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Larry Belcher and A Street Called Estafeta

Larry Belcher and A Street Called Estafeta
Larry Running with the Bulls in Cuéllar, 2014

Larry Running with the Bulls in Cuéllar,Spain  2014

Dear Friends,

Larry Belcher, PhD, has been a Professor of Translation at the University of Valladolid in Castilla y León, Spain for over 17 years. Before earning his PhD in Translation, Larry was a bull rider, traveling throughout the United States to compete in rodeos. He is an exuberant presence, even on the page, and he seems to do everything with the kind of enthusiasm that only the luckiest of people are born with. He is well loved by many, but especially the community of long time Bull Runners and aficionados who spend the first week of every July together on the cobblestone streets of Pamplona. 

Pamplona, the running of the bulls, and the mysteries of the bullring are some of my favorite Hemingway-related subjects. I feel privileged to be able to ask Larry all about these topics and his experiences as a Bull Runner. Larry has been featured on the television show 60 Minutes, and in several documentaries about the running of the bulls. You will find many photos of him in books about the encierro that have been published in the last twenty years. As you can see, Larry is a great story-teller with a wild sense of humor. At 67 years old, Larry does not plan to stop running in the streets of Spain anytime soon, which means that he will continue to have many more stories to tell, thank goodness! Thank you, Larry — Allie

“With each reading of Sun Also Rises  – there have been more than a few – I’m always surprised by how modern it still is, at least in my opinion. Perhaps I know too much about the novel and its era, which has colored my appreciation of it, though I don’t think so. In addition, each time I read it, I come to deeper understanding, appreciation of the work. As Norman Mailer once said, “The Sun Also Rises is a seminal novel.” I rarely think about SAR during the fiesta of San Fermín. But, basically, with the right company or group, I suppose you could superficially “live” the novel during fiesta, even now after 90 years.” – Larry Belcher

 

AB: Larry, I did a little research about rodeo to prepare for our interview and what I read was really fascinating. Can you tell me where you grew up and when and how you discovered the rodeo?

LB: In the Ohio of the 1950s, where I was born and lived until I was graduated from high school at seventeen, there were no rodeo bulls, only Herefords and Holsteins that were not interested in much more than munching on grass and swatting flies. And although news of rodeos did appear on television and in magazines, it was not until I was five years old, in 1954, that I came into personal contact with a professional rodeo. The rodeo came to town, to Mansfield, Ohio. I begged and pleaded with my mother to take me and she scraped up the money for tickets and off we went to see the great champion bull rider Jim Shoulders, a cowboy who years later would become my friend and mentor. After watching Jim Shoulders conquer a fifteen-hundred-pound bull, even at the age of five, I knew that bull riding as a spectator sport was not for me.

AB: So you were hooked?

Larry and Jim Shoulder

That rodeo marked the beginning of my bull riding apprenticeship: years of harassing the Herefords on the farm where we lived and the cattle on neighboring farms, including, years later, clandestine incursions onto those farms where my desire to ride “bulls” was looked upon with suspicion. I enlisted the help of my two younger brothers, but even with their assistance, convincing a fully grown Hereford cow or steer to submit to being ridden proved an impossible task. They made uncooperative “rodeo bulls,” they were irascible, unmanageable, and, on those rare occasions when I did manage to get aboard, they refused to move or simply ran toward open country, while the rest of the herd chewed their cud and looked on with boredom. One Fall morning I had yet another of my brilliant ideas: The cattle liked to eat the apples that fell from the trees in the pastures. I would gather the apples from under various trees and heap them under one, while I, perched on a branch overhead, waited for the lure of the apples to work its magic on the unsuspecting cows. When one was in position below me I would drop onto its back and away we would go, hell bent for leather across the pasture. It was disappointing, however, since the cows ran instead of bucking like a championship rodeo bull, and, furthermore, after a few aerial attacks by yours truly, they became suspicious. I believe we had the only cows in Ohio that spent more time looking up into the Northern Spy trees than down at the fallen apples below.

I then decided to concentrate my efforts on the yearlings. They were relatively easy to pin against the corral fence so that I could climb aboard and they did buck. During one of these sessions, one kicked my brother Danny so hard in the unmentionables that he was propelled halfway across the corral. Needless to say, my mother had to rush my brother to the hospital. It wouldn’t be the last time she would have to take one of my brothers to the hospital due to a “bull” related incident.

Larry. Dallas, 1972

Larry. Dallas, 1972

Following high school graduation, I moved to Dallas, Texas, to live with my father, since my parents had divorced long before. Not long after installing myself in my father’s house I heard of an amateur rode, or rodeo for beginners, in Canton, Texas, and I didn’t hesitate to tell my father that I wanted to sign up to ride bulls. He replied: “I’ll come along and pick up the pieces.” I assembled the required equipment and off we went.

I made a qualified ride on my first bull, and immediately became unbearable, strutting about the house with my spurs on and boasting about what a great cowboy I was.

But as I gained experience and discovered the harsh (a horn through my shoulder), and sometimes tragic (a cowboy crushed to death by a bull), reality of the world of bull riding, I learned that it could well be play for mortal stakes.

And yet, there were moments while riding a bull that manifested themselves as something akin to a mystical experience, or an epiphany revealing another, or different reality.

AB: Tell me more about that.

On those occasions, I was enveloped in a sound like that of placing a large sea shell to your ear, color and texture appeared in crystal clear definition, I could see, feel – even anticipate –every move of the bull, movement that was flowing, floating, in timelessness. No matter how I analyzed, studied, or tried to recreate these rare moments, it was to no avail. They were spontaneous, and yet they were always preceded by a sharpening of vision, an overall acute increase in sensory perception, and the sensation that the world around me was beginning to decelerate into slow motion.

These experiences inevitably resulted in triumph in the rodeo arena, and in the streets of Pamplona years later when I was running with bulls in the encierros.

Larry, Denver Rodeo

AB: From what I understand, a rodeo is comprised of several different events, some of them timed and all of them competitive. The well known events are: tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding and barrel racing. Can you explain some of the events? Which events did you compete in?

LB: Allie, you have enumerated the major events in a rodeo. My interest was always in the riding events – bull riding, saddle bronc riding and bareback bronc riding. In both the bull riding and saddle bronc riding events, you must make an eight-second qualified ride, a qualified ride being defined as not touching the animal with your free hand and, in the case of saddle and bareback bronc riding, your spurs must be in contact with the animal and over the point of the shoulders when the horse’s front hooves hit the ground on the first jump out of the chute. It’s called “marking” the horse. In saddle bronc riding the rider must make a ten-second qualified ride.

