Pamplona, Summer of '74

by Andrew Gordon

The monument stands just outside the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, a few feet from the spot where the runners will come streaming through tomorrow morning, sprinting for their lives, with the herd of bulls thundering hard on their heels. "A la memoria de Ernest Hemingway," the inscription reads, "Escritor norteamericano, Premio Nobel en Literatura. Amigo de este pueblo de Pamplona y admirador de sus fiestas." Above it juts the iron head, massive, weary, hollow-eyed, frozen forever. He broods over the scene like a high priest over a blood sacrifice. If that bearded, patriarchal head were still alive, he could hear the crowd scream and the bulls hammer by him on the morning run. Or even the quiet murmur passing around him now, as Spaniards stroll through the plaza under the shade of the trees toward the afternoon's corrida. I stand in the long shadow cast by the statue. It is over half a century since Hemingway came down the pike to the fiesta of San Fermin. I have come to Pamplona, to the Ernest Hemingway Memorial Drinking Orgy, a young acolyte eager for initiation into the mysteries. The crowd walks past the monument without noticing it.

It is standing room only in the restaurant and at the bar. Mobs at five separate tables roar out five separate songs. The door swings open, and more young men enter, dressed in white shirts and white pants, with a red sash around the waist, blood-red handkerchief and red beret, arms linked, shouting and dancing. They are members of the pe¤as, the local social clubs, and during the week of the festival, they rule the town. Sweat drips off the waiter's face and dribbles down his neck as he elbows through the crowd, holding aloft a tray. We clink our glasses and drink another round of toasts. "Salud y pesetas" fills the air. Then we pound our fists on the table and cry out for "Mas sangria!" and "Mas vino!" The boys in red and white begin the song, and soon the whole room sways and sings together:

Uno de enero, dos de febrero, tres de marzo, cuatro de abril
Cinco de mayo, seis de junio, siete de julio, San Fermin!
A Pamplona hemos de ir,
Con una bota, con una bota y un calcet¡n.
El que se levanta para las seis,
Delante de los toros correr .
San Fermin, que todo lo ve y le bendecir .
Las vacas del pueblo ya se han escapa'o.
Riau, riau!
Y ha dicho el alcalde,
Que no salga nadie,
Que no anden con bromas,
Que es muy mal gana'o.

The afternoon bullfights have ended and thousands of people line the streets for blocks. We're dancing with the pe¤as, celebrating the successful completion of the corrida. The drums pound and the horns play, the band marches, and we chant to the music, throw our arms up in ecstasy and jig back and forth. There is a radiation of animal heat and the stench of sweat and wine. The bota passes, is lifted, and a stream of red wine arcs out and lands where it will, beard, cheek, mouth, neck, shoulders, chest, we keep marching and dancing and swallowing as we dance, the bag passing from hand to hand. The drums pound louder now and the pack of dancers grows thicker as men and women push through the crowds and join the parade, flinging their arms into the air and dancing a jota, a Spanish jig, or, if they are foreigners, linking hands with a row of dancers and pumping their legs up and down in ragged, drunken imitation. One group hoists onto their shoulders a frenzied boy, his hair plastered to his forehead, his eyes shadowed with fatigue, his white shirt stained with dirt and sweat and wine to the color of dried blood. He lifts the bota above his head and squirts wine into his mouth as he sways on their shoulders, then raises his arms high in a wild gesture of victory.

Three in the morning in the Plaza del Castillo, and the exhausted waiters are finishing their twelve-hour shift, clearing off the glasses and bottles and crushed cigarette butts, stacking up the chairs, shaking the tourists who have passed out on the tables and shooing them away.

An impromptu soccer game is being played in the street and the plaza with a beach ball. Like the festival, the game appears to have no rules: the ball is lofted, someone catches it and attempts to sprint, the mob piles on top of him.

Lone men and a few couples are stretched out on park benches, scattered across the grass in sleeping bags, or sprawled on the steps of the gazebo, like warriors crumpled in death agonies.

A few solitary Spaniards prowl the tables of the outdoor cafes and poke among the sleepers, searching for easy foreign women.

A single obsessed musician marches through the arcades, pounding his drum.

I stumble across the plaza with some friends, looking for an open bar. After twenty-four hours in constant motion, we have passed beyond fatigue into hypnotic trance, not so much walking as sleep-walking. This is no mere festival, it is an endurance contest, a trial of men and women.

