Chasing Hemingway
By Jack Corbett

comparing the writer Ernest Hemingway to people playing key roles in my life.
 

"Best of all he loved the Fall--------------The leaves yellow in the cottonwoods-------Leaves floating on the Trout Streams-------------And above the Hills------------------The high blue windless skies--------Now he will be a part of them forever". (From the mind and hand of Ernest Hemingway after a friend of his was killed in a hunting accident).  I found a small monument to Hemingway, the great writer, inside of small grove of trees in Sun Valley, Idaho with a bust of Hemingway's head on top of it, his ode to his friend inscribed below. But the words are written by and about Hemingway, a man who loved the woods, the mountains, the outdoors and people. He shot himself not far from the little monument. And I've been chasing Hemingway ever since trying to find a part of him in myself.)

The first to leave was my mother dying of cancer in a hospital, in pain. I would visit her as often as I could, coming off of the tractor and rushing off to see her an hour and a half away. The day before she died her eyes beckoned to me and I went to her side. "Promise me,." she asked, "to put my ashes over that field." I took her hand and squeezed, telling her I would. Dad did nothing and months passed with her ashes remaining in a little box in the funeral home. He was head of the family and I did not want to do it without giving him the chance. Finally--enough was enough so I just did it, going to the funeral home and asking for her ashes. There were three of us in that little plane, a friend of the pilot sitting up in front with him. As we cruised slowly up above the fields I pointed out the one she wanted and we hovered in close. The man in the passenger seat next to the pilot and I opened the plane's little window and I let him dump the ashes out from the little box.

It was different after Dad died. This time I went up with the pilot. There was no need for passengers. I had in my hands a little black plastic box and inside that was a small plastic bag with his ashes. As we came in above and close to that field I looked at them. It is amazing that this is all that is left of a person after he is gone--a man who has affected so many others leaving behind so many memories both good and bad. A couple pounds of ashes thrown out to the winds. We made a long low pass over the field----it was half a mile long----as I studied my father's ashes. They weren't him. They could have been anything. I had the pilot turn the plane around and make another pass this time flying from north to south. I already had the plane's window opened. I held it outside the window a few inches and let the ashes fall out of it--making sure they came out slowly to fall on as large a part of that field as possible since I knew he would have wanted it that way.

That was a year ago and I've done a lot of thinking since then. Close to that field where my parents ashes now are intermixed with the soil is another spot just a couple hundred yards away where one of my best friends shot himself on a bleak, cold, gray March morning.

I will never forget that man. I had moved to this farm from West Country St. Louis. I didn't even have the common sense to know that you had to turn a wrench to the left to loosen a bolt and no one from my family had ever lived close to this part of Illinois. Jim farmed much of our family's ground and he took me in like a father. He had clear eyes that gazed out across far vistas, trying to figure out what the weather would do or to keep him planting a straight line while putting his corn crop in. I used to do all kinds of stupid things running into things with expensive machinery, tearing things up and I had all these projects going on. Putting in an extensive outdoor lighting system in my yard for example. He was always there for me, helping me undo the havoc I had caused or showing me how to wire a building, work on machinery, or run a cutting torch.

He could do anything. And he was when he wanted to be--a finer carpenter than any carpenter who hired himself out. I had gotten a Winchester 22 magnum rifle so Jim went out and got one just like it. Once we were sighting in our rifles at 25 yards laying them across the hood of a car shooting at pennies. On my first shot I drilled it right through the center putting a hole in the center of Abraham Lincoln's head. "Lucky shot," said Jim. "You can't do that again." My second shot was almost as good once again hitting Mr. Lincoln in the head. "Never seen the likes,"said Jim.

He made two little boxes out of wood, each of them holding fifty shells. The boxes had a sliding wooden lid that slid very precisely to expose the red felt lined interior and the shells inside. The outside of the boxes had hunting scenes and inside the lid were small recessed holes into which he had glued the pennies. When I ran my finger across the lid containing the penny I had shot I found the wood to metal fit to be perfectly smooth, the whole thing being crafted with painstaking care. Then, on the side of my box, Jim had inscribed: "Jack, Shot at 25 yards. Winchester Mag." It had been the perfect shot and he had given me the perfect gift.

I often watched him plant corn. I'll never forget him having back trouble and not being able to straighten himself up standing before me hunched over in pain.. Then getting up onto his tractor, continuing on for hours and he sat in the tractor seat unable to sit upright but still driving his tractor as he concentrated on planting straight rows. He did this for days on end.

He wasn't afraid of anything. He had never backed down from a fight. And the last thing he was afraid of was death. He got emphysema. Smoked a lot for one thing and was born with bad lungs. During his last few years he would end up in the hospital every year or so as his family gathered around his bed side. He always told me he didn't want to die in a hospital.

Then one cold March morning I saw him for the last time lying out on the edge of a field a mile from where I lived. He had just shot himself with a twelve gauge. His oldest son, Stan, is my best friend. We had come out there together and stood sixty feet from his still form lying close to one of his fields he loved so much. Unwilling to come closer Stan and I threw our arms around each other and started sobbing.

He did not want to die in a hospital with people around him who didn't care and his family who did. He took himself out with his boots on-----a man--to the end. I can still see him going out that gray cold morning, parking his pickup not far from the road. Perhaps shivering a bit as for the last time his eyes took in the horizon and the sky, then lowering them to get one last look across the prairie.

I had another friend who I knew only for a short time. He was the best friend of one of the big farmers around here and I was good friends with the youngest brother of the big farmer. We used to shoot together and several times we all shot together either at one of our farms or at a gun range. Bill was seventy and he was tall, his form straight and proud. Before I got to know him he owned an airplane and kept it at his farm. For a short time the two brothers, Bill, and I got into those Cowboy action shoots, using old style revolvers, shotguns and rifles like they had in the Old West. Cowboy Action shoots involve trick shooting and speed, not just accuracy and all the contestants go around in clothing like the men in the Old West wore over a hundred years ago.

There was a Cowboy Action shoot near Louisville, Kentucky. The two brothers couldn't go so Bob and I went, driving off together in his car, barely knowing each other. We were together for several days, drinking beer at night and shooting in the competition during the day and we had a a lot of time to talk. I still have pictures of us at that Cowboy Shoot.

A few months later I found out he was in the hospital dying of cancer. Sitting next to him in the Intensive Care Unit, we talked which was hard for him since he had a tube running down his nose. He never showed signs of pain and he never talked about himself. And never complained. He asked me how my dad was doing. Then he would ask me about my sisters and some of our friends. He was unselfish to the very center of his being.

Now as I contemplate life and death I envision ashes, dead bodies, and tombstones as a void--with not even a hint of what had been there before. Yet the soul remains----sometimes leaving devastation upon the living----bad memories and profound impact leaving some of the survivors crippled for life. But hopefully not. Then there are those--only a few--who leave lasting memories of what all of us were meant to be. Courageous and true--even to the end. We become, like the ashes of the departed become mixed with the soil and growing crops, part of the people who come after us.

 

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