AB: How long did you ride bulls? What are some of your most memorable bull riding experiences?  Was reading part of your initiation into the world of bulls and men?

LB: I rode bulls professionally for 12 years throughout the United States and Canada, although I did ride a few bulls after retiring from professional bull riding for the joy of it. Even today I can remember clearly many of the individual rides back in the late sixties and the seventies. I am also able to remember specifically what my thoughts were while riding certain bulls. Occasionally some stimulus will trigger the memory and I will relive one of those rides so many years ago. Certainly one of the most memorable experiences was my attempted ride on a bull called Twilight Zone in Mansfield, Texas, in 1969. He was a cross-bred animal, Brahma and Jersey, and was one of the few rodeo bulls that would attempt to gore fallen riders. The week before I had had an injury requiring eight stitches in my right shin and I was not, let us say, in optimum condition when I drew Twilight Zone on that Saturday night.

Young Larry

He leaped to the center of the arena and began his characteristic spinning to the right. Whether my leg was too weak or I was not up to the task that night, I was sucked down into “the well,” as we would say in rodeo parlance and landed face up on the sand. The survival technique for a bull of that type required quick reflexes and a cool head. As he attempted to gore me, I sat up and wrapped an arm around each horn and literally hugged his black and white head to my chest, which prevented him from being able use his horns. In theory, the bull will then raise his head in an attempt to shed the burden and the rider is raised to a standing position and can then dance away from the horns. Later, I found this same technique would function equally well with fighting bulls in Spain.

However, instead of raising his head, Twilight Zone began pushing me into and across the sand. And then began one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Time seemed to stop, I heard a comforting sound like putting your ear to a large seashell, I felt disembodied, and became a spectator to my own life, the images sharply delineated and in vivid color. There was no temporal sensation, and I was able to observe, to study, in intricate detail the scenes from my life. As I watched myself grab the bull’s horns I was violently propelled back to reality as Twilight Zone slammed me into the arena wall. I felt an intense sensation of frustration, for I wanted to repeat the experience. Allie, I feel this experience is far more interesting than relating tales of great and heroic deeds on the backs of diabolical bulls.

I was taught to read at the age of four by my aunt and by five or six I was reading Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails. Naturally, I then decided I wanted to be a white hunter in Africa. My mother and my aunt and uncle instilled a love of books in me when I was very young and, thanks to them, books have always been an integral part of my life. I recall long summer afternoons and evenings in the library of my uncle’s house in the country in Ohio reading Arthur Conan Doyle, Zane Grey, Jack London, and Louis Bromfield, with whom my uncle had a passing acquaintance. On one occasion I began reading Dracula and became so absorbed in the novel that I included it in my rodeo bag with my equipment and, unable to resist, I sat behind the chutes reading it until the bulls were herded into the chutes.

Larry, Rodeo Days

AB: Your feeling for ranch life (the steers, the horses, the land) must have extended into the Spanish fighting bulls. How did you discover the Toro Bravo, and at what age? The progression from rodeo to bullfighting and bull running makes a lot of sense. What peaked your interest in Spain, and running with the bulls?

LB:  I grew up on farms in Ohio and when I moved to Texas following high school graduation, I was a city dweller, so I never had practical contact with ranches. I don’t recall my first contact with the taurine world, but I do know that it was a progressive awareness, a coming into contact with it, during the late fifties and the sixties by way of books, magazines, television, etc. This is also how I became aware of the San Fermines – through television. I vividly remember the first time I saw scenes of Pamplona on television in 1960 on a Walt Disney travel program: a bullfight in Pamplona, the encierro and the giants. I told my mother: “That’s where I want to go.” A few years later, I did go, and some of the men who had been running with the bulls that morning in 1960 became close friends. After moving to Texas following graduation from high school, I was able to watch bullfights from Mexico City on a local TV channel in Dallas. Curiously enough, the commentator was Sydney Franklin, who would make the most outrageous claims, statements which, even with my very limited taurine knowledge, I knew to be balderdash. I had read Franklin’s book, Bullfighter From Brooklyn, while in high school. Why this fascination with bulls at that young age? I can’t pinpoint it. It was, and is, so much more complex than for the simple thrill of it all. I now understand it clearly, both emotionally and intellectually, but how was it triggered?

My interest in traveling in general and in Spain in particular was, in part, due to my uncle. He had been in the U.S. cavalry and had taken part in the Mexican Expedition under the command of Pershing. Later, he was part of the North American Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1917. As he was in a cavalry regiment, he, along with two privates, was ordered to Spain to take possession of a herd of horses the army had purchased. He and his men “requisitioned” a keg of cognac in Bordeaux and arrived somewhere around Irún, Spain, in a deplorable state. They made camp in the country and fell into a drunken stupor. What is the first thing you do in the morning after such alcoholic excess? Water. When my uncle staggered to his feet the following morning and began to gulp liquid from his canteen, his lamentable condition only worsened. During the night, Spaniards, observing the condition my uncle and his men were in, had slipped into camp and replaced the water in their canteens with raw, red wine. During my childhood and beyond, my uncle would regale me with stories of this nature concerning France and Spain. Before traveling to Spain for the first time in 1976, I had read the Hemingway de rigueur – The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. I wanted to travel about Europe in general, especially France and Spain that year, and Pamplona during San Fermín was at the top of the list.

The Sun Also Rises original cover

Running the bulls was simply a given – never a question. I was at that time in the rodeo and I took a month off for the trip that year, a trip that would become, so far, a forty-year adventure. As I was preparing to ride my first bull following my European trip, I could hear the rodeo announcer saying: “And now we have Larry Belcher back on the circuit after his sabbatical spent touring Europe.” Touring Europe, indeed.

AB: When did you move to Spain? And what do love most about teaching and living in Spain?

LB: I began my Spanish adventure 40 years ago. I had always wanted to spend a year living in Spain, and in 1984 I was offered a position in a private university in Salamanca, Spain. My first day of class a magnificent young lady strolled into the classroom. I stayed on for three years. We were married and spent an academic year in Hollywood, where I taught in the Los Angeles Community College system. We returned to Spain in 1988, where we have lived since then. One of the greatest advantages I enjoy in the Spanish classroom is the lack of emphasis on political correctness, on trigger warnings. In the module I teach on translation for dubbing purposes, for example, we deal with on occasion subjects such as rape, domestic violence, racism, etc. in vivid detail, but rather than being offended by some of the material or thematic questions we are faced with in translation, the students confront reality and search for solutions to the problems presented by the material.

