Hemingway's old man fishing for bucks now
"I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand." - Santiago, in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
COJIMAR, Cuba - DiMaggio would have understood. He knew the value of a name, right down to the dollar sign.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. When you can't swing a bat or throw a ball anymore, sometimes a name is all you have.
And when you can't fish anymore, sometimes a name is all you have. Joe DiMaggio indeed would have understood Gregorio Fuentes, Ernest Hemingway's fishing captain on the legendary boat Pilar in Cuba and supposedly the model for both the young boy and the old man in Hemingway's classic novel. Hemingway and Fuentes fished out of the small coastal village of Cojimar, about seven miles outside Havana. And at the age of 101, Fuentes is still taking visitors into his modest home - for $1 a minute. I guess when you are 101, time is truly money. Yesterday a group of Japanese tourists visited Gregorio, who sat in his living room in a wrought iron rocking chair with a painting of himself and Hemingway on the wall behind him. They posed for pictures with Gregorio, who kissed each of the four women and smiled with a twinkle in his blue eyes - the same eyes that Hemingway said were the only thing that didn't look old about the old man - and that was nearly 50 years ago. Then Rafael Valdes Fuentes - Gregorio's grandson and the keeper of the old man's flame - collected the fee for the brief visit with the man who used to catch marlin with one of America's most famous writers. "He enjoys getting visitors," Rafael said. So would I, for $1 a minute. Not that he hasn't earned it. His skin is a century old, and all the years of working the sea are deeply imbedded. But he is fortunate to have an industry going for him at this age. Normally, most 101-year-olds don't have a lot of business opportunities. Gregorio has Hemingway. "He was a very good friend," Gregorio said, grabbing a cigar from a box nearby and lighting it. He didn't live this long by being cautious. How could be you one of Hemingway's most trusted friends and be cautious? "My grandfather is a strong man," said Rafael, showing photos of Hemingway and Gregorio holding up a giant marlin they had caught - Hemingway as the fisherman and Gregorio as the captain. "It's very important to have a good captain to fish," said Gregorio, wearing a cap with the words "Capitan Gregorio Fuentes." Though he lives in a small, obscure home on a side street, it is not hard to find Gregorio Fuentes. Just ask most people in this coastal village. Or you can just go to La Terraza restaurant, where Hemingway often drank and wrote in the 1940s and the 1950s. With its caned chairs, high ceiling fans and wooden shutters opening out to the blue sea, it is a scene right out of "To Have and Have Not" - another work of Hemingway's. It is all part of the Hemingway pilgrimage, which also includes trips to La Floridita, the Havana bar that Hemingway frequented, and the Hemingway Museum, where the boat that Papa owned and left to Gregorio is now kept. All throughout the restaurant, there are black-and-white photos of Hemingway fishing, shooting a handgun and posing with Fidel Castro. There are photos of Gregorio as well. But there are no photos of the great DiMaggio anywhere. I asked Rafael what his grandfather thought of DiMaggio's recent death. He said, "Que?" "DiMaggio, the great DiMaggio. Hemingway wrote about your grandfather's admiration for him in the book," I said. Rafael asked Gregorio, but nothing seemed to register. "He is a baseball fan, though," Rafael said. "He watches it every day." Then Rafael collects another fee. Gregorio may not have known DiMaggio, but they shared an appreciation for the value of a good name.