Pulling into San Sebastian, our first town in Spain, we decided to grab some non-alcoholic beverages and a bite to eat. At around 7:00 am, we stepped off the train and shuffled into the station café. While Tony slowly slumped down into the corner, looking, and smelling exactly like a bowery bum, I managed to work my way up to the café bar to order coffee and some churros. While waiting for our espressos, I heard from behind me a divine voice asking in English?
“Are you running the bulls?”
As I turned around to see if this comment was directed at me, I could almost hear angels singing. It appeared to me, in the morning light illuminating the café, that there was a halo of light cascading over a statuesque blond, sporting bull earrings. I don’t know why, but at that time in the early morning, I was fascinated by those bobbles.
“Why yes,” I stammered.
“That’s Great! So am I,” she replied quite cheerfully – in sharp contrast to how I felt at that moment.
Welcome to Catherine, our savior, for the remainder of the trip.
Catherine was a godsend. Not only a statuesque blonde (albeit with man hands), but she was savvy with the traditions and ways of Pamplona during the San Fermín festival. She was an ex-pat living in France conducting bike tours throughout Europe and for the last 11 years, she had met her German friends for a week of partying and frivolity in Pamplona, the capital city of the region called Navarre.
Latching onto her like a “white on rice,” I frantically motioned for Tony to come over and meet our new friend. Recognizing that we just had an unbelievable stroke of good luck, Tony perked right up. And slowly, sauntered on over to engage this lovely lady. No longer was he a drunk bum in the corner of the café, but a renaissance man and international bon vivant.
After coffee and a little small talk, she told us that she was on the same train and offered to sit with us up to Pamplona. That was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We stuck to her like “buzzards on a gut wagon.” No way we were going to let her leave us. So, being the cool, macho, naval aviators that we knew we were, we knew we had to impress her. Immediately we purchased a bota bag of sangria – it was 10 am after all -and boarded the train to take the hot, rickety ride up the Pyrenees to the Kingdom of Navarre.
For the next two hours, the conversation continued as we found out all about Catherine.
Originally from Arizona, Catherine had graduated from Stanford, moved to Paris and just stayed. She then found out that I was engaged, and that Tony was single. Guess who became the third wheel?
Around noon, after downing a couple of bota bags of sangria, we were feeling no pain as we pulled into Pamplona station. That’s when Catherine really earned her money. She told us where to store our gear and to purchase our running outfits. Since San Fermín is a religious festival, to appreciate the whole experience you need to purchase the traditional running costume, which consisted of white pants, and a white blouse or shirt, with a red sash around the waist. With a red neckerchief you wear around your wrist until after the opening ceremony. San Fermin was like the opening ceremony of the Olympics, except it was one enormous mass of humanity, not an organized procession. But, like the Olympics, all the countries were represented.
Now, dressed in our ceremonial garb, we proceeded to the town square, where we met other revelers just coming into town.
Since the initial festivities would not begin until noon the following day, Catherine suggested we hop into one of the main taverns in the city… why not? Since we were dressed appropriately: white shirt, white pants, red sash, et al., we knew that it was our sworn duty to show the assembled masses that the US Navy was in town – and not just the Navy, but two strapping, young aviators that were going to show them how things are really done! Ignorance and arrogance-not being mutually exclusive-were not going to stop us from having a good time. Too bad we didn’t know that we were about to get run over by a train, or a small herd of bulls.
As we stepped into the dimly lit saloon, we were hit by the ambience of this establishment. The aroma of cigarettes, coffee, and beer assaulted our senses. As our eyes adjusted to the light, we started making out characteristics that helped confirm that “we were not in Kansas anymore.” Inside we saw in the back, the center of attention, the long bar, with locals, and tourists grabbing a bracer for the day. Built out and framed by wood panels along the walls, this place reminded me of a good martini lounge in New York City. Soon our eyes focused on the timbers. Hanging from the rafters were multiple ham-hocks. God Bless Spain! This was the famous Iberian ham that cost a fortune back in the states but was hanging from the beams like cheap slabs of meat. We immediately rushed to the bar, ordered a cerveza, and a hoagie with ham. No condiments, mind you, just literally ham and bread for a sandwich. Not the most succulent meal I’ve ever had, but the jamón was delicious.
Unfortunately, in the heat of the summer, these cured pieces of pig would slowly exude their fat. The glistening blubber would drip down into little containers that looked like cocktail drink umbrellas stuck upside down near the bottom of the hunk of meat. That’s fine, very sanitary (you don’t want fat on the floor), however, both of us being over six feet tall, Tony and I found we had a problem. Soon the crowd started to build in this elegant tavern, and the beers began to flow freely. People started getting more aggressive as they tried to get real estate at the bar to order drinks. We were getting jostled around as travelers from around the world pushed their way toward the bartender to acquire a little liquid courage. Because of our height, we kept being pushed, or bumped, into the hanging ham-hocks, and with the umbrellas full of fat, they would spill onto our heads, hair, and clothes. That’s right; we were not even in Pamplona for five hours and already we had dead animal fat, all over us.
