BOWEN COLUMN: Lost in Yellowstone: Part 21

Published 10:30 am Saturday, October 30, 2021

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Stepping out on the trail to resume this journey, my mind went back as I walked.

When I was a boy, I would go regularly to the fire station that was down a hill by a vacant lot next to my white, modest wood-framed Juniper Street home. Sometimes I would go to buy cigarettes for my Uncle Bobby, my Daddy’s little brother, when he came over to visit our next-door neighbor, his in-laws. Bobby would give me a nickel for going, and I could buy two cookies or five pieces of bubble gum with that.

Sometimes Bobby’s sister-in-law, Faye, who still lived at home, would catch me outside playing and get me to go over to the station to buy her some B.C. powder and a Coke. She didn’t smoke, for sure, as she was one of the most virtuous women I ever knew. She was always a hero to me and my best friend Coca-Cola Mike as we grew up. She also gave me a dime, which made her even more virtuous. I walked away with twice the loot when I ran her errands. With that, I could jump on my bike and ride a mile down Juniper and buy one or two packs of baseball cards – and get the best gum in the world inside as a bonus. The firemen at the station knew me well, called me ‘Lucky Strike,’ my uncle’s brand of cigarettes. They also knew me because of other summertime visits. Since we did not have a TV – a luxury that did not come along until I hit double digits – I would also go to the station at noon during the summer. I remember barging in as though I owned the place, plopping down in the best recliner in their TV room, and watching the noon movie, called ‘Armchair Playhouse.’ Some details stay with you a lifetime.

One movie that stuck with me when I carried the title of ‘Lucky Strike’ was a movie about an unlucky old fisherman whose nickname in his poor Cuban village was ‘Salao’ – meaning the worst kind of bad luck. The old man, lamentably, had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. Of all the movies I watched during those years, this is the one I most remember. I was glued to the TV, mesmerized, by the old man’s tale of going out to sea on this fateful occasion and hooking a marlin. Ah, it was huge, bigger, he knew, than any fish any fisherman in his village had ever caught. But it was too big, too strong, and the fish carried the old man further and further out to sea, controlling him, possessing him, draining him of every ounce of energy the old man had in his body.

But, ah, the old man would not give up. His wilderness was the sea, his bear a fish. He fisticuffed with that fish day and night, a classic, epic battle between man and beast. The sun beat down on the old fisherman, too, becoming another nemesis, sucking any energy from him that the fish might have left.

Pulling and tug-a-warring with that marlin twisted his back until it stretched every muscle and ligament in his thin body. It was all he could do to hold on.

As a nine-year-old boy, that grand struggle made an impression, stayed with me through the years. I do not know when I realized what that story was, but I would in time. After enduring the hot, humid Houston sun bricklaying, and fisticuffing through a hundred college classes (it seemed) for the first decade of marriage beginning  in 1975, I knew how the old man felt in that movie that captivated me at that fire station back then.

But I had another sea just over the horizon as I set sail back in those days, beginning in 1984: in the front of an English classroom at North Shore in Houston. Late in the fall my first year, I remember it well, we had the chance to teach our first novel.And it is fitting — more than fitting — that the first novel I would teach was the most popular Hemingway novel, The Old Man and the Sea! It was the story I had immersed myself as a young boy, long, long ago.Along the way as he unravels this riveting tale, Mr. Hemingway makes an observation about the old man I will always carry with me. A man may be destroyed but not defeated, he had said; and at my first reading of the thought, it is as if it were etched in my mind. A man may be destroyed but not defeated. You can quote it, you can teach it, and you can live it.  I was living it here in the depths of Yellowstone.