AB: I love that story about how you met Ana. I noticed the exact same thing Larry, when we lived in Spain. The absence of political correctness was very refreshing. It made us aware of how all-pervasive it is in our culture.

AB: How do your students regard Hemingway? Do they feel he that he has represented Spain in an accurate way?

LB:  Allie, my students have an average age of 22-23 years (women represent approximately 90% of the students in an average class of 40), and for them the name Hemingway means little or nothing. For this age group he is not the iconic figure that he is in the United States. Their image of EH, if indeed the name conjures up one for them, is that tired, old image of the bearded Hemingway, the old American writer who came to Spain to watch bullfights and drink wine until dawn. (Why must EH be represented ad nauseam by that image? I was once discussing Hemingway with one of his high school teachers, John Gehlmann, while I was in Oak Park/River Forest one freezing winter morning in 1979, and he recalled with distaste a discussion he had been involved in with a committee in charge of raising a statue in honor of Hemingway and how, over his objection, had decided to use the image of the old, bearded patriarch. “Hell,” he said, “Hem was a young, handsome fellow when he lived here.”

Hemingway in Spain

It is uncommon to encounter a student who has read a single work of Hemingway. You must keep in mind that I teach translation, but even on those rare occasions when I do have a class of contemporary American literature, the aforementioned holds true. When I begin any discussion of EH by showing them photos of Hemingway at age 21 or so, they are amazed, even incredulous, that it is him. The usual response from the ladies is: “¡Que guapo!” However, I remember in a class of literary translation from English to Spanish, I presented “Hills Like White Elephants,” and we discussed the intricacies and subtleties of the work, from theme to design and structure, the idea being that one must be intimately familiar with a literary work before any translation can be undertaken. I must say that in this case, they became fascinated with the work. On the other hand, since they do not read Hemingway and know little or nothing about him, in their eyes, he has no cultural influence. Therefore, they have no cultural reference to Hemingway and, as such, have no basis on which to base a judgement as to whether or not EH reflects or reflected Spanish culture accurately.

AB: Which are your favorite Hemingway books, and why?

LB: I’ve always been fascinated by The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time (Boni & Liveright or Scribner’s). With respect to SAR, with each reading – there have been more than a few – I’m always surprised by how modern it still is, at least in my opinion. Perhaps I know too much about the novel and its era, which has colored my appreciation of it, though I don’t think so. In addition, each time I read it, I come to deeper understanding, appreciation of the work. As Norman Mailer once said, “The Sun Also Rises is a seminal novel.” I rarely think about SAR during the fiesta of San Fermín. But, basically, with the right company or group, I suppose you could superficially “live” the novel during fiesta, even now after 90 years. This year one morning minutes before the rocket announcing the release of the bulls from the corral, I observed a thirty-something guy in the street ostentatiously “reading” a copy of the book. I wonder what Hemingway would have to say about that?

AB: It changes for me too each time I read it. As I get older, the novel seems less about youthful hopes and antics, and more of a tragedy.

Larry & Joe Distler in Pamplona. Photo Courtney Pecquex

My best friend, Joe Distler who has been going to fiesta for 45 years, and I have talked about the younger generation and SAR. In the sixties and seventies many of those who came to Pamplona during fiesta had read, or were reading, the novel. Today, I would venture that it would be difficult to find someone under 30 during San Fermín who has read it. In the seventies many college students were attracted to Pamplona through the reading of Michener’s Iberia, but today it is a museum piece for the large majority of younger fiesta goers. I do often think about SAR when I’m alone in Pamplona outside of fiesta. Fiesta is a sensory and mental assault; it is difficult to concentrate on, to contemplate, a work of art like SAR. If I want to think about Hemingway and SAR and the relationship to Pamplona, I need the serenity of solitude, to stroll about the streets when fiesta is months away. I could say the same about In Our Time, more or less. I think the short stories – and not only those in this collection – are a modernist miracle. They are thematically, linguistically and structurally intriguing. Another EH work that I would like to read in its entirety in manuscript is The Garden of Eden. Apart from some of the more traditional Hemingway themes, I find the treatment of gender issues quite interesting. There was, if I remember correctly, much ado about this when the novel was published, but the truth is, I was not really surprised Hemingway’s treatment of gender issues in the work. Another theme of this novel, the struggle of the artist, one of EH’s life-long concerns, fascinates me.

AB: Me too. His writing is something that a reader can return to many times and always come back with something new, it is such rich material!

AB:  When did you first run the encierro and what were your first impressions?

LB:  My first year in Pamplona I had but a vague idea of the encierro. In those days the news media did not cover the fiesta as it does today, often ad nauseam, there were no “How-To” books, and I knew no one there; therefore, I had no reference. I winged it. Never a good idea. My first run was embarrassing: I sprinted up the street at the sound of the rocket and ran into the ring well ahead of the bulls with what are known as the “valientes.” Being an intrepid bull rider, I decided that if the “valientes” were the “brave ones,” I was going with them. As we ran victoriously into the bull ring with no bulls in sight, I knew two things: 1) I knew no Spanish, and 2), I knew that the approximately 15,000 people waiting in the stands were not praising our courage. If you want to learn some of the more idiomatic uses of the Spanish language, this is a novel way of enjoying “on-the-job” training. Those who want to enter the ring and stand behind the barricade use this technique. A long-standing one: I have a photo from the 1920s of a mob of people waiting in the streets just outside the main gate of the bullring in order to rush into the ring to safety as the gate is opened when the bulls are released from the corral approximately a half-mile away.

Osborne. July 10th, 1984

Osborne. July 10th, 1984

The second day I did see the bulls pass me in the street, but rather than fear, the feeling was one of confusion, chaos, pandemonium. I have always enjoyed the statement by Michael Reynolds in Hemingway The Paris Years after he stood against a wall and watched the bulls gallop by, fortunately: “To see them from the safety of an area seat is to know, for the first time, what raw power is about. To be on the ground level, buttocks tight against the wooden wall, hoping the bulls will pass without hooking, is to know fear forever.” During my rodeo days, fear of death was not a preoccupation. Then, it was fear of failure. In an encierro, the fear of death, of a mortal horn wound, runs beside you every morning.