Was this going to be a glorious trip or what?!
This was the first of multiple experiences were we soon to have in the Kingdom of Navarre, we left that bar and slowly worked, or bar hopped, up the old town of Pamplona, drinking, eating, and having a fantastic time with our new friend Catherine. Around eight O’clock we picked what we thought was going to be our last bar for the evening. As the three of us clambered into this smaller establishment, which was on the north side of a small park, we crammed into a corner and proceeded to drink proper. But, unbeknownst to us, the night was going to take a turn for the worst. At around 10:00 pm, Catherine said something that made our blood run cold.
“I have to go see my friends now and check into our hotel.”
And then it hit us…we have no place to stay! That’s right, we even forgot to book rooms for the time we were in Pamplona… WHAT WERE WE THINKING?!
So, as brave military men. We did what came naturally: we begged.
“Can we come with you?” we sheepishly asked.
“NO! She replied in no uncertain terms.” “I can’t show up with two Americans. But I’ll ask for tomorrow night, the eve of the first run.”
“Ok,” we meekly muttered.
Our Princess then departed like Cinderella before the stroke of midnight. Naturally, after being “shot down,” we consumed more drinks just to take away the sting of rejection as our siren of Pamplona ditched us.
Stumbling out of the bar in an inebriated state with dumbfounded looks on our faces, we gazed around the main square spotting roving gypsies and drunk Aussies. It soon occurred to us, that we were going to have to stand watch and take turns sleeping on the most uncomfortable plastic chairs you could find. SON OF A BITCH!
Staking out a plastic table and chairs, we set up a watch schedule and sleeping arrangements. Some sleeping arrangements, in those damn chairs, we both received about two hours of sleep. However, I got less sleep because, apparently, I did a little exploring…
As Tony recalled: “Just before dawn, as I was “standing watch” in the cool, crisp pre-morning hours in Pamplona, Jim (call sign Kamper) was laying on the ground, his head propped on his fanny pack for a pillow. Suddenly, with no warning, Jim shot up vertically, his eyes wide open with a look of surprise across his face. He looked left, he looked right. He looked me right in the eye, and then jumped up and ran – literally ran – off across the square.
Although Kamper was a pal, I was too inebriated to chase this 6’1” ugly white American around the streets of Pamplona. So, being the practical man that I am, as Jim took off, I quickly grabbed his place on the ground, placed my head on my fanny pack and propped my feet on Kamper’s possessions. To protect them of course (Hey, remember “buddy’s” half a word…). As the sun was peaking over the mountains to the east. I finally hauled my body into a sitting position, and with great trouble slowly rose into a standing position and walked over to the bar we imbibed in the night before. But now it had become a café. Still unconcerned with the whereabouts of my traveling companion, I bought a super-strong triple espresso and a Danish. With sustenance in hand, I returned to the cheap plastic table and chairs on the edge of the square and attempted to resuscitate myself.
Halfway through my triple espresso, out of the blue, Kamper reappears, shouting “Why did you leave me?” WTFO? I looked at him quizzically trying to understand this raving lunatic. Finally, I said, “Kamper, I’ve been right here with our bags, I didn’t go anywhere, you ran off.” Of course, Kamper refused to believe it, and to this day he still thinks that I, in the middle of the night, removed his fanny pack from under his head, and went to a different part of the square, just to fuck with him.”
However, we survived to fight another day…
By this time the summer sun was slowly rising over Basque country and into the azure sky of Spain. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and observed the merchants hosing down their storefronts to prepare for the start of another day, and the San Fermín festival, we marveled at the beauty and allure of such a place.
As the town slowly awoke, and we regained some sense of self-awareness, Catherine had shown up. As promised, she volunteered to be our escort for the day, and perhaps for the remainder of our time in Pamplona (as well as to get to know Tony a little better). As we noshed on a little breakfast, along with copious amounts of coffee, we began to plan for our first full day in Pamplona. We were getting excited at the thought of this “San Fermín” celebration. The place was now starting to get noisy as the city was filling up with people ready for the start of the observance. The energy was palatable, and with the international nature of this festival, we knew we were in for a treat. But first, not only did we have to go to the bar (for medicinal purposes only), but we felt it necessary to fill our bota bags with more wine to brace ourselves for the long day ahead.
After our “morning eye-opener,” we headed to the city center, where Catherine tried to give us a brief history of the San Fermín festival. How it was in honor of the patron saint of Pamplona. Around 303 AD, Saint Fermín was martyred by being dragged to death in Pamplona. It is rumored that Saint Fermín, when he was meeting his demise being hauled through the center of town had angry bulls running after him. Hence the tradition. And a cautionary tale for all knuckleheads that want to chance the run.
At noon, the three of us musketeers were firmly ensconced in the main town square when the mayor came out on the balcony to begin the festival and launch the firework display (or chupinazo) from the balcony of city hall. And now the real party began. With people throwing flour, red wine, beer, and champagne at all participants. With the heat of the summer, the sweat, flour, and champagne flowing freely over all the participants, one could just imagine how the rest of the festival would be.
