And in This Corner, the Ghost of Ernest Hemingway

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Outside magazine, November 1996

And in This Corner, the Ghost of Ernest Hemingway

Battling history, or at least history’s 80-year-old sparring partner
By Randy Wayne White

Considering the tragic possibilities, Lorian Hemingway might now be reluctant to admit that it was she who coaxed me into fighting her grandfather Ernest’s favorite sparring partner, Kermit “Shine” Forbes, on the docks of Key West, where every sun-giddy Buckeye and wandering
Parrot Head could watch and potentially testify against me if the worst happened and the coroner started sniffing around.

“The man is 80 years old,” I reminded her.

“Exactly,” Lorian said. “Shine’s a professional fighter with a lifetime of experience. He was more than a match for Ernest.”

“Yeah, but we’re talking about a very old guy.”

Lorian said, “No, we’re talking about Shine Forbes. Have you met him?”

I didn’t have to. I live in Florida, where invalid octogenarians are only slightly less common than dead German tourists. I said, “What happens if I miss and actually hit him? We’re out there clowning around, he moves the wrong way, and I cold-cock him? My picture would be tacked like a wanted poster on every nursing home wall. Old ladies would thump me with their canes. I’d
have to drive to Georgia just to buy groceries.”

“Cold-cock Shine?” Lorian said. “If someone moves the wrong way, it’ll be you, not Shine Forbes. He’s still all muscle, and he’s still got the moves. But if you’re afraid he’ll hurt you…”

“Ha! Manipulation won’t work.”

“Huh?” said Lorian, temporarily puzzled. “All I’m saying is that I told Shine about you, that you used to box a little but that you’re big and clumsy and not too proficient. So he said he’d try to take it easy.”

“Sure he did.”

“And that he’d already heard how slow you are.”

“Hey–the old bastard said that?”

“Yes. He said he’d ‘carry’ you if it was necessary. That’s a boxing term.”

“I know it’s a boxing term.” I was starting to get angry.

Lorian said, “Three rounds, ten-ounce gloves. You and Shine on the docks just down from Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Are you game?”

“Rap on his hearing aid a few times, then tell Mr. Forbes I’m at his service.”

She was pleased. “Shine in an exhibition fight–Ernest would’ve liked that. It’ll be a nice addition to the Hemingway Days Festival.”

Hemingway days is not to be confused with Key West’s other cash-flow-creating events, such as the Gator Club Dolphin Derby, Key West Womenfest, the Goombay Festival, and especially Fantasy Fest, a masquerade so weird and twisted that afterward the city has to scour the streets with fire hoses.

No, this festival has a cleaner–and more historically resonant–theme. In the late twenties and thirties, Ernest Hemingway lived and worked on the island and, through his name and his descendants, has been paying the chamber of commerce exorbitant rent ever since. So every summer, on the second weekend in July, Key West hosts ten nonstop days of Hemingwayesque events,
including the Hemingway Flats Fishing Tournament, the Cayo Hueso Arm Wrestling Championship, the Leicester Hemingway Storytelling Contest, the Hemingway Golf Tournament, and the Hemingway Regatta, plus a music festival called the Moveable Musical Feast. Add to this a national short story contest, a national first-novel contest, lots of writing workshops, tours and readings, and
the annual Conch Republic Prize for Literature (Russell Banks won this year, Peter Matthiessen in ’95) and there is reason enough to visit an island that has otherwise lost much of its charm as it’s descended willy-nilly into tourist whoredom.

Yes, to enjoy Key West these days, one must emulate the island’s happy inner sanctum of society: ignore the chemically challenged, avoid Margaritaville and its Buffett pretenders, spend a lot of time on the water, and shun at all cost the geek magnet and drunk hatchery called Duval Street.