As we swing to the top of the giant ferris wheel, our eyes are glazed with exhaustion and terror, our knuckles white from gripping the bars. While we sway, suspended in space, we try not to look down from the wide-open basket into the enormous night below, and we begin singing at the top of our voices to keep from being scared out of our wits:

Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores,
Porque, cantando, se alegran,
Cielito Lindo, los corazones

-- we sing and we gasp and we scream as the basket plunges down, down, picking up speed and wobbling from side to side like a desperate balloon as we plummet to the earth, and when we hit bottom, I see the operator grinning at the controls, and I want to scream out loud, "No!" but he grins and yanks a lever that whips us upward in reverse, and as we wobble and soar, shaking in our seats, we sing even louder, shrieking now:

Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores

Bill and Jeff have corralled two teenage Spanish girls at a dance in the Plaza del Castillo, and they fend off some local drunks who are clumsily propositioning the girls. "No la molestes," says Bill, "es mi hermana."

"Si, y esta chica," adds Jeff, "es mi madre."

The dumbfounded borrachos stretch out their arms apologetically and lurch off to other potential conquests. The tiny girls are amazed at the extraordinary height of Bill and Jeff, six feet and six three, respectively. "O, no, in our country," Bill explains, "we are actually very short."

"Yes, subnormal," agrees Jeff.

"But there is hope for my friend," Bill tells them. "He has not yet reached his full growth. He is only twelve years old."

I'm staggering in the darkness behind the restaurant at the amusement park, looking for a place to take a piss. I'm walking over a mound of rubble, broken glass and endless bottle caps. It feels like Calvary.

The sun has surprised us by coming up again. Somehow we made it through the night. We sit on the concrete benches in the upper reaches of the Plaza de Toros. The dawn chill has evaporated, and we begin to sweat and to unbutton our shirts as the fierce sun beats down.

We are waiting for the entrance of the runners and the bulls into the arena; they will come bursting through after completing the encierro, the 800 meter run between wooden barricades through the city streets. As the clock edges toward eight, we crowd forward to the rail for a better view. We are looking straight down at the arena gates. At four past the hour, a roar goes up as the first of the horde of men sprints through, breaks in two directions, and dives over the barriers to safety. Behind them follows a human flood, a dense pack of men pouring through the portals. Then a break in the flow, until we see a few desperate, solitary, terrified men plunge through, running as though the devil himself were at their heels. One stops dead and swivels to stare back with insane bravado, his wild hair flying. He looks set to wrestle the beast barehanded, but someone shoves him out of harm's way. The pack follows thick and fast, then a lone runner staggers and trips as the crowd screams with horror, but another runner pulls him to his feet and hoists him over the wall to safety. Two brown steers gallop right behind, followed by two heavy bulls, black as hell, kicking up dust. I have never before seen them this close up; they are gigantic and diabolically powerful, their huge curving horns as sharp at the tip as a killer's switchblade. Four men wave gaudy colored capes to keep the beasts moving straight toward the enclosure on the other side of the arena. We applaud wildly.

More follows: a fresh pack of runners races in behind the herd, then another clot of men rushes through the gates and splits to safety, seconds from death as the next pair of bulls roars in behind them like mad black locomotives. One beast hesitates and turns, lusting for more, lowers his horns and charges toward the panicked, scrambling runners, as the spectators gasp, but at the last moment, a flashing cape distracts the bulls. The remaining beasts gallop into the enclosure, with the last of the runners jogging behind in exhaustion and exhilaration. A great cheer goes up.

The show is not over. The last act is a team of medics, with bodies slumped between them, hustling to the emergency room inside the arena.

"That was thrilling!" a girl exclaims.

"You'll never catch me doing that," says Jeff, shaking his head.

"Hell, no," agrees Bill. "You have to be out of your mind."

"I'm not so sure," I say. "I'd like to risk it once, just to see how it feels."

"Would you really?" asks the girl.

"Suit yourself," says Bill.

We're in a sea of thousands on the dance floor, sweating bodies squeezed together like a subway mob at evening rush hour, and the band plays something so loud it is not heard, only felt as vibrations pulsing through the body, and the crowd is chanting something whose words we do not know, but it does not matter, and our arms are uplifted as one and we sway and chant together as one gigantic body oozing heat and sweat, and we can feel ourselves being melted down into the mass.

The fights are supposed to be all sold out, but a Spanish friend scores a ticket for me outside the arena. The first two fights are lousy, the bulls sluggish, the Spanish matadors torpid and inept. The picador is booed like an umpire for bleeding the beast too much, and the estocada is botched so the poor creature must be stabbed repeatedly before he topples over like a helpless mound of meat.