During the gala on the first day, Catherine’s German friends made their appearance. They offered us a spot on their floor at the hotel for $50 a night (that was 1993 dollars). Yes! We said without hesitation. Another night on those chairs would have killed us.
Although there were several friends of Catherine’s who came down from Deutschland, two really stood out. One was Klaus, a great dude, and soon to be my running partner the next day. The other individual I nicknamed “Dieter” because he looked like the Mike Meyer’s character on SNL “dancing on sprockets.” With rimless-wire glasses and a chain-smoker, he was a character. His claim to fame was he maintained his sobriety the entire festival so he could run the bulls every day (seven days). But that was not the crazy part. What Dieter liked to do was run between the bull’s horns and slap the steer on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. Apparently, bulls are blind directly ahead of them, and Dieter was quick enough to use the newspaper to catch the bull’s vision either in the right or left eye. Thus, the bull would move his head right or left all the way to the arena while Dieter was in the blind spot, dead ahead of the bull. A technique I do not recommend, but it worked for our Aryan friend.
During the late afternoon, and early evening, local church groups and other religious organizations paraded through the streets with marching bands, iconic statues and “big heads”. The big heads are effigies of religious, and current political, figures from around the world. The church groups often had religious statues, or crucifixes, and were led by senior figures in full ceremonial garb. Group after group paraded through the streets with bigger and bigger throngs in tow. The bands played a specific style of local music that connected everyone back to the fiesta. As San Fermin’s festival day is on the 7th of July, there is a popular song that goes “Uno de Enero [1st of July], Dos de Febrero [2nd July], Tres de Marzo [3rd July], Quatro de Abril [4th July], Cinco de Mayo [5th July], Seis de Junio [6th July], Siete de Julio [7th July] – San Fermin, San Fermin, San Fermin!” Additionally, in 1993 Indurain, a local boy, had won the Tour De France so there were lots of chants about him as well. This music was very upbeat and lively, which made it easy for everyone to dance in the streets, bringing a new level of energy and joy to the town.
Later that evening, we learned the meaning of the old adage, different cultures, different customs. A culture difference, which was going to have a tremendous impact on both Tony and I, was the Spanish custom of siestas.
We all know the benefits of a nap in the afternoon, but the Spaniards (and other Latin cultures) perfected, it and brought it to a whole new level. As the party raged all day Tony and I were making friends and “blending” into this exciting culture, but we soon realized that the bars were thinning out around 5:00 pm. When we inquired about the lull, we were informed of this Spanish tradition that we completely forgot about (alcohol does that). Noted, we thought, and continued to imbibe throughout the early evening. Then around 9:00 pm, the bars started to fill back up. Well, we couldn’t call it quits now, because we were “Murikan’s” so, we girded our loins, and drank through the evening into the wee hours of the morning.
So, once the siesta was over and the streets started filling up again, Catherine dragged us to one of the major highlights of the evening, the “Toro de Fuego” parade. Where a bull mascot would chase revelers around the town. This Toro de Fuego idol is propped up by a few local guys as they run along the route to entertain the partygoers. What made this such an attraction, and so much fun, especially for the children – was the pyrotechnics. Roman candles and sparklers would shoot out the back of this paper-mache bull, as the mascot ran up and down the streets. This added to the excitement of the night, and provided a little focus on the bull, and the events that were to unfold in a few short hours.
Unfortunately, trying to keep up with those wise Spanish individuals who departed four hours earlier to nap and rest up for the late-night partying we were running out of gas. We tried to power through, but finally threw in the towel around 3:00 am. Our desire now was to find our German friends, get to the hotel room and get a couple of hours of sleep prior to the big day tomorrow.
When we finally stumbled back to the spartan room, we were directed to the section of tile right next to the door, as our bed– as the carpeted areas were already taken. In fact, if the door opened unexpectedly, it would have hit us in the feet (we were at least smart enough to lay down with our heads away from the door). It wasn’t glamorous –I don’t think either of us had a pillow. It wasn’t comfortable, as tile would be. And it wasn’t exactly a full night’s sleep – but it was the first time we had laid our heads down in the last three days. Soon as our heads hit the tile floor, we were fast asleep.
About the Author: James Feldkamp is a retired US Naval Officer, having served as US Naval Flight Officer, Counter-Measures Officer, and Navigator for the Navy’s carrier-based attack aircraft, the EA-6B. In 1991, Jim Feldkamp served and flew off the USS Midway during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Later affiliated with the U.S. Naval Reserves, Jim served as Special Agent for the FBI in Norfolk, Virginia, where he became founding member of the organization’s Joint Counter Terrorism Task Force. Jim resigned from the FBI in 2004 to run for Oregon’s District 4 Congressional seat. He ran as the Republican nominee for the District 4 seat during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. Currently, Jim serves as a Subject Matter Expert at Georgetown University, where he is developing a course centered on “Terrorism and Unconventional Threats.” He formerly taught undergraduate courses in domestic and international terrorism as adjunct professor at George Washington University, and George Mason University.