Ernest Hemingway’s boots

We stayed at the Menger Hotel, across from the Alamo.

I found out tonight that Silas knew Ernest Hemingway. “I got a job…I went over to Sun Valley there in Idaho—”

No, I can’t be sure of how he worded it. It was late and my voice recorder wouldn’t work because my phone storage was maxed out. I should have fixed the problem earlier, at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, when the phone wouldn’t save a video of the duck who followed us, following its bath. But I was so excited to be in Texas, visiting Silas and cousin Bets at last, that I couldn’t bother with phone maintenance.

After the Botanical Gardens came the steak dinner, which was the opening social event of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars. Afterward, Dave and cousin Bets and I had sat in a little side lobby while Si had a color guard rehearsal. Bets told us about riding on a troop train from Chicago to Dallas in early 1945, when she was 12. Surrounded by soldiers, the only civilian, the only female, the only child. She sat on that train and didn’t eat or drink for 24 hours because she didn’t want to leave her seat to use the lav for 24 hours. “You might think that couldn’t be done,” she said with her soft Texas drawl, “but it can.”

At dinner Si had told me a story a Blackfoot Indian had told him, or maybe it was a Shoshone Indian whose nickname was Blackfoot, it was hard to hear in the Menger Hotel ballroom, steak dinners being consumed all around us except by me (don’t eat meat) and Si (doesn’t eat much of anything).

He told me this story the Indian had passed on to him: A couple settled in the wilderness somewhere in Texas. They built a simple home and she gave birth to a child. All went well until the husband took a long journey to the nearest town for supplies. The woman was outside, maybe gardening, maybe playing with the baby, when she was bitten by a rattlesnake. There was no one around for miles, nowhere to go for help. The woman knew she was dying and also knew she couldn’t feed the baby her poisoned milk. She took a shotgun and shot the baby, and then shot herself.

“I been waiting for someone to tell that to,” said Si. “I know if Ernest Hemingway heard it, he would have made a story of it.” What I didn’t know at the table was that Si wasn’t speaking in the abstract.

Silas joined us in the side lobby after his rehearsal. Dave pulled over another chair and we all sat for a while, before saying goodnight and goodbye, since we were flying back early in the morning. That’s when I learned that back in the 50s, after he returned from Korea, Si went up to Sun Valley to become a ski instructor. To augment his income he also tended bar at a place called Slaveys. And into this bar came Ernest Hemingway, many nights. Si knew Hemingway wrote stories, but “I didn’t know much about that,” he said. Mostly he knew Hemingway as a guy who came in and liked to talk. “He talked a lot,” Si said, “but he also listened a lot, if it interested him.”

They also skied together. In fact, when Si’s brother came to visit and didn’t have any ski gear, Si said, “That’s alright. You got the same shoe size as Ernest Hemingway, we can borrow his boots.” And they did, and Si’s brother couldn’t get over the fact that he was wearing Ernest Hemingway’s ski boots.

Si said he thought up a poem once, about depression. He told it to me and the sparse imagery was of a room, a very small room. He said he’d told it to Hemingway, and Hemingway said his depression was just like that.

I can see Hemingway confiding in cousin Silas. Si is patient and thoughtful, and seems to listen for what you mean instead of just what you say. I think he’d be a good friend to have at any point in your life, and I feel very lucky we got to make this trip to get to know him and Bets a little better. He gave me a pair of Texas state flag earrings, and now every time I wear them they will remind me of Ernest Hemingway’s boots.