Hemingway has written about courage and its relation to temporarily suspending the imagination. Most interesting is what replaces the imagination. Imagination is certainly the key. Days, even weeks, before the festival of San Fermín begins, there are occasional moments when, without warning or any overt stimulus, I’m beset by a rapid pulse, a stifling sensation of being unable to breathe, a constriction in the throat. Even at this moment, writing about it, I can feel its onset to a certain extent. All your fault, Allie. The night before the first encierro in Pamplona is a sleepless night populated by demons and dark, terrifying images. The imagination holds sway and conjures up possible tragic consequences, but you must also guide your imagination to construct images, film, of leading a magnificent bull up the street with no consequence whatsoever. Among our group, we have all discussed the “night before” at some length over the years. On the other hand, something that we dread is missing the first encierro. I have friends who set alarm clocks throughout the house in order not to miss it.

The first morning I arise at 6:15 and my hands tremble as I turn on the coffee pot. Breathing is labored. The body does not respond. But going back to bed is not an option. This feeling is ever-present in Pamplona, but to a much lesser degree in encierros in other Spanish cities and villages. Pamplona imposes tremendous pressure, responsibility.

AB: Yes that’s easy to understand, especially with the huge crowd of runners.

Fear is my companion until I see, or sense, the bulls in the street. Then, that fear is replaced by thought and action. There is no time for fear, and, on good days, fear as well as thought and action can be supplanted by sheer joy, ecstasy. On the horns of a magnificent beast, and you can see in his eyes, pupils dilated, that he has accepted your presence for a few seconds. In a situation of extreme peril, your mind processes information at blinding speed. Fear is not part of the process. An example: I was once running in front of a suelto, a bull that had been separated from the herd. As I’ve mentioned before, they are lethal. They are alone, probably afraid, and highly aggressive. The herd instinct has been nullified. He was hooking at everyone within range and I was about two meters in front of him when someone pulled me down from behind. I remember it all with crystal clarity. I thought and reacted in microseconds. I stretched out, covered my crotch with my hands, refrained from challenging the bull by looking him in the eye and assessed the situation as follows: I hope he hooks me in the foot or the calf. If I’m lucky, the bull will set me up for a one-two strike by hooking first with his left horn, and if I stiffen my body, that blow will spin my body toward the fence and I may be able to reach out so someone can pull me under the barrier. I also thought: “The first day of the feria and I’m going to take a horn.” I recall that it was a neutral sensation. I was calm and there was no fear, for I was thinking, calculating. My mind was occupied by the business of survival. Also by the knowledge that I knew what I must do. I lay motionless and contained my respiration as the bull approached.

Under the volcano

Under the volcano

As I mentioned, lone bulls are generally highly aggressive, and, fortunately, this one was overly eager, so eager to hook that he miscalculated and ran over me, rolling me up in a ball underneath him while both of us were propelled into the barrier. He was distracted by another runner and left me by the fence.

During the last forty years, I calculate that I’ve run in approximately 250 encierros in Pamplona alone, which proves, according to my theory, that I’m 249 times more of an imbecile than I was the first time I ran. You can run the first time for any number of reasons: curiosity, to prove your valor, camaraderie, etc. But if you run a second time, knowing full well what is involved, you’re a certified idiot. In 1984, Stephan Townsend, an American Special Forces soldier, was nearly fatally gored in Pamplona. Owing to his optimum physical condition and the incredible emergency services in Pamplona, he survived. At 8:00 a.m. the sun begins to reflect off the cobblestones at the end of Calle Estafeta near the end of the run. That morning I was running on the opposite side of the street and could see the red sheen of Townsend’s blood on the cobblestones, which nearly caused me to accompany him to the emergency room, and which did result in a goring for a friend who was running beside me. As we were running on the right side of the street, Townsend was gored opposite us, and as we were looking at Townsend, a bull directly in front of us stopped and turned. I looked ahead, saw the bull in front of us, and dodged him. My friend, David Crowder, was not as agile as I and was gored in the thigh. I stopped, wanting to help David, but the bull turned and charged me. I took refuge on the fence while David was using his belt to make a tourniquet. When I saw him in his hospital bed after the operation, he said: “Where in Hell did you go? I was saving the other horn for you.”

Townsend Pamplona 1984

Townsend Pamplona 1984

When I could break one, two, three, four, five pigeons just like that, Pamplona was different and I was younger then. Every year the bulls are still four or five years old, but I’m not, and many of the young men in streets resemble NFL linebackers, so now I go to encierros in places such as Tafalla and Cuéllar, where the streets are wide, the runners are few and respect each other, and running with bulls is once again a joy. For example, this year in Tafalla, which is a village not far from Pamplona, the bulls that are fought in the afternoon are run, the streets are wide, the fences are not teeming with people, there are few runners in comparison to Pamplona, and most of the runners are veterans and respect each other during the encierro.

One morning during the encierro I positioned myself in line with a chestnut bull loping up the street and as he drew near, he took notice of me and, ignoring the few other runners around me, began to follow me up the street, his horns a few inches away from my back. After about 25 meters, I eased away from him and he continued on up the street. It was as if I had had a brief encounter with an old friend. As my dear friend Joe Distler says, “Ain’t life grand.”

AB: Can you explain how breeders determine which bulls would be good for both the bull run and then a bull fight later in the day?

LB: Allie, the encierro is an anachronism. The function of an encierro was to drive a herd of fighting bulls from the country into the corral of whatever served as the bullring before the advent of trucks, or even trains, for that matter. Once cities such as Pamplona were connected by a railway system, the bulls were normally shipped in wooden boxes, or crates, by train to the city where the corrida was to be held and then these boxes were unloaded and transported to the bullring corrals by oxen, mules, etc.

Pamplona Bullring

Pamplona Bullring

Until 1846, I believe, bullfights in Pamplona were celebrated in the main square, now called the Plaza del Castillo. Bulls were herded from a holding pasture in Esquíroz, a village approximately 4 miles outside the city, into the square and into the corral in a building in which the Café Suizo was later located. This building was called the “casa de toriles,” and one is still in use in the village of Chinchón south of Madrid, the village where the bullfight scenes of the original Around the World in Eighty Days were filmed. The bulls were herded by men on horseback and sometimes aided by herdsmen on foot. Today the tradition of the encierro is firmly rooted in Spanish culture, a tradition maintained due to its popularity in spite of the fact that it is dispensable. Many encierros, especially here in Castilla y León, maintain the tradition of split encierros: the bulls are driven through the countryside by horsemen, who then retire when the herd reaches the city limits, where the encierro with runners begins. Normally runners are not permitted in the countryside, but there are exceptions.

Bulls are bred for the bullring, not for the encierro, so if they are run in an encierro, it is incidental.

