SI Vault
A Bit of Spain in a London Town House
Thomas Dozier
January 16, 1967
It is just a bullfighter's cape that once belonged to a man who followed Spanish bulls while trying to catch up with himself. The cape stands stiffly, as though waiting for Randy Burke's return
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 16, 1967

A Bit Of Spain In A London Town House

It is just a bullfighter's cape that once belonged to a man who followed Spanish bulls while trying to catch up with himself. The cape stands stiffly, as though waiting for Randy Burke's return

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

I did not have very long to worry about it, for after two weeks in Madrid that spring we had to return to Paris. We were not to cross the frontier at Hendaye again until early July, when we headed south for that most festive of all the Spanish fiestas, the Feria of San Ferm�n in Pamplona.

This great week of collective madness, with its running of the bulls and its all-night dancing in the streets, has been more than adequately publicized in both fact and fiction, and it is not my purpose to dwell upon its joys. I will mention only one not quite so well-known fact: that it is almost impossible to find lodging in Pamplona during the feria without careful advance planning. The few hotels are all booked up years in advance and are hard put to accommodate the rich and powerful, plus the toreros who come to fight the bulls. For this reason, the small Pamplona group to which my wife and I belonged had obtained lodging for the past several years in, of all things, a house which served the other 51 weeks of the year as a home for deaf-mute children. The good ladies who ran this charitable institution simply moved the little ones out during San Ferm�n week, and what they collected from us for the premises, a modest sum by American standards, helped to defray the expense of the home for the rest of the year. It was an admirable arrangement. We had a place to sleep and drink (doing more of the latter than the former), and the knowledge that every peseta paid to our landlady helped a worthwhile cause added to our total enjoyment of the fiesta.

This arrangement had worked very well. But the year before, the Madrid-based unofficial secretary of our group wrote us all that the se�ora had given up the deaf mutes' residence and moved her charges elsewhere. We had to settle for individual bedrooms in apartments and houses scattered all over Pamplona. The room in a private home assigned to my wife and me was comfortable enough, indeed something of an improvement over the deaf mutes' establishment, but we missed the camaraderie of the central kitchen and dining room, where the group had been accustomed to assemble for solace after each afternoon's bullfight. Quickly, however, we discovered we were not alone. As we left our room to head for a rendezvous with our fellow members at Kutz' Bar in the main plaza, who should emerge from the next room but Randy Burke.

He greeted us with enthusiasm, and there was nothing to do but to invite him to join us. It soon became apparent, on the walk to the bar and even over the second, third and fourth drinks there, that we were dealing with a new Randy. He was clear-eyed, polite and happy. He got through the drinks without once becoming either boring or ugly, chatted gaily about Spain, the bulls, Pamplona, the weather, the beautiful women. He seemed to have some inner secret that gave him confident joy.

We discovered what it was that evening when, upon returning to our rooming house, Randy invited us next door for a nightcap. As we entered his narrow, single room, there stood, in all its resplendent color, a stiffly new bullfighter's cape. Randy reacted to our puzzled stares with delight, and before we could ask questions or examine the cape, he whipped out his wallet and produced a card. It certified that James Randolph Burke, age 58, nationality American, was a paid-up member of the Sindicato de Toreros, or Bullfighters Union, of Spain and was thereby entitled to all the rights and privileges pertaining to said membership, including free medical and surgical treatment in the Bullfighters' Hospital of Madrid, which has the best facilities in the world for the treatment of horn wounds.

It turned out that a bullfighting friend of Randy's in M�laga had proposed him for membership, and the local branch of the Sindicato, as an innocent gag, had voted unanimously to accept him and issue him the document he now held so proudly in his hand. It seemed at first thought to be indeed a harmless and even kindly gesture on the part of the toreros. But when Randy picked up the new cape from its wigwam position in the corner and, fondly handling it, explained what he planned to do, I was not so sure. The bulls to be faced the following afternoon by three of the top matadors of Spain were from the breeding ranch of Don Eduardo Miura, near Sevilla. A Miura bull had killed El Espartero in the Madrid ring in 1894, and ever since Miuras have been accounting for an undue number of toreros, great and not so great, up to and including the one that ripped into Manolete's groin at Linares in 1947 and thus sent the greatest fighter of his time to his death in a lonely provincial hospital. The Miuras' reputation is thus a fearsome one, and the great matadors fight Miuras only because, if they refuse, the crowds will call them coward. Even so, they fight as few Miuras as possible.

Now 58-year-old Randy Burke, the exaltation in his voice barely controlled, was telling me that on the next day he intended to jump into the Pamplona ring with his new cape and pass the most fearsome Miura of the afternoon.

"It is what I have wanted to do all my life," he said. "I want to face a Miura."

We could only assume that he was joking, and we humored him by going along with the joke. But, on awakening the next morning, I remembered the almost mystical sense of mission his voice and countenance had reflected, and I asked my wife: "You don't think he means it, do you?"

She was not sure, so at lunch we told the story to our closest bullfight friend, with whom we were going to sit at the afternoon's corrida. The friend, who knows more about the bulls and the ways of bullfighting than anyone I have ever met, said there was no need to worry, because the police would never let him into the ring with a fighting cape. He reminded me that there is in Spain a rigidly enforced law that no spectator may take into the seats any bullfighting equipment of any kind. I felt reassured.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4