Nuns and Ernest Hemingway

“Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”

~ Fulton J. Sheen

This story is true. The reason for telling it is the same as the reason for telling any story. It deserves to be remembered. I’m tellilng what I remember of it, though when it was told to me it took an entire afternoon and a battered leather satchel of black and white photographs to back it up.

It’s a long story – so I’ll make it short, for the Internet generation. Though I hope you get the gist.

Back in the early 90’s, when I was in my first year of a nursing degree (never finished – another long and tragic tale). I was working in gerontology – basically elder care.

I was doing a placement in a hospital for retired Catholics, which included some elderly nuns.

Many of our patients were stricken with strokes, or dementia. They had failing health, tissue paper-thin skin and stories that you wouldn’t believe.

I always used to think of nuns as either the stereotypical sadistic teachers who would beat children or inspire Blues musicians.

Never having been Catholic they were a novel experience for me. And I gotta say – Nuns have seen shit you would not believe.

These were women who in the 1930’s and 40’s – during times of war and atrocity – went into places with nothing but their faith and their compassion. The nuns I knew were in their 80’s and 90’s and they were saucy minxes. Worldly beyond anything I had experienced. With ribald senses of humour and a love of life unlike any I have seen before or since. One time, I was escorting a very frail and elderly nun back to her room after giving her a shower. An equally elderly and frail nun, coming the other way, said to her,
“That’s a lovely young man you have on your arm, sister.”
This really old, frail woman, who was using my arm for support, reached around and patted me on the butt as she said, “Oh, I know sister.”

Nuns man.

That’s not the story, though the story was told to me in the same place. The man who told me the story was neither a nun, nor was he a priest. He had been married for years, and had a daughter who died after a long illness. During that time he spent all the time he could at her bed side. Even when she was unconscious (which she was for several years).

Now, he was old and still quite capable of looking after himself – so he was in our more independent wing.

“Come back later,” he said. “And I’ll show you some old photographs.”

That sounded interesting, so I agreed to come back and headed off to finish my rounds. Later that day I came back to visit. We sat down and he talked for hours. He opened up an old leather satchel of photographs and started showing me his history.

It started out in New Zealand, digging for Kauri gum as a youngster. Hard men in mud, with horses and massive logs (Kauri are huge trees). He talked about how he started his working life as a teenager in Northland, cutting trees down and digging for fossilised Kauri gum, which was like gold for a while.

Then he went to sea. Merchant shipping, between the wars. He traveled to exotic places and met strange people. He had adventures that came straight out of an Alistair McLean novel. I would have called bullshit, but there were the photos. THis man, tall and broadshouldered, surrounded by waist-high natives in the jungles of South America. A cowboy, with a big hat, waxed moustaches and two, ivory handled six-guns on his hips.
“This fellow,” my narrator explained, “Was an American living in Brazil. He used to shoot alligators and Indians with equal enthusiasm.”
More stories, trekking through the tropical rainforests. Meeting Indians and seeing giant snakes, Caymans, and spiders as big as your head…
Then there was a photograph of a little man. Not a small person, just a scruffy, figure with roughly chopped hair, pale, bony features and a slight frame. This guy looked like a junky or Some kind of derelict.
“Have you heard the story of Papillion?” he asked.
“Yes,” I had read the book when I was 12. I had seen the Steve McQueen film on the big screen and loved both.
“This, this is Papillion.”
Okay, at that point my jaw hit the floor. This, scruffy, rat-like man was the famous French convict who escaped from every jail they ever put him in?
“The book, the film. All a lie. The man who wrote it (Henri Charriere) was Papillion’s cellmate. Papillion told him his story and when he got out, he wrote it as his own.”
Interestingly enough, in 2005 a 104-year-old man (who died in January 2007), claimed to have been the real Papillon.
I had always thought that Papillion would be a bigger man (like the author pictures of Henrie Charriere) but no. Here was Papillion, this jockey sized fellow.
“He turned up in our camp when I was in French Guiana. He stayed with us for a month, in the jungle. We hid him under the floor when the police came looking for him.”
Photoraphs and conversation turned to the times he worked on a private yacht. Crewing for an American millionaire, a palace with sails. Pirates would attack the ship quite regularly – the gun fights they had were exhiliarating apparently. Rifles and revolvers – repelling boarders.
“We were paid well,” my guide replied when I asked him why he stayed on the job.
There was a newspaper clipping, not relating to my friend, but to his brother. A report about his adventures during WW2. “My brother worked for the British government during the war,” he said. “The Nazi’s hunted him and he escaped to Canada. He then worked for the Americans. He spent time in Cuba. He left Cuba half an hour before Castro signed his death warrant.”
“Have you read any Ernest Hemingway?” he asked.
“Yes, The Old Man and the Sea.” This was a book that had haunted and stirred me for reasons I couldn’t describe or understand as a teenager.
“Hemingway challenged my brother to a duel. They argued over a woman. Hemingway insisted on pistols and dawn, on the beach. My brother turned up, but Hemingway never showed.”
This was mentioned in the newspaper article too. Like Papillion, Hemingway seemed more human and less god-like to me in that moment. A man prone to drink and short of temper, but ultimately, not a fool nor a coward. Just someone who realised that promises made while drunk carry little weight in the cold light of dawn’s hangover.
Either that, or he slept in.

About a month later, my old friend had a stroke while eating lunch.

He was a tall man, well over six feet. I was the only person on the premises strong  enough to do the Heimlich maneuver on him. They say I saved his life. I’m not so sure, I think the old guy had been through so much that simply choking to death could never be his curtain call.

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