When we lived in Coronado in 1953 for weekend amusement, Dad invited us to go with him to Tijuana, Mexico to see a bullfight, but my grandmother, Gammie, and my Aunt Jane, wanted no part of watching the killing of animals for sport. Since he also loved horses, Dad took us all to see the horse races at Agua Caliente Race Track usually on a Sunday. We would each pick which horse we thought would win. Since Dad raised horses as a boy in Chicago and owned one called "Pep," he had expertise in pointing out what horse and jockey he thought had the best chance to win. We enjoyed watching him take a wad of bills out to place his bets for each race while we sat back, sucked on a root beer, and decided if he would have done better by putting money on a different horse to win, place, or show. Binoculars brought the action close enough to see the jockeys' colorful outfits, and the horses' beauty, and helped us give our opinion on which one would win. Unfortunately, cigarette and cigar smoke drifted over every seat but the cheering crowd and the speed of the horses as they raced down the stretch with manes and tails flying in the breeze and jockeys straining in their saddles, made it exciting.
Afterwards Dad took us to a restaurant called Mary Jane’s where we were introduced to Mexican food. Tacos, enchaladas, salad with chips and salsa or quacamole, pleased us every time. At the end of the meal the waiter served all with an alcoholic drink in a shot glass with Khalua and cream as an after dinner surprise.
Dad observed Chip and my confusion from protests about animal cruelty at a bullfight. “Watch how well the matador performs with the bull. His graceful motions with the cape in the path of a charging bull make knowledgeable fans cheer. It’s really not a fight at all.”
“But, they kill the bull with a sword every time,”I said remembering the visit to the stockyards in Chicago the year before that upset my stomach.
“The matador does eventually kill the bull that will be slaughtered and carried off for meat, but the drama is the colorful costumes, and movements of all the actors before. The finale is done so the bull is quickly dispatched when the matador plunges the sword into the bull's heart through his shoulders when he makes the bull dip his head,"Dad said.
"What happens during the lead up to his death"? I asked.
"The noble animal struts in the ring, we admire his massive size, power, and ability to charge with large pointed horns that could kill anyone struck by them."
"But he's going to get slaughtered and everyone knows it," Chip countered.
"For those who enjoy bullfights, the bull’s dignity, energy, and beauty live forever. When the mighty brute is the center of attention for those thirty minutes, the crowd sees both his ferocity and majesty, rather than the docile nature most bulls exhibit that the farmer fattens up in a field where he spends most of the day resting," Dad said with conviction.
"So it is a show to praise the bull and the fighter," I said.
"A fierce bull charging past a skilled matador makes us appreciate both the bull and the athletic and graceful matador. The public will remember the bull far more in that ring than if he died at a slaughter house like millions before him who were known only as meat."
This explanation made me believe there might be a different side to a bullfight than just the slaughtering of an innocent animal. Maybe watching a bullfight would allow me to enjoy knowing the massive bull had at least displayed his strength for the crowd rather than end his life meaninglessly at the slaughterhouse like so many before him. Wanting to see the bull show off his power, speed, muscles, and strength, I agreed with Chip to go with Dad to see a Tijuana bullfight.
When we arrived trumpets blared in the circular arena, beer (cerveza) flowed, and cigar smoke wafted. In the first match, the matador allowed the bull to charge past him a few times gracefully manipulating his heavy cape somewhat like a dancer, while other participants arrived. The merciless picadors rode on padded horses and lanced the bull with a long spear to weaken his neck muscles and infuriate him making the contest more interesting to the bloodthirsty crowd. It seemed brutal and mean. The injury caused his head sink and blood run down his back. The matador worked his way around the rink tiring the bull who always charged at the red cape held up by the sword time and time again in a futile attempt to gore the multi-colored proud matador. Eventually the bull showed signs of weariness signaling to the matador it was time to end the show with a spectacular conclusion."If he didn't make a swift kill the crowd would burst into whistles showing their disdain," Dad said.