You must be extremely cautious when talking about your favorite bull ranch with respect to the encierro. Allow me to clarify that statement. You can talk about it all you wish, but when running an encierro you should forget it and take the bulls as they come. The bulls from some ranches may display a relatively consistent behavior pattern in the run; bulls from the ranch of Cebada Gago are highly strung and often run in a crisscross pattern and they hook as they run. In addition, bulls from this ranch often become what we call in Spanish “sueltos,” meaning a bull that becomes separated from the herd. “Sueltos” can be lethal.

Pamplona 1904. Photo courtesy of Archivos Municipales de Pamplona, Navarra

Pamplona 1904. Photo courtesy of Archivos Municipales de Pamplona, Navarra

During the last 25 years, I believe the bulls from this ranch have gored more runners than any other. One of my favorite ranches is Dolores Aquirre, due to the fact that they normally run looking forward, not glancing from side to side, are not exceptionally rapid, are noble, and when they reach approximately the half-way mark of the encierro (the beginning of Calle Estafeta), they string out in single file, allowing more opportunities for the runners. If you are overtaken by one of them, instead of hooking you, he will push or bump you out of his way with his nose or the flat of a horn. Until one decides to bury a horn in your derriere. For many years, bulls from the ranch of Eduardo Miura had the reputation of being “noble,” less dangerous to run with, animals that would “respect” runners, yet in recent years their reputation has been, to say the least, tarnished. I’ve seen runners, perhaps motivated by a false sense of security, commit unbelievable idiocies with these magnificent animals in the streets of Pamplona.

Caveat: regardless of the ranch, bloodline, perceived reputation, any fighting bull is a lethal animal. Any one of them at any given moment is capable of inflicting tragic injury – or worse. The lark in the early morning sunlight can suddenly become play for mortal stakes. Allie, I may have said this before, but I think it’s appropriate.

AB: When did you see your first bullfight and where was it (what bull ring)? How old were you and what were your first impressions?

LB:  I still have the used ticket in a scrapbook. My first corrida – the first time I was in a bull ring, was in Madrid on the fourth of July 1976. Since I had read a great deal about bull fighting and had seen a few corridas on television from Mexico City, I was not a total neophyte. On the other hand, although I was enthralled by the spectacle itself, I realized while sitting on a concrete slab that hot afternoon in July so long ago that the hard-core technical aspects of what was truly happening in the ring (why the bull behaved as he did, why the matador did what he did) was more complex and intricate than I had imagined. It is like looking through a misty window, aware that you are unable to perceive true color, definition, detail, contour, all the while realizing there is something mysterious, enticing on the other side.

The Spanish artist Miguel Barceló expressed last week in a magazine interview what I have always maintained: bullfighting is an ephemeral art; it must be appreciated live, in the ring, in order for its true emotive force to be felt. He said “I’ve never found a way to justify tauromachy. Not with words they (the detractors) would understand. It’s something very visceral. The same thing happens with bull fights on television. Bull fights do not lend themselves to film. No film transmits the same emotion as in the ring. It’s something that bull fighters and those of us who have seen corridas in the ring all know.”

I can reread a poem or a novel, for instance, many times, and with each reading experience a renewed excitement, that emotive charge produced by art. But the emotion produced by the art of tauromachy is ephemeral, momentaneous, and as such, does not lend itself to reproduction.

AB: It IS ephemeral, Larry. I agree, and yet even though it’s living art that cannot be recreated, it also remains, it lingers in the depths of the viewers’  subconscience.

AB: Do you have a favorite pass ?

Toreando

LB: I suppose that my favorite pass is a natural, a left-handed pass with the muleta, the red cape. It is the classical pass with the muleta, and triggers an exceptional emotive response when the torero stands facing the bull, advances the cape toward the bull and, when the animal charges, smoothly and slowly guides the bull around his body. Emilio Muñoz, a retired bullfighter who is now a commentator for the taurine broadcasts on Canal Plus (the torero who appeared in the video clips “Take a Bow” and “You’ll See” with Madonna), was a true master of the natural.

AB: Is there a single bullfight you’ve seen that is unforgettable?

LB: After forty years of attending bullfights in Spain, France and Mexico, choosing a favorite, or most memorable corrida, would be an impossible task, one that would belie all those years of experience. There have been so many outstanding corridas that they form a kaleidoscope, and I have but to turn the dial to return to that afternoon in the ring. In addition, that memorable corrida is, to some extent, conditioned by context: the location itself, the people I was with – or the absence of people – my frame of mind, etc.

Certainly one of the most memorable corridas for me took place in Jaén, Spain, in October 1999. Antoñete, 67 years old, suffering from emphysema from nearly a lifetime of tobacco addiction, his body wracked from 35 years of horn wounds and broken bones that snapped like delicate crystal, performed a miracle in the bullring that afternoon. His second bull of the afternoon was a noble black animal from the ranch of Victoriano del Río that advertised its magnificent bravery from the moment it burst into the ring. With the muleta, Antoñete, inspired, and the bull, brave, collaborated to create a work of art that had the entire ring on its feet from the first pass. All this in a square meter of sand. Later, Antoñete, mentally, spiritually and physically drained, said that his performance that afternoon was the closest he had ever come to realizing the perfect performance that invaded his dreams night after night.

Jaén is considered to be in the “provinces” and therefore not a “serious” bull ring such as the one in Madrid or in Seville, for example. In the 19th century it was so. As we were walking out of the ring, a friend of ours from Sweden, a man who had been an aficionado since the early sixties, said to me: “Larry, they’re never going to believe us in Madrid.”

AB: Who is your favorite torero present or past?

LB: There is a taurine expression that could be translated as the following: The more bullfighters you’re able to enjoy, the better aficionado you are. Over the years, I have had favorite toreros – El Viti in the seventies, Paco Ojeda in the eighties, José Tomás in the nineties, and Esplá, Manzanares (junior), Talavante, Antonio Ferrera, and Morante de la Puebla in recent years. From the crop of newcomers, I’m a fan of Juan del Álamo from Salamanca and Diego Urdiales. But I must admit that my favorite torero, perhaps, was the fabulous César. Allen Josephs ­­­published a fine book about César. He and José Tomás are the only toreros that I have actively attempted to follow, to attend corridas in which they were performing in Spain and France.

In 1979 I was in Santiago de Compostela and I read that El Cordobés was returning to ring in Huelva, on the southern coast of Spain, 870 kilometers by car. I’d never seen him in person, so off to Huelva in the stifling August heat. First there was the long train ride to Madrid, according to my calculations the best route to Huelva, and a miserable night in a sweltering hostal. The next morning, I caught a train in Atocha station and, after uncountable hours in insufferable heat, it stopped, end of the line, in Zafra at 2:00 a.m. The station was closed and it was cold as Hell. I shivered away what remained of the night on a wooden bench outside the station. The next morning, I took a train to Huelva, arriving around noon.

