FROM PAMPLONA TO BARCELONA
I recently attended my first bullfight. It was held in Barcelona with hardly any publicity, so there were no tourists and the stands were half full. This is Catalunya, and the corrida, as the Catalans are vocal in exclaiming, is not a part of their culture, often adding that it is barbaric and peasanty; a tradition of the south, and Pamplona up north. In fact, the Barcelona city government is working hard to abolish bullfighting in the city, so this spring season might well be the last.
I attended the event with two aficionados—María del Carmen Malla, who had lived in Madrid for several years, and was kind enough to invite me; and Don Long, an American now living in Barcelona, but with a long history in Spain, specifically in Seville, the heart of the ring. They were both seasoned spectators and carefully explained the ritual to me. I had recently read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, so I knew the basics, but I needed my friends to fill me in on the specifics. What did it mean when the matador threw his montera (velvet hat) into the ring? Well, if it falls right-side up, that means good luck. If it falls the other way, then he carefully tips it over, which I saw El Fandi do with a graceful flip of his capote (cape).
As expected, I heard no Catalan in the stands, only Spanish. Cigar smoke wafted around us and I felt transported from a city known for its seny (common sense and practicality) to the duende (passion and soul) of the south. I was astounded first off by the beauty of the bulls, such extraordinary, powerful and graceful animals, bred solely for the ring. Did I wince when the picador did his spearing? Of course, I did. But I also fell under the spell of the beauty and choreography of matador and bull. I was lucky. My companions informed me it was one of the best bullfights they had ever attended. The elegant Enrique Ponce and the young, brash El Fandi, who each received two ears for their performance, mesmerized me in a way I had never expected.
We were sitting in the eighth row. A bit further down was the strong, thick rope of wire stretched across the lower rows in case the bull headed for the stands. Don explained when they first began to use the wire, and then added: “I once balanced on that wire and jumped into the ring after a bullfight.” “Excuse me,” I said to this handsome, well-dressed gentleman. The distance was quite a ways. “It was in Pamplona,” he said, “in 1953.” How did that come about?” I asked. Don chuckled as the corrida took our attention again, but thanks to Don having always been a journal writer, a few days later, with a slight update, I received my answer...
Today, in the warm May spring of Barcelona, thinking back over more than fifty years ago, I flex my scarred ankles in the sunstruck ático terrace. My heels are still moving along, though tired a bit from a long walk through the barrio Poble Nou to the sea and along the promenade, as they carried me through up to 3-mile daily runs over past decades.
In July, 1953, I was caught up in the frenzy of the Feria de San Fermin in Pamplona, and after three days into the week-long extravaganza of drinking, the early morning running of the bulls, and the bullfights in the afternoon, the relentless pace had taken its toll on my body and my psyche. The body at twenty-five could take it, flagging spirits energized once again as the cuadrillas of young men gathered in the bullring after the fight; flutes, horns and drums began their pulsing beat of the jota, and we all drank from the dark red streams of wine flowing from goat wineskins held high in the sunsplashed air, staining our white shirts with swatches of red that matched our neckerchiefs. The exodus from the arena began; the dancers, arms around one another's shoulders, or solo, reaching skyward, surged forward like a herd of wild mustangs into the main street, legs always in motion, knees high, turning in circles, possessed by the ecstasy of dance, music and wine. When we reached the end of the long block after thirty minutes of constant movement, we were breathing hard and soaked with sweat, primed for the pastures of a narrow parallel street where in two dozen bars and bodegas we slowly drank our way back to the main plaza, well pleased with our stamina and reluctant to let go of the comradeship that had sustained us.
As the evening light dimmed at sunset, music played on at a less fervent pace and the crowds of strollers became thinner. Single or in small groups we went off to restaurants or small cafes for dinner, or more often bought roasted chicken or pinchitos, skewered beef or pork on a stick with hot sauce, from street vendors, washed down with Cruz del Campo beer or the local vino negro of Navarra. I was tired and after a few brandy Soberanos I bid buenos noches to my companions and walked back to the rented rooms I shared with American friends from Paris. Waking at four in the morning I was jumpy, nerve-ends jangling like an insistent alarm clock, feeling uneasy about quitting a good job in Morocco with only eight hundred bucks in the bank. How far would that take me? Alone in the dark silence I was apprehensive about the future, but dozed off knowing that the encierro, the running of the bulls, was just two hours away. Any worries would be forgotten as the day began with an electric danger.
Still fatigued after the restless night, I had a brandy and coffee at dawn in the small cafe at the lower end of Calle Estefeta, the narrow street on a slight hill that ran up to the bullring. Here the bulls would turn and begin their thunderous stampede, hoofbeats echoing off the houses on either side, whose balconies were now crowded with spectators. In ten minutes a rocket would go off which signaled the opening of the gates and the release of the bulls and steers. I finished the brandy and edged through the protective wooden barriers into the cobblestone street. The runners gathered in small clusters, chatting nervously among themselves in voices strident and uneasy, overriding the bantering tone. We heard the rockets boom above the corral below as the black mass of bulls intermixed with black and white steers hung with bronze bells clanking loudly over the staccato hoofbeats came into view. We started to run, slowly at first, but as the bulls gained on us with more speed, then as fast as we could, straw-sandaled espadrillas soundless among the clatter and turmoil now looming behind us. When I looked over my shoulder and saw the horns clearly not ten yards away, I sought dubious shelter in the wood frame of a doorway. Back pressed hard against the locked bolt of the door I watched them pass in seconds, my eyes half closed and heart racing, the roar from the balconies filling the warm morning air like a tumultuous surf at high tide. The sound ebbed as I stepped away from the door and walked toward the bullring with legs trembling.
