In 1919, Ernest Hemingway and his friends drove into Boyne City and shot up the town with a captured military rifle…
and he bragged about it into his fifties.
One of America’s heroic icons did dumb stuff with guns – and he always lied about it. Yet, Hemingway’s legacy continues to shape our debate on guns and society.
In the summer of 1919, young Ernest Hemingway had returned to northern Michigan from World War I as a bonafide, recognized war hero. Prevented from serving in the trenches, he had volunteered as an ambulance driver. He was with a group of men when a mortar shell landed and he was hit by shrapnel; while heroically carrying a wounded soldier, he was struck by two machine gun bullets. He was in the hospital, underwent surgeries to remove the shrapnel and the bullets, and was just getting back on his feet when the war ended. Sent home with decorations to follow, he arrived first in New York, where he was met at the dock by a reporter who subsequently wrote about the young man’s courage under fire and the 227 shrapnel scars on his legs. Aside from his substantial physical wounds, biographers believe that he came home with some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they would call it today, to be expected in someone who had witnessed first-hand the horrors of that conflict, a teenager who had carried the dead and dying in and out of his ambulance. (In one particularly gruesome assignment, he and his friends picked up the dismembered bodies of women from burnt fields and barbed-wire fences; they had been blown up in an ammunition factory explosion.) He had returned to his family’s summer home in northern Michigan to heal in mind and body, and to go fishing as soon as possible. Biographer Carlos Baker describes this time in his book Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. (1)
He had been invited to speak about his war experiences and had risen to the challenge, delivering interesting and compelling accounts to students and other groups while displaying the shredded and blood-stained remnants of his uniform. Despite all of the well-deserved attention, he was lonely. He was deeply in love with Agnes Kurowsky, an American nurse serving in Italy whom he’d met in the hospital. But, back in March, she had written to him to tell him that she had fallen in love with an Italian count. He had taken it hard, and had become bitter, saying and writing some pretty nasty things, including a reference to ‘knocking her teeth out’; an unlikely event, but the sentiment was strong. She came back to him when the count’s family would not allow the marriage. He felt sorry for her while rejecting her out of hand, and no one had taken her place. He wasn’t getting along with his family, either – and while out of their presence and away from their judgement, he resumed smoking expensive Russian cigarettes and drinking as he had in Italy. He was on crutches, in pain, and still in need of medical attention; shrapnel wounds heal slowly, and sometimes buried shrapnel works its way to the surface. In June of 1919, he had visited the doctor in nearby Boyne City repeatedly to have his wounds treated.
He had also been using his recuperation to begin his writing career with short stories (which tended to be violent war tales). Speaking to rapt audiences, he had taken to embellishing his accounts – leading some to believe that he had lead troops into bloody and desperate battles, for example – and those harmless embellishments began to show up in his fiction. Unfortunately, the stories weren’t selling, and Hemingway needed to make a living. Between serious and painful war wounds, a broken heart, and a career that wasn’t getting any traction, the aspiring writer was in pretty bad shape. He knew that fishing the idyllic streams of his lost youth was the answer; he and his buddies had already enjoyed a successful trip to the Pine Barrens, in July. On the east side of Vanderbilt, the wilderness area featured three abundant trout streams – the Black River, the Pigeon, and the Sturgeon. They caught lots of fish and saw a lot of wildlife, including a bear. The trip provided inspiration and stories; Ernest was eager to go back, and as he began planning the trip, he encouraged fellow veteran Fever Jenkins to bring his Austrian carbine and plenty of shells, in case they encountered another bear.
The second trip was blessed with good weather; they rode in style in a borrowed Chalmers Master Six, a big touring car with the top down. There weren’t any bears but plenty of trout. They didn’t shave for a week, and after plenty of fishing, the evenings were spent around the campfire, smoking, drinking, eating fried fish and bacon while singing lusty songs. Heading back, they passed through Boyne Falls and then Boyne City.
“We went unshaven for a week or so,” wrote Larry (Barnett), “and started back one evening loaded down with tents and camping equipment. Passing through Boyne City, (Bill) Smith and Hemingway in the back thought it would good clean fun to shoot out the overhead street lights as we passed under them. This was done for perhaps five or six when we all decided it was not just prankish and we might get in trouble, so the shooting ceased and we sped homeward. A few miles later a motorcycle with siren came from behind and stopped us. The cop looked over the four unshaven, roughly dressed characters and timidly asked if we had seen a large touring car with four men, top down, loaded with equipment. This we denied and acted horrified to hear that such a car had recently passed through Boyne City with guns a-blazin’…. We assured him we would report any such car should we see it, and he returned eastward. Of course we fitted the description completely, but apparently the officer was a bit unnerved seeing such a rough crowd on that dark road – and alone.” Hemingway remembered this occasion, like the heron shooting episode (2), as one of his youthful tangles with the law. In his fifties, he was still boasting about having “shot up” the towns of Boyne Falls and Boyne City for no other reason than high spirits. He did not bother to explain that the shooting-up was nothing more than plugging half a dozen street lights from a passing car. (3)
For Hemingway scholars, it’s another example of his willingness to stretch the truth in service to a great story, and it’s a interesting story in and of itself. Oh, those boys and their guns and their high-spirited tomfoolery!
Can you imagine what would happen if someone came through Boyne City tonight and took out some street lights with a high-powered rifle? And it’s not an easy shot, by the way, from a moving vehicle – there will be misses, resulting in bullets that take a very high trajectory. Those bullets eventually come down pretty fast (what’s the terminal velocity of a .30 calibre bullet? Anyone?) and maybe they splash in the lake. Or, maybe one comes through the roof of my candominium and hits me in the throat… whatever happens with the misses and the ricochets, there would certainly be more than a single motorcycle officer as a first responder… and not a wave of the hand sending them on their way.