I dropped my backpack in a pension and made for the bull ring to purchase a ticket – along with thousands of others. As I neared the ring, the closer to it we got, the faster everyone walked, moved, ran, hobbled.  I’m ashamed to say that I did outrun the retired guys and those hobbling and hopping along on crutches and canes. To no avail. The line was long and we all inched along in the broiling sun and cursed those who tried to break into line. I was  50 meters from the ticket office when the wooden shutter slammed shut. Sold out.

El Cordobés

While many uttered imprecations with regard to the mothers of the ticket office employees and others threw stones at the ticket office, I pondered my situation – above all my financial one. Two days and nearly 900 kilometers in the infernal heat and no damn ticket. I checked my traveler’s checks and my stash of pesetas. To Hell with it. I found the best hotel in Huelva, went into the bar, and there was Carmelo. No mystery. Carmelo was, and is, the top ticket scalper in Spain, and he was not about to pass up the opportunity to cash in on “La Vuelta a los Ruedos del Mítico El Cordobés.” I knew that Carmelo did not sell tickets in the peanut gallery, or the “pipas” gallery in this case. He sold only high-dollar tickets to “discerning aficionados.” And leaning against the bar was Carmelo. We bargained, I spent my budget for a week.

I should have read about the corrida in the newspaper the next day. I walked out of the ring with the disgruntled crowd and sat at a table in a lowly café by the train station. As I was drinking my beer, two boys about 17 or 18 carrying cloth bundles held by a stick over their shoulders walked by, eying the beer and tapas on the tables. “Sit down and have a beer and a tapa,” I told them. “Talking to you guys will be far more interesting than the bullfight we’ve just seen.”

They were maletillas, young kids, aspiring toreros, who were traveling about Spain by any means possible, trying to convince bull ranchers, for example, to let them have a few passes with a fighting cow when it was being tested on the ranches by professional matadors. And if the ranchers took pity on them, as they often did, they might get a meal. Characterized by the bundles holding their capes, with the estaquillador, the wooden stick that spreads and supports the red cape, held over the shoulder and projecting through the knot tied at the top of the cloth, then maletillas were common and unmistakable. We drank beer, ate tapas and they told me they were going to hop the freight in the yard and try their luck on the ranches around Seville.

I ordered another beer and watched them walking through the dust toward the freight yard, the bundles on their backs gently rising and falling.

AB: Pamplona is a fraternal event, meaning that is primarily a male event which has created a” brotherhood” of sorts, especially among long time runners. Although women do run, they do not seem to make an impact. How do the Basques feel about women participating in the encierro?

LB: Allie, you’re right, Pamplona and the encierro remains a primarily male event, and although Spanish society is undergoing change, the encierro is still almost exclusively an event for men, like the Faulkner line from “The Bear”: “That brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank…” As my great, late friend Bomber would say, it is “a gathering of the tribes.” Women are still a rarity in the encierro, but then again, speaking for myself and, I believe, the vast majority of serious runners, no one cares, no one pays them any mind. They are simply another body, another presence in the streets. When you take up your spot in the street a few minutes before the rocket announces the release of the bulls from the corral, you sweep the area around you with a highly critical eye. There are veteran runners you’ve known for years, others you don’t know but by their bearing appear to know what they are doing, and others you realize immediately are neophytes. They may be male, they may be female, but they represent possible danger since their reactions are unpredictable. We often question them: “Have you ever done this before? Do you intend to stand here or run?” Standing on the cobblestones in that dark street awaiting six Spanish fighting bulls, the palpable smell of fear enveloping you, incipient panic in the streets, you are not concerned with gender.

A couple of years ago I was involved in a Sixty Minutes program on Pamplona with, among others, the journalist Allison Langdon. During the filming of the piece, Allison decided to experience the encierro on a personal level. She has participated in extreme sports events around the world, including scuba diving among crocodiles in Africa. She showed me both photos and video while we were sitting on a terrace drinking wine after an interview, and I remember thinking “there is not enough wine in all of Spain to get me into a river teeming with crocodiles.” For her, “standing” the bulls in an encierro may have been anticlimactic.

AB: It seems as if your wife Ana enjoys the fiesta as much as you do. Was or is it difficult for her to watch you run without worrying about you?

Larry and Allie in Salamanca

Larry and Ana in Salamanca

LB:  It sometimes seems my wife does not worry when I run an encierro, which worries me. All in jest. Relatively speaking, she does not worry excessively in Pamplona, for she knows that the emergency services and surgeons in the city are the finest in the world as far as horn wounds are concerned. If you must take a horn, do it in Pamplona. When I go to other towns or villages, she worries a great deal, knowing that they are not nearly as prepared for serious injuries as in Pamplona and that the ambulance trip, which may take thirty minutes or more, can be harrowing. Above all, she is concerned when I run and she is not present. Ana is certainly a modern, highly intelligent, independent woman: trilingual, a medical doctor, art history studies as a hobby, world traveler, but in addition, she does admit that she likes the idea that I can still run with bulls and compete with younger runners. In the 21st century, could a macho man still be admired?

The first time I took her to Pamplona for the fiesta, she was twenty-three. One night I became indecently intoxicated – no, I was pig drunk – along with some friends, and we probably didn’t go to bed until three or four in the morning. We were staying in the La Perla hotel and the next morning when the alarm rang at 6:30, I knew I was in lamentable condition and certainly not capable of running with bulls that morning. Ana, woke, literally pushed me out of bed and said: “Get your drunken carcass down in the streets with the bulls where you belong. That’s what you came here for. No excuses.” This, before we were married, gave me an inkling of what to expect from her in the future.

In the mornings following the encierro, we all meet in the main square at the Bar Choko, just below the old Hotel Quintana, to tell everyone who will listen about our heroic exploits of the morning. We have a tacit agreement: you can tell the most preposterous lies imaginable and no one will call you on it. Ana, who has been going to Pamplona for nearly thirty years and has become an expert on the encierro by watching it, complete with slow-motion replays, on television every morning, would often come to the Choko after the run. Problem. Someone would say, for example: “You should have seen me this morning. I had that bull breathin’ down my neck…” And then Ana would interrupt: “Bullshit! I saw you on T.V. and the only thing that was breathing down your neck was the wall you were plastered against.” After a few years, a “petit comité” took me aside one morning and the spokesman asked: “Larry, do suppose Ana could stay at home in the mornings?”

