Hunting Hemingway (Selections)

by Ron Arias on March 12, 2009 - 16 comments


Hunting Hemingway and Other True Stories

[from a book in progress]

By Ron Arias

Yarima

Her name is Yarima, she’s 19 and she’s from the Yanomamo, a jungle tribe in southern Venezuela. Ken Good, the American anthropologist who brought her out of the forest, tells me their story at his parents’ home in Philadelphia.

He says he lived with Yarima and her group of naked, Stone Age people on and off for 12 years, studying how and what they hunt and gather for food. Early during his stay with them their headman pressured Ken into taking Yarima, then nine years old, as his bride.

“I laughed,” he says, “then figured when I leave, our so-called marriage would dissolve, which is what happens to most of their child-bride relationships.”

But Ken stayed, six years passed, and he says he fell in love with her. When Yarima was 18 she became pregnant and that’s when he decided to bring her to Philadelphia. She could give birth in a hospital under safe conditions, not in the water by a river bank, as they do in the jungle. “They don’t even name them until they’re three,” he explains,”because most don’t make it that far.”

I watch a morose Yarima standing by the heating duct cradling her baby boy, David. She’s short and stocky, wearing jeans and a quilted jacket over her blouse.

Ken shows me a photograph he took of her when she was 15 and slender. It’s a head shot and she’s looking off to one side, pensive and beautifully exotic. Three white sticks the length of short drinking straws protrude from around her lower lip, and another, longer stick passes through her nose. Her face is decorated with lines and dots, white buzzard’s down covers her short hair, a flower dangles below one ear, and a necklace of tiny beads hangs from her neck.

“The Yanomamo live naked their whole lives,” he says. “When I first took her out of the jungle, it was a constant struggle to get her to keep her clothes on. If I turned my back on her or left her alone, off they’d come. One time I had to chase her down the street to cover her up.”

Since Yarima speaks only Yanomamo, I must hear from her through him. While the baby naps in his crib, she sits before me, I ask questions that he translates, and back come words of fear and wonder. Leaving her people and going down-river to a jungle town in Venezuela, she ran from the first car she saw. She hid in the bushes.

“The beast with two eyes made a loud noise and I was sure it was going to bite me,” she says. “Then Kenny found me and said not to be afraid, that the animal was a machine that runs on the ground. He said the nabuh get into it and it takes them places, the way a boat takes us places in the water.”

She calls non-Yanomano people nabuh, or outsiders, and most of their things scared her at first. She thought toilets swallowed people, airplanes were monstrous birds, and sirens sounded like nabuh crying for help.

“I was a little girl when I first saw Kenny,” she continues, with Ken translating. “I had never seen a nabuh before, and we all pulled the black hair on his face, laughed at his white skin and wondered why his body was so long.”

She says the first time they stayed in a hotel, “Kenny showed me how the nabuh make light by moving a little stick on the wall, and how they sleep on a big, soft box, and how they look into a shiny window to see themselves.

“Does she get lonely?” I ask, and he answers brightly, “Oh, she’s okay. I gave her all these tapes I recorded. They’re of her people, voices and the sounds of the jungle. That makes her happy.”

“Can you ask her?” He says something to her, she answers with a nod, and he says, “She’s fine.” But I see no joy in her face, and I’m feeling uneasy because we’re talking about her as if she were an object or pet from another time. I wonder if she’s traumatized from being yanked from her world into ours.

Before I leave I watch Yarima haul out a big plastic bag full of the tape cassettes. She pulls one out, sticks it into the small, portable player, and adjusts her headset. Soon she is smiling, humming, walking back and forth from the kitchen to the bedroom. “She’ll do that all day,” Ken observes. “She’s back in the jungle.”

I finish my notes and ask him to tell her I’m leaving. She wants to go outside with me. It’s cold and overcast. I say goodbye to Ken at the door because he’s just wearing socks. But Yarima clomps ahead in her black military boots, the only footwear they could find that fits her wide, splayed feet, which are perfectly suited for a barefoot life in the Amazonian forest.

As she walks me to my car in the driveway it begins to snow for the first time this winter. Suddenly, she stops and turns her face to the sky in amazement. I hold out my arms and catch the heavy, wet flakes in my hands, and Yarima imitates me. Then we smear it on our faces, catch some more and lick it from our palms before it melts. It’s a nabuh surprise and both of us are laughing.


