Even a Gift of Bacon Wasn’t Enough

Ernest Hemingway broke into my house on my birthday in October 1960 when I was seven years old. The media reported at the time that he was in hiding with Mary, in New York; clearly he was not. No, he was in Corpus Christi, Texas, living temporarily on a sailboat moored in one of the downtown marinas, one called the “L Head.” Mary was, indeed, in New York at that time, but Papa was not.

He left Cuba just three months earlier for Spain, the purpose of which was a photo session for a Time magazine cover story. He departed Spain in early October, ostensibly bound for New York. That’s where the media got it wrong. He was bound for Corpus Christi, where he busied himself making plans for a return to Cuba. He reasoned that he would be too readily recognized if he headed to Miami or the Keys or, in fact, anywhere in Florida. But in Corpus Christi he could be just another quirky old man in love with life on the water. In Corpus, his plans for a return to Cuba would go unnoticed.

Why he picked our house I guess I’ll never know for certain. My guess, though, is that the smell of bacon cooking drew him in. You see, each morning my father got up very early, as I do now, and he cooked massive amounts of bacon. The scent of cured bacon lured Hemingway to us, though a few miles separated us from his boat near downtown. I can understand why. Heat transforms bacon from a flat, slippery pink and white ribbon—an odd salamander no one would want to find in the kitchen—into a rich, sensual piece of culinary joy awaiting its destiny: teasing the human tongue, pleasuring the palate. I know, without question, the fragrance of bacon being transformed in my father’s skillet was impossible to resist. And Hemingway, in his sailboat in the marina, simply followed his nose to our house.

On the morning of my birthday, Hemingway followed the scent of bacon grease to our house. I suspect he had smelled the bacon for several days. It must have occurred to him that the reliability of that morning ritual meant that, if he followed his nose to the source of the aroma, he would find a significant stash of salted pork, the ideal companion for a voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and into the Caribbean. And so he did.

My father thought he heard something at the front door, so he turned the gas burner down to the lowest level and left the bacon sizzling in the giant cast iron skillet. He went to the front door and turned on the porch light, but he could see nothing. He waited quietly and listened for the sound; nothing. But just as he turned off the front porch light, he heard scratching at the back door, the door leading from the kitchen to the car port at the back of the house. He rushed back toward the kitchen. As he walked through the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, he heard the screen door pop open, then saw Hemingway slide in.

Their gazes met; my father and Ernest Hemingway stood like statues, staring into one another’s eyes, poised to respond should the other move in a threatening manner. I watched from the hallway, not quite sure what to make of the situation. But I could tell my father was calm, so I remained quiet, though seeing a stranger in my house was an unusual surprise.

Hemingway spoke first. “I’m not here to do harm. I simply need provisions for my voyage. Meat that will last the trip. Can you spare some? I was lured by the bouquet of bacon; surely a man who can turn lard and muscle into ambrosia will help?”

My father’s blue eyes illuminated Hemingway’s face with an otherworldly glow. “Of course, my friend, but first you must put your knife down on the counter and slide it toward me. I’m generous, but not stupid.”

Hemingway had used a large, heavy-bladed knife to pry open the back door. At my father’s words, Papa looked down at his hand, his eyes awash in surprise at seeing the knife he was holding.

“Of course, I’m sorry. It’s not my intent…”

“I know,” my father’s words cut him off. “Here, take this,” handing Papa a freshly-wrapped package of bacon. It must have been three pounds. “This will get you part way there, if you’re frugal.”

Hemingway, the gruff old man, looked at my father with moistened eyes. “You’re a gentleman and a scholar. When I get to Cuba, I will remember you as the man who saved me.”

As Hemingway turned toward the screen door to leave, my father called after him. “Vaya con Diós.” Papa looked back and smiled, then walked off toward the “L Head.”

I don’t know where he went after he left us. The next we heard about him was that he died at his own hand in Idaho. I do so wish he had found his way back to his beloved Cuba. But even a gift of bacon wasn’t enough to take him to place he called home.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Even a Gift of Bacon Wasn’t Enough

  1. Millie Gore says:

    Hemmingwayesque. Bravissimo. PS. I must love you. I had to open a Facebook to post.

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