Bonefish Willie wrapped his gnarled old hands around a cup of scalding black coffee, and his watery eyes rolled in his head as he spoke of evil and how man must repent.
As bishop of the Church of God on the island of Bimini, Bonefish Willie Duncombe says flat out, "Man must change his ways or he's a goner."
Before he got the calling, Bonefish Willie used to play the banjo down by the waterfront in the old Sugar Foot Bar. This was years ago, of course.
Willie shakes his head in amazement. "One night the Lord spoke to me while I was playin' my banjo, sayin' to me: 'Willie, follow me, follow me!' And I dropped my banjo and walked out the door of that bar singing 'Hark My Soul, It Is the Lord,' and y'know, I've never looked back."
Tears well in the black man's eyes as he speaks, for beyond the door of the Sugar Foot bar Bonefish Willie found prosperity as well as religion. Besides preaching the Gospel he became a guide for fishermen, and that's what Bimini's all about--fishing. If you're not a fisherman, well, then try Nassau or one of the quieter islands in the Bahamas.
As a guide, Bonefish Willie became a confidant of Ernest Hemingway, and speaking of Papa, Bonefish Willie tells you flat out, "That man put this island on the map!"
And indeed Papa did--only Hemingway was more addicted to the bottle than he was to the Scriptures, which Bonefish Willie quotes without pause. No, Willie didn't follow Papa as the writer drank and brawled his way through the bars of Bimini. Whenever he wasn't in the pulpit Willie was aboard his Boston whaler steering other fishermen to waters that boil with bonefish and marlin, and this he still does.
As for Hemingway, he lived on Bimini as he did elsewhere that his travels took him--furiously. Except no one smoked grass or sniffed cocaine then. Instead, Papa and his companions drank rum. By the gallons. This was in the '30s while Bimini was still living down its earlier reputation as a one-time haven for bootleggers. It was years later that it became known for drug drops that still occur, although not so frequently anymore, Willie insists.
Still, if one is searching for the sort of characters who roar through the pages of a Hemingway tale, then Bimini is not a bad choice. Some insist it was here that Nobel Prize-winning Papa got the inspiration for his novel about "The Old Man and the Sea."
Walls at the Compleat Angler are crowded with pictures of Papa. One in particular shows Hemingway puffed up beside a huge marlin that had been mauled by a shark, exactly as he related the incident in "The Old Man and the Sea."
Words gleaned from the novel are pinned to the walls along with the pictures of the mauled game fish.
The shark was not an accident. He had come up from down deep in the waters as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mild deep sea. He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution that he broke the surface of the blue water and was in the sun. Then he fell back into the sea and picked up the scent and started swimming on the course the skiff and the fish had taken. Then astern of the bow and off to the starboard, the calm of the ocean broke open and the great fish rose out of it, rising, shining dark blue and silver--seeming to come endlessly out of the water, unbelievable as his length and bulk rose out of the sea and into the air and seemed to hang there until he fell with a splash that drove the water up high and white.
Bimini, everyone agrees, is a man's island. This isn't a statement of chauvinism. It's a fact. One sees few girls in their bikinis on Bimini, or their suntanned surfing companions. Alice Town, a mere whisper of a village, is no more than a mile, end to end, and in between it's crowded with fishermen and marinas and a scattering of inns and hotels that line King's Highway, which is not a highway really but a narrow, hot, noisy lane lined with shops and stores. And then there's Queen's Highway, which is quieter and which skirts the beach with its sunbathers.
In places Bimini is no more than 500 yards wide, a puny sand bar that draws hundreds of anglers annually, particularly wealthy corporate types who sail over in their sleek yachts from the Florida coast, a mere 50 miles away. The locals insist that Bimini is the "fishing capital of the world," and few dispute the claim, what with nearly a dozen tournaments on the books this year alone (one that's named for Bonefish Willie, and another, for Papa Hemingway).
For non-fisherfolk there is a certain depraved fascination with visiting Bimini. It's worth a couple of days, soaking up the atmosphere along with a few rays.
At the far end of King's Highway the rattle of dominoes splits the dank air at the seedy, open-air End of the World Bar where profanities are penciled on the walls, which gives an indication of its character. A single fan spins over the sandy floor where one afternoon recently a couple of tourists sat around a teetering table soaking up booze.
When one of the visitors called for a martini, Coral Dean, the hefty black woman behind the bar, winced.
"Don't make no martinis here," she said. "Give you gin on the rocks."
The customer shrugged. Why not?
Afterward the big woman slid a wet bar rag across the counter, knocking over a sign telling how rum punches cost $4 a pop.