Potholes

Charles Bonnay and I have just finished breakfast and are sitting in our hotel lobby in San Salvador when we hear the gunfire. It lasts about a minute in automatic blasts and it sounds close. As soon as it stops, Charles grabs his camera bag and we both rush out the front door.

Outside we hear from people on the street that the shots came from near El Salvador’s presidential palace. So I run over to where a taxi driver is leaning against a battered old Chrysler and tell him we want to go where the shooting came from. He laughs, shakes his head, and with one finger gestures no.

“I’ll pay you five times what you were going to charge me,” I say and he laughs again and then tells us to get in. Once we’re on our way Charles says the shooting probably came from cops going after bad guys. I say it could just as easily be soldiers and guerrillas shooting at each other.

We hear sirens and the street up ahead looks blocked with traffic, so the driver, Javier, turns up a side street. Before we get too near the palace, I tell Javier to park and wait for us. Charles pays the fare and we hustle up to the corner and head down the block toward a cluster of people milling around in front of a house that faces the palace wall.

We find out that a 62-year-old woman named Rosa Beltrán was mopping the floor in her kitchen when a single bullet came through an open window and killed her. Police in a van had been chasing a thief. When they began shooting, soldiers in a lookout post on the wall thought they were under attack by rebels, so they opened fire. The thief was also killed and ten others were wounded.

Before investigators arrive, I go around to the side of the house and peek in the kitchen and see the body and the blood that’s trickled out through the doorway. Everyone is respectfully grim. Rosa, a street vendor of candies, pastries and cigarettes, was liked by her neighbors. One of them tells me Rosa’s ten-year-old grandson, who was in the house during the shooting, has run off to get his father.

Charles moves around with a camera shooting the crowd and then some of the men as they carry Rosa’s body on a stretcher out to the coroner’s van.

“Sad story,” Charles says, “but I still don’t have the picture.” I know what he means–the picture that will say it all–and right now all he has are pictures of a dead body. So we’re off to the morgue to see what else happens. Maybe we’ll meet the family. Maybe they’ll hold a wake.

I’ve only just met Charles, who was hired to shoot this story with me because he was in the country, available, and good. He’s French, about ten years older than I am, lean and rangy. My editor told me Charles used to work for Life, Time and other publications, starting in the early 1950s when he went off to photograph French soldiers at Dien Bien Phu. He covered at least a half-dozen other wars but then he dropped out of the business to go live in Tahiti. The story we’re doing now is his first wartime shoot in about ten years.

At the morgue we find out that Rosa Beltrán has already been taken to her hometown near Usulután, which is halfway across the country. Javier says normally it’s a two-hour drive, but now that a few bridges have been blown up by rebels, it’ll take longer. We may have to ford rivers and also the highway’s full of potholes from exploding shells and grenades.

Charles is eager to go and I think it’s worth a try, but Javier, who’s in his 40s and has five kids, wants a lot of money to risk such a trip. “Okay,” I say, “but we go now.”

After a gas stop, we leave the fringes of the capital, bumping alongside the rich green slopes of the volcano that overlooks the city. It’s just after 10 a.m. and Javier predicts we’ll be in Usulután for a late lunch.

An hour later I see the first of the big potholes. So far, the wreck Javier has been driving has held together going over the usual holes, cracks, humps and rippled washboard sections in the asphalt. Now he accelerates, pushing the Chrysler with its four bald tires to its top speed. When we hit the first of the whopper potholes, there’s a loud thud and everything shakes. I’m in the back seat and Charles, up front, is laughing.

Wham! Another shuddering bang. Charles laughs again. I’m sure the springs and shock absorbers are wasted because the sharp thunks rocket up my spine, blasting my skull. Before I can suggest to Javier that he avoid the potholes instead of driving straight into them, he gleefully announces, “The faster you go, the less you feel!” Charles agrees, explaining to me that it’s worse if you hit the potholes at slow speeds. The idea is to skim over them as much as possible.

We hit more holes and the only time we slow down is to go around two blown-up bridges and drive over shallow, rocky parts of the river beds. One time we have to get out and wade across while the car is pulled up out of the water with a winch attached to a tree. I figure the water has flooded something in the engine and we’ll never get the thing started. But at the top of the river bank the car starts without problems and we’re on our way.

Passing between sugar cane fields, Javier tells us we’re in an area held by rebels. “Sometimes they stop people,” he says matter-of-factly, “or they just shoot from the fields.”

