Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

The Middle Children of History

(Photo by Sander van der Wel)

My uncle Peter killed himself when I was 15-years-old.

It still haunts me 25 years later.

I’ve never really gotten over his death, because as a family, we never really discussed it.

This was in part our Ukrainian culture and the superstitions that came over the ocean with my grandparents, partly our religious beliefs and partly my age at the time.

All I ever really knew about the circumstances that led to his death was that he was a lonely man, in spite of having a loving, supportive family and that he struggled with depression.

Last week an old friend and former colleague from my newspaper days in Missoula, Montana, the indefatigable humorist, baseball lover and writer of Fatuous Twaddle, Jaime Kelly, ended his life in his car in a park in Missoula.

Continue reading The Middle Children of History

Hemingway’s version of heaven & hell

(Ernest Hemingway at 24 – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I think it’s funny that Ernest Hemingway describes heaven & hell for his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald in this letter but only describes heaven for himself. 

It tells you something about the way that writers see themselves in this world. 

That Hemingway’s heaven would have a bullring and a trout stream is obvious. That he’d want one house with nine mistresses shows his youth. 

But my favorite thing from the letter to Fitzgerald is the final couple of lines:

Well anyway were going into town tomorrow early in the morning. Write me at the / Hotel Quintana

Or don’t you like to write letters*. I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something. 

Writing has to mean something. 


I still don’t understand grace, but do I have to?


I don’t sleep in much these days.

My son was supposed to go to a track meet at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, so I rolled over in bed around 7:45 a.m. and grabbed my iPhone to see what I had missed out on in the last 8 hours.

On Facebook, I came across something I hadn’t seen in a while, a Brennan Manning quote: “How glorious the splendor of a human heart that trusts that it is loved!”

But it was followed by something that shocked me.


The old ragamuffin had finally given up the ghost, it seemed.

I read on, and sure enough it was confirmed by others. Brennan Manning, the writer who taught me more about grace in two books and one speech than 18 years of Sunday school did, was gone.

I’ve always liked the bad guys, the two-time losers. I’m an unabashed fan of Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and of course, Ernest Hemingway.

They were substance abusers, womanizers, absentee fathers, hypocrites and prophetic poet kings.

Manning didn’t achieve the literary class of those gentlemen, but he didn’t have to. He understood grace where they desperately searched for it in words and deeds.

I don’t know how Manning died. Some men die well, others die poorly. But it’s just another of the steps on the journey. Hemingway, Bukowski and some of the others did not die well.

But Manning paved the way for the Hunter S. Thompsons of the world, those tortured souls who didn’t understand or know of grace during their walk on this mortal coil.

Surely Manning’s understanding of grace applied to those guys as well.

I thought about Manning all day, and Saturday evenings are dinner and a movie night at our house, so it was either intentional or not that we watched “Les Miserables.”

And the kids asked all kinds of questions, and I wanted to answer every one of them with grace. It’s because of grace kids, grace. What don’t you understand about that?

But I don’t understand grace. Even after Manning and Luther and all the others who’ve taught me on the topic of grace over the years. I still don’t get it. I see it, I think I get the concept, but I just flat-out don’t understand it.

If Manning was right, I don’t have to.

Even if I don’t understand grace, but I can love my neighbor regardless of our differences, do I really need to understand it? Grace is executed, not learned.

My kids protested watching “Les Miserables,” and I don’t blame them. It’s a musical, which should naturally send them fleeing with excuses. But Carson is a history buff, and Gabbers is a performer.

They were enraptured by the film, asking us all sorts of questions, like: Why was Jean Valjean in prison for such a puny crime?

And all through the film, I kept seeing Manning’s message. But it was so mechanical to me. Jean Valjean was heroic grace, rescued and then imbued with grace and then a dispenser of grace.

His grace was so mechanical that Javert killed himself, because like staring at the sun, he couldn’t look grace in the face.

But it’s beautiful nonetheless. Because we don’t have that many artistic portraits of grace.

Is it because we don’t understand it? Our human interpretations can be flat or even heretical. Take Martin Luther for instance. Take “Les Miserables” for instance.

Even Manning could only present a one-sided image of grace. That of a disgraced alcoholic priest who was ultimately forgiven and accepted for who he was. And in this way he learned to accept himself. It wasn’t grace that he understood, it was grace that allowed him to accept himself.

Yes, the concept is good. And proof of concept is essential.

But that is where grace eludes us.

For in the human context I think it is unknowable.

And I’m a believer in science and in evolution.

Where does science explain grace?

Of all that is spiritual, of all that is heavenly and ethereal. Of all that is unknowable, grace is king.

Manning laid it out there for me. “Les Miserables” displayed it as art. Luther set the bar.

And they were all just going off an affable old character who in spite of being maligned by history, discarded, disbelieved, cast out and accused of being made up, first modeled grace for us.

They called him Jesus.

Hemingway’s cats have become a federal case. The famous writer’s now-famous polydactyl cats, which descended from a cat that was a gift from a ship’s captains, have overrun the writer’s former house turned museum in Key West. Now a complaint has led to a lawsuit and the federal government’s say in how the animals are cared for. 