"No one expects much from the corridas at Pamplona," explains an aficionado seated on my right. "This is just a formality. The real show is outside the arena."

But the crowd is hungry for something more, and they finally get it: a hotshot young Mexican matador and his moment of glory on nationwide TV. He handles the cape so the charging bull must graze his side. The crowd chants and the pe¤as sing, rocking from side to side, turning the stadium into one huge red and white banner flapping in the breeze. The kill is messy but the whole performance good enough for two ears and a standing ovation. As they applaud, they fling flowers and a few hats. He bows gracefully, gathers the flowers, and skims the hats back into the stands. In a final ceremony, the leaders of the pe¤as embrace the Mexican and tie red kerchiefs around his neck, and one exuberant young American in an orange t-shirt leaps into the ring and hugs the matador before he is led away.

Two clown matadors put on a show for the kids, teasing and mocking a young bull, sweating in their wigs and greasepaint in the sun, turning the padded bottoms of their baggy pants to his horns, toying with the bleeding and bewildered creature until they put him out of his misery with a swordthrust.

Four a.m. and we're trying to make it nonstop through another night to see the bulls run at eight. We stand at the bar downing quick glasses of beer until the air becomes too thick with smoke and heat to breathe, so we move into the street and group around the public fountain to splash water on each other. A band parades through, halts at the intersection, and begins a serenade. The music rapidly collects a crowd. We link arms and dance in a circle, then swing each other wildly, grab your partner, dosey-do, men and women, men and men, women and women. Now the entire awake population of the town appears to have gathered on the spot. Spaniards stare in amazement as half-dressed young foreign couples embrace and tumble in the street. Next we are dancing piggyback, hopping leapfrog, and someone pops a bottle of champagne and douses the entire crowd.

"Hey, man, you Americans?" a guy with a knapsack asks us. "We just got into town. You know where we can crash?"

"Sure," says Bill. "Any sidewalk."

"Or follow us to the campsite," says Jeff.

"Say, how's the festival so far?"

"Lots of broken glass and vomit, man," says Bill.

A crowd of runners stays in the arena after the encierro, and vaquillas, young bulls about the size of a small tractor, usually with padded horntips, are released to charge at random through the men, who scatter and dodge. A few unfortunate young men get butted and thrown, but when the bull begins to falter, the mob grows bold; they close in and swat him on the rump with rolled-up newspapers. Some make ragged passes with capes of scraps of burlap, and one or two energetic types even rush in to take the bull by the horns until he drags them across the arena and frantically tosses them aside. Finally a gang wrestles the young beast to the ground, and the defeated animal is chased back into the pen.

We watch this dangerous amateur sport for a while and then gather our group together. One Spanish boy has strayed, and we search, only to discover him stretched out in the upper stands, drugged with wine and weariness. We have to prop him between us to move him out of the arena. All night the Spanish boy has been promising to show a German youth the way to go home; the German had become separated in the night from his companions, and only the Spaniard seems to know their address in town. Now he is in no condition to lead anyone anywhere. We try to coax the address and the directions out of him, but he is too dazed to respond. He gives us the street name, then passes out, and we have to rouse him once more to give us the number. Somehow we lose him again in the crowd shoving their way downstairs. We search all the bathrooms but never see him again.

Our young group has swollen to a dozen: Americans, Canadians, and one each from Chile, Austria, and South Africa. We haggle with the waitress and the cook in a restaurant and strike a bargain for cheap dinners for everyone. The meat on the plates looks strangled, lying in a pool of nameless sauces. We drink bottle after bottle of house wine to kill the taste, and we sing:

Nosotros queremos mas,
Nosotros queremos mas,
Mas y mas y mas y
Mucho mas!

We displease the owner, who places an index finger over her tightly sealed lips and hisses at us, "Mas bajo" ("Lower"). We lower ourselves under the table and continue singing at the top of our lungs.

On my way out of the encierro, I meet an American hauling a movie camera.

"Shit man, did you see what happened in the streets?" he asks me. "It was a fucking massacre!"

"No, we were inside the stadium." But we saw them haul in the bodies. "What happened?"

"Well, everything was running smooth until they got almost to the gates. There was this one bull, he got separated somehow, freaked out and reversed; when he charged, people fell all over each other, there was a goddamn human pileup. He was trampling and goring everything in sight. A fucking bloody mess!

