Bull running always a good story

Posted: Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I ran with the bulls once. Just over 20 years ago. I was younger and faster back then. I was also drunk. Everyone was. What most people don't realize about that famous Spanish tradition - popularized by Ernest Hemmingway in "The Sun Also Rises"- is that it is part of the weeklong festival of St. Fermin, and another part of that festival is drinking all night. And I mean all night.

Then, when the sun comes up, they close the bars, block the exits and let the beasts loose. Imagine telling thousands of tired, tipsy people to run a 100-yard dash after a full night of Mardi Gras. It would be crazy without bulls.

On my particular night in Pamplona, I saw more injuries during the dark than during the light. I saw a barefoot woman step onto glass and bleed profusely - before dunking her foot into a large cup of beer. I saw several fistfights and shoving matches.

Fortunately, I had a mentor, a local guy named Pablo whom I met that night. He wore the traditional red scarf and white shirt and told me his family had been running with the bulls for generations. He had enough English to ask if I would introduce him to American girls, and I had enough sense to say only if he ran with me come morning.

We made a deal. For all I know, it saved my life.

Here's the way the whole thing works. Around 8 a.m., after a few prayers sung by the masses, the bulls are released from the corral. They stampede through the narrow, cobblestone streets and finish about a half-mile later, in the stadium, where they will be killed in bullfights.

So they're racing to their deaths. Can you blame them for wanting to take a few of us along?

What Pablo taught me - in addition to a whole new appreciation for how much sangria one Spaniard can drink - was to stay away from the start of the bull run because they go right past you, and to stay away from the end because it narrows into a tunnel and there is no place to go if the bull decides to use his horns.

Then Pablo rolled up a newspaper and made jabbing movements, although I couldn't imagine using newsprint against charging livestock.

Pablo also said, "The solo bull es muy malo" - meaning the worst thing you could do is wind up one-on-one with a confused and angry animal.

And, according to reports, that is what happened last week. A bull got separated from the pack and began goring spectators. It threw one young man, then went at his neck. The man later died in a hospital after emergency surgery. The next day, they did it all again.

I imagine if the running of the bulls were an American tradition, we would have stopped it by now. Some protest group (People Against Goring, the Pro-Bull Movement, the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Tourists) would have hounded it out of existence.

But I am glad it goes on in Spain. Not because of the occasional fatality (the last goring death was 14 years ago). Obviously, that's tragic. But people fall over railings at baseball games and get trampled at soccer games and die on race tracks, and those things keep going.

No, the reason I'm glad it continues is because Pamplona is not Las Vegas and bull running is not the Super Bowl. It remains a rare old tradition in a small, foreign city that hasn't been co-opted by Visa or Budweiser, doesn't carry a corporate name, has no sponsors or drug tests and offers no prize other than to say you did it.

And maybe you learned from it. Maybe you made a few foreign friends and you have something to look back on and say, "I was young, that was crazy, but I went, it was fun, it got me out of my comfort zone and it gave me perspective on how big the planet really is."

That's what I think when I remember those cobblestone streets. That, and Pablo poking at bulls with a rolled-up newspaper. What words were on those curled pages, I wonder? Perhaps another writer recalling a wild memory from his youth. If so, one story became part of another, which is how life should be.

• Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at malbom@freepress.com.





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