The Bell Tolls for Him

After years of playing Papa to Hemingway, the island of Bimini, and his own troubled brood, Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown is laid to rest

On a full moon night preceding the longest day of summer, a casket came to be placed aboard the Alma B., an 85-foot cargo vessel berthed beside the Twelfth Avenue drawbridge on the Miami River. The planked afterdeck of the ship would normally have been crowded with sacks of potatoes, cases of soft drinks, and shipping pallets laden with cinder blocks and lumber, but tonight the stern was empty save for a yellow forklift chained in place against rough seas, and the coffin, sheathed in cardboard and covered with flowers.

The man inside the casket had lived 83 years and been dead nine days. His face was yellow-white in death, with two gray tufts of hair protruding from above a pair of fleshy ears. Thick spectacles straddled his bulbous nose, and he wore a starched white collar and lace jerkin denoting long service in the Anglican Church. Had he opened his eyes and looked up, he would have seen that the inside of the coffin lid was embroidered with a likeness of the Alma B., overflown by a pair of seagulls, and with his name, Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown.

A midnight traveler crossing the drawbridge might have stopped to watch what now unfolded, though in fact no pedestrian happened along and the scene went unnoticed by passersby in cars. Two dozen men and women gathered around the casket and were led in prayer by a pastor from Fort Lauderdale. The prayer went on for several minutes, stopping once for a passing jet and then rising and falling in rhythmed exhortations that were answered by the crowd with mmm-hmms and amens. After that the preacher removed himself to the dock and helped cast off the lines. A tricky current caused the Alma B. to collide briefly with the drawbridge, crushing the starboard running light and a portion of the pilothouse ladder. But soon the ship made its way to the mouth of the river, thence to the sea buoy marking the end of Government Cut.

In deference to the dead, no beer drinking was to be permitted on the stern, and once this prohibition was announced all sinners moved quickly to the bow. A brother-in-law of the departed, a Mason, hunkered on a milk crate and kept vigil through the night, in accord with the custom of Masons. Aside from these gestures the atmosphere was markedly unsentimental, as the dead man had been in life. The relatives and family friends who had joined the corpse for its final voyage felt little compulsion to talk about Brown's passing. Ladies dozed in lawn chairs in the galley, and the mates' and navigator's bunks filled up with sleeping children. On the bow, conversation turned to the things conversation turns to at sea: boats, fish, men and women, the sea itself. Around three a.m. a son of the deceased, Capt. Spence Brown, took a break from the helm, climbed down to the stern, and promptly went to sleep on a comforter spread out on top of his father's coffin.

A grandson (one of 30 grandchildren in all) assumed the wheel, turned up Clarence Carter on the tape player, and steered east on Jupiter toward the far edge of the Gulf Stream and the island of Bimini beyond.

"The house felt almost as much like a ship as a house. Placed there to ride out storms, it was built into the island as though it were a part of it; but you saw the sea from all the windows and there was good cross ventilation so that you slept cool on the hottest nights. The house was painted white to be cool in the summer and it could be seen from a long way out in the Gulf Stream. It was the highest thing on the island except for the long planting of casuarina trees that were the first thing you saw when you raised the island out of the sea. Soon after you saw the dark blur of casuarina trees above the line of the sea, you would see the white bulk of the house. Then, as you came closer, you raised the whole length of the island with the coconut palms, the clapboarded houses, the white line of the beach, and the green of the South Island stretching beyond it."

The house described in paragraph six of Islands in the Stream is the Bimini Blue Water Resort, one of four hotels and marinas owned at various times by Harcourt Brown. It is no longer the first building one sights when approaching Bimini by sea, that tall order having passed to Our Lady and St. Stephen's Anglican Church. On chilly winter nights at the hotel you can eat an excellent lobster salad and toast your friends and your shins beside the island's only fireplace, the same one described in loving detail by the hero of Hemingway's posthumous sea tale.

Hemingway first came to Bimini in 1934 and got so excited blasting away at a shark with a Colt pistol that he managed to shoot himself in both legs. All healed up, he returned in 1935 and spent the summer on the island with his sons.

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