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VISTING THE VESPA FACTORY
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LEARNING THE NOTES
I’ve heard it said that even in the worst squalls out at sea with ships battling the waves and men falling overboard that if you were to descend only a few feet below the surface, the fish would be swimming calmly smiling at each other, and wondering what all the fuss was about. That’s how Rudi and I felt in our time in Spain, whether it was out in the arid desert or the cities. What with the poster of Franco all over the place, and on postage stamps, and flags, we couldn’t help but feel we were being watched. You never knew if you were talking with a sympathizer from the left, or one from the right, or somewhere in between. All we could do was listen. It was usually from young people and students from the universities. I would ask a student to write some kind of protest message to the world in my travel diary that I showed along in our travels, but they wouldn’t do it. They didn’t want the authorities to trace the words back to them.
That always made me feel bad to know I was part of all that kind of thing when I was in the CIC back in Wuerzburg. I was a cog in the political wheel of the U.S. government getting its fingers into the community. I was one of those reporters of activity, a messenger of subterfugion. I don’t know exactly what that word means and it’s probably not in the dictionary but it sounds like a dirty, stinkin’ thing that peoples can get into when they deal with other peoples. Oh well, the experience in Spain opened my eyes to what I didn’t want to do when I got back to the USA. Maybe that’s the price of freedom, I thought to myself.
We really didn’t understand what the political fuss was all about in Spain ‘til we left the country. To the people, we represented the world outside of Spain. The people were curious about us. We were always on display at gatherings and events, at family gatherings and cocktail parties. (We bought some wash ‘n’ hang clothes with our radio money so we could have some “dress up” clothes...) But the conversation was never about politics unless it was in a low whisper. But then, with my faulty Spanish I couldn’t understand most of it anyway. And as far as Rudi, well, as I said before, what else was new? The transition from Nazi politics to Franco politics wasn’t much of a jump. I guess he thought political oppression everywhere was pretty much the same. Something you just lived with live with, like a wheeze or something. It was just there. You didn’t try to fix it. I couldn’t wait for him to get to America, and to experience the rumors all Europeans had heard that there really is a country with freedom as its base and it was there to enjoy and defend. I began to appreciate the USA more and more, despite all its misgivings like my involvement with its international intelligence systems. Ignorance is bliss, they say, but traveling the world, as we were doing, some of my ignorance was being demolished.
When we talked with the Spanish students, I got the feeling they wanted to be assured that some day they would also be free like they had heard we were in the USA. Few adults ever really discussed politics with us, not only because they could get thrown in jail for doing it, but also because it was too complex for us to understand. We only knew if the familiar Franco poster was hanging on the wall, or one of the uniformed “Guardia Civil” were nearby, their demeanor changed. It was like they were little children and a stern, uncompromising, dictatorial father entered the room. It truly scared me, really, to see that happening in a country of people that looked like people from any other country. And as I say, it made me appreciated our Bill of Rights in the USA.
The next few days we spent in Madrid, looking about the town, going to friends’ homes for parties and dinners. On Saturday night we were attending a party at an apartment and one of the guests asked, “Why don’t you fellows go see a bullfight tomorrow? This was something that interested me. Back in France, in Nimes, we had tickets to attend a bullfight but before things really got started for real, the rains came and lasted all afternoon. They cancelled the event.
Have you ever seen one?” He asked.
Rudi answered that he had seen one in a film and didn’t care to go.
“But a film’s not the same as the real thing,” He laughed.
Rudi said, “No, I don’t want to watch one. It’s a slaughter however you see it. You pay to see death. It’s ugly enough without paying to see it. The guest interrupted, “I think death is very popular among those who don’t have to experience it. Death is the great mystery of our lives. We don’t like to talk about it, but we’re eager to learn anything about it we can. It always makes headlines, and next to sex, it’s the greatest seller of magazines. We Spaniards like to see it first hand. At your American and German boxing matches, I bet if you took those puffy gloves of your prize-fighters, and more boxers started getting slaughtered in your rings, you’d get more attendance at your boxing matches.”
