The Running of the Bulls, July 1978

220px-Sanfermines_Vaquillas_Pamplona_03Some people are no good. Others are good –but not for you. Then there are those who are good for you but only for the briefest of moments. Such was a girl I once knew.

When my son told me he would be passing through Paris, I asked him to look her up. I told him where he could find her – but I doubted she would still be there.

My last glimpse of her was on a subway platform. She was waving goodbye. The station was big and she was a tiny girl, no larger than a mouse it seemed. She wore a red beret, a black skirt and a white blouse, and as my train pulled away from the station, her long black hair lay against the blouse and was visible from far down the track.

At the time, she was dead-drunk and it broke my heart to leave her like that. She was so drunk she needed to steady herself against the station wall to wave good-bye and that is how I remember her.

From my telling of it, this may seem a sad good-bye, but it was not. We were both laughing as hard as people can laugh. It is a good memory to hang onto: a beautiful woman so drunk that everything in the world seemed a comedy.

Like many a boy meets girl story, ours began in a bar. Our story is different, though because she was never in that bar, I met her later but our story begins there.

I had gone to Pamplona, Spain for The Running of the Bulls and believe me, the best part of the festival of San Fermin is not the bulls – it is in the bars and I found the best in the city.

Walking in, you would think it a small place. The bar ran along one wall and there was barely enough room to sit — but an opening in the back revealed a stone staircase that led to a cellar where there was another bar and more room. In the back of that room was another staircase leading to another cellar and like Dante’s vision of hell, each level led to one below and the lower one descended, the louder and wilder the parties became.

If anything, the Running of the Bulls is about bravado. People come from all over the world to test their bravery with bulls and then brag about it in the bars. I began drinking at level three. I cannot say how much deeper the bar went. All I can say is – level six was all the bravado I could muster.

There I joined a table of Basques from a town near Pamplona. Basques are a people native to northern Spain. They have their own language and culture and were caught on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War.

These guys loved to brag and sing, but not about running with bulls. Their songs were a taunt to a much more dangerous creature, the soldiers of dictator Ferdinand Franco.

A year earlier, their rebel songs would have gotten the room sprayed with machine gun fire from Franco’s military police, but he had recently died and the country was ripe for change.  Still – songs from the Spanish Civil War were extremely dangerous – which only made these boys  – bang their mugs,  stomp their boots and sing all the louder.

This risky behavior vexed the proprietor.

He was a nervous little man who dodged in and out of the cellar like a ferret. He, like the rural boys, was also a Basque but he, unlike them, had too much to lose. He ordered them to be quiet but that only made them more belligerent.

After he threatened to cut them off, one of the boys, a monster of a fellow, snatched up a crock of yogurt and lifting the proprietor off the ground, poured it down the old man’s shirt.

A few hours later, the lights blinked on and off signifying that the bar was closing.

At the upper most level, the proprietor informed us that the police had ordered all bars and restaurants in the city closed because fighting had broken out between ETA separatists and the civil guard. One person had been killed, and many wounded. The festival was canceled and a curfew declared for 3:00 p.m. Everyone was to be off the streets by that hour.

It was currently 2:58 p.m. which was the proprietor’s revenge for a crock of yogurt and his wounded pride.

The Basque Boys asked if I wanted to join them running the police. I politely declined. Instead, I joined another group heading for the nearest bus station. It was not a good choice after curfew but it was the only one we had.

Out on the street, every door was locked, every window pulled down, every shade drawn, every light off.  There was no traffic. No shops open. No couples strolling on the sidewalks.

Tear gas drifted like ground-fog through the streets and the only sounds came from the undulating wail of distant sirens, the hollow pop of tear-gas launchers and the periodic crack of rifle fire.

As we hustled toward the station, a frantic group of young men, dressed in the white shirt and red scarf uniform of the festival, rushed across an intersection ahead of us. Close on their heels roared a white ford van topped by a flashing blue light.

The fleeing men and the van vanished around the corner but we could hear the patter of their feet and the rup-rup-rup of tires on the cobble-stone chasing down the next street. A moment later, the van skidded to a stop, its sliding door clunked open and cries of anger and pain followed — then nothing.

We ran two blocks to the bus station and were relieved to find a small crowd waiting there. A couple held their children by the hand, a few waiters still wore their aprons, a Canadian tourist made sure that the red maple leaf on his backpack was clearly visible. A few older women, returning from shopping, made it known that the curfew was none of their concern.

There was no buses running but the stop seemed neutral territory.

Over the next hour, our numbers grew as more and more people caught out after curfew made a dash for the relative safety of the stop. Over the same time, the rumble of the vans came closer and closer as if a net were being drawn around us.

Then from several directions, at least five vans raced toward the station and skidded to a stop, Sliding doors clunked open and large men in sweat stained uniforms spilled out.

They were thugs who reeked of violence.

Armed with hard rubber clubs they systematically beat everyone in the bus stop. They beat the couple. They beat their children. They beat the Canadian. They beat the old women.

