to take a few marlin, he liked to top off his day by bending an elbow at Harry’s.  I had to see it while on the island.

At first glance, Harry’s is nothing more than a shack made of piled palm fronds.  It is the history that draws one to this unimpressive establishment.

Inside we were greeted by a tall muscled man the color of deep ebony.  Under his tight T-shirt, muscles rippled without moving and he had a gleaming gold tooth in the front of his mouth.  His name was Henry and if I was to typecast a Caribbean bartender, this is the guy I would pick.

I ordered a lager, Irene had a rum fizz, and we asked if he had any Hemingway stories.  He laughed and I figured he probably heard that a dozen times a day.  He told me he was just a small boy when Hemingway frequented this bar, but his father knew the man.  In fact his father has boxed with Ernest.

I had heard stories of how Hemingway, when in his cups, would slam a $100 dollar bill on the bar and challenge any man to go three minutes with him, bare knuckles.  There were few takers, but occasionally someone was willing.  Ernest usually used the money to buy a round for the house after thrashing his opponent.  I had heard of a very large mulatto in Cuba who supposedly fought him to a bloody draw, but had no notion of anyone ever having beaten him.  His ability with his fists was only rivaled by his skill with the pen.  Of course it was also this very pen that helped to enhance the reputation.

Henry told me his father had not only gone the three minutes with Hemingway but had beaten him.  A good story, but who knows.  Certainly I was not the one to challenge it and a good story was what I had come for.  In fact if Henry’s father looked anything like his son, I have no doubts he could have beaten Hemingway.

Then Henry pointed to a large glass container high on a shelf behind the bar and asked me if I knew what it was.  The container appeared to be about two liters tall and full of a yellow liquid.  My first thought was one I cared not to share, but when Henry read my mind, he nodded his head yes and laughed out loud.

When he laughed his muscles rippled, his gold tooth caught the light and suddenly I felt as though Ernest was right there in the room.

He told me that after his father had beaten Hemingway, Ernest, not to be outdone, produced another $100 bill and offered it to the man who could out-do him with eliminating liquid waste from his body.

Apparently there were several takers for this one, being mostly full of rum and ready to do it anyway for free, not to mention not having to get beat up in the process.  Several containers were produced, money was laid out, for side betting was inevitable at this point, and a crowd gathered around the bar, as various manly members both famous and infamous were brought forth.

The contest began with men straining and groaning.  One by one they finished their task, until only Henry’s father and Ernest were still producing.  Finally Henry’s father was done but Hemingway kept going and going like the energizer bunny.

When he finished, the container was full and no one could doubt who the most prodigious watermaker was.   Hemingway again bought a round for the house and staggered off into history.  His prodigious output was preserved in the very jar in question before me now and have sat there ever since.

At least that is the story Henry told me.  We finished our drinks, thanked him for his time, and left to ponder the validity of his story.  I decided on my ride back to the condo that if the story was true, it was certainly a great one, and if not, I would have been proud to have made it up.  Even if it held nothing other than colored water, that container was worth thousands of drinks over countless hours.

When we got back to our condo an angry landlord confronted us.  It seems the housekeeper had entered in our absence and screamed when she found a dead Conch lying inside the shower stall.

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