I look at the tall stands of green sugarcane on both sides of the highway, and Charles says, “They see you but you don’t see them.”

I’ve got a bad feeling about this trip and Charles doesn’t help my mood. He keeps up the scare talk, telling me that the guerrillas often shoot first and ask questions later. I start talking non-stop about any trivia that enters my mind–the cane harvest, food, rebel casualties, the weather, anything to get through this last stretch to Usulután. All this time we’re hitting potholes that punctuate my babbling.

Charles turns around and faces me. “Shut up, please,” he says. “Really, if you get shot, you won’t know it.”

I’m pissed at what he’s saying but I’m scared enough to stay quiet and hang on. Finally, after about twenty minutes of silence–during which I’m waiting for a tire to blow or one of us to be shot–I see the town in the distance.

“Sorry about that,” Charles says.

“About what?”

“Talking to you like that.”

“Forget it,” I say, though I’m still shaken and angry. But Charles won’t let it go and now he’s talking too much. In the end I don’t mind because in a rush of words he tells me he’s dying of acute leukemia, has only months to go, and while he’s still able to work he wants to shoot more stories about people in war, people in the heart of war, soldiers and people like the grandmother who was just mopping her kitchen floor. He goes on about living and dying, and I tell him I get it, I understand, and then he settles down.

Months later, as he said he would, Charles dies. I hear about it in New York and all I can think of is that afternoon when we were cruising into Usulután. Javier got us there in time for lunch, Charles shot the picture he wanted at the wake, and the two of them were right about the potholes–the faster you go the less you feel them.


Hunting Hemingway

The English couple who picked me up outside Zaragoza say they’re going to Pamplona to find Ernest Hemingway.

“He brought us to Spain,” the woman says. “We’re here because of him.”

“What she means is bullfights,” the man says. “Hemingway’s the master on bullfights. We heard he was going to be in Pamplona for the fiesta, so we came on over.”

“From Barcelona,” the woman explains.

“We want to thank him for–

“”The corridas,” the man says, “They make us feel alive.”

“Or just awful,” she adds, “if the thing’s not done right.”

“Meaning the kill,” he says. “You know, it’s all in the thrust . . .”

I listen to the two of them go on about bullfighting. They sound so cheerful and they don’t seem to mind cutting each other off. And they laugh a lot. I’m just happy they picked me up. I could still be out on the highway trying to hitch a ride if they hadn’t stopped.

The back seat of their Citroën sedan is comfortable and warm and I’m starting to doze off. They don’t seem to notice. They’re not even talking to me, so I don’t have to speak. I just close my eyes and pretend to listen.

“Hello! We’re here!” It’s the man’s voice. “Pamplona!”

I look out the window and see that we’re stopped at a gas station, which I figure is my cue to leave.

I thank them for the ride and open the door, pulling my backpack and rolled-up sleeping bag after me. We trade goodbyes and I wish them luck in finding Hemingway. They laugh and I move out to the street in search of a place to stay.

It’s late afternoon and I check my guidebook. It lists a cheap shelter run by the Catholic Church. All through France and into Spain, I stayed in campgrounds, hostels and even under trees. I’ve never spent the night in a shelter for the poor. But I’m down to living on a few dollars a day, so the shelter, which will also feed me for free, sounds good.

By the time I get there, it’s dark. The nun who opens the little peep door tells me I’m lucky–they still have some empty cots. She lets me in and I follow her to a stairwell that leads down to the basement dormitory. I smell garlic and then two unshaven men walk by us and start down the stairs.

One of them says, “Good evening, sister,” and she replies, “Gentlemen, may God bless you.” When I hear this in Spanish, it sounds so formal–Caballeros, que dios les bendiga–and the grungy pair hardly look like gentlemen. But I’m thinking that she is a “sister of mercy” and the mission of the order is to treat everyone, especially derelicts, with respect and compassion.

The nun, who is small and dressed in a brown habit, informs me that if I follow those men to the dormitory, I can use the empty bed on the left-hand side. She also tells me that dinner is still being served in the cafeteria, that drinking alcohol is forbidden, and that curfew is at nine, no exceptions. “Bad luck if you’re not inside by then,” she says in an incongruously sweet voice. “Doors are locked until morning.”