“I can’t buy that,” Rudi returned.
“If they lowered the speed of your stock car races to, say, thirty-five m.p.h., what do you think would happen to the attendance?” He countered. Another guest interrupted, “ I don’t agree with either of you people. Those people don’t come to see death; they come to see a man defy death. The bull and the man have only one symbolic significance. The spectator vicariously puts himself in the ring with the bull, and enjoys escaping death along with the matador. The noblest thing a man can do in life is defy death.”
Jeeze! They went on and on like this. I grabbed my drink and left to listen to some flamenco guitar that was being played in the kitchen. The next day Rudi went one way; I went the other. Rudi elected to go to the zoo; I chose the bullfight and got a ticket up in the bleachers for a few cents. I thought at first I’d change it for a more expensive seat, on the shady side, but the man next to me struck up a conversation just about the time I had decided to leave.
Recognizing I wasn’t Spanish, he spoken to me in a combination of Spanish and French and a little English. “You like Spanish wine?” That was a friendly way to start a conversation, I thought to myself. “Yes,” I answered.
He pulled a leather bota from a basket that carried his lunch and some bicycle tools. “Take a drink!” he offered with a friendly chuckle. He was a weathered guy, probably from the Catalan side of Spain where they spoke a sort-of-a-French dialect. I imagined him in a messy white apron behind a counter in a butcher shop but I don’t know what his profession was. He was around 50 and probably visiting a relative in Madrid, and like me, came alone to the bullfight.
I think it impressed him when I was able to allow the stream of wine to drop squarely in my mouth.
“You like the bull fight?”
“I don’t know. This is my first time,” I said, handing him the bota. He took a drink and then wiped the wine from his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
“You’ve never seen one before?” he grinned at me, the way you do when you’re holding a birthday present for someone behind your back.
“No. Just in the movies.”
“Well, you’re lucky you sat here beside me so’s I can explain to you what’s go to happen.” He seemed over-anxious. Not in the sense that someone lets you know what a movie’s all about before you’ve even seen it, but more so the symbolic significance of what I was about to see.
“Son, you are going to witness man’s defiance of the terrible power of a one-thousand pound bull,” he began in a whisper, almost as if he were telling a ghost-story, and when he came to one-thousand pound bull, his eyes squinted, and he said it with reverence - - as though he were introducing the ghost.
We each took another drink of his wine. The sun was hot. I hoped the affair would start pretty soon. My friend, his name was Pedro, was so intense with his attempt to brief me on the “right way” to look at a bullfight that he leaned uncomfortably close to me. I felt a spray of wine-saliva splatter my right-cheek.
“And you know why you paid those forty pesetas?” he asked in a monotone whisper that droned out like E-sharp major.
I shook my head, and he placed his hand on my wrist, whispering, “To have a human confirm its superiority over the irresponsible force of that mighty one-thousand pound beast. To arrogantly defy death!” and then in a crescendo, his voice gradually raising in pitch, “- - But sometimes we witness the price in blood of a man, too sure of himself, and too overconfident of his lot!” Pedro passed me the wine bag again. I could see there wasn’t much left when I finished my drink. We had drunk nearly a liter.
An orchestra of about five pieces, much too small for the size of the stadium and much too loud for their talent struck up a song. The loudspeaker blasted it out. People had packed the stadium to capacity. The sun was beating down on me. My head felt light. My companion kept talking; I couldn’t understand all of what he was saying. The band suddenly broke into a special song as a long line of men came parading into the arena dressed in the fashion of the 17th century Spanish cavalry. I remembered I had once seen such a procession at the beginning of a circus.
I couldn’t help remembering my companion’s words and wondered if any of those elegantly dressed men were going to be killed that afternoon. There were some horses, too, with things like mattresses that hung down from their sides. Pedro was entranced with the procession. I wanted to ask my friend what these mattresses were, but I was afraid he would begin talking at length again. I decided I wouldn’t ask him any more questions. I would just sit and watch. I would have more fun just gazing in awe at the whole colorful aspect - - it wasn’t like watching a baseball game and needing a scorecard.
