Friday, November 19, 2010

RUNNING 'WITH' THE BULLS

At dusk we set out by train from Barcelona. The compartment was jammed with merry-makers from many countries passing bottles of wine around. Empty bottles rolled and clinked together on the floor of the compartment. After a time many of us dozed off.

It was many years since I had first read Hemingway and by now I had read them all. Somehow I had gotten the notion that all great writers must attend the Running of the Bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. I don't know why they call it the Running 'of' the Bulls, which makes it seem that the bulls run alone through the streets.

In the morning we stepped bleary-eyed from the train into the dusty dawn of Pamplona. Women were down at the river already washing clothes. We began to ask along the street about a place to stay. The town was packed with tourists, of course, but we eventually got a spare room in the house of a couple whose baby toddled around without benefit of diapers. The place smelled dusty and even the water from the tap tasted of dust.

The day was hot and dry. It was the first week in July. We spent our time wandering around, taking a meal at a little restaurant, and napping in the afternoon. That night the merry-making continued. Everyone had come to get drunk, it seems. Perhaps they were building up their levels of liquid courage. By morning people were staggering or already passed out in doorways and along the sidewalks. Those who were still upright began to line up along the street that would take the bulls through town to the bullring. The very bravest, the drunkest, or the most insane, formed a line nearest the place the bulls would come from. I will leave it to the reader to decide which I was.

We began to shake rolled-up newspapers and chant and call for the bulls. We didn't have long to wait. The loud retort of fireworks set them off. We waited and chanted and shook our rolled-up newspapers and then the bulls appeared around the corner below us. The first wave of bulls are relatively tame, and lead the next wave - the actually Spanish fighting bulls - through the streets. They were very close and still no one moved. Each of us seemed determined to wait for someone else to run first. It doesn't seem nearly so brave now.

At last someone moved and we all turned and ran. We took three steps before the first wave of bulls was upon us and we dodged as best we could those horns that could carry us away to the infirmary or worse. But the bulls were intent upon getting up the street and we came away undamaged. In fact they seemed little concerned with us at all.

Things became serious with the second wave. They also seemed little concerned with us except inasmuch as we got in their way. As they came up even - we were running with all our might, indeed, with all our might - a black bull stumbled on the cobblestones and fell heavily in the street beside me. I stopped, not knowing what to do. The bull regained its footing and now, cut off from the others, became dangerous. He swung away from me. A man on that side caught hold of the awning over the doorway and pulled himself bodily up and out of the way of the horns. I don't know what superhuman strength he called upon to accomplish it.

The bull swung his head back toward me. A man just in front of me caught his eye. He charged. His right horn caught the man in the midsection, in the stomach, and slammed him mightily against the wooden beam barricade that blocked that side of the street. An astonishing fan of blood splayed out into the dust. The man dropped where he had stood and people on the other side of the barricade pulled him under. I turned and ran back down the street the way we had come. The bull proceeded up toward the bull ring, attacking any and all who got in his way.

I found Nancy in the crowd. She hadn't been able to see, but heard someone shouting a man was gored. It wasn't me, I informed her.

Somewhere in the thick of the crowd someone got the notion that the bulls were coming again. A moment of panic seized them all. The crowd surged with a mind of its own. Nancy was knocked to her knees.

The bulls, apparently, are not the only thing to be feared in Pamplona early in July.

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

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