She leaves and I carry my pack downstairs. The dormitory is a long room with about two dozen wood-frame cots on each side. I find my spot and sit down on the canvas next to a folded blanket, a clump of sheets and a lumpy pillow.

Looking around, I see men sitting or stretched out on their cots. Some have gray beards and not all look poor.

I need to piss but I’m wondering whether or not to leave my backpack behind to go use the restroom.

“I’ll watch your things,” says a deep voice behind me. It’s the bald man two beds away gesturing with a hand toward the restroom. “Go. They’re safe with me.”

When I return, he says I should go eat and not to worry about my stuff.

Later, after filling myself on potato and cabbage stew, I meet another neighbor, Francisco, who’s in Pamplona to run with the bulls in the morning. He tells me he’s a bookkeeper in Madrid and the run is the one wild thing he does every year. No wife, no kids–”just me and fate,” he says.

Our talk trails off and Francisco falls asleep. The dimly lit room slowly fills with a chorus of wheezy breaths, snoring, and grumbles about not being able to smoke or drink.

“God gave us wine for a reason,” someone mutters. As I fade, I hear drunken voices from the street.

I wake up about eight in the morning. Many of the men, including Francisco, have already left to do the run. But my bald neighbor is still here. He’s coming from the restroom, holding a toothbrush. When we get to talking again, I find out he’s not here for the bulls or the bullfights. “I’m here to find Ernesto,” he says.

“Ernesto?”

“The writer, Ernesto Hemingway.”

“Ah, of course, Ernesto.”

“Have you read his books?”

“Only two,” I answer. “The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea.”

He waves his paperback copy of Siempre sale el sol and says yesterday’s newspaper has a story about Hemingway visiting Pamplona. He wants me to help him find the author, but I tell him I’m not interested and that I’m not a big Hemingway fan. Maybe I will be someday when I’ve read more of his books. The two I read were assignments in high school. And I saw the movie of The Sun Also Rises.That’s really why I came here.

It was never my intention to go hunting for Hemingway, but now that I’m in the plaza where lot of the fiesta crowd is, I might as well. I can’t afford a ticket for the afternoon bullfight and I have nothing better to do. I’ve left my pack with the sisters at the shelter office, promising to stay one more night.

I walk over to where tourists and locals are gathering on the shady side of the square. Many of the men are wearing white shirts, trousers, red neckerchiefs and berets. It’s only about eleven but it looks as if the party started hours ago. People are singing and drinking wine from leather botas, holding them up and trying to aim tiny streams into their mouths. I hear someone say it was a great run–only a few guys were sent to the hospital and there were no deaths.

An old man wearing a black beret hands me a flier announcing the lineup of matadores for the afternoon bullfight. At the top of the flier are the words SAN FERMIN DE 1959. Below that, in pink script, is the line Recuerdo de las FIESTAS, and in the center is an illustration of two bulls chasing two men.

I fold the flier, put it in my shirt pocket and move on. Now and then I hear people talking about Hemingway, that they saw him yesterday, that they’ll be the first to spot him today. But the hunters can’t be that serious because after only about twenty minutes of wandering around, I see a broad figure with a short white beard seated at one end of a long, wooden picnic table set out in front of a restaurant on the sunny side of the plaza. A billed cap shades his face and he’s seated with two men and a woman. From what I can see, he fits the image I had of him.

I approach, flier in hand, until I’m standing by the table in front of him. “Excuse me, Mr. Hemingway,” I say. “Could I get your autograph?”

He looks at me through tinted glasses. The others next to him keep talking but he’s just staring, maybe annoyed that I’m intruding, maybe sizing me up. I can’t tell, and I’m thinking maybe I have the wrong man.

Finally, he smiles. “Want some wine?”

“Sure,” I blurt.

Then he excuses himself from his friends, stands and moves to the other end of the table. We sit opposite each other on benches. He had brought along a bottle and his glass, and now a waiter brings me a glass.

He pours, we drink, and then he signs my flier. I look around, expecting others to ask him for an autograph, but no one appears to notice him. The crowd’s probably still buzzing over this morning’s run and now the wine’s taken over, with men thinking they’re Tyrone Power and the women, Ava Gardner.

“What’s your name?” Hemingway asks.

I tell him and then he wants to know where I’m from. I keep answering and he doesn’t stop asking questions. Who are my parents? Are they Mexican, Spanish or what?

