Columbia River Reader, January 2009
November. The lobby of the Cannery Pier Hotel. Astoria. I was drinking coffee, watching cargo ships slide across the large windows that framed the riverscape.
A guy came in wearing a Hemingway t-shirt, the one with Ernie in his 50s, sporting a gray beard and big smile, his cap cocked jauntily to the side.
I said I liked the shirt.
The guy introduced himself. Tony from Portland. German accent. Tony didn’t have the cap, but he could have done a passable Hemingway imitation. Full gray beard. Blue eyes. High, round cheekbones. Might need a little collagen to flesh out the lips if he hoped to make headway in the annual Hemingway Look-Alike contest at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida, but he had potential. He was with a woman. Not Marlene Dietrich.
I said I’d taught American Literature for many years and that Hemingway was one of my favorite writers. That’s when Tony said he’d met Hemingway in Pamplona, Spain, in 1960, and six degrees of separation were sliced in half.
Tony said he’d run with the bulls one morning and attended the bullfights in the late afternoon. “I scorched in the sun in the arena’s cheap ‘sol’ section, while Hemingway drew the matadors’ attention on the shaded side.”
The next morning, Tony was strolling in the plaza when he saw Hemingway drinking coffee and writing at an outdoor table. “I nodded in salute,” Tony said. “He nodded back with a grin.”
I’ve always admired Hemingway – less for the mythical tales of machismo that surround his life than for his writing. I’ve never read a better first line than the one that opens “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”:
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
I’ve never been to Paris, but I felt like I was there when I read A Moveable Feast. Hemingway established for himself – and for every writer who followed – a heavy burden: to create with words images so precise that they would make the reader not only see, but also feel, what the character was experiencing.
Hemingway was also one of the first American writers who treated prose like poetry in terms of economy. He was as brutal with his words as he was with his friends.
Just a nod, but I was impressed – until my inner skeptic took hold. To coin a phrase popularized by Papa himself, my built-in bullshit detector suddenly went off like a manic car alarm, and I began to wonder if Tony was having a joke at my expense.
I gave Tony my card, told him to get in touch. Two weeks later, a letter arrived. Turns out Tony Farrenkopf is a pretty interesting guy in his own right. He grew up in Hanover, Germany, during World War II. His father was a German officer. The family home was bombed into rubble. They moved to Hamburg and survived the firebombings there. Survived again on a train near Dortmund when they were strafed by Allied planes.
Tony’s father was captured and interned near Remagen. “He didn’t tell many stories of the war,” Tony wrote. “He buried them in the dirt, along with his medals.”
Tony immigrated to the U.S., became an American citizen, served in the U.S. Army as a medic and platoon sergeant in Vietnam.
When I Googled for additional information, I discovered that Tony has a Ph D. and a national reputation as a clinical and forensic psychologist. He’s conducted seminars and interviews on everything from addictions and crime-and-violence to death-with-dignity and Tonya Harding. He also serves as a “disaster mental health volunteer” for the American Red Cross.
Maybe he could have helped Hemingway near the end, when the self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head was taking shape like the plot of a story not fully formed.
Since retiring from teaching in 2002, I’ve written about people in more than 150 features, press releases, and website bios. I’ve stumbled across the stories of a woman whose dream of a nursery specializing in perennials came to her in a vision induced by cold medicine; a man who was a gunner aboard a PT boat sent on a suicide mission at the Battle of Surigao during World War II; and a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who can overhaul transmissions and troubleshoot computers, but can’t tie his shoes.
The details vary, but in most cases the articles turn, as if of their own volition, to a central theme, one that was dear to Hemingway’s heart – the ability of everyday people to confront adversity with remarkable dignity.
Meeting Tony Farrenkopf, who once met Ernest Hemingway, simply reinforced my belief that everyone has a story worth telling.