Why Ernest Hemingway Took a Machine Gun Fishing

Why Ernest Hemingway Took a Machine Gun Fishing

Why you should care

Because walking the walk is important, especially if you’re a virile literary legend.

He was a 35-year-old man who hated to fish alone on the 38-foot Wheeler cabin cruiser he had purchased for $7,500. The bold man was handsome, barrel-chested with a full head of brown hair, tanned skin and a robust mustache. Everything about Ernest Hemingway was young and vigorous, including his eyes, which were cheerful and undefeated. His friends called him Papa, and he had walked away from plane crashes, brush fires and car wrecks on several continents, and had the scars to prove it.

A month before, in April 1935, the bold man had discovered Bimini, an island chain 50 miles east of Miami. The Gulf Stream and the other great ocean currents were the last wild country left, and had some of the world’s finest fishing. It was an unexploited country, no one quite knew what fish lived in it, or how great a size they could reach.

In Their Voice: Part of a series featuring stories about famous writers told in their own voice. In this episode, Ernest Hemingway takes an unorthodox approach to keeping the sharks from a prize catch. Based on true events.

Papa gazed from the deck of his beloved Pilar, named after his second wife, Pauline, out at the waves off Bimini. The acclaimed journalist had won deep-sea fishing competitions across the Caribbean, hauling in scores of marlin. There is great pleasure in being on the sea, he thought, in the unknown and the wild suddenness of a great fish; and there is satisfaction in conquering this thing which rules the sea it lives in. “Unless sharks come,” he said aloud. “If sharks come, God pity him, and me.”

***

Then he began to pity himself for the great fish he had almost hooked last month, for the shots he had fired with his Colt .22 semi-automatic at the shark that would not let him have it, for the bullet that had careered off the boat’s rail and lodged 3 inches below his kneecap.

I could go fishing without a gun, he told himself, but it would be too dangerous. And so the bold man had acquired a better one; he had bought a Thompson submachine gun from a Bimini fisherman, a Model 1921A, with the detachable buttstock and front pistol grip. How he yearned to turn his tommy gun on the sharks.

The bold man lay down in a chair in the sun and was asleep in a short time. The tommy gun lay cradled in his left arm like an infant. He was barefooted. He dreamed of Bimini’s white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the time he had offered $250 to any local who could beat him in a fistfight. He had fought and beaten the great Negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. After that, he had a few matches and then no more. He decided that it was bad for his right hand, for fishing.

He might as well have been ringing a dinner bell.

Just then he awoke, and he saw one of the boat’s fishing lines dip sharply. “Yes,” he said. “Yes,” and reached for the line and held it softly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and felt it tug. “Marlin!” he yelled, stamping his feet, the signal that a fish is raised. His companion on the boat, Mike Strater, a painter and the president of the Maine Tuna Club, quickly emerged from the cabin.

It was then he realized that it was not his line that was taut. It was Strater’s, and the bold man felt the happy feeling drain from his body.

***

There is always a feeling of excitement when a fish takes hold as you are drifting deep. It comes from the fact that they are strange and wild things of unbelievable speed and power, and a beauty, in the water and leaping, that is indescribable. Having the fish in your boat isn’t the excitement, thought Papa, it is while you are fighting him. Unless it’s not your line that the great beast is on.

Four hours later, the marlin was still swimming steadily, towing the boat. Then the fish leapt clear and long, throwing up a column of spray in a series of jumps like a greyhound. Its sword was as long as a baseball bat and the bold man saw that the fish was about 13 or 14 feet long. Strater had hooked a giant.

It was an hour later that the first shark hit the fish. He had come up from deep in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile-deep sea. Then more came. They came like express trains with scythes, shearing off 20 pounds of marlin flesh at a bite. When the bold man saw them coming, he prepared his trusty tommy gun. He could hear the noise of skin and flesh ripping when he riddled the sharks with bullets, adding their blood to the chum in the sea. He shot them without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy. “I killed them in self-defense,” the bold man said aloud. “And I killed them well.”

But he might as well have been ringing a dinner bell.

***

When the man and Strater finally brought the noble fish onto the boat, he had been apple-cored, his long white spine with its 48-inch tail spread missing most of its lower half. What was left of the fish, less than half, still weighed more than 500 pounds. Once on shore, the two men posed for photographs with the carcass, Papa standing jealously in front of Strater. Their friendship would not survive the summer.

That afternoon there was a party of tourists looking at the long white spine with a huge tail outside the entrance to the harbor. Up the shore, in his boat, Papa was sleeping again. He was sleeping with his tommy gun. The bold man was dreaming about the sharks.

Epilogue: Hemingway and Strater parted on bad terms, made worse when Hemingway penned an article for Esquire about their trip titled “The President Vanquishes,” in which he made no reference to his tommy-gun handiwork. During World War II, Papa patrolled the Gulf Stream in Pilar, hunting German U-boats with radio equipment, grenades and machine guns.

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