They didn’t just hit people. They worked at it, grunting with every blow and sweating from the effort.

I was set upon by three soldiers. One knocked me down then went after someone else. Another thrashed my arms, legs and head then passed me to the third. They worked like this as a team, so they would not get winded.

A shrill police whistle ended the beatings; beckoning the soldiers to leap back into their vans and roar off.

As we lay on the concrete; children screaming, adults moaning and sobbing, an old man with the whitest of hair, opened his apartment door and beckoned us all to safety. After what seemed like an hour, this man, with tremendous courage and dignity, led the crowd down the street and out of the main part of town. It was the bravest thing I have ever seen a man do.

I took the first train out of Spain and kept riding. I wanted to put as much distance between that experience and myself as I could. My right arm was so heavily bruised it was useless. An eye had puffed shut and my ears rang incessantly; I walked with a limp. I was a mess.

My ticket read Callas – but first I had to get through Paris.

In Paris, there are rail stations at the major points in the compass. To get from one station to another, you have to take local transportation.  I had arrived in Paris after midnight and got lost on the subway trying to get to the Gare du Nord (northbound) station.

So there I was, hurting, limping, bleeding, trying to make sense of subway instructions written in a language that made no sense to me – when the most beautiful girl in the world tripped down the steps and stumbled onto the platform.

She was dead drunk and having a great time of it. I asked her in English how I might get to the Gare du Nord and she went into hysterics – as if my question were the funniest thing she ever heard.

While chanting “Gare du Nord, Gare du Nord”, she stumbled over to a map of the subway system, and after several attempts to point at the “You Are Here” symbol, fell flat on her ass.  Again, she broke into hysterical laughter.

Apparently falling down was even funnier than getting lost.

Crawling up the wall to get to her feet, she put a finger on the map and slid forward across the length of the graphic before landing on her ass again. She gathered herself together, got up to make another attempt, only to stumble across the map the other way.

On her fourth fall, she refused to get up. It looked comfortable on the concrete, so I joined her there. She chattered in French while I grumbled in English and then we both broke into laughter.

I have not laughed so hard since.

I laughed away my pain. I laughed away my fear. I laughed away my worries. I wish I could always laugh like that.

After a while, she got to her feet and together we figured out how I would get to the Gare du Nord. As my train jolted out of the station, I caught my final glimpse of her, leaning against the wall, laughing and waving goodbye.

It’s a memory that comes back to me. It comes back when I am in pain, when things go badly and I fall down. When it comes back I cannot help but laugh.

I know she is still there, still laughing, and I hope my son finds her. It will be my legacy to him – a beautiful woman, dead-drunk, laughing away the cares of the world.

Note: those who follow my blog know I like to make things up.  However this story is true in every detail.

Author: Almost Iowa

46 thoughts on “The Running of the Bulls, July 1978”

  1. That’s quite a story, well told. Kind of makes one think “the running of the bull” applies more to politics than bovine animals.

  2. Bravo and holy crap! One heck of a departure from your usual stuff but this is incredibly moving and thought-provoking, and I might add, very well-told.
    It’s also a terrible reminder of how quickly we humans seem to forget the lessons of history.
    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  3. Much too interesting a story. I may never look at the running of the bulls the same way. Now I do like that quote ‘Boredom is good. I think it is another word for peace.’

  4. No Stan, and no sign of your wife. Must be true. But, seriously, Spain was a dodgy and nervous place for several years after the death of Franco, with genuine fear it could slide either even further to the right or heavily to the left. Thank heavens for your French angel!

    1. Given my usual style, that’s a hazard – but I would say that the only thing that was literally not true was telling my son to find the girl. When I told him the story of Paris, it was my way of saying, “find your own laughing girl.”

      See the comment at the bottom for a historical account of the events.

  5. Nice to see you on the blog, Greg. I hung on every word and emotion. Even when relating a true story, you have a great talent for narrative and keen eye for telling detail. It’s also a great historical note. There’s a lot of bravery, bravado, and cowardice demonstrated. And in the end, a drunk to show that even stressful situations can be humorous.

  6. I was in Madrid in 1972. Juan Carlo had taken over from Franco, but the old man still was alive. My experience was quite different from yours, but instructive.

    I was staying in a hotel just off the Plaza Major. When I asked for a restaurant recommendation, I was told not to go until 9 or 10 p.m. — the traditional Spanish dinner hour. I asked if it would be safe for me to walk to the restaurant, and everyone smiled little enigmatic smiles. Yes, it would be safe. As I walked to the restaurant, I realized that every corner and every street was being patrolled by soldiers with very large guns and bandoliers. I’ve never felt so safe, or so threatened. It seems you reaped some of what already was growing when I was there.