"I was real lucky, though, I was in prime position. I caught it all with my zoom lens."

"Yeah, I guess you were lucky. What do you plan to do now with the film?"

"Sell it, man, what do you think? Bet you ABC Wide World of Sports will snap this up!"

Somehow I have lived through five dawns in Pamplona and never run with the bulls. My last morning in town approaches. I have been in better shape: my throat is clogged with dust swallowed at an all-night dance ground; my bowels are shaky from a week of wine and sleeplessness. At 5 a.m., I separate myself from my friends, who are going to crash in a campground outside town. If I leave now, I will never make it back for the run at eight.

I sit in a bar and brace myself with two cups of hot broth. My stomach is wrenched with violent cramps, and I rush to the men's room. I spend a long time in that dingy, sepulchral closet--too long. My gastrointestinal tract is taking its final, aching revenge. As a last insult, the only paper left is yesterday's news.

I splash some water in my face. In the murky splinter of a mirror, my cheeks have the scorched stubble left after a forest fire, and my eyes are the eyes of a stuffed trout.

I need badly to lie down somewhere; I wander to the park behind the Plaza de Toros and search for a dry patch of lawn. The grass is packed with sleepers and restless drunks. I button my shirt to the collar, zip my jacket, and stretch out on the remains of yesterday's front page (Headline: "Six Minutes of Anguish and Six to the Hospital." One of them was to die a week later).

The ground is lumpy, the cold gnaws at me, and the dew quickly soaks through the paper. Cars whoosh down the avenue a few yards away. I hear a French couple giggling in a nearby sleeping bag. Drunks parade through, chanting raucously.

As I lie stiffly on my back on the damp ground, hunched against the cold, I stare up through the trees and see the first pale light begin to streak the sky. I feel like a prisoner about to face the firing squad at dawn. I imagine this solitary ordeal has been the preparation for the run to come: to steel me to enter the cave of the Minotaur, to look death in the eye and stare it down.

I can't sleep. I lean on my elbows and see the night's derelicts scattered over the lawn like casualties strewn across a battlefield. At half past six, a gang of local rowdies stride through with batons made of tightly rolled newspaper and rouse the campers from their sleeping bags. "Vamos a los toros!" they shout. "Ya es la hora!" They sweep across the park, swatting each sleeper with their batons, and singing in ragged chorus:

El que se levanta para las seis,
Delante de los toros correr .
Las vacas del pueblo
Ya se han escapado,
Y ha dicho el alcalde,
Que no salga nadie . . .
Riau, riau!

I brush myself off and wander past the Plaza de Toros through the streets, along the route that the bulls will follow at eight. Maybe I'll just see what it looks like and then leave; after all, I haven't slept in a good twenty-four hours, and no one is forcing me to run.

With an hour to go, spectators are flocking the route, lining up for a bullseye view. The balconies are jammed with cheerful people chattering to each other, as if they were waiting for the Easter parade. Several youths clamber up onto the high windowsills and cling to the metal grillwork. I wonder if they mean to leap from there and ride the bulls bareback? Most of the storefronts are already boarded over, and at the intersections, workmen pound together the heavy wooden railings that will fence in the herd.

I wander several more blocks. Men are beginning to fill the streets all along the way, some strolling casually, others slumped over or sitting on the curb. I wonder how some of them intend to run; they look like they have spent the night huddled in a doorway. At the bottom of the steep Cuesta de Santo Domingo, I come to the start of the encierro. I stand with the crowd to peer through the pen and catch a glimpse of the beasts. Yes, they're in there, all right, jet black and gigantic, shuffling and pawing the ground, hungry for the taste of fresh blood.

Police wave us away from the barrier. We huddle together nervously and glance at the closeups in the morning paper of yesterday's carnage: a front-page photo of a boy being impaled on a set of horns. His arms spread out as the bull catches him in the back and lifts him off the ground. There is an expression of surprise and agony on his face: he looks crucified. But he has survived to be interviewed about his experience from his hospital bed; he is a local hero now.

We swap what small information we have and question veterans of the encierro for advice. One blonde kid in a ragged sweatshirt has run every day this week. His leg was stamped on by a bull in the human pileup at the arena gate, and it still aches, but he has not stopped running. Bulls are very stupid animals, he tells us (and what about human beings, I wonder?). They only want to keep moving forward, following the steers, and they will jump or step over obstacles in their path. If they get separated from the herd, they may panic and charge anything that moves. Don't wave your arms, because sudden motion attracts them. Swat them on the rump with a rolled-up newspaper to break their charge, or toss the paper aside to distract them.