How old am I? What am I doing in Spain? How’s the hitchhiking? Who’ve I met along the way? What do I read? What do I write? Got a girlfriend? Am I religious? What do I want to do in life?

I don’t mind the interrogation. But why is he so interested in me? I just want his autograph.

He asks about the shelter where I’m staying and more about the English couple who intend to find him. Finally, he pauses and I ask what he thinks of Pamplona and the fiesta today, compared to what it was like in the 1920s.

“Hell of a difference,” he says. “Not so many damned tourists.” He puts his elbows on the table and leans forward. He remembers San Fermín as a simple country fair with truckloads of people from the Basque countryside all around coming in for the big party. Everything was simpler, not with hordes of tourists. “What’s happening is sad,” he says, “but I blame myself. I had something to do with it.”

I finish my glass of red, wanting to stay longer but I don’t know what to say. How does he write? Where does he get his ideas? Stupid questions. I wish I knew more. I keep thinking he’ll be recognized, that people around us will also want his autograph. But no one approaches. And then he reaches out to me and we shake hands. I thank him for the wine and stand up. He remains seated, smiling, keeping me in sight while I back away.

“The writing,” he calls out. “Keep at it.”

People move in front of me and Ernesto is gone.


Snakes

It’s 4:40 a.m. in Managua and I’m shivering. I’m waiting in the entryway of the place where I’m staying, waiting for someone to pick me up and take me to interview the country’s young leader, Daniel Ortega. All I’m told is to be ready to run.

I’m wearing sneakers, t-shirt and shorts, and I have a small tape recorder, notebook and pen. Outside it’s dark and except for a few distant dog barks and rooster crows, very quiet.

At 5:04 a roofless military Jeep arrives to pick me up. I climb in, glad that it’s finally going to happen. After more than a week of asking for time with Ortega, I’m getting my hour with the man who’s at the moment defying Ronald Reagan and the Contras. Unfortunately, I’ll be doing the interview literally on the run.

The two armed soldiers–one beside me and the other in front–say nothing, but the driver tells me to hang on. As the Jeep moves forward, I grab a handhold at my side and focus on the dog in the headlights crossing the street. We bounce along more empty streets, through the city, and then go about five miles on a highway until we reach the rendezvous place, once a private golf resort now owned by the state.

We drive up ont one of the fairways, where the young driver tells me to hop out. Now that the sky has brightened, I can see the serious faces of the soldiers. “Get ready,” one of them says. “Here he comes.”

I nod and jump down. I’m not cold anymore.

Just then another Jeep appears alongside us, and I see Harry, the photographer on assignment with me, sitting in the back. We trade good mornings and then suddenly Ortega jogs into view. He’s accompanied by seven big men in running sweats, all carrying Kalishnikovs. Next to these guys, the comandante, who’s wearing a shirt and shorts, looks small. He hurriedly shakes my hand, barely slowing his stride. “Let’s go,” he tells me in Spanish.

As we trot up an inclined fairway, behind the Jeep with Harry in the back, I ask him how often he jogs. I’m holding up the tape recorder so that it’s only a few feet from his face. The soldiers have moved to the sides or dropped back in order to be out of Harry’s photos.

“Whenever I can,” he says. “Sometimes every day. . . .”

“How far?”

“About four or five miles,” he answers. “You too, I see.” He seems pleased I can handle the pace.

“I try.”

I’m about to ask another question when Harry, who’s hunkered down facing us in the rear of the Jeep, starts yelling at me. He’s looking into one of his cameras and telling me to get out of his picture, to move away. He’s a cantankerous Scotsman and he’s cussing up a storm. We need pictures, so I veer to the right and into the weedy, tall grass, trying my best to keep up and not trip.

“Get out of there!” Ortega shouts, waving his arm for me to leave the rough. “Poisonous snakes!” All this is in Spanish, which Harry doesn’t understand.

I move out of the weeds and run back to Ortega. But before I can ask another question, Harry’s hollering at me again. So I return to the rough, thinking he’ll snap a few more shots and then I’ll be able to resume the questions.

But Ortega shouts at me again, warning of snakes. I run back onto the fairway, trying my best to stay out of Harry’s picture-taking.

Ortega waves me in closer. “Go ahead, ask questions,” he says, maybe enjoying the little tug of war with Harry.

Over the next hour or so we run up and down at least fifteen fairways. I’m near exhaustion, though still asking questions in breathless spurts. I see Ortega’s tiring too because his answers are getting shorter.