    1. People who live under oppression often have the best humor. They have to. One of my favorite jokes from Spain goes like this. While dining, a journalist casually asks a Spaniard what he thinks of Franco and the man says, “Follow me.” The two exit the restaurant through the kitchen out into an alley. There, they jump a wall and cut through several yards, each with a wall to jump. Coming out to a street, they hail a taxi and ride to a large lake where they rent a row boat. The Spaniard rows to the middle of the lake, looks around and whispers, “I like him.”

  7. Now that’s a story to tell. I went to Spain in the mid-70s but my trip was genteel and less dramatic/interesting than yours. I’d raise a glass of sangria to you right now– if I happened to have one around here

    1. For the most part, my time in Spain was wonderful. I spent a couple of weeks on the beaches and bars north of Malaga with a couple of buddies I met on the road, then it was me who said, “Hey, let’s do The Running of the Bulls.”

  8. Thanks for sharing this. It makes my crummy day at the office seem trivial. I hope you son finds her. She’s probably still laughing. Good to see you again.

    1. Well, I am back from the road – but back in the scale house on the farm. This harvest is a tough one. Bad weather, bad yields, lots of break-downs.

  9. Yes, I was in Spain in 74, I can understand what you’re saying here Greg. Have my own story of hiding from the Guardia in the middle of the night at a lonely train station.
    But we survived👍😀

  10. So glad you shared this brilliant memory. ‘It comes back when I am in pain, when things go badly and I fall down. When it comes back I cannot help but laugh.’

  11. A fabulous and riveting tale – and I never question the veracity of autobiographical details. We are, after all, largely what we remember. Great stuff!

    1. I never question the veracity of autobiographical details

      But then there is my style which could be described as autobiographical fiction – but not in this case.

    1. Why skeptical?

      Here is a translation from a Spanish Wikipedia article covering the events of July, ’78 in Pamplona


      “Report of the facts

      They began after the irruption of the Armed Police in the bullring of Pamplona, ​​where there were 20,000 people. The intervention had been preceded because in the traditional descent of the rocks to the ring, at the end of the race at 8:45 p.m., a group of people carried a banner in favor of the amnesty, protesting from another sector, leading to verbal clashes and some physicist. [citation needed]

      Then about forty police officers entered, then known as “gray” for their clothing, with riot gear and with the Pamplona Police Commissioner, Miguel Rubio.

      Abundant riot gear was indiscriminately used, with shots of rubber balls and tear gas canisters against young people in the arena as well as against those in the stands. Part of the public went out through the horse yard and others took refuge in the interior corridors, while another sector threw objects at police members. These responded with real fire that produced seven gunshot wounds, of the total of 55 wounded who were treated in the infirmary of the square.1

      About fifteen minutes after the incidents began, around 9:00 p.m., another group of about 40 agents entered through the horse yard that, also using their firearms, arrived inside the square. Meanwhile, a group of people escaped from the hidden square in a refrigerated truck, which is used to transfer the meat of the bulls.1

      With respect to the beginning of the incidents, an “investigation commission”, created by the clubs and in which the lawyer Ángel Ruiz de Erenchun was a part, after collecting numerous evidence, provided the following report: 2

      After the last bull, the ninth of those who had appeared on the ring, about fifty people went down from the six to the ring, where they displayed a green banner in which with white letters it read: «AMOTIA TOTAL PRESOAK KALERA. SAN FERMIN WITHOUT PRISONERS ». From that same laying, and once the banner was extended, they began to turn around the ring while in the laying the opinions were divided. Some applauded and others whistled. 2
      Towards the middle of the line 3, an unidentified person, about 45-50 years old, began to insult those who were in the ring while several people around him threw several pads and some empty bottle of champagne into the sand. The reaction of those in the ring – about a hundred people – was immediate. A group went up to the line, exchanging with those who had thrown the pads and bottles, blows and insults. Without the anger had ended, the public in the square began to shout, almost unanimously: “San Fermin, San Fermin.”

      When it seemed that calm was returning, the txikis of the rocks entered through the alley, as soon as the door opened, with their brass bands and banners. Immediately behind and within a few seconds, about 40 members of the armed police broke in violently, with equipment of riot gear, along with Mr. Miguel Rubio, chief commissioner of Pamplona. In the first moments it was possible to see how Rubio gave orders to charge against the boys who were in the arena, and consequently the members of the armed police, who were of the Pamplona staff, initiated a violent charge with the use of abundant shots of rubber balls and smoke boats, and hitting with the batons. 2
      The altercations spread rapidly throughout the city, becoming an authentic urban battlefield and the barricades arriving near the Civil Government.1 Civil Governor Ignacio Llano summoned union representatives, politicians and representatives of the clubs to try appease the situation, without achieving it.1

      The police continued to use their firearms in the form of machine gun bursts and at Roncesvalles Street, around 10:15 pm, Germán Rodríguez was shot dead in the head, specifically in the forehead. Three young men who saw how he fell transferred him to the hospital together.”

      The events that I describe occurred the next day when the festival was cancelled and a curfew declared.

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