Coral Dean laughed out loud. "Who-eee, those things'll knock you out!"
The End of the World bar was the headquarters for the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell during his salad days on Bimini.
"Used to play dominoes day long with his cronies," the bar lady said, motioning to a table where the action was hot this particular afternoon.
Dogs Come In
Someone stuck a quarter in the jukebox, and the room exploded with the melody "Cheap Thrills," just as a couple of mongrel dogs padded into the bar and collapsed contentedly onto the floor with its sand fleas and cellophane pretzel wrappers.
It's a trifle more upbeat down the road at Ossie Broun's Compleat Angler where a sign over the entrance announces "The Home of Papa Hemingway."
Hemingway's old room at the top of the stairs is up for grabs at $65 a night. Only don't make the foolish mistake of retiring early. Not until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning at least, because until then the walls vibrate with the steady beat of a rock band downstairs where Papa and his cronies used to soak up hooch.
Although the bar was body-to-body with dancers this particular night, Ossie Broun complained that business was slow. What he meant was that one could still breathe, which indicates how packed it gets in the Compleat Angler on a busy evening.
All the swells with their nifty yachts check in at the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club, which is within casting distance of the Compleat Angler. It features a couple of penthouses and a dozen cottages. Rooms go for $88 to $195 a day, and out back there's a full-service marina as well as a swimming pool.
This is where Bonefish Willie hangs out. He and Capt. Bob Smith, another Hemingway cronie. For $600 a day, Capt. Bob leads as many as six fishermen to marlin waters aboard his 61-foot yacht, Bonita II.
Capt. Bob recalls how Hemingway used to leap overboard into an ocean swimming with sharks.
He shakes his head. "I wouldn't have done it in a submarine!"
Capt. Bob has shared his boat with dozens of celebrities, people like the late Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell and Mariel Hemingway.
Muscular and with a shaved head, Capt. Bob could easily pass for a black Mr. Clean. He's spent his entire life on Bimini, and he speaks nostalgically of the early days, the happy, carefree, childhood days. Although there was no running water on the entire island and only a couple of radios and maybe two or three bikes and no cars, still no one complained.
"We didn't have a lot, but we got along real good," he recalls. "Today--too many people, everyone after the buck."
Wife Runs It
As one of Bimini's perkiest entrepreneurs, the old fisherman operates Capt. Bob's restaurant next door to the Bank of Canada on King's Highway. Or more precisely, his wife does.
He laughs. "That woman turns out the best lobster and grouper and barbecued ribs on the entire island!"
Close by, the Anchorage does grouper and lobster that goes down nicely with frosty bottles of Pauli Girl and Beck's beer. Rooms at the Anchorage are bid at $60 and more a night, and the Marlin Cottage with its three bedrooms books out at $255 a day or $1,430 a week.
Next door, Diandrea's Inn, formerly the Old Anchors Away Hotel, provides a dozen rooms at $60 a clip in a relaxing two-story Colonial mansion set dead center between the King's and Queen's highways. In a five-stool bar out back, guests swill rum coolers and exchange marlin tales in a scene out of "Key Largo."
Others crowd the Red Lion Pub with its platters of conch fritters, cracked conch and conch chowder. And just in case someone gets conched out altogether, waitresses promise to revive them with lobster, grouper and platters full of turtle swimming in a wine sauce.
Tucked away in a shack facing King's Highway, Estella Rolle does her famous fresh-baked Bimini bread that sells for $2 a loaf and that tourists cart away by the armfuls. Estella in her red bandanna and white apron does tricks with a broken-down four-burner stove that would put the chef at Ma Maison to shame. Besides bread, she pan-fries conch fritters and turns out platters of marvelous coconut rolls.
If one gets by anytime between 8 o'clock in the morning and 9 o'clock at night, seven days a week, Estella will be found behind her four-burner, rain or shine.
In the same neighborhood on King's Highway, conch shell necklaces are peddled for $38 a string. The shop's proprietress--she's kin to Bonefish Willie--also sells Bonefish Willie T-shirts, which the old man wears even while preaching the Gospel.
To date Bonefish Willie figures he's saved something like 3,000 souls.
It's been years since Bonefish Willie laid down the banjo at the old Sugar Foot bar, and he still recalls the words he swears were spoken by the Lord: "Willie, follow me, follow me!"
The old man smiles. "I found my way into paradise. Yes, sir, never been back to that bar."
For other details on the Bahamas, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 208, Los Angeles 90018. Telephone (213) 385-0033 or toll-free (800) 457-8205.