• 70°

SWINDLE COLUMN: Remembering the man from Oak Park

A child was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois who would later have a significant impact on the world.    

This morning, I had the opportunity to interview a most gracious man who is now 81 years old.  Gene was 18 when he met the man from Oak Park. The first time that Gene met him, the man from Oak Park was arriving in Fort Pierce with a boat full of fish. The man had been out to sea for days.

When he arrived, he would share his catch with friends, family, and an 18-year-old boy from Columbus, Georgia. The fish fry at sunset in the Caribbean must have been a sight to see.

By this time, the man was well into his 50’s and had survived more near-death experiences than anyone I have heard of. 

Gene was in Key West in search of silver that would oftentimes wash up on the beach. This silver came from Spanish treasure ships in the 1500’s when a ship would sink because of hurricanes, poor ship construction, and/or occasional combat.

Who was this man from Oak Park who appeared from the sea? 

He was an expert fisherman, big game hunter, and had the same interest as Gene, hunting treasure. During the early 1930s, he spent his winters in Key West and summers in Wyoming, where he found “the most beautiful country he had seen in the American West” and hunted deer, elk, and grizzly bear. 

However, his largest adventure occurred after seeing the green hills of Africa and hunting the Serengeti.

Before these events happened, his life would change in December 1917, after being rejected by the U.S. Army for poor eyesight, He responded to this disappointment by signing up for a Red Cross recruitment effort and signing on to be an ambulance driver in Italy. During WWI, the Italians switched sides and declared war on their long time enemy; Austria-Hungary, a German ally. In May 1918, he sailed from New York, and arrived in Paris as the city was under bombardment from German artillery.

The Italian military campaign provided material for his book, Green Hills of Africa, as well as for the short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

On July 8, he was seriously wounded by mortar fire. Despite his wounds, he assisted Italian soldiers to safety. He was still only 18 at the time. He later said of the incident: “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you.”

This statement would prove to be an ominous prediction. He would eventually die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His father, brother, and sister took their own lives as well. Despite this, he would be remembered as the greatest writer in the world.    

When 18-year-old Gene saw him, with his long-brimmed fishing hat, approach shore, he knew that there was something special and unique about him. 

But, he would not have envisioned the impact that Ernest Hemingway would have on the world.