EL TORO

Guest story by John K. Nixon)
Many years ago Life Magazine, an illustrated weekly that was renowned for its photography, always featured inside the back cover a full-page black-and-white photo depicting some odd or otherwise newsworthy situation. Three stand out in my memory. One was taken by a Scandinavian tourist on a ferry in Scotland of the rear view of an elderly Scotsman leaning over the ship's rail. Just as the photo was taken a gust of wind lifted the back of the man's kilt, thereby answering that burning question of what a Scot wears under his kilt! A second memorable photo featured a three-tier driving range in Japan. Taken from the side it showed a veritable white blizzard of golf balls being driven by scores of Japanese businessmen enjoying a weekend break from their stressful working lives.

The picture that really caught my attention was taken outside a bullring somewhere in Spain. A matador had been gored by a bull and was being carried on the shoulders of fans through a pressing crowd of admirers. Ashen-faced and eyes closed, the young matador had his head tilted back with the jacket of his bloodstained traje des luces open at the front. Clearly visible in the photo was the long arm of a fan stealthily removing a wallet from the inside jacket pocket of the hapless victim! Besides marvelling at the curious coincidence captured on film, I could not help feeling a lack of compassion for the poor man. It seemed to me that at least one doomed Spanish bull had finally exacted a measure of revenge.

At that time I knew little about bull fighting beyond what I had read in Hemingway's novels. Later I was to have the opportunity to live for over six years in Spain. Although I have never been to a bullfight, I have glimpsed excerpts broadcast in lurid colour on Spanish television. The bullfight typically begins with a proud and defiant animal charging into the ring. As the fight progresses, first the picadors, mounted on horseback and wielding long lances, skillfully sidestep the charging bull to sink the points of their lances into the exposed muscular tissue behind he bull's lowered head. Other assistants (banderilleros) sidle up to plant short decorated harpoons (bandilleros) into the massive shoulders. Gradually the bull weakens and is no longer able to raise its head as the sinews in neck and shoulders are sliced and severed. By the end of this unequal contest this once impressive beast, bleeding at the nose and mouth and staggering on uncertain legs, is still trying to charge as the matador with a deft flourish of his magenta cape delivers the coup de grace with a dramatic thrust of his sword, entering behind the shoulder and stabbing downwards to pierce the heart. It is by any definition little more than the public torture and humiliation of a magnificent creature!

Portuguese bullfights are more humane, I understand. There the tips of the bull's horns are blunted and young toreadors attempt to grab the horns of the charging bull to wrestle it to the ground. In Mexico too I believe that the bull lives to fight another day. Once, on impulse, I drove over 400 km from Madrid to Pamplona for the San Fermin festival and its famous Running of the Bulls. The actual bull running was all over in a matter of minutes. The rest of that weekend I was treated to an ebullient display of Basque nationalism and scenes of widespread public intoxication!

The closest I came to experiencing the excitement of charging bulls happened in a small town called Arevalo, north of Madrid. My wife Yuni was taking a week-long intensive Spanish language course there and was billeted with an elderly Spanish widow. I drove from Madrid to collect Yuni at the end of the course and was invited into the widow's apartment to have tea. It transpired that that very afternoon there was to be the annual Running of the Bulls through the streets of Arevalo and our hostess invited us to view the event from her balcony. A 15th century Royal decree apparently banned all such events in Spain except at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona. Nevertheless we learned that several Spanish towns organize such "illegal" events while the authorities turn a collective blind eye.

The balcony afforded an unobstructed view of a street on the route which the bulls would follow on their way to the local bullring. All side streets had been barricaded to force the stampeding bulls to follow the prescribed route. After a few minutes we sensed growing excitement from some of the foolhardy spectators lining the street. Suddenly a group of six or seven bulls appeared at the end of the street bunched together and running with lowered heads as a few young Spanish hot bloods ran beside them taunting them with scarves and other articles of clothing. In a drumming of hooves and a cloud of dust, the animals thundered by, apparently oblivious to the spectators and the taunting youths.

Just as we prepared to reenter the apartment a lone bull, separated from the main herd, suddenly appeared at the far end of the street. Apparently confused and unsure of which way to proceed, the animal charged repeatedly at various young men goading it from the sidelines. Finally, directly in front of our vantage point a young daredevil, probably still in his teens, leaped in front of the bull waving a red tee shirt in provocation. The animal lowered its head and charged at its tormentor, smashing into a concrete wall. Momentarily stunned, it backed away, leaving a smear of blood on the concrete. Shaking its massive head, it turned to one side, facing the window of a wine shop. Glimpsing its reflection in the window, it pored the ground with one hoof, then accelerated and, with a mighty leap, crashed through the window into the shop! Leaving a trail of smashed bottles and spilled vino, it stormed out of the door onto a side street, where it was free to roam unhindered by barriers. Later we heard that the unfortunate animal was corralled beside a nearby river and dispatched with a pistol.

It all occurred so quickly that we had difficulty at first comprehending what had happened. Then, as the impact of what we had just witnessed sank in, I felt a surge of exultation. It was a magnificent gesture of defiance on the part of a doomed animal, a last desperate break for freedom from the public torment that it had suffered.

Only later did I realize that I had watched the unfolding drama with my camera dangling unused at my side. Just suppose I had snapped that amazing scene as the bull exploded through the wine shop window! Better still if I could have captured the entire sequence with a video camera.

What a wonderful spread it would have made inside the back cover of Life! Better even than that memorable photo of the matador and the pickpocket!


BLO scanned 20060515 - stories
Thanks, John! Curiously awaiting your next story and grandchild!

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