After running the encierro, everything else that happened that morning was an anticlimax. We sat down with friends at cafes on the main plaza and drank a beer or coffee as the sun grew warmer in a cloudless sky, then walked back to our rooms for a few hours rest before the crushing afternoon heat became stifling and impossible. Later after a simple lunch we gathered around the kiosk pouring glasses of sparkling Cordoniu white wine, discussing the bulls and matadors who would be fighting later. A bull was more dangerous after the morning run for he had seen the shape of the elusive runners as they avoided his path; sometimes he even brushed them with a horn as they went down. Wandering over to the ring as the fight time approached, I was elated and a bit drunk, but knew that my head would clear as the swirl of the oboes' song coursed through the hot afternoon air awakening the senses. The massive wooden door then slammed to the side, and the dark mass of power hurtled into the stunning sunlight as the event began.
Only one of six bulls was outstanding that afternoon, and the matador took full advantage of his good luck with rhythmic and delicate passes with cape and muleta that roused the crowd to olés, and a strong clean kill which brought everyone to a standing ovation with an applause and a waving of handkerchiefs, like a meadow awakening to an onslaught of white butterflies. The remaining five bulls and the matadors who fought them were unimpressive and sometimes lamentable. When the stands emptied only a few aficionados mustered the enthusiasm of previous days and gathered in the ring. I looked around me as the last spectators filed out listlessly and was dismayed, spirits still riding high from the champagne earlier and maintained by a bottle of beer with each bull plus insistent offerings from nearby botas. I was oblivious to judgments on the quality of the fight that afternoon, and wanted to be caught up in the joy and passion of the jota once again. Determined to counteract the apathy that I imagined surrounded me, I stepped forward across the barrera seat before me, grasping the steel cable that provided a three-foot margin of safety to the stands from a bull's wild powerful leap from the arena, which had happened before its installation. I pulled myself up, balancing upright in my cotton slippers, teetered briefly, then leapt into the air, legs stretched outward like a broad jumper to clear the wooden barrera five feet down and away that circled the bullring. It was ten feet down to the floor of the ring, baked in the hot harsh summer sun of Navarra for six weeks without a trace of rain, hard and smooth as marble.
My army paratrooper training did me little good as I hit the ground without jump boots, only the thin straw soles of sandals protecting my bare feet. I lay flat as on a smooth granite slab, stretched out, not moving, sharp needles of pain racing from my heels and ankles up my legs, while a few dancers gathered across the ring. Two husky Basques sauntered over and carried me into the infirmary, where the doctor, just leaving, hurriedly wrapped some gauze around my swollen ankles, assuming I had sprained them; then my two new comrades lifted me up, out to the exit, and into a taxi. Minutes later I arrived at the central plaza, hailed some friends sitting outside the Bar Choko, and was soon installed at a table, my throbbing feet propped up on an extra chair. Drinking brandy as the lights came on, the pain lessened as the dancers began and the steady boom of the drums and music swept through the warm night air. In a few hours, back in the dead silence of my dark transient room, its lightening jolt would bring me awake with a cry for help.
When the pain became unbearable that night, undiminished by a series of shots of brandy, my new American friends called a taxi and took me to the public hospital. I vaguely registered that a doctor slapped two plaster casts on my lower legs, ankles and feet, and dispatched the wheelchair to a dimly-lighted ward, where a hooded nun helped me stretch out on a hard narrow bed. I awakened sweating with anguish sometime later, calling out “Hermana, hermana!”; and soon felt the needle's prick and the morphine's quick entry into the bloodstream. Then came the cannon's distant shot as the encierro began, the summer's day blossomed, and the tumult of furious pain began its drumming in my legs, as the runners in the streets drummed their heels on the cobblestones. During the day and night that followed I called out often for the sisters, slipping in and out of dreams and nightmares. I was rescued by an American resident of Pamplona who had me transferred to the Red Cross Clinic, with a private room, sponge bath, and change of casts.
After a week recovering in Pamplona, I checked into the American hospital in Paris, and luck gave me the best orthopedic surgeon in France, who operated on my severely fractured heels and reset those hammered bones in place. Three months in casts followed. By January, I was able to walk without canes through the Berkeley campus for my senior year.
Looking back at an impetuous lad of twenty-five from a far distance more than a half century later, it does not take a genius to see the connection between an excessive overload of alcohol and bad judgment coupled with false bravado. My San Fermin days are in the distant past, but not the inexorable pull of Spain. I saw a good bullfight in Barcelona last Sunday at Monumental arena, not as magnificent as with Ordoñez and Dominguin in the 1950's, but with Ponce and El Fandi, white handkerchiefs flared throughout the arena four times, with a surge of abandon for the beauty and art of the bullfight, and memories of past bullfights fused with the present as the olés resounded, from Pamplona to Barcelona. I celebrated with two large martinis on the terrace.