The Time I Almost Shot Hemingway in the Butt
This is a story my dad told me…
I was sitting in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West one afternoon playing chess for beers with old Roscoe. He couldn’t beat me to save his life, but that didn’t stop him from trying. A large man wearing a Stetson fedora entered the bar and strode to the table where we sat. It was Papa. I was two moves away from a mate and a cold beer as Roscoe strained his meager mental resources trying to fend off his inevitable doom. “Pilot, I need conveyance to Bimini immediately.”
“I’m busy,” I said. He tossed a wad of bills wrapped in a rubber band into the middle of the chess board. “OK, maybe I’m not so busy. Right now?”
“Right now,” he replied. “I have an artist friend in trouble on Bimini.”
Roscoe’s eye’s lit up, “Default?”
“Default,” I said.
“I knew I could beat you,” he crowed.
“You didn’t beat me. This world famous celebrity needs a flight and he’s paying cash.”
“I beat you.”
“In your dreams.” I got up and went over to the bar and asked for the phone. I dialed our crew chief at Key West and asked him to prep the Twin Beech for a flight to Bimini. Within a half hour we were taxiing to runway 9. Often when I only have one passenger, they will ask to sit in the copilot seat, but Hemingway didn’t. He settled into one of the cabin seats and began busily scribbling away on a notepad. What a strange man he was, I thought. I had heard the stories about him. I hadn’t read any of his books – too busy, I guess – but I knew the literary world considered him the cat’s meow.
I got clearance and the D18 roared down the runway. I loved the D18. For its time, it was the most advanced airliner in the world – fast and capable, and I felt like I could do almost anything with it. I had cut my teeth on Tiger Moths and Stearmans, and compared to those, the D18 was like a space ship. You had to earn its respect and it didn’t suffer fools gladly.
I climbed out over Key West NAS and tuned my navigational radios. At 4,000 feet I began to lean the engines. I would cruise us across south Florida at 7,000 feet.
At cruising altitude, I fiddled with the engines, tuning props and mixture until the engines had a musical hum and we settled into a smooth 160 knots TAS. I had just finished trimming her out for level flight when I heard the unmistakable sound of the opening of the cabin door. For the love of God… I set the autopilot and unhooked my harness. I stepped back into the cabin, and there was Papa, holding the door open with the wind whipping his hair wildly. The door of the D18 opens toward the wind, and I don’t see how he was able to do it, but he was standing in door, holding it open and laughing into the roaring wind.
“Close the f*****g door,” I screamed into the roar, “You’re going to kill us both,” but he just laughed.
“I will be the lover of the sky,” he yelled.
“Not on my airplane you won’t,” I yelled back. He laughed again.
“I will be the father of sky children,” he yelled.
This S.O.B. is crazy. If he could get that door open, there would be no man-handling him. He was strong as an ox. I could feel the pitch of the plane change as our movements altered the center of gravity of the bird. I unholstered the Government Model .45 that I wore in a shoulder holster under my jacket. “Ernest, I order you, as commander of this vessel to close the damned door and take a seat.”
He thought this was really funny, “Ah, what a glorious way to die, Lover of the Sky! Shoot, pilot, shoot.”
Silly me. I keep forgetting who I’m talking to. I stepped up right behind him and shoved the muzzle of the big .45 into his right butt cheek. Over the roar of the engine, I yelled, “OK, Ernest. I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to put a 230 grain hardball through your ass, and you won’t be able to sit down for a month. It’s going to hurt like hell. Now, are you going to sit down?”
“You have the soul of an old maid,” he said.
I clicked the safety off with my thumb, “Last chance.”
“All right, all right. It must be hell to spend one’s life with the instincts of a librarian.”
“I have a set of handcuffs. Do I need to use them, or will you behave yourself?”
He plopped down into his seat, “Yes, ma’am.”
I went back to the cockpit and strapped in. The plane had climbed three thousand feet. I put the plane into a shallow descent and looked back over my shoulder. Papa was happily scribbling away, the poetic frenzy apparently passed.
We hadn’t flown five minutes when I felt the nose pitch down slightly which said to me that the load had shifted. It could only mean that Papa was moving around. I put my hand on the grip of my pistol while holding the yoke steady with my left.
“May I join you, pilot,” he yelled over the roar of the engines. “I promise to behave myself, scout’s honor.” I motioned for him to sit down and put on the headset. “You know, you probably saved my life back there,” he said.
“Correction: I saved my own life. You were just an unfortunate bystander.”
He laughed at that. “A man in my profession must live on the edge.”
“If that’s anything like crazy as a bed bug, I’d call it ‘mission accomplished.’”
“You’re a hard man, pilot.”
“Not really, just not tired of living yet. Are you feeling depressed?”
“Old and past your prime?”
“Yes.” He looked down at his massive hands for a while and didn’t say anything. Then he raised his eyes and began scanning the endless ocean below us. The introspection had been forgotten. Something else commanded his over-active imagination.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“U-Boats. I want to catch a U-Boat. These waters are thick with the Nazi vermin.”
“And what are you going to do with it when you catch it? Pee on the hubcap?”
“I aim to sink it – send the Nazi swine to Davy Jone’s Locker…” With both hands he simultaneously reached into the big pockets of his safari vest and produced four live hand grenades, two in each hand. “…with these.”
Sweet Mother of God… and to think, I gave up a chess game with Roscoe for this. He threw his head back and laughed that crazy laugh again, the laugh he had at the open door.
“You can’t sink a U-Boat with a hand grenade,” I said.
“Au contraire, I have studied the matter in some detail. They have some thin metal on the conning tower, but your timing must be perfect. You must see them all the time.”
“Not really. Most of the time I’m busy with not becoming fish food and getting people where they need to go.” To tell the truth, I was lying. I had seen a half dozen Unterseeboot in the last week, but I didn’t want to feed the craziness. Maybe we’d get lucky and not see one. They didn’t like the broad daylight, preferring the dim visual confusion of the early evening. The U-Boats would surface and sink their prey with their deck gun. Shells are cheaper than torpedoes. They would save the torpedoes for cruisers and battleships.
“Are all of you guys this crazy? Faulkner? Fitzgerald? Lewis? Dos Passos?”
“They’re worse,” he said. “Well, maybe not Lewis, but he’s boring.”
He looked down at the grenades in his hands, “We don’t have to discuss this when we get to Bimini, do we?”
“I’ll tell you what. You put the grenades away and I’ll have the best damned case of amnesia you ever saw.” Back into the pockets went the grenades. The powerful radial engines throbbed, filling with their thunder the space that would have otherwise been an awkward silence.