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Fear And Loathing In Madrid

I was backpacking around the world at the tender age of 18, back in 1980.  As was the custom among backpackers at the time (dumbphones have completely replaced such antiquated pastimes), folks would trade books at campsites while trading war stories of the road and hard-learned tips for survival.

It was during this adventure that I was introduced to such great works of literature as The Women's Room, The Other Side of Midnight and The Way to Dusty Death.  Though I occasionally lucked into the rare bit of Poe or Kant, for the most part my reading list was uninspired and uninspiring.

At one point, I was en route to Spain, mostly to experience the brand-new French TGV, but also because I spoke fluent Spanish and wanted to go somewhere other than an Anglophone country where I could communicate effectively.

At that time, the French trains stopped at the northern side of the Pyrenees mountains, and one had to board a coal-burning relic of a previous century for the arduous crossing.  This turned out to be one of the most memorable legs on my European trip.

Imagine the Hogwart's train after 20 years of ill-repair.  The wood used to finish out the interior had petrified in place.  Each car had a line of 4-person cabins lining one side and a narrow walkway down the other.  You could not pass another person in the walkway without one of you ducking into one of the cabins to allow the other to pass.

Along the outer edge of the walkway was a gutter, of sorts.  In this gutter, urine from the overflowing toilets would run first one way going uphill, then the other going down.

There was six of us backpackers crammed into my cabin (did I mention they were designed for 4?).  One of them, Tim, turned out to be the first fellow Texan I had met in nearly a year.  He was a student at Baylor University studying literature and on summer walk-about in Europe.  He also had the first peanut butter I had seen since leaving the US nine months before.

We became instant friends, partly because I had La Vache Qui Rit cheese and a baguette with olives and a few precious slices of luncheon (mystery) meat.  He happily traded a generous portion of his peanut butter for a quarter of my rations.

We both learned valuable lessons on that journey, such as don't open windows for a breath of unurinated air when riding on a train with a coal-burning locomotive.  We spent several minutes clearing out the thick, acrid smoke, then shared a crushed, filterless Gauloise cigarette from my dwindling supply.

The subject in the room eventually turned to books, as it always did.  A Swede, a German, two Spaniards and two Texans began the complicated ritual of swapping our libraries.  I don't recall what I had to offer, but it attracted the German's attention, and the book he offered attrated Tim's, who in turn gave me one of the most influential books I have ever read.

Up to this point, I had lived a fairly sheltered life.  I was blissfully unaware of Gonzo journalism and this guy - Hunter S. Thompson - peering at me with aviator glasses and a foot-long cigarette holder looked vaguely dangerous.  Despite my naivete, I had read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (another profound moment in my life), and Time said that if I liked Breakfast of Champions, I would love this book.

This was a mighty big claim, but I took it on faith from my fellow Texan and dutifully stashed the book in my pack.  Attractive German girls were far more appealing at the moment.

As is the custom in Spanish culture, the entire nation shuts down mid-afternoon for siesta.  As luck would have it, there was a tavern a short walk from the hostel that stayed open, primarily preying on journeyers who were unused to a relaxed lifestyle.  Tim and I quickly became regulars, bringing our books and ordering copious amounts of lukewarm cervesa to while away the lugubrious afternoons.

No more than three pages into the well-worn paperback, I was hooked.

Here was a journalist, a profession I associated with Walter Croncite, being sent to the Kentucky Derby, the Superbowl, political conventions, and never actually making it to the assigned events.  Instead, he and his Polynesian lawyer sidekick were transporting suitcases full of booze, pills and weed, and trashing hotel rooms during paranoid hallucinations of bats and narcs, while occasionally watching moments of the events on television - at least until the TV was destroyed.

I gobbled down the yellowing pulp like Mother's Milk, while single-handedly expanding the marketshare of Estrella Galicia one liter at a time.  I vaguely recall one such day sitting down at around 2 in the afternoon and being asked to go home at closing time some 12 hours later.

During that week that Tim and I wandered around Madrid, discussing the finer points of Thomspson's symbolism, we stumbled into a medieval castle with the massive wooden doors slightly ajar.  There was just enough room for us to sidle into the empty courtyard.  Tim, being still partially tourist, took out his camera and began snapping away.  I, being a journeyer, began committing various still images to my long-term memory.

I don't know how long we stood there, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes.  At some point, Tim and I both heard the unmistakable (to any real Texan) sound of a hammer being pulled back.  Michelangelo would have been inspired by our poses as we froze solid in mid-action.

As we stood there, a man in the uniform of a guardia civil strolled slowly around in front of us.  He was about six feet tall, wearing aviator glasses and sporting a foot-long cigarette holder clenched in his brown teeth.

At that precise moment, Tim and I both simultaneously burst into hysterical laughter.  Within seconds, tears were streaming down our faces, as a bizarre mixture of terror and irony tightened its grip on our funny bones.  Though one of the most terrifying sights in all of post-Fascist Spain was yelling at us and waving a .45-caliber pistol, locked and loaded, in our faces, we couldn't stop laughing.  Trying only made it worse, and as anyone who knows Thompson will tell you, having a man in uniform who looks like Hunter Thompson waving a gun in your face and yelling incomprehensibly only served to push us further to our certain doom, laughing uncontrollably every step of the way.

As I write this, I am stroking the scar on my left temple where the generalissimo struck me with the gun sight on the business end of his cocked and loaded .45-caliber pistol.  The warm, sticky feeling running