By Jim Poling Sr.
My fingers caress a well-aged copy of the novel The Old Man and the Sea. I thumb to the first page.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf of Mexico and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish,” read the first words of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 masterpiece.
Those first words are so simple and honest, as are the 26,967 words that follow to describe an old fisherman’s battle with a huge fish, and with life.
Millions of other words have been written about the novel’s meaning and its messages.
But today the novel has, for me, new meaning and a new message.
A quick recall of the novel’s story line: Santiago, the old fisherman, has gone to sea 84 days without catching a fish. On the 85th, he catches his dream – an 18-foot-long marlin. Food for an entire village.
Santiago plays the fish with his hands, gripping the fishing line and tightening and slackening the tension as needed. If he ties the line to the boat the fish will snap it and escape. Holding the line leaves his hands bloody and his body exhausted.
He fights the fish for hours, then wins the battle. He ties the fish body against the side of his skiff and sets course for home.
Then the sharks come. By the time he reaches the beach, the sharks have reduced the fish to a skeleton. Santiago fought to secure his dream, but lost it to the sharks.
As I reread this remarkable story, I see it much differently than I did many years ago. I now see Santiago as the American people; the great fish is the American dream rooted in a Declaration of Independence proclaiming everyone is created equal with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Many fought to secure that dream, but it is being lost. Sharks are consuming it.
Once the world’s most powerful and most promising nation, the United States has become yet another country of confused people unable to overcome increasingly difficult problems.
Racism, supposedly banished by civil war almost 150 years ago, remains a significant feature of U.S. life. White supremacy and other far right-wing philosophies gain prominence instead of being buried once and for all.
The U.S. has become a country of anger, loud shouting and self pity. A country of fortified zones sealed off by armed forces and fences. The White House, a symbol of government for the people, by the people, is cordoned off by two miles of fencing.
More serious is a loss of morality. That is evidenced in the Covid pandemic, which Americans have allowed to run rampant, infecting more than 12 million people and killing more than 250,000 people in less than nine months.
A stunning example of vanishing morality is seen in a lightly-reported study of what is happening in U.S. jails and prisons during the pandemic.
By last week almost 200,000 jailed Americans had tested positive for Covid. Last week alone almost 14,000 new cases were reported in U.S. prisons and jails, an eight-per-cent increase over the previous week.
The statistics were gathered by The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization covering criminal justice, and the Associated Press.
The Covid-19 case rate for U.S. prisoners is believed to be five to six times higher than the overall U.S. population case rate. That is because of jail crowding, less access to medical attention and disinterest.
It is also a manifestation of a trend to jail more Black people and more poor people and to care less for them because they are considered criminals deserving less than society’s “decent” folks.
This is not the America my grandfather and his family left when the Great Cloquet, Minnesota fire burned them out many decades ago. It is not the America that his ancestors helped to build when they arrived from England in the early 1600s.
Can that America be restored?
The Old Man and the Sea offers some hope.
“Man is not meant for defeat,” Santiago tells himself after the sharks attack his marlin. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
The America my family knew is being destroyed, but will the spirit of the American people be defeated?