Some 25 years ago, one of my great friends, the legendary Noel Chandler, fell in front of me during the encierro and injured his knee. Once it was over he told me he needed a tetanus injection. I told him to accompany me to the apartment we had rented and that Ana would take care of it. Every year she goes to Pamplona equipped for medical emergencies, to such an extent that she can perform – and has performed – minor surgery. As we walked in she greeted us with the following: “If I were you guys, I’d be ashamed to show my face in public after the pathetic run you two had this morning. Try not to embarrass me tomorrow. Noel, what’s your problem?”

“I need a tetanus shot.”

“While I get my bag, drop your pants and bend over that table.”

She’s Castilian.

La corrida

Fallen runner

One year, as you can see in the photo above, I fell in front of the herd and was trampled by five bulls and about the same number of steers. As I was stretched out on the cobblestones, awaiting developments, the chestnut bull hooked at my leg, slapping it with the flat of his horn, which caused my body to describe a bit of an arc on the stones. This caught the attention of the last black bull and he hooked at my head. The horn struck the cobblestones a few inches from my head, raising sparks and creating a sound like a hammer on an anvil.

Situation report: Time for a new Pamplona wardrobe. The hooves had ripped my shirt and pants to shreds and I had lost a shoe.

Injury report: Flesh gouged out of my back, arms, hands, buttocks and legs. When pressure is exerted, the cloven hooves trap flesh and then gouge it out as the animal lifts them.

Action: Find a doctor, but avoid going to the hospital.

Solution: Hobble up the street to your apartment and your private physician before they cart you off in an ambulance.

As I walked in the door, Ana greeted me with: “You really should find a new tailor.”

AB: There used to be an elegance to bull running (despite it’s non-stop party atmosphere) that has evaporated since the addition of cameras, TV coverage, and loud music on huge speakers. What changes have you observed (positive or negative) since you began to run?

The media throng

The media throng, photo Anna Nelubova

LB: “It was a big meal at the hotel. It was the first meal of the prices being doubled for the fiesta” (SAR). So many people who come to Pamplona regularly for the fiesta insist that the spirit of San Fermín has been corrupted by pecuniary interests, yet I suspect that pecuniary interests have always been one of the prevalent factors of fiesta, as Hemingway notes above. Changes? Many. The encierro has certainly undergone significant changes. Since the 1980s, the encierro has become so crowded it is, at times, difficult to take a step, and the mentality of the runners has changed as well. Many runners now view running with bulls as an extreme sport.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway writes about the last day of the fiesta: “Sight-seeing cars came up, too. There was one with twenty-five Englishwomen in it.” That was in the twenties. Now, tours from Australia and the United States, for example, bring hordes of young people to the fiesta, people who have little or no idea about the fiesta or the customs of the people of Pamplona. They bring them in at night and they party throughout the night and then many of them – too many – invade the encierro in the morning. One morning in Pamplona this year about an hour before the run, I observed the guide of an American tour group literally holding up the omnipresent umbrella as he told the tourists, an array of shorts, backpacks and cameras, gathered around him that they should take care because the bulls were big that morning. Big bulls, indeed. Due to the mass media, I imagine, Pamplona suffers an invasion during San Fermín.

With respect to the bull runners, the ever-increasing presence of the mass media – above all, television and the internet – has influenced the mentality of many of them. Ranging from blatant to subtle, there is the desire to have your presence reflected in the mass media. To some extent, we are probably all guilty.

On the other hand, the essence of the fiesta survives. I was once asked in an interview for a documentary what San Fermín had given me, and the answer was simple: More than I could ever repay. San Fermín spreads his mantle for all and says “I offer you all this. Partake.” And he asks for nothing in return.

AB: Allen Josephs describes our modern craving for deeply symbolic experiences of tragedy and ecstasy as a response to the modern age, a way of breaking the wall that keeps us from deeper ideas and living a much richer life. This longing can be fulfilled by watching or participating in some of these Spanish celebrations, and in fact, it seems to be an intended part of the experience. What do these experiences satisfy in you?

Larry Belcher

Larry Belcher. Photo by Antalya Nall-Cain, Pamplona 2013.

I’ll summarize what I’ve already said about the corrida de toros, I believe, in other sections of this interview. Bullfighting is a multi-faceted and highly complex cultural spectacle, and I’m intrigued by all aspects of toreo, but, for me, above all else, bullfighting can be a powerful artistic expression created by the integration of a torero and a bull. And the fundamental creative force is allowed expression due to the presence of the possible death of the artist. Hemingway said it long ago, as we all know, and it remains true today.

I’ve most likely mentioned somewhere in this interview that the encierro is for me the opportunity to test myself against a magnificent fighting bull, and, on rare occasions, to achieve a state of ecstasy by running with bulls.

AB:Do you think that bullfighting will eventually be banned, or do you think it can somehow endure?

LB: Thinking of your questions has brought the subject of animal rights, opponents of bullfighting, etc. to mind. I’ve been reading Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography Reckless and one evening I was struck by the irony of the fact that I was sitting in my chair, her book in hand, below a late 19th century lithograph of a taurine scene by Daniel Perea from the iconic taurine periodical La Lidia. As you may be aware, Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders for many years, supports PETA and is quite vocal, as in many things, in her support for animal rights and the move to prohibit not only bullfighting but encierros as well. In 2004 she wrote a letter to the mayoress of Pamplona on behalf of PETA asking her to prohibit the encierros, saying that the bulls were tortured with electric prods in the corrals in the mornings before the encierros and that during the run itself people threw darts at them. I cite this as representative of the prevailing misinformation propagated by organizations such as PETA or ignorance on the part of their supporters.