The matador, with a small red cape, finally plunged his sword (espada) into the bull’s heart. Cheers greeted an expert performance followed by awards consisting of one ear, two ears, or two ears plus the tail. Whistles, jeers, and boos showered a matador who performed badly. Observing the way they abused the bull, my sympathy for the muscular animal increased for each match remembering the mighty way he looked when he strutted so proudly into the ring. The crowd cheered the matador for the dramatic episode, but I thought those who gored and killed him, had tortured a dignified animal forced into submission when exhausted and drained of energy. Had this been a Labrador Retriever in the ring no one would have dared speak of the event as honoring his muscular body and proud bearing. People would see it as sadistic torture of a proud and sinewy animal. It would be a crime! Except this was in Mexico where betting on cock-fighting to the death was also allowed as in many other countries. And this was a dangerous bull not a friendly Lab. Furthermore, bull-fighting was a national sport in Spain. It seemed a throwback to the gladiator days that glorified the power to kill and appealed to that cruel interest in observing violence at someone or some animal's peril.
Dad took us to Jai-alai games in Tijuana to show us a different and interesting sport. Played in a three–walled court with a hard rubber ball or pelota, the athletes caught and threw the ball with a cesta, a long, curved wicker scoop strapped to a player's arm. The audience placed bets on which players might win a match. The athletes threw the pelota from their cesta against a wall often on an angle or with a spin to make it difficult to catch and return to the wall as required. The opponent must catch the ball before it bounced twice or his team lost a point. A line on the wall indicates the spot the ball had to strike above for play. The players raced after the ball, caught and whipped it against the wall in an exciting match. One of the most difficult challenges came from a cleverly thrown ball that hit just above the white line on an angle as it forced the opponent to run up to catch it and judge how it will react from bouncing off the wall. The ball seemed to travel as fast as any 100 mile per hour hit or thrown baseball and had a unique sound as it struck the wall like a mallet striking a croquet ball, or a golfer smacking a golf ball with a driver.
We regularly played basketball with kids from the neighborhood at the Hutchinson’s garage across the street from my house. Their father attached a basketball hoop and net above their garage. Jordy Hutchinson, a year younger than me and a year older than Doug Manchester, usually shot baskets there and invited us to join him. When he was away, Doug and I took a six pack of beer from his cooler to a tree fort in a field next to Doug's house only two doors down from the Hutchinson’s home. We drank the entire six beers above the roof tops with a view of the Pacific Ocean feeling mighty cool. I went home with a buzz on, felt dizzy, and walked into our house hoping nobody would recognize my beer breath or unsteady movements. Fortunately, no one noticed my condition and I escaped without a headache or anyone aware of our bold theft.
We attended the Presbyterian Church on Orange Avenue where the Minister, Reverend Ken Carson, appealed to us when we met him and heard his sermon. A very kind man who loved the outdoors and wildlife, he regularly took the kids from the youth groups on hikes to trails, creeks, lakes, and forests for a day away from Coronado into Nature. Chip and I enjoyed attending his Church and socializing with our friends in the Sunday school for teenagers. They never pushed us to believe any dogma like the minister at the Baptist church where we were baptized in Morgan Park, Illinois. That minister preached that God would send us to Hell if we didn’t follow the dictates of the New Testament. Reverend Carson’s sermons were more concerned with the message of love from the teachings of Jesus, or other spiritual leaders, and sought to build friendships among the youth and Church members.
He never preached a message of fear like in Chicago where we heard the drum beat of eternal damnation in Satan’s lake of fire. God would send people there forever if they didn’t walk a narrow Christian path praying to God for forgiveness and so that the blood of Christ would cleanse them from their sinful nature. At twelve that message always scared and confused me. Rev. Carson persuaded me with kindness and interest in our youth group discovering Nature. He had a better way to reach people of all ages with his message that we should love all of God’s creation. He reminded me of the words my grandma Ruthie and Mom used to influence me as a child that emphasized love of family, country, Nature, and God. They had a source of strength I admired and made me feel guilty for my theft so I vowed to not repeat that escapade.