‘The Old Man and the Sea’

Guest Columnist

Last week I was reading “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. I had read it before. It is a magnificent layered tale. At one level, it is the story of a man and a fish, but it is also the story of a man battling nature. It celebrates the culture of manhood and courage. These are virtues that have been largely lost in our modern culture of groups, organizations and the media. “The Old Man and the Sea” speaks to what life was like when individuals were the central actors on the human stage.

It is the story of an old man, Santiago, who at the end of his life goes out in a small fishing boat after 84 days in which he has not caught a significant fish, in the hope of finding one last great catch. He goes far out and hooks an 18-foot swordfish. The battle between Santiago and the swordfish begins. The fish drags the small boat farther and farther out to sea for three days. Finally, Santiago wins the battle, secures the fish to his boat and begins the long journey back only to have scavenger sharks eat the carcass clean before he returns to port.

Another tale weaving through the story tells of the loving friendship the old man has with a young boy, Manolin, who began fishing with Santiago when he was only five. Now the boy has moved to another boat, a more successful one, at the demand of his parents. Manolin, however, still longs to work with Santiago, and the old man feels the same. When Santiago engages the large fish and begins the long process of chase and capture, he pleads over and over, “I wish the boy were here.”

Still dedicated to the old man, the boy visits Santiago’s shack each night, hauling his gear from the docks, getting him food, and discussing baseball and his favorite player, Joe DiMaggio. When Manolin finds Santiago after his six-day absence, the old man is barely alive. It will surely be his last trip. The boy cries for his loss as well as for his friend, Santiago.

The juxtaposition of the lives of men like Santiago and the boy, Manolin, with the lives of modern men, regarding the idea of manhood and courage, is striking. That culture has been largely replaced with a culture of groups, organizations and the media, which minimizes individuality. It replaces the concept of man’s responsibility for himself by laying that responsibility elsewhere.

To view this contrast, we should look to a time past. I remember the days when my friends and I would ride our bikes from uptown Cleveland to downtown Cleveland, eat a burger at the Royal Castle on Public Square, then ride our bikes back home. It would be a four-hour adventure undertaken by kids. We kids were independent operators who were able to fend for ourselves. We were very capable of spending a full day at the ball fields, eating lunch without supervision and returning home without incident. Even at our young ages, we were the central actors on the human stage we inhabited.

Today, if a child wants to play baseball, he will have to be part of a league. If a parent allowed a child to ride his bike 15 miles without supervision, the parent would be vilified. Our children should be encouraged to explore independent paths and not always be forced into the protective custody of their parents.

There was a time when everyone was a parent, everyone understood the responsibility of being a good steward and people watched out for each other. Santiago shows us about manhood and courage, and he shows his young friend those virtues.

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