The group paraded over to a special booth in the stands and each of the men, in Ivanhoe fashion, paid courtly tribute to a group of celebrities who seemed to be officials for the contest.
Just about that time, Pedro, my companion stiffened up in anticipation and offered me the rest of the wine and told me to watch the east gate of the arena. The band stepped up the music to triple time. Three or four costumed-men with long magenta capes darted about the perimeter of the arena.
Then the blare of a trumpet across the arena loudspeakers.
Suddenly a massive, black, snorting bull with a red flower tacked to its neck shot out from the shadow of the east gate. For a moment it pranced in the dust of the center ring - - slowly observing the figures with capes who were dashing about. It looked like a heavy armor tank slowly revolving its turret, attempting to get a victim in the sights of its canon.
Then, with the agility of a gazelle, it made a start for one of the costumed men who stood motionless in the center of the arena. The others had fled. At first, the man gave no sign of recognition that the bull was charging upon him. I wanted to stand up and shout a warning to him. I was tense. Pedro was tense. The crowd was quiet. Pedro was quiet too. It was like when the batter in a baseball game hit a high, long fly ball that might go over the fence and the outfielder is rushing back to catch it. Even the beer vendors are quiet.
In the path of the onrushing bull and at the last moment, the man out there artfully waved his cape. With crafty agility, he nimbly sidestepped and snapped the cape next to his hip, causing the bull to ridiculously gore the thin air. Pedro and the crowd let out with a frenzied, “Olé!” The man began lightly tripping off sideways across the arena, but the bull wheeled around, spotted him, and thunderously gave chase. The crowd simultaneously roared a warning. The man broke into a run and narrowly escaped the bull’s massive horns by quickly slipping behind a strong wooden backboard barrier. A cloud of dust went up as the bull came to a sliding halt to avoid running headlong into it. The crowd let out a loud sigh of relief and a trickling of laughter.
Before the dust settled, for a brief instant I fancied the costumed man was me. It was April again; I was still back in Wuerzburg, and the bull appeared as the Army Captain in my unit, my parents, and my army buddies who all teamed together to discourage me from going on this motor scooter trip. The strong wooden barrier was me. It was my determination and my curiosity all rolled into this wooden barrier that the bull was trying to bust down. It was my personal conviction that even this monstrous bull was not going to dissuade me. For a moment, like a flash, it really was encouraging to feel that way. But then the next flash that came to me was the thought that maybe something would happen to me that I should’ve avoided that would kill me or mutilate me. I tried not to let me see myself in the next picture: a vision of me walking away from the bull by disappearing into the long dark corridor that goes back into the interior of the stadium. This all happened in a matter of seconds, but as our world trip went on, the scene flashed before me several times when I was offered the opportunity to call it quits. Instead, like the bullfighter I would step back out into the open arena.
The dust settled, and when the bull saw he was unable to reach the man behind the barrier, took off after the others who were running about the center of the arena. I guessed this was sort of a preliminary ceremony. Like the show before the main rock concert starts. The one you paid your money for. And the next one turned out to be a preliminary event too. The two horses with the mattresses on the sides came to enter ring. I suddenly noticed one of the riders looked familiar. I looked twice. I thought I saw on top of one of the horses my army companion, Rick Tolman, the one guy back in Wuerzburg who encouraged me to make this journey I was on.
And this was the horse and rider the bull chose to attack. In frustrated anger the bull powered up and ran full force into the horse and knocked the horse off its feet. Boom! The toreador fell to the ground. “Get up Rick! Get up! “ I felt myself saying. He looked odd, defenseless, not atop the horse any longer; he must have felt naked. The bull spotted him and ran towards him. Rick got up and took off in a sprint and the bull chased him ‘til he sprang to safety over one of the guard railings of the arena. The horse had regained its feet by this time, and the spectators went into a fiendish roar when the bull ran back and knocked it down again. The toro was doing a good job of pleasing everyone, and it felt like the crowd wanted him to win.
