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The Day I Stood in for Ernest Hemingway

The Day I Stood in for Ernest Hemingway


An occasional series about local history and old-time Lakewood characters by our neighbor Ken Fischer. This time, Ken tells one on himself instead of some other old-timer. To see more of his stories, click on his name at the end of the article.


About twenty years ago I was privileged to serve as a substitute teacher at my son’s high school. My assignment was an honors English class for two hours in the morning when the instructor needed the day off.

The ten o’clock hour arrived and I surveyed the young scholars to be normal teens full of juice and not totally invested in a two-hour study hall, which was the norm for a substitute assignment. They had been given some work to do for the session but I was a little hesitant; this was an honors English class. I was not equipped to add value to an advanced English class. I noted a percolating sound volume growing uncontrolled in the room. In a voice loud enough to be well heard, I mentioned to the front row of students that I had limited experience as a substitute and I was ill-prepared to discuss Chaucer. The response was eye-rolls. They didn’t want to be babysat by a rank beginner, any more than I wanted to just let the class slide by without them doing their assigned work. The background noise of inattention grew louder.

Hemingway in the cabin of his boat Pilar, off the coast of Cuba, c. 1950. Public domain photo, JFK Presidential Library

I needed to get their attention. Raising my voice even more I started out, “Well, it’s true that I haven’t done much substituting…”

A few students as far back as the second row looked toward me.

“… but once I substituted for Ernest Hemingway.”

“No!”

Yes.

Attention gained. A deal was fashioned. Should they behave and do what was required for the two-hour span, I would tell the story. I love to tell stories. They would do their work, and give me ten minutes at the end of our time.

Precisely at eleven fifty, books slammed shut and the students eagerly reminded me of the bargain. I was on, to dispel the obvious doubts of the majority of the class.

The story begins… my beloved sister was married in the fall of 1960. She was a nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. She and her good husband Dr. John (no, not that one) were expecting their first child in approximately June of 1961.

As the fates allowed, My sister was assigned as the primary care nurse for a patient on site to deal with heart trouble. He was signed into the hospital under an assumed name, but his actual name was: Ernest Hemingway. My beloved sister, my pal since birth, got to know him quite well and delighted in his stories and experiences. He was a man who lived, squeezed the juice out of life and related it to the masses in a singular style. She really liked the duty and he liked her. Everyone did.

Not an individual to miss a good opportunity, Dr. John floated a request that “Papa” Hemingway stand up for their first child as godfather. Hemingway gladly agreed. What a family picture that would be!

As the fates allowed, the bass-voiced author would resolve his ”heart” problem in June of 1961. My nephew Robert Spalding was born in July shortly after the author took his own life. Hemingway left his walking stick to Rita, which is among her most prized possessions. I was the designated “substitute” for him at the Baptism and stood tall after his name was crossed out of the record and mine added.

Oh. Sister Rita… Both she and my mother received inscribed copies of three of Hemingway’s foremost works. My mother lent them out and they unsurprisingly disappeared. My sister’s copies were never to leave the house, but her five sons — equally mischievous as the class in front of me — often “substituted” a pirated copy of one of the works with inscriptions describing a night of debauchery with their mother. “Oh, you boys!!!”

Rita was quite surprised by Hemingway‘s death. “He was so alive and full of vitality.” He spoke of adventures past and anticipated those to come. Who knows what demons lurk deep in a man‘s soul.


Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business. 

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Columbine

Columbine


Columbine. Denver. Bailey. Arvada. Colorado Springs. Littleton. Aurora. Centennial. Colorado Springs again, and then again. Thornton. STEM School in Highlands Ranch. Aurora again. Boulder.

Colorado tragedies. Schools, churches, a dance hall, a theater, a clinic, retail stores, a grocery store. Columbine was not the first in our state, but it raised a terrible bar. April 20 marks an anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School. Our neighbor Ken Fischer was dog-tired that day 22 years ago, as was his whole Lakewood Police team from an extra-tough shift the night before, but that’s another story. He was doing some hard work on an off-duty day, wrestling and sweating with pulling stumps for a friend, when he heard the call. 