Ledesma, Spain, 1984

Ledesma, Spain, 1984

The bulls in Pamplona are kept in the holding corrals at the beginning of the run the night before the encierros and the idea is to keep them as calm as possible. If anyone were to throw darts at the bulls during the encierros they would be immediately jailed – if they survived the ire of the spectators. I find that most aficionados are quite tolerant and the majority of us can empathize with those who are opposed to bullfighting; on the contrary, it’s my experience that supporters of organizations such as PETA are usually highly intolerant, even violent, as evidenced by anti-taurine incidents in France, for example, during recent years. Yet, Hynde’s stance does not prevent me from being a fan of her music or from admiring her work. Each one of us should examine our personal relationship with animals and act according to our conscience. Fighting bulls live for four or five years in a natural environment, comparatively free from human intervention. Their raison d’etre is their twenty-minute crucible in the bull ring. On the other hand, consider eight to ten months of industrial farming, followed by the abattoir. I am a carnivore, but the more I examine my conscience, the more I tend toward deciding to eat only the beef of fighting bulls. Finally, members of PETA do come to Pamplona, but, unlike those of us who are runners and taurine aficionados, they are not spectators of encierros and corridas, whereas the majority of us do attend their protest, especially when the ladies protest in the nude. Allie, this may be considered machismo by many, but I don’t mind. One of the major problems facing bull fighting are the bloody politicians – no surprise there. Those on the left carry the banner in their campaign to prohibit bull fighting because they can employ it as a symbolic weapon against what they, and their potential voters, feel is the rancid, retrograde right. As if taurine aficionados only consisted of conservatives. Have a look at taurine history, culture. But that is sadly lacking in most of those who take an anti-taurine stance. Nationalists also attempt to foist the idea that bullfighting is symbol of Spain on the inhabitants of their regions, such as in Catalonia (where a taurine culture has existed since at least the 14th century) or in Navarre, for instance (where bullfights were held in the Pamplona main square in the mid-14th century). Spain has declared bull fighting as a Cultural Heritage. It is not confined to a specific region. I do believe that tauromachy will survive, for it is for so many people, for many people who do not even understand but only sense that it is, the most powerful – and ephemeral – tragic art we have. It appeals to our sense of tragedy, to our artistic sense.

The familiar Hemingway line that “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death” states clearly the startling force of the art of tauromachy. It was true in 1932 and it is true in 2015.

AB: I was recently reading an anthology of essays about bulls, when I ran across this quote from Juan Belmonte (a bullfighter in the 1930’s), which I really loved:

“As far as I’m concerned. . . the most important thing in a fight…is the personal accent that the fighter gives it. That is to say, his style. The style is the bullfighter. It is the color which the spectacle of struggle between man and beast, old as the world, takes from a personal temperament a type of character, an individual spirit. One fights according to what one is. This is what matters…. When the bullfighter ends his faena, the tears should come to eyes or his lips should be touched with that smile of spiritual fulfillment which a man feels each time that the exercise of his art, however lowly and humble it may be, has made him aware of its divine inspiration.”

Could you respond to that quote as a long time bull runner in Pamplona?

Juan Belmonte

LB: Belmonte, whom I believe was quite an intelligent fellow based on all that I’ve read about him, was a revolutionary in the taurine world. He revolutionized the idea of terrain. He began working closer to the bull than what was considered, at that point, possible. Some believe this was due to his physical limitations. Perhaps. He became a full matador in 1913. I’ve said a good deal about bull fighting as art, but I don’t really consider bull running as art, at least in my definition of art, although I know some runners who do. For most, nowadays at least, it is an extreme sport, an athletic contest of the runners pitted against other runners. Indeed, the contemporary encierro in Pamplona does require athletic ability and a competitive spirit. For me, the encierro in essence has always been, on a superficial level, a personal test of courage. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, “Do I have the balls to step out on the streets this morning, fully aware of the possible consequences?” Then again, in my case, it’s a rhetorical question. On a much more important level, a spiritual one, perhaps, running when I’m fortunate enough to be able to run with a bull, I’m elevated into an intensely personal, private, realm where only the two of us exist. We coexist in a state in which the bull accepts my presence and all my senses are so sharply attuned that we both float through existence in slow motion. This fleeting moment of ecstasy, of intensely heightened emotion, or however you wish to classify it, stems from a very simple fact: the possibility of violent death. As in the art of toreo.

AB: You have lived in Spain long enough to understand Spain and her position in the world. What is your opinion about the financial situation in Europe?

LB:  Just one thing: The most serious problem here in Spain is the rampant corruption by politicians throughout the spectrum.

 AB: When we lived in Argentina, we were surprised by how many young people didn’t know about the “dirty war” and about their own history in general. In our country, there are big gaps in the teaching of US history. Can you speak about the “great forgetting” in Spain, the deliberate forgetting of the Franco dictatorship, and the climate of fear, and the denouncing of neighbor against neighbor.

LB:  Allie, for quite a number of years now, there has certainly been a movement against the “great forgetting,” as you call it. It may even be a collective or even tacit agreement among a great many people in Spain to come to terms with the Franco dictatorship. The Historic Memory is now promoted in attempt to recognize the crimes of the Franco regime, such as exhuming those assassinated by the Franco regime and who were buried in mass graves, for example. We must also remember the atrocities perpetrated by the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, such as the mass executions of nationalist prisoners in Madrid in Paracuellos.

AB: Yes, for sure there were many atrocities by the Republicans as well, but they tended to be less publicized. I just finished reading a wonderfully written memoir titled,”Malaga Burning”, by Gamel Woolsey. She recounts her days living in a village above Malaga where bands of rougue Republican death squads which terrorized the villages even though most of the villagers were pro Republican.

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Larry and his wife Ana

AB:  Dooes your understanding of Spain and Hemingway grow as the years go by?

LB: It does. The more I read of Hemingway the better I believe I understand both his work and his life. The letters project is excellent, for it certainly gives you a personal insight into Hemingway’s life and thoughts related to his work and his daily comings and goings. The same holds true for Spain. I’ve lived here for over thirty years and I’m totally integrated into the culture. Occasionally I think I know too much about Spain, which hampers my appreciating a more essential Spain, so in order to return to the innocence and wonder of forty years ago I attempt to invoke a type negative capability.

Some twenty years ago during the September fair in Salamanca, I was sitting in a bar with an old friend of mine, Donny Spicehandler, at three o’clock in the morning remembering friends present and past when Donny suddenly said “You know, buddy, all my closest friends, I met them in Pamplona.” Nearly seventy at that time, Donny had been a professor of American literature in Paris for many years and had started going to Pamplona in the late fifties. He even had a wineskin that Hemingway had signed for him in Pamplona in 1959. He had also been, among many things, a bombardier in the Jewish air force during the Six-Day War. Donny was a grizzled veteran of life, so his statement was something to contemplate.

Today, twenty years later, I realize that Donny’s statement holds true for me – all my closest friends, I met them in Pamplona during the feria of San Fermín. From taxi drivers to university professors, from airline pilots to movie stars, from bullfighters to novelists, from defrocked priests to unreformed alcoholics – I’ve met them all in Pamplona. I owe a great deal to this multi-faceted fiesta, this magical town, and as I’ve said before, San Fermín spreads his mantle each year on 6 July and says “I offer each and every one of you all this bounty, partake and make of if what you will, and I ask for nothing in return.” Of all this bounty San Fermín has given me over forty years, most importantly he has given me friendship, a bond we all have in common. And, Allie, it has allowed me to come to know you, a most courageous lady.