The toreador came once more from behind the wooden barrier and jumped on his horse.
He rode around near the barricade as though he was afraid to go out in center ring. The bull sought him out and the toreador began poking the bull with a long pointed pole that looked like a harpoon. This infuriated the animal, and he slammed the horse against the guardrail viciously, until the rider toppled behind the barricade once more. The bull then found another horse and tried to topple him also but with no luck. The bull became tired of chasing the horses and stopped still in center ring. The band started up again. This time the music and the cadence was a happy kind of taunting march. The bull stood in center ring, snorting, looking for a fight. The red rose on his shoulder was fluttering proudly in the afternoon wind.
The first four men apparently had been unable to worry the bull to death by wavering their capes; the men on the horses were unable to poke him to death with their long poles. The bull stood triumphant. He looked for challengers.
My mental vision now transferred to my companion, Pedro, and the people of Spain and their unresolved yearning for change in their country, especially the students. I saw the bull strutting in defiance of the crowd. I saw him as Franco. I don’t even know if Pedro saw the drama this way, it was just my imagination, and that’s certainly free, anyone can imagine whatever they want, even in Spain.
The blare of a lone trumpet streamed over the loudspeaker.
Suddenly a new figure, without a cape, without a horse, armed only with two small sticks decorated in colorful crepe paper, walked calmly into the arena. I wanted to stand and shout a warning to him. I wanted to warn him of the dangerous killer bull. He kept walking defiantly to the center of the ring. My companion, Pedro, seemed calm for the situation. He was on the edge of his seat as I suppose most everyone else in the stadium was.
This was the matador.
And then the bull caught sight of him. Neither moved. Armed only with those two small sticks, the matador would never be able to combat the bull on equal terms. I feared for his life. The crowd then started chanting in unison, “Alfonzo! Alfonzo.” I joined in.
He then placed his heels together and raised his arms until they were level with his shoulders, a stick dangling from each hand. He looked like a Christ-toreador at the cross. And then the bull gave a start from the other side of the arena. At first I thought the man didn’t see the bull was coming. The man didn’t move; and then he turned around and snapped himself into the form of a cross. The bull charged. When the bull was within ten yards, the man ran toward him! I wanted to close my eyes. At the moment the bull’s head and horns dropped low for a gorging sweep, the man quickly changed his angle of approach. In this brief moment, he thrust the sharp pointed sticks into the bull’s bowed shoulders and passed off with amazing agility to the side. He thrust one hand high into the air, leaping like a ballet dancer. This caused a roar to go up from the stadium. A stick was protruding from the back of the bull’s head. The man had only two sticks left. Suddenly the crowd had switched its sympathies, and now seemed to be against the bull. The man executed his amazing performance two more times, and each time miraculously whizzed by the deadly tips of the bull’s horns.
I was stiff and upright. Pedro grabbed my wrist. I looked over to him, but he seemed frozen by the whole performance. “Now comes the kill,” he said, unfolding his arms and pointing to the lone toreador who was walking out to the center. He unfolded a brilliant red cape. He strutted with great poise, and when he reached the center on the ring he paid no attention to the bull, who had been curiously eyeing him all this time. Instead, he turned to the crowd, and politely removing his hat made a courtly bow to us.
But then, without warning, the bull made a frightening charge at him. I wanted to shout again; I couldn’t close my eyes - - I had to watch. He merely leaned in the direction of the bull, held the red cape at a graceful angle, and with quick ease snapped the cape from the bull’s reach as it came rushing by, slashing with its death-dealing horns. The crowd let out a roar of approval. I hollered with them. The man alone in center ring nodded to us and continued his calmness as though little of concern had happened.