Before the end, I’ve had it with Harry. I tell him where he can stick his camera, and I stay close to Ortega, squeezing in as many questions as I can.

When we stop running, we’re both soaked. So are the men with the Kalishnikovs. But once we all catch our breath, we’re all smiles, relaxed and not so stiff and military.

Harry’s come up with another photo possibility: Ortega with a Mets baseball cap and tee-shirt, which we’d brought with us from New York.

Ortega’s a major league baseball fan. He immediately sheds his wet shirt and slips on the new one. Then he puts on the cap.

Harry asks if he can take photos of him seated cross-legged in the rough, head and shoulders above the weeds.

“Very well,” Ortega says and eagerly moves to where Harry indicates. I look at the soldiers. They’re amused and a few are chuckling and making attaboy comments. No one seems to be worried about the snakes.


Hailstones

I’m standing in full sunlight in the desert of Western Australia, waiting for a ride. The air is hot and still and aside from bird calls, it’s quiet and nothing much moves except the flies and my hand waving them away from my face. All around me the land is flat, covered by a sea of scrub brush and small, spindly trees. To the west on the horizon are dark clouds I’ve been watching crawl over a range of craggy-peaked mountains.

Finally a car going north slows to a stop in the middle of the highway. I jog up to the passenger-side of the dusty old Ford–on the left in Australia–and open the door. The young man behind the wheel greets me with a cheerful, “Scoot in, mate.”

Holding my backpack in front of me, I start to get in but the seat is covered with plastic coat hangers, wrinkled clothes and a water jug. The floor on my side is also crammed with books, newspapers, beer bottles and flip-flop sandals.

“Toss that in back,” he says, waving at the flies.

Twice I gather things in my arms and shove and squeeze them onto a mound of his belongings that reaches the roof–a tv set, more clothes, curtain rods, a folding chair, shoes, boots, and a cardboard box with pots and dishes. I can see all this because I’m searching for where I can fit my backpack, which he’s telling me to cram on top of everything.

I manage to wedge it in, nudge aside the bottles and books at my feet, then sit down. The windows are open and there’s a faint smell of smoked cigarettes and flowery air freshener. Once the car gets moving and the wind starts up, the flies blow away and we can talk without the hand waving.

Hugh, my desert rescuer, tells me he’s a heavy machine operator and intends to look for work at the gold mine near Meekatharra. Divorced and unemployed, he’s hoping for a new start.

I tell him I’m going to the same place. I’m a journalist, missed my flight to Meekatharra and have to interview a man there tomorrow morning. He’s Aborigine and lost two sons while they were in police custody. One son died three years ago and the other just last week. Both were found hanging in their jail cells, the first by his belt, the second by a shoelace. They had been locked up for relatively minor offenses–one for being drunk and breaking into a store, and the other for beating his sister.

“Officially they’re suicides,” I say, “but the father blames the police.”

Hugh, whose scruffy blond beard, tank top and short pants brand him a typical figure in the Outback, shakes his head. “Poor buggers,” he says, and then tells me he grew up with Aborigines. “Some good, some bad. Just too bad the blokes can’t get jobs.”

We talk about the hangings and that police are almost never found at fault. “Not right,” Hugh says and repeats his “poor buggers” line.

Halfway to Meekatharra we stop at an emu farm advertised on the highway as the world’s largest. For a small fee we get to see thousands of the tall, wary birds that are raised, sold and slaughtered for their leather, meat and feathers. As I reach over the fence to touch a six-foot-tall male, I’m aware of one eyeball following my hand. Suddenly he springs away to join the others.

In the late afternoon, we watch spidery lightning bolts and backlit clouds racing toward Meekatharra, which means “place of little water” in the local language.

When we arrive the dark clouds have taken over, draping a heavy blanket of sodden air cut through with dustups that push around scraps of paper. Hugh drops me at a motel and drives on. I check into one of the bungalow rooms and just as I open the door to step inside, lightning cracks down in a blinding white flash. Startled, I turn to close the door but then stop to watch the first hailstones bounce off the street. The hail, lit by more strobe-like strikes of lightning, peppers the asphalt until the surface turns white. Now the stones are huge, some the size of golf balls, many as big as tennis-balls. They blast everything in sight. The ice bombs bash walls, dent cars, crack windshields, knock down signs. For a long while I watch the spectacle and listen to the crashing thunks on the metal roof several feet above my head.

