I recently came across an old wineskin that I threw into the ring after a bullfight in Malaga, Spain, in 1959. It’s leather, coated on the inside with pitch. It’s stiff as a board now.
I was 15 that summer. My grandparents sent me to a Spanish language course at a school in Malaga. It was a good time to be in Spain. The country was still very poor, compared to the rest of Europe. Spain had been neutral, but neutral on the wrong side, so they didn't get any help from the Marshall Plan after the war. The backwardness made my time there more interesting.
Classes were in a plain two-story stucco building with windows open in the hot air. It smelled of cement dust, and the water in the earthen jug that served for a drinking fountain tasted of it, too.
In July, Malaga put on a week-long fair, with bullfights every day in an old stadium. The biggest bullfighting names were featured. The bullfights were real and vivid, with real danger in the ring, and real blood, and the bulls really killed at the end of the fights, hitched to mules, and dragged out of the ring to be butchered.
A bullfight is a cruel and barbaric business, but exciting to a young man. It is not really a fight; it is all about the finesse and courage of the matador. I will pass over the stages of the bullfights to describe four memories that stand out.
One day a friend and I got into the internal gallery over the big stall where the bull waits, huffing and shifting, after being prodded into it with poles from above. It was hot and dark, and the sounds from the ring were muffled. From close above we could see the big animal, his sharp, forward-pointing horns, the mass of his neck muscles, his uneasy movements, and we could sense his energy.
When the doors open, the bull charges out, in a state of excitement and confusion, into the bright sunlight and the roar of the crowd. A fighting bull has never seen a man on foot, much less a sea of them in the stands all around the arena. His instinct is to attack.
A bull learns quickly in the short time he is given. Fighting bulls have been rigorously prevented, all the four or five years of their lives, from seeing a human on foot. When they charge out into the arena on the day of their one fight, they don’t know what those creatures are that run or stand in front of them. The red cape seems like the biggest part of the creature, and they go for it, but it sweeps away just as they reach it. It happens again and again, and if the matador is skillful and wise, the bull dies before he understands. But if the matador is inexperienced, he may push his luck. At one fight, I saw the bull look from the cape to the man and go for the man. The bull threw him high in the air and would have gored him on the ground, if he had not been distracted by other men with capes.
The killing of the bull, of course, is always dramatic. It takes place after the matador has gotten the bull to charge him repeatedly, the horn missing by inches, to demonstrate his mastery of the huge animal. When it is time to end the fight, the matador sights down the curved blade of his sword, goads the bull into another charge, and runs toward him, with a small cape to lead him to the side. If the kill was done well, after the matador and the bull closed and passed, suddenly a very little of the sword would be visible, sticking up between the bull's shoulders—sometimes just the hilt. The bull would stand there, looking bewildered and swaying, or would toss his head, and then would topple over or sink to his knees and then to the ground, dead.
In one exciting case, the sword, instead of penetrating, bent almost double and then flew high in the air, flashing in the sun, to land in the sand fifty feet away. But the matador succeeded with another sword.
The last memory concerns the wineskin. I had bought one and had it filled with red wine, because I knew of the custom of throwing a wineskin into the ring for the matador. In one fight, the matador was Antonio Ordoñez, the foremost bullfighter at the time. After the fight, he was awarded both of the bull’s ears, a traditional honor. As he made his walk around the ring, receiving applause and holding the ears high, I backhanded my wineskin—barely missing the head of the woman in front of me—into the ring. It landed near Ordoñez. One of his attending toreadors went to pick it up and throw it back into the crowd, but Ordoñez signaled to let him have it. He took a long squirt of the wine and spat it out, as per custom, and tossed it to the attendant, who threw it into the crowd. Hand to hand, it came back to me, a callow blond-haired foreign teenager.
Not only was Antonio Ordoñez the foremost bullfighter at the time, but his rival Luis Miguel Dominguin also fought that day, and their friend Ernest Hemingway was in the audience.
Remembering the wineskin incident caused me to look up Ordoñez on the web, and I found the story of those bullfights, which appeared when he died in 1998. So now, 53 years later, I appreciate the day and my luck.
NY Times - December 21, 1998: Antonio Ordoñez Dies at 66; Matador in Hemingway Book
Antonio Ordoñez, a leading bullfighter in the 1950's and the last survivor of the dueling matadors chronicled by Hemingway in ''The Dangerous Summer,'' died on Saturday in a Seville hospital. He was 66.
The cause was cancer, the Spanish news media reported.