The bull became desperate. He had met his match. The sting of his wounds had caused him to answer the insult, not to flee in terror. A dramatic defiance of death began as the matador executed passes with casual finesse. A terrestrial Moby Dick, a modern day wrath of the Erinyes was loose in the arena, and in the face of possible death, a man was going to kill him for us all. We roared!
The ritual continued. Sometimes arrogantly, sometimes compassionately, the matador would draw the bull past him. The bull seemed to tire or was this a ruse? Had the bull been here before? Did he know something the matador did not know? The bull seemed smart, even calculating. It made all of us tense. Only last week, a matador had been gored to death.
The sun beat down with intensity as we watched the huge animal slash within millimeters of the man’s body. Then, suddenly it happened. The bull caught his pant leg or foot somehow, and tossed him like a rag doll disgracefully into the air. He fell to the side of the animal. The crowd let out a hushed gasp of horror. The bull paused for a moment as the man lay motionless on the ground. The assistants rushed to the center of the ring, frantically waving their capes to distract the bull. The matador slowly stood up, raised an arm that was not broken, and motioned to his companions to retreat to the sides. It surprised me to see the man was able to get up. He no longer seemed like the confident matador I had watched only a few moments before. His costume was smudged with dust, blood and the bull’s saliva. Why did he ask his assistants to retreat? I was shocked to see him again gesturing to his assistants to fall back. Was this suicide? Had he lost it? He was bleeding. Had he reached the precipice and was ready to jump to his death? Perhaps the wet crimson tear on his leg had left him bewildered. His apparent broken left arm was dangling. I could see him grimace; he limped and for a moment stepped back. We all could see this. No one spoke. There were only moments left in his life. I could see a man offering himself to death, to unrealized glory, to anonymity. The record books of Spanish matador immortality would place him in the annals of defeat, of a quitter, of the deceased. His family, his relatives, his country would be sucked into the black pit of matador failure.
The bull stood dumb and motionless over to the side, panting, spewing saliva from its nose and mouth, almost unaware of what he had done. Then, as if out of instinct, he charged again, ready for the kill.
It all happened so quickly.
What I saw was this. The bull charged full speed for the kill. The matador, in the face of death, suddenly found his composure and executed a pass by the bull as graceful as his first. It was a near miss. The bull stopped short. It turned awkwardly around and walked face to face up to the man. The matador showing neither anger nor fear, with his remaining good hand, removed a sword he had concealed beneath the cape. The bull gawked in exhausted wonderment at the man. And then the matador as if he were about to snuff out an altar candle, raised the sword in pompous ceremony and thrust it between the bull’s shoulder blades. Direct hit! The bull gasped one last snort of a breath and fell thunderously to the arena floor; a cloud of dust obscured the pair.
The crowd stood up in frenzy. Hats began flying out into the arena, pocketbooks, binoculars, lunch baskets, my companion threw his bota. I wanted to throw my camera. A wild frenzy! Uncontrollable! Mad! The dust settled in the middle of the ring. A short man ran over to the bull and plunged a tiny knife into the back of its head. With arms raised like an arrogant dominus vobiscum figure of Christ, the man stood turning to the crowd in the center of the arena as if he were gathering the surge of admiration that radiated inward to him from the multitude. And then he fell to the ground. His assistants and a doctor rushed to him.
The stadium was in hushed silence. Unbelievable. Slowly the murmurs started and then the yelping and hollering, sobbing and crying. Was he dead? Would he survive? Alonzo. He wasn’t very well known except for his family and relatives of course. He will long be remembered in Madrid. I learned later from a pen pal that he did survive but never returned to the profession.
Now you might say, “Rohn, you couldn’t see that well out into the arena. You couldn’t see he had a broken arm, a flesh wound on his leg, you couldn’t see his expression.”
Well, that may be so. But that’s what I saw. Something you can’t explain. When you go to a prizefight, or a stock car race, you see some things. You just see some things. And that’s why you go to those things. You just see things.
NEXT: On to Portugal