Read the story here

“Who’s murdering the vets?” –

After a terrible hurricane ripped through the Florida Keys on Labor Day 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote a scathing first-hand report called “Who murdered the Vets?” for the left-leaning New Masses magazine. 

In an unrepentantly hostile tone, Papa tore into the wealth and establishment of Washington like a storm through flat land. 

This was Roosevelt’s Katrina moment or perhaps Katrina was Bush’s Labor Day Hurricane moment. Either way, both men were chastised as the faces of government, to put it lightly, for their perceived failures in dealing with the storm. 

FDR’s New Deal put World War I veterans to work. They built highways, monuments, national parks and buildings. 

These men who returned from the worst war the world had ever seen to one of the most prosperous times America had known, would eventually witness the Great Depression. 

The journey from the fog of war to life as usual is not as clear of obstacles as we like to think. And when hundreds of veterans found themselves working along the Florida Keys during the summer of 1935, they were likely grateful for the work. Never mind that it was hurricane season. 

Hemingway pointed out that the rich and wealthy from the north east did not venture to the waters off Florida during hurricane season. It was a well-known danger. 

But these men who had survived the mustard gas and mortar fire in the dirt and mud of Europe were right in the sights of the most powerful hurricane ever recored, a category 5 monstrosity that bore down, perhaps, like the threat of a heretofore unknown weapon. 

And Hemingway fitted official Washington with the name of assassins for their role in putting these men at such risk when they themselves would not test it. 

But this is not my full point. 

Over the last 8 years, I have written many stories about veterans.

I interviewed a 110-year-old World War I veteran in Portland, Oregon, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, and many, many men and women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, Germany and points all over the globe.

I have read Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried” so many times I’ve lost count. 

I watched a friend’s father, a veteran, waste away under the care of the VA. I have also seen another friend’s father, also a vet, flourish under the new-found care of the VA. 

I see my own father-in-law, also a veteran, getting good care now. It has not always been that way. 

I’ve written stories about native American warriors who understand battle at a cellular level in a way I never will. 

And as a child in Sunday School, I read stories about David and his Mighty Men and how they ventured out to war every spring, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And how battle was as much a part of manhood as heavy lifting, animal husbandry or viticulture. 

I have rarely questioned the war. But I have always questioned the results. 

After World War II, after men had now witnessed the most brutal warfare the world had as yet known. After men dropped space-age weapons on Japan. After we raised the stakes of warfare to brink of worldwide annihilation, these men came home and helped rebuild a country still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. 

But in every small town newspaper, some reporter was questioning the facts in brutal domestic crimes, and acts of domestic abuse were covered over and hushed up in the buttoned-down 50s. 

Post traumatic stress disorder was alive and well, it just hadn’t been named yet. 

PTSD has been around since warfare was invented. Since Cain killed Abel. 

Military service is not a common thing in our family. At least not American military service. My grandfather allegedly fought for several entities during a massive cross-continental trip from Ukraine to China. He was a conscript in the classic sense. 

My father missed out on Vietnam, as did his brothers. But their friends did not.

I missed out on Iraq by a few months and the fact that I did not attain my high school diploma in time to attend basic training.

My father-in-law is a veteran. And though he won’t say much about his experiences, you can read about them in creases on his face and the look in his eyes and the way he pauses sometimes before he speaks.

I’ve always hoped to get him to tell me his stories so I can tell my children. Because the most painful stories can bring the most healing.

One veteran in particular taught me this. I met him in Montana when he came home from the war in Iraq.

His stories had a profound impact on me and showed me the war in ways I had never seen it before. And even as the tones of stories about the war had ceased to shock and horrify and merely added to the numbness at that point. His words cut into me deeply. 

Hemingway once called out the most powerful people in America for their failure to the veterans, those 265 veterans who died on Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. His article, arguably the rantings of an angry, privileged and famous artist, stirred up public debate about the ineffectualness of government and class warfare. 

And today we have Sean Penn, Tim O’Brian and hoards of famous people willing to speak out against this or that or for this or that. 

What we do not have is dialogue with and about our veterans. We welcome them home with open arms, and every November 11, we say thank you collectively. 

But we do not seek to understand them or what they’ve been through. For most of us, war is achieved in other theaters that might as well be a parallel universe. 

We read the articles about the men who are lashing out against enemies unseen to the rest of us. We see our police forces filling up with newly returned veterans who have no idea that the adrenaline injecting experiences they are seeking are a direct result of driving roads filled with IEDs and seeing mortar tubes behind every rock and gunfire erupting from every building. 

And while I’m grateful for the veterans I know and do not know and have never known, sometimes I feel that the words thank you are not enough. 

After re-reading Hemingway’s New Masses article, I wonder why we don’t have others crying out at the catastrophic failure of our government to truly care for its increasingly technical and yet still very human military post war? 

Thank you may not be enough. But from a grateful nation, sometimes it’s the only thing we can utter as we seek to understand your sacrifice and apply it meaningfully to our lives. 


Hemingway on killing cats

Hemingway on killing cats