As a writer and an American icon, Hemingway continues to show us two extremes – stoic men who find grace under pressure, examples we would do well to follow. He also show us behaviors that good men should probably avoid. Here is a man who had been handling guns since he was a little boy, still foolish enough to drive through town shooting out street lights – and then, later in life, to not only brag about it, but to expand upon it to include another town six miles away; the same man who later wins a Pulitzer and the Nobel. Along the way, Hemingway also shows us a few things about drinking; about adultery; about dysfunctional families; about the pursuit of cheap, mean-spirited arguments; and, finally, that there’s a price to pay for that kind of living.
Hemingway speaks to us about courage in the face of danger, but his first instinct was to lie his way out of trouble. He had initially lied about shooting the blue heron; he lied to the motorcycle cop, trying to stay out of trouble or having to pay for the streetlights (or the clean-up, or the labor to replace them); later, in World War II he was called on the carpet for collecting arms and organizing his own commando unit, and he lied, under oath, about that, too. He had the courage to brag about his high-spirited gun play in Boyne City years later, but not when he and his buddies outnumbered a motorcycle cop four-to-one.
After a viewing of Dr. George Colburn’s newly-released documentary “Young Hemingway and His Enduring Eden” (4), I revisited both “Hemingway’s Boat” and Baker’s book; the account relies on letters from the participants (including Hemingway) to that author.
Hemingway later accidentally shot himself with a pistol; machine-gunned sharks with his own Thompson; threw hand grenades from his boat and in street fighting outside of Paris in World War II; shot lions, rhinos, and other big game; became an expert wing shot at the expense of hundreds, if not thousands, of live pigeons; and finally ended his life at age 61 with both barrels of a favorite shotgun to his head. He had a life with guns, and sometimes he endangered himself and those around him; he found himself having to lie about what he’d done with guns… a gun got the last word, ironically, and then there weren’t any more lies.
His influence on literature was immense; but his manly adventures – in which real men have hair on their chests, and they know how to hunt, to fish, to kill, and have a little fun with guns – continue to serve as examples to American men and boys, many of whom will never read a line of “A Farewell To Arms.” They don’t need to, because Hemingway still whispers throughout American culture.
Maybe that’s a problem… maybe it’s time for us to admire men – and women – who find ways to solve problems without guns; who are willing to recognize that the NRA is nothing more than a front for gun manufacturers – and that many of the gun manufacturers who are reaping billions of dollars in sales are foreign companies who can’t sell their products at home – and that none of them care about your safety, or the safety of your children. They care about profits, and they use those profits to influence our legislators. Maybe it’s time for us to admire people who can stand up to the threats and intimidation of the so-called ‘National Rifle Association.’ The NRA is, after all, an organization that lies to us, hoping to wiggle out of trouble – and just like the motorcycle cop on that dark highway, we know who’s responsible. This time, they aren’t going to get away with it.
Besides, we have enough guns, thank you very much. There is now a gun for every man, woman, child, and baby in America. There’s a gun for every person in every nursing home, every person in the hospital, every person in prison, every person in a coma, every person still inside the womb; and there would be enough guns left over to arm a lot of the dogs and cats, too (5).
There are more than enough guns – including semi-automatic rifles that chamber high-velocity, even armor-piercing rounds – to successfully resist any and every invader, or any government – local, state, or Federal – that would oppress us or attempt to disarm us. We have more than enough guns to kill animals, to kill each other, to kill ourselves, to kill strangers, friends, and relatives. We have enough guns to shoot targets and beer cans, pests, varmints, and mailboxes… and don’t forget the streetlights.
Daniel Donovan Farrow is a writer from Boyne City, Michigan. He’s a gun owner; the last time he fired a weapon was to put down a deer who had run headlong into a chain-link fence and had broken its neck. But that’s another story… oh, yeah, and I once carried an unloaded pistol as an extra in a really, really bad Western. I was one of the bad guys.
(1) Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story Carlos Baker, Author First Collier Books Edition 1988 Page 62 ISBN 0-02-001690-5
(2) At the age of 16, Hemingway had gotten in trouble for illegally shooting a blue heron.
(3) The occupants of the car were Ernest Hemingway, longtime friend Bill Smith, Lawrence T. Barnett, and Howell (Fever) Jenkins; both were veteran ambulance drivers. Author Carlos Baker cites letters to Jenkins from Hemingway in preparation from the trip; and letters to the author from Hemingway (1951) and Barnett (1963) recounting the incident. I took the liberty of adding the first or last names in the account for reasons of clarity.
(4) During the making of this documentary, I was hired to shoot photographs of the Hemingway scholars as they were being interviewed about Hemingway, with a focus on his early life in northern Michigan. I took my shots on the breaks; most of the time, I was sitting there perfectly still, listening to professors and authors go into great detail on those subjects. Most of it doesn’t make it into the finished film, of course, but I got to hear it all. At one point, I was seeing a credit for my photography on the trailer. I thought that was cool… in any case, I soaked up a great deal of Hemingway lore.
(5) A dog with a gun would shoot you accidentally because he’s just so excited to see you. While you’re lying on the ground, he would lick you in the face and bring you his ball. A cat, on the other hand, would shoot you on purpose and try to eat you while you’re still alive. I love cats.*
*and dogs, too, of course.**
** I’m having a hard time with some of the people, though, especially the ones who are so greedy that they insist on selling assault rifles to the mentally-ill and the violent. They need to get a dog. With a gun.