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Anniversaries are Hell

Opinion By Sam Low

Fortunately for most of us time has a way of passing seamlessly - endowing the grace to age with minimal notice - until we confront an anniversary like, for example, Ernest Hemingway's 100th birthday on July 21st. For some rather large percentage of males who came of age reading For Whom The Bell Tolls or A Farewell To Arms or Across the River and Into the Trees, July 21 must be taken into account, and it's a damn shame.

Going back forty years to my 16th birthday (I was then reading Big Two Hearted River) I remember being absolutely certain that I would spend some portion of my life wandering the outdoors as Nick Adams did and perhaps even exploring the mysteries of sex with a dusky Indian maiden - an encounter with nature primal and liberating, both the wandering and the sex, that would propel me beyond the life I seemed destined for (I was raised in an upper middle class milieu with prep school and Ivy League doors opening before me) to one of free booting artistic creativity - a photographer, war correspondent, world traveler.

It was as a freshman at Yale, shortly after graduating from Loomis, a prep school in Windsor, Connecticut, that I felt certain such an encounter (generously defined) was before me. Her name was Brooke. She attended Sarah Lawrence, a woman's college known for its libertine ways. She was lithe and blonde, rich as hell - Brooke had an Aston Martin parked in a garage near school - and above her desk she had written on an index card the immortal words, "nada pues nada, hail nada, full of nada," copied out of Hemingway's short story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." A match made in heaven. I loved exotic sports cars and she had one. She was blonde, one of my life-long female prerequisites (not one of Hemingway's, although I think that Martha and Mary were blondes) and she was obviously smitten by the same books that smote me. She fell hard. Unfortunately, she fell for a classmate, a tall gangly boy with little obvious literary sophistication. What was Brooke thinking? Whatever it was, it was not about me.

See, that's what happens on anniversaries. I haven't thought about the incident with Brooke for at least thirty years. Now, I have not only remembered it but actually written it down. What am I thinking?

I encountered another Hemingway moment in 1965, when I was a naval lieutenant, this time in the form of a notice sent by the Chief of Naval Operations to all junior officers inviting us to be captain of our own vessel, a patrol craft called (in what turned out to be appalling optimism) a "swift boat." "Captain Low" - it had a certain ring to it.

I envisioned racing under cover of darkness through deep ocean swells, my entire body throbbing to the mechanical wail of twin V-16 Allison aircraft engines at full throttle. I pictured, of course, a PT boat like the one John Kennedy had captained in the Pacific. I was then serving aboard a quite different ship - a 40,000 ton, 650 foot long fleet oiler - a floating tank farm that carried aviation and ships' fuel to replenish warships at sea. Here was an opportunity to eschew an air-conditioned stateroom and steak every Friday on wardroom linen for the challenge of a lifetime - to test my mettle under fire. So, when I had an opportunity to inspect a "swift boat" during a layover in Subic Bay, the mammoth naval port in the Philippines, I did so. The experience, like that with Brooke a few years earlier, was sobering.

Swift boats were craft originally designed to ferry crews out to offshore oil rigs. They were slow - about 25 knots - and had little armor or firepower. My battle station would be in a pilothouse enclosed by glass. It appeared that a 22 caliber bullet in the right place would send shards spinning through the flesh of anyone unfortunate enough to be standing there (I may have seen an early version of the boat, later ones were much improved). Even worse, the boat's mission was to patrol jungle rivers bordered by tangled growth in which an irate farmer with a shotgun could easily hide and do substantial damage to me and my crew - not to mention what a well trained solider with a bazooka might accomplish. What was the Navy thinking?

My thinking on the matter was pretty clear - another Hemingway moment would be passed up.

Well OK, this has gone far enough - there are many other times when Hemingway stole on cat's paws through my life in ways that made me wish I had never heard of the man, but I'll not inflict them upon you. I got over Brooke's rejection, of course, and I've even remained friends with the classmate who stole her away, to the extent that we share a house in Oak Bluffs. And, in retrospect, it's fortunate that my instinct for self preservation overcame my urge to combat in such a woefully inadequate vessel, not to mention how I would later come to feel about the war in general.

We don't need, after all, to constantly compare ourselves unfavorably to Hemingway. Why should we? Certainly many of his physical exploits were blown out of proportion, and, in the end, they were fleeting. I guess his family life was a shambles. He was not a great father, or son, for that matter. And surely our world was different from his. Vietnam was nothing like the first two world wars. If anything, it was more like Korea and I don't remember reading any stories posted by Papa from Pork Chop Hill. Perhaps, along with my cohort of aging males, I can begin to accept my own life and achievements. Comparisons are odious aren't they?

One way to think about Hemingway's 100th birthday is to consider that he's been dead for thirty-seven years. Dead, gone, and best not remembered on July 21st. Hemingway lived his life and, well, I've lived mine. Still, another way to look at it is that he was 61 When he died. I'm only 56. That still leaves five years to write 21 books, win a Pulitzer and a Nobel prize (perhaps even decide not to accept it), have countless affairs, run away from maddened bulls, fight in two world wars and buy a big boat and a finca in Cuba and fish the gulf stream.

Anniversaries are hell, aren't they?

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