In this story, Ken tells of – what was it, a kind of compensation? A miracle? – seemingly built out of inspiration and willpower. Or maybe it was something dealt out by “a just and brooding God.”


By Ken Fischer

1999. The following fall, after that terrible day in April, the Columbine football team took the field. They were not great, but won enough to get to the playoffs.

My sector of Lakewood had the Jeffco Stadium in just about its geographic center. I would often tactically position myself at or near the stadium on Thursday and Friday nights for the rowdy high school events. My dispatcher was aware of crowd noise so she often called me on cell phone with anything critical in nature. Pretty routine, usually just being watchful, but there was one game that I will always remember as something special, almost transcendent.

Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado

Now there was something eerie about the Columbine team. These were the lads that carried one of their own to his final rest several months earlier. Their school was still undergoing repair so they worked through the hurt and anger to do something constructively normal: play football.

Columbine had never been any great shakes on the gridiron. Finishing near .500 was pretty good for the program. This year the team had no real stars and no standouts, and seemed to be a very quiet bunch. They took on a county rival in the quarterfinals and came from behind to squeak out a victory. A surprise. They were forecast to break even that year and winning a playoff game was a big notch on the doorframe.

Photo from Columbine Football on Twitter, @CHSRebelball, 2018

Per custom, each team passed at midfield, shook hands then boarded the buses back to their school. Except Columbine. They had no school and would not until the following year. They shared time at Chatfield High, their sister school further south in the county.

Just after this victory and handshake, Columbine players and coaches assembled under the south goal posts. Very quiet, no hoorah, no cheers, no one but the team. I was standing on the perimeter with the Columbine principal, Frank DeAngelis. I began to say something to him in passing. He gave me a sign to be silent. I would.

They spoke in brief statements. No game analysis. An air of commitment. No one interrupted anyone else.

When all who wanted to speak spoke, they calmly walked to their bus. I had never seen anything like this in athletics. This was a team with a purpose.

The following week would be tougher. They were predicted to lose by at least two touchdowns to a far superior Boulder Fairview team that had experienced a fantastic season losing only one possibly two games. Fairview had a quarterback passer who had all the tools. He was a “young Elway.”

The game progressed as expected. Columbine held strong through three quarters but could not manage much scoring. Fairview was about eighteen points up starting the fourth quarter.

I was prowling the Fairview sidelines as Columbine pushed down the field and scored. No big deal. Two scores up, just run the clock.

Fairview turned it over in uncharacteristic fashion and here came Columbine, silent and deep.

Again, the ground game. Columbine scored in about six plays and were one score down with about four minutes left.

Fairview attempted a run, lost ground. Columbine timeouts employed. Fairview punts. Good runback by Columbine who scored two plays later. Still silent, confident, committed. No mistakes.

With a blue chip passer and two minutes to score from mid field, it would be highly possible to get to the end zone. The kid who was setting passing records all year threw two terrible incomplete passes. During a timeout, with just seconds left, I turned to hear a brief conversation between coach and quarterback. The strategy was set. Just do it. Run it in if you have to.

The all-state quarterback had a look that betrayed a feeling of something else at work here.

Fairview ran once and threw a pass into the dirt to lose to a “nothingburger” team in blue that could not be stopped by any dynamic in any playbook.

Columbine Memorial. Photo by Denverjeffrey, CC BY 3.0, Link

A stunned crowd silently departed for the flatirons, not quite believing what they had just seen.

A calm, deliberate, committed bunch of young men in Columbine blue gathered under the goal post. They recommitted the season to their friend and fallen athlete, Matt Kechter, as they had done for every game throughout the season.

Columbine went on to beat Cherry Creek the next week for the state championship. Not easily but convincingly, and well enough. Enough to become state football champions for that year.

That team still frequently revisits the Columbine teams of ensuing years. They stand with the quiet authority of dedication and unity, to offer inspiration and support to those playing a great game with great comrades.


Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business.