If they're coming straight at you, he continues, you've got three choices. One, run like crazy. Two, fling yourself to the ground and don't move; let the bull walk over you if you must. Or three, press yourself flat against a wall and keep still as death.

We ask if you can escape through the wooden railings. If you're running in safety and try to jump the fence, he tells us, the crowd on the other side will push you back; but if you're in real danger, they will help to haul you over.

Finally, we want to know, "How do you feel each day before you run?"

"Scared shitless, man, and you better believe it, 'cause I'd be a fool if I didn't."

As the time nears for the opening rocket, there is a tightness, a camaraderie, and also an uneasiness about us like raw recruits awaiting their first taste of combat. It occurs to me that it is too late now for anyone to back out gracefully; we'd feel embarrassed in the face of our new-found friends.

"Have you seen them run?" a newcomer to Pamplona asks me.

"Yes, the other day in the Plaza de Toros."

"What did it look like?"

"Scariest fucking thing I've ever seen."

"Then why do you want to run?"

"You only live once."

"Yeah," someone adds. "And you only die once."

We start figuring the odds: if only six are wounded out of a thousand runners, that's only .6 per cent. But for the six who get it, the odds are a hundred per cent against them.

"What are we doing here?" we begin to moan, almost in unison. My stomach plunges and my knees quiver, and I remember the last time I felt that way: in a demonstration at Berkeley, waiting for the riot squad to charge with clubs swinging.

As the hour approaches, we begin to edge slowly forward. The army around me seems to be mostly in their late teens and early twenties. The police are supposed to remove the obviously underaged or visibly inebriated, but as I glance over the crowd, I spot a number of ringers. Women are forbidden to run, but with the length of hair on most of the group today, I imagine it would be easy for them to sneak in.

We start to roll our newspapers into tight batons, and bend down to tuck our pantlegs to keep from tripping. Since this is our first run, we decide to start well forward. Bulls run twice as fast as men. Let the veterans risk the full 800 meters; we'll stick with the chicken run. As the deadline approaches, we are packed together on the Estafeta, a mob of twitchy Daniels in the lion's den. Some of us are making jokes, and some are making the sign of the cross.

The crowd of spectators is piled ten deep against the fence. The stadium can't be more than three blocks away, but it seems a thousand miles. I wish myself out of here, but when I open my eyes, I'm still there. There is only one way out now: straight ahead through the gates of the arena.

The first rocket explodes with a bang, signal for the runners to get going, but we hesitate a few seconds until we hear the second blast, signal that the bulls have been released. Instantly, somebody screams, "They're coming!" and somebody else yells, "Let's go!"

I'm on the run, there is no stopping and no looking back with the mob around me stampeding in the same direction; I barrel down the route, and although I have no idea how close the bulls are behind me, I imagine the thunder of their hoofs hot on my heels and feel the fiery breath of their nostrils on the back of my neck, so I run as if a Mack Truck were bearing down on me in the middle of a highway, I run like crazy, my blood surging and my arms and legs pumping mechanically, my breath coming short and a stitch pinching my side; I ran the same way once at San Francisco State University when the mounted police came swooping down like Cossacks, ran through sheer survival instinct; the mind shuts down and an automatic pilot takes over, with a single categorical imperative: "Haul ass out of here!" Damn, but if anyone trips, it could set off a chain of carnage!

I'm accelerating, sprinting breathlessly at top speed, but I feel submerged in a slow-motion dream, several fathoms under water and thrashing helplessly for air. At any moment, my death will reach me; I can feel the horns now, piercing my back. I think I am going to black out.

But now I'm blinking in the bright sunshine of the ring as the crowd screams above me. Head to the right, I remember someone said, and I dash to the high red wooden barrier on my right and vault to safety along with a dozen others, pulling a leg muscle in my eagerness to jump. Now I can breathe and look back for the first time, and I see the other runners speed through the gate, a pause, and then the bulls gallop through, trampling the dust.

Within a minute, it is all over, and no medics follow. I find my new comrades of the run, and we grin and hug each other in the morning sunshine like victorious warriors.

On my way out of town, I stopped again to salute the statue of Hemingway. With those sad, hollow eyes, he looked to me now like a General surveying the ruins of a battlefield after the guns are silent, wondering whether he has lost or won.

"Well, Papa Hemingway, you old bastard," I asked him, "have you had enough?"

He hadn't.

"See you next year, then."