By early morning the skies have cleared and the air feels clean and cool, with wisps of vapor rising off the asphalt. I step outside and smell the wet earth. No flies so far and all but the biggest hailstones are gone, leaving the muddy, reddish dirt around the motel looking like a farm that grows little, marble-size eggs out of the ground.

Meekatharra is a small collection of shops and houses, garages, junk lots, warehouses, gas stations, a school building, churches and several meeting halls. About a third of the 1500 people–so says my guide book–are Aborigines, most jobless and living on the dole.

After breakfast at the only open restaurant I find, I shoulder my backpack and walk two blocks to the address Leedham Cameron had given me when we talked by phone. His apartment in the two-story building is at ground level and close to the street.

He’s a large, handsome man with deep-set eyes and deep creases across his brow. He shows me into a sparsely furnished room with a kitchen at one end and a wide bed at the other. I meet his wife Elvie, a plump, smiling woman who’s sitting on the bed brushing the hair of their granddaughter Patricia. She’s six and her cinnamon brown skin contrasts with the much darker skin of her grandparents.

Leedham and I sit at a table and I begin my questions, scribbling facts and quotes. He’s a 50-year-old man, a champion of Aboriginal land rights, an activist who wants the government to train Aborigines in skills that will get them jobs and self-respect.

“My sons got into trouble because no one would give them a job,” he says. “Jobs are what Aboriginal people need–that and the right to walk the streets without being harassed by police.”

Leedham speaks gruffly in a restrained, straightforward manner. He must be exploding inside yet somehow has been able to stifle his anger. He blames whites for putting Aborigines on welfare and turning them into drunks and vagrants. He says when he was a child he was taken away from his parents and sent to a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school. At 13 he ran away to be with his parents, then began working in mines and cattle ranches.

I mention the older men and women I met on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. As children they were also forbidden to speak their language. They were sent away to white schools.

Leedham listens and barely nods.

Losing two sons would break most men, but from what I see and hear of Leedham during the interview, I wonder if the hurt is so deep that he’s put a wall around it. Elvie, though, confides that she “cries a lot for my boys.” Still sitting on the bed, she has finished brushing Patricia’s hair. The girl now watches her grandmother wipe away tears with the back of her hand.

“Come on,” Patricia says, taking Elvie’s free hand, “let’s go outside.”

Elvie stands and the two move toward the door, their flipflops scuffing the linoleum floor.

Eventually I end the interview, even though Leedham hasn’t expressed much emotion. I had hoped he would open up about his sons, give me something powerful to quote. But he didn’t and I’ve run out of time.

“I have to catch the plane to Perth,” I explain.

“Fine,” he says, frowning. “Off to the airport.”

At the door I pocket my notebook and slip on my backpack.

“Hold on, I can take you.”

“That’s okay. A taxi’s meeting me in front of the restaurant.”

“No worries then.”

I look at his bare feet and realize I should say goodbye now, inside the apartment. So I thank him for his time, tell him a photographer will be calling, and then open the door. But as I reach out to shake his hand, Leedham ignores the gesture. “I’m not bitter about what happened to my boys,” he announces. “I can handle bitter. I’ve been dealing with it my whole life. But there’s heaps of pain. Heaps.”

For a moment we’re both silent, then I blurt that years ago I lost a son after he was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk by the curb.

Leedham’s face relaxes. “So you know what I mean,” he says.

When I say nothing because I can’t, he talks about the storm and the lightning, going on about the big hailstones, the damage they did and how they’ve all melted and disappeared, leaving everything fresh and new. “Breathe, mate,” he says. “Good. Now go get that plane.”

16 comments so far ↓

  • 1 Reid Boates // Mar 13, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Ron, I’ve known your work for a lot of years now, and we’ve created several books together. I’ve always been attracted to this story of the Yanomamo. No simple stories for you!

  • 2 Gordon Hendler // Mar 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Ron, These are intriguing stories about extraordinary people you have been fortunate to meet, which are all the more remarkable for what they reveal about you. I cannot get them out of my head – and I would never want to! Thank you for sharing them.

  • 3 Bob Arias // Mar 14, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I am always proud of my youger brother…you are my favorite author hermano, your stories bring back so many memories of our childhood and nuestra abuela Mama Julia! Don’t stop, Bobby

  • 4 David Nuffer // Mar 14, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    The website is about my book on Hemingway, now self published. Charlie Ericksen told me of your book now taking place and I read your very good story of meeting the man himself. I was in Pamplona running with the bulls the very next year. I missed Hem. But I would not have had the nerve to ask him for an autograph anyway.

  • 5 Kurt Pitzer // Mar 15, 2009 at 7:59 am

    These deceptively simple stories encounter the Other in ways we’d never have imagined — from Yarima’s married life in Philadelphia to Harry Benson’s tantrums in Nicaragua. This is the magic of great reporting in the hands of a master (and they’re for anyone who ever put down a news story and thought, “I wish I could have seen what -really- happened.”) Like Kapuscinski’s, Ron’s work should be required reading not only for journalists but also for anyone who values moving through the world with curiosity, wonder and wit.

  • 6 Susan Hoskins // Mar 15, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I am a fan and am really glad to have these stories online. Keep up the good work!

  • 7 Barbara Butler // Mar 16, 2009 at 6:05 am

    I had just finished reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Sister Age when I received your e-mail (Sister Age is a collection of 14 stories on aging). Your pieces are like her stories in their simplicity, wit, insight and empathy. I’m so glad to have read them.

  • 8 E mily Bazar // Mar 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Ron, these are wonderful tales: The first, about Yarima, is haunting. Do you know whatever happened to her? And the story about jogging with Ortega is brilliant. “Poisonous snakes!” I like how Hailstones starts in one place and ends somewhere completely different, figuratively speaking. Bravo.

  • 9 Ron & Elaine Querry // Mar 17, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Fine writing and wonderful stories–eager to see more! Press on!

  • 10 ellen elgort // Mar 19, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Ron, thanks so much for sending me the stories. I especially enjoyed “Hailstones”. It was almost impossible to bear having a son in Iraq for the past 15 months. I am truly lucky! Send more…..ee

  • 11 Richard Erlanger // Mar 20, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Ron. You tell of your meeting with Hemingway and how interested he was about your life. From the moment we met you you had such interest in the people around you. Always curious. We’d be talking and you would be piecing together bits of our life. Fascinated about the littlest details. Like a born reporter. I guess you learned that from Ernesto.
    These are great stories. We can now piece together what you did all those times you went away with a passport and flack jacket in the trunk of your car.
    I missed the part about Yamina eating only McDonald’s french fries and hard-to-find tarantulas. And tasting the fruit in the supermarket. You leave great pictures in our minds.

  • 12 Alexis Chiu // Mar 21, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Your powers of observation and reportage are outdone only by your ability to distill and convey the beauty, humor and pain in what you’ve seen. Thank you for weaving together geography and history; the natural world and human nature; the famous and the anonymous; the mundane and the profound, all so seamlessly. You continue to be an inspiration for would-be writers like myself. Ernesto would be proud.

  • 13 Mary Huzinec // Mar 22, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Yes, dear friend, I’m so glad you followed “Ernesto’s” advice about writing – to “keep at it.”

    Such vivid adventures you’ve captured here.

    Yamina begs to be a screenplay – or at least a PBS doumentary. Of course it would be difficult to film the part about her constantly taking off her clothes!

  • 14 Carol Colfer // Mar 29, 2009 at 4:31 am

    ‘Yarima’ hit home, given my experiences in East Kalimantan with my son’s Dayak father. Like another commentator, I wonder what happened to her. And the concluding segment of ‘Hailstones’ powerfully brought back your John’s death for me.

  • 15 Karin Grant // Apr 1, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Dear Ron,
    You do know that I’d like to think of myself as your #1 fan but reading all the comments above I realize I had better take a double-digit number. I’ve read some of the above stories several times and each time I find a new, previously not noticed little gem, an idea, an expression. These stories move me on so many different levels. I just wish they’d go on and on. Don’t want them to end. I had not read “Hailstones” before and it is simply beautiful. So moving. Funny thing, I drove through Carlsbad earlier today and thought of you and your old mentor, William Weber Johnson. He (and Ernesto too) would be so very proud of you. Thanks for sharing.
    XoX

  • 16 Lorenzo Benet // Apr 2, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Ron,

    Moving stuff. Sobering experiences. I find myself speeding ahead to read the next line and then want a little bit more. Like dessert before dinner. Thanks for sharing such great material and wetting my appetite for more.

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