The Day Hemingway Died

By Victor DiGenti

No one remembered when or why Gundy Gunderson became Ernest Hemingway. According to the old timers, he’d been that way for at least ten years when we moved to Fernandina Beach in 1960. I was nine years old at the time. My brother Harold was twelve.

Fernandina Beach, our new temporary home, was a jutting spit of sand, swamp and slash pines just north of Jacksonville. Dad followed some internal beacon and every other year or so packed the three of us in the 1956 Buick wagon with real wooden sides faded the color of dirty ginger ale and moved on. Harold would later say Dad received the calling to visit every bar on the East Coast. He was a bartender by trade, and, according to him, a damn good one, so the Palace Saloon was lucky to get him.

I was sitting at the end of the bar doing my homework the first time I saw old Gundy Gunderson. A silver-veined mirror ran the entire thirty-five feet behind the length of the bar, a massive mahogany slab that curved at both ends and rippled subtly in the middle like the muscled backs of the dock workers.

“Look what Mamma Mary dropped into this den of iniquity?” a booming voice called out from behind me.

I felt his leathery hand on my shoulder, and peered in the mirror. There stood the most imposing figure I’d ever seen in my young life. He was well over six-feet tall, with a head the size of a June melon made even more imposing by a fine thatch of gray hair hanging down in waves, almost melting into his grizzled, snowy beard. The grimy safari jacket completed the illusion.

“And who might you be, little missy?” he asked, giving my arm a squeeze like he was trying to judge the size of my muscle.

“My name is Barbara Ruth,” I replied. Sooner or later he and everyone else would call me Babroot, which is a hateful thing to do to a child. Somewhere in his infancy, when Harold was missing his front teeth and good sense, Barbara Ruth came out as Babroot. And that’s how it stayed. I won’t tell you some of the things I called Harold.

“That’s an awful grown-up name for such a little girl,” he said.

“Well …” I said, hesitating. I wasn’t really going to tell him, was I?

“They call me … Babroot.”

Gundy Gunderson stared at me a moment and let out a whooping laugh that shook the pressed tin ceiling,. All the patrons turned toward us as though expecting a brawl to break out. The big man grabbed me under the arms, lifted me off the stool and tossed me up toward the ceiling between a pair of lazily twirling four-bladed fans covered with fly specks.

He caught me in a bear hug and set me back on my stool. Sticking out a hand the size of a dinner plate, he said, “Babroot it is, girl. Let’s shake on it. Folks around here call me all kinds of things, but not to my face,” he said, turning and winking at the regulars at the bar. “You can call me Papa, if you want, or just plain old Hemingway.”

And that’s how I was introduced to Warren Harding Gunderson, which was Papa’s birth name. I came to learn that some of the residents of Fernandina Beach thought Gundy was a fool and nothing more. Most people, however, had come to accept his eccentricities. Still, the questions remained about why this shrimp boat captain chose to take on a new persona late in life. It was like he went shopping for a new coat, tried on a few, rejecting this one because of its color, that because of the style. Apparently, Ernest Hemingway fit Gundy Gunderson perfectly, and that was who he became.

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