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Documentary : His Cry of Bravado Went Out: Ole . . . Oh No! : For a rookie bullfighter in Spain, it was sort of a hit-and-run situation. Actually, it was more like hit, hit, hit and run.


VALDEOLMOS, Spain — Face down in a violent storm of hooves and flying gravel, I felt the young bull's hatred. Blows of its skull smashed me again and again, like a jackhammer. I covered my head with my arms; there was no escape.

To my untrained eye, bullfighting had looked relatively easy from up in the stands: A bull charges, you swing the cape gracefully, the bull rushes past. Brain versus brawn--grace versus grunt. No problem.


The opportunity to fight a 240-pound, 1-year-old bull calf came as part of a uniquely Spanish version of the Fourth of July picnics that Americans seem to enjoy no matter where they are in the world. In addition to the standard softball, hot dogs and ice cream, the American Club in this small, whitewashed pueblo not far from Madrid also marks the day by sponsoring a capea --a chance to live out latent bullfighting tendencies.

The young bulls are not nearly as dangerous as the half-ton, 4-year-old versions that Spain's matadors face in the ring. But they are mean.

I watched others go first. A few guys got tossed, but jumped up smiling. No problem. The horns on these toritos were little more than stubs.

I thought of my grandfathers: One fed cattle in Nebraska, the other was a butcher in Michigan. Both loom large in my memory. Cattle had made men in my family.

In the land of Hemingway, how could I shirk such a challenge?

The announcer asked, "One more bull?" The crowd roared. I clambered over the red concrete wall and dropped to the sand below.

A hot dog on the Fourth of July.

What had innocently started as an afternoon frolic a la espanola suddenly turned into a scary test of manhood. An ornery beast and I were about to have it out, and only the bull seemed to have a clear idea of what it was doing. My only defense was a puny piece of cloth--a torn pink cape growing heavy and unwieldy in my outstretched arms.

As I stood there, a gust of wind kicked up a cloud of sand and blew the cape backward into my legs.

Shaking the cape free, I readied myself, advancing slowly, deliberately. The sand was loose and seemed to shift underfoot. "Toro! Toro!" I shouted, jerking the cape. I half hoped the bull wouldn't notice.

Black neck arched, eyes like coal, my adversary pawed the ground. This bull was bigger than the rest. Its horns were no mere stubs. They curved.

The crowd fell quiet.

Slowly, the bull turned its head.

It charged without a sound.

I stood my ground for a few short seconds, clenching the cape's torn hem in panicked concentration, and then the bull was upon me.

I swung the cape clumsily to my left, but the bull hit me hard anyway, catching my side with its left horn and jerking upward. A stunning collision, but suddenly it was past me.

Desperately off balance, I stumbled, turned and tried to raise the cape again. Too slow. Charging from a few yards off, the bull smashed me to the ground like a truck hitting a deer. Then it attacked me where I fell.

Its rock-hard skull hit me like a pile driver, blow after blow.

The next thing I remember is grabbing for the polished cable atop the bullring wall and pulling myself to safety. I looked back and saw the bull, racing about the ring in triumph, a string of drool swinging beneath its bloodied nose. Who would be next? it seemed to taunt.

Then I sat in a white-tiled infirmary, scraped and bruised, but basically unharmed. A ragged, gash-like welt ran from my waist to my chest, but the horn hadn't cut me. Somebody had kicked the bull to get it off me, I learned.

My thoughts wandered to El Tato, a 19th-Century torero gored so badly that his leg had to be amputated. A fan pickled the limb in alcohol, displaying it for years in a shop window until one night the building burned, and the leg was lost forever.

I was thankful to be walking, and ready to hang up my cape forever. But only figuratively. No way was I going back into that ring to retrieve it.

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