Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway,’ and the writer’s grandson

Posted 4/14/21

I watched Ken Burns’ and Kim Novick’s new film about writer Ernest Hemingway last week on PBS. I recorded the three-part series thinking I would not be able to stay up past my bedtime, which …

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Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway,’ and the writer’s grandson

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I watched Ken Burns’ and Kim Novick’s new film about writer Ernest Hemingway last week on PBS. I recorded the three-part series thinking I would not be able to stay up past my bedtime, which seems to come earlier and earlier with every passing year, but I found this documentary compelling enough to keep me wide awake and on the edge of my seat instead of flat on my back and fast asleep.

The film brought back some great memories, including some of his grandson, Patrick.

The famous writer’s second son is named Patrick Miller Hemingway, and that Patrick appears extensively in the old black and white home movies and still pictures featured in the film, as well as in on-camera interviews. But Ernest also has a grandson named John Patrick Hemingway, and that grandson is whom I met at one of my neighborhood watering holes when I lived in Brooklyn years ago. Patrick, as he referred to himself, was an artist and a photographer with a permanent home in the Pacific Northwest. He came to New York to see his girlfriend, Dina, whom I knew well and who lived on my block. I think he appreciated that I was not star-struck by his grandfather. After many years in NYC, I had seen enough stars in the studio and millionaires on the street to have developed a breezy attitude about the rich and famous. I did not sneer when I told him that being a legacy requires nothing more than but to be born, and when I told him my father was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative journalist, we both had a good laugh at the expense of what he called writer royalty.

He and I both had a taste for the lush life back then; naturally, we hit it off right away.

One afternoon over cold beers, he asked if I knew anything about boats. I told him I knew a little, but as a production carpenter, I did not build boats; I built things that looked like boats on TV. This was why I loved my job on Saturday Night Live; in the morning I could build a boat, but in the afternoon I might build a log cabin, and that night I probably would have to build a spaceship. After we both stopped laughing he said that was too bad, because he was going to Cuba to work on his grandfather’s boat, the Pilar, and he wanted to take a good carpenter. To this day I am still kicking myself for not lying.

But my father told me to always be honest, and as I watched the story of Ernest Hemingway unspool on the screen, it brought back a flood of memories of my father as a writer. I could see him clearly in the remodeled tobacco barn he turned into the office where he wrote. I saw him sitting at his desk, typing on his old Royal manual typewriter, his fingers flying furiously over the keys, stopping only long enough to slap the carriage back and start a new line. I remembered him also as a father teaching his son to hunt: I saw him wearing his hunting vest, complete with shotgun shells in the chest high elastic loops and the 16-gauge Remington shotgun he owned cradled in the crook of his arm. I remembered him teaching me to always keep the barrel of my firearm pointing up; if I carried it with the barrel down I might accidentally get dirt in it.

I thought of us fishing together from our boat, and him teaching me how to tie the knot on my fishing lures to get the most strength from the monofilament. I take great heart and unalloyed pleasure in knowing how to hunt and fish, not only because this chunk of primal human heritage is now mine forever and can never be unlearned, but especially because knowledge implies choice; I can now choose not to kill and clean and cook a rabbit or a bream.

Ms. Walls cannot bear Ernest Hemingway’s persona. Maybe he is a misogynist, but I judge an artist by the art, not the ego, and I like his writing; he wrote what he knew, and it is the genuineness of experience that makes his prose as clear as mountain air.

I also liked his grandson. He was a pretty cool guy to have a beer with, so his grandfather could not have been all bad.

Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.


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