But I hadn’t come to enjoy Key West. I’d come to fight. And because my first order of business was to meet my opponent–know thy enemy–I went straight down Duval, turned west past a two-story restaurant called Blue Heaven, and pretty soon was knocking on the door of an old conch bungalow, the outside of which looked to be part museum, part curio shop. Out on the lawn there
were crab buoys, mannequin heads, paintings, plastic flowers, license plates, stuffed animals–pure Keys Deco. I expected to be greeted by a doddering casualty of the ring. Instead I was welcomed by…well, I’ll admit it, by an extraordinary being, a man of wit and humor and strength. He still had the look, tendons and veins that moved independently beneath skin, a fast-twitch
muscularity. Not good news.

Shine Forbes said, “Man, get yourself in here! Want an Old Milwaukee?”

I got myself in there and accepted the beer. Inside, the walls were papered with photographs of his family and lots of old friends.”Many of those folks, they dead,” he said. The house was also decorated with memorabilia related to Hemingway Days. “Yeah, I look forward to it every summer. Some folks, they complain about all the tourists. Me, I like it.”

There isn’t much about his life, past or present, that Shine doesn’t like. He grew up in Key West, used to dive for coins thrown by people on visiting cruise ships. “I wouldn’t dive for pennies, but quarters? Man, we’d dive 40 feet for those.” He started boxing in his teens and later got drafted by the army. He served in Guam and Honolulu and later got a civil service job
working at the Key West naval base. The whole time, he kept boxing: amateur fights, pro fights, didn’t matter. Shine loves the sport. “I fought 20-some real fights. Only lost two. I’m sure of them two losses. All the ones I won, they’re harder to remember.”

He began to dance around the room, snapping jabs at me. Good jabs, too. “Now I think I’m ready to go a couple rounds!” he said.

This guy was 80?

Shine said, “yeah, Mr. Ernest and me, we used to go ’round and ’round.” We were at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, crowded into the judging area of the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest–lots of gray-bearded Papas peering down from the stage–but everyone allowed Shine his own respectful space. It was a time-warp situation: Sloppy Joe’s, all these guys in safari khakis. Looking over at Shine, I
had to keep reminding myself that he was real: This man once laid some leather on the beezer of Ernest Hemingway.

Many times, in fact. They used to put on their gloves beside the saltwater pool behind Hemingway’s house on Whitehead Street. Once under the spell of that lunatic sport, Shine was probably closer to E.H. than F. Scott Fitzgerald ever thought of being. “Now Ernest, he didn’t go ’round looking for trouble like some says,” said Shine. “No-o-o-o, he weren’t like me.” Shine, a

He shook his head. “This one time I was, yeah. You remember the place by my house, the Blue Heaven? It was a sporting house where we used to put on boxing shows on Friday nights to make a little change. This one night, this big ol’ man come down to referee. I didn’t know who he was. Well, I was in Black Pie’s corner. Black Pie was fighting Joe Mills, and Joe was beating Black
Pie so bad I threw in the towel. What’s this referee do? He picks the towel up and throws it back, hits me right in the face.”

Shine, wearing a Sloppy Joe’s muscle shirt, his left eye droopy from so many fights, had to smile, remembering it. “So I take the towel and throw it in again. Same thing. Referee throws it back, hits me right in the damn face. I had a little of this in me”–Shine indicated the Budweiser in his hand–“which is no excuse for what I did.”

What Shine did was vault over the ropes and take a swing at the referee.

“That man, he was so big, he could have hurt me. But he just held me off till the other boys could pull me away,” Shine said, “I was mad. Somebody said, ‘Hey, you want us to take this man to jail?’ But the referee said, ‘Anybody got the nerve to take a swing at me, I don’t want him in no jail.’ That’s when somebody took me aside and says, ‘Hey,
man, you know who that referee is? That’s Ernest Hemingway.'”

Shine walked over to Hemingway’s house later that night to apologize.

“That’s when Mr. Ernest invited me and a couple others to come over, do a little sparring with him. He was a real gentleman about it.”

Shine became a regular at Hemingway’s house. “We’d take turns with him, three rounds each. He weren’t no real boxer, just did it for sport, see? But he so big, you could hit the man all day and not hurt him. And he’d pull his punches on us. We wore these 16-ounce gloves, and we’d kinda bounce off him. Only this one time, I got under him and was working inside when he let one go
and knocked me down. Didn’t hurt me, understand, but what I’m saying is, the man could hit when he wanted to.”

They continued to spar throughout the mid- and late 1930s, when Shine was in his twenties. “Times were tough for us back then,” Shine told me. “One Christmas Eve, we didn’t even have change for a quarter, so Ernest let us put on a boxing show at his house. It was Black Bob, Black Pie, Iron Baby, and me, with a bunch of Ernest’s rich friends there to watch. After we done boxing,
Ernest passed the hat, and it had over $200 in it. That was some good Christmas.

“Then one day, Ernest just left. They said he moved to Cuba or something, I don’t know. But we missed him.”

The Hemingway Look-Alike Contest wasn’t over yet–there was a Hemingway on stage right then, carrying a stringer of fresh dorado to impress the judges–but Shine had had enough. He wanted to drive me around in his old Chevy, show me some Key West shortcuts. “I’m not the kind to stand around and drink, drink, drink,” he said. “I know when I got enough. I know when I got enough
of anything.”

The day of the fight, here’s what I was worried about: I didn’t mind contributing to the Hemingway Days burlesque. Some people wore beards and carried dorado on a stringer. Others put on boxing gloves. What I wouldn’t do–nor would Lorian allow it–was play a role in a sideshow in which Shine was diminished. The man had class. Unlike most things in Key West, he was real.

That afternoon, we talked about it as I followed him from boutique to boutique on Duval Street, looking for a new pair of boxing shorts for the fight. “You know that it’s just an exhibition, right?” I said. “We’re only pretending.”

Shine was considering a pair of shorts–metallic silver material with blue and red stars. “You believe this?” he said. “Forty-five bucks for these? I can get me a nice suit for that.”

I pressed the point. “What I’m saying is the whole thing’s fake. Nobody expects us to really box. It’s more like…theater.”

Shine gave it a few beats. Finally, he said, “Gawdamn, Randy, you don’t think I know that?” Now he was laughing at me. “I was putting on boxin’ shows before your daddy was born, so you don’t need to say no more about that. Sure, we put the gloves on, dance around, pull our punches–make the people happy.”

Later that afternoon, on the Ocean Key House docks, I boxed three one-minute rounds with Kermit “Shine” Forbes, Ernest Hemingway’s old sparring partner. Our audience–mostly fans of literature–grew as the fight continued and came to include a typically Key West cast of sun-giddy Buckeyes, wandering Parrot Heads, and maybe a few living, breathing German tourists, too.

Jeffry P. Lindsay, author of Tropical Depression and Red Tide, was the referee. The man had flair: “Representing Outside magazine, desperately overweight at 220 pounds…” Lorian was my cornerman (“You’ve got a cold, so I’d prefer not to wipe the sweat off you.”), and Jeff Baker, an editor
of the Oxford American, ably worked Shine’s corner. “Go for Randy’s belly,” I heard him tell Shine. “He had barbecue for lunch.”
When I threw my first punch, Shine picked it clean and said, “Hey, hey. Pretty stiff jab you got there, boy!”

I said, “I hope you said ‘Roy.'”

Shine liked that, and laughed. “Then come on, Roy. Let’s mix it up some.”

We did, too. Lots of fake lefts and rights, then bear hugs with body shots. But every now and then, Shine would jab and follow with a right that touched my jaw or cheek, using his gloves like a secret communiqu‹, just to remind me who I was dealing with.

The judges gave the first and second rounds to Shine, ten-eight. Then, in the third, I rallied with a flurry of body shots only to be knocked to the deck by Shine’s big right hand. When Lindsay helped me to my feet, he studied my eyes and asked, “You OK? Where are you?”

I surveyed the area: turquoise water, purple sunset, freaks juggling torches at Mallory Docks. “Dubuque?” I guessed.

Lindsay waved his arms–the fight was over. “The winner by a knockout, 20 seconds into the third round–Mr. Shine Forbes!”

And Shine stood there grinning, gloves outstretched in victory, enjoying the people enjoying it, part of a long, long show in which he’d always known precisely who he was. Then he glanced at me and winked, this old guy who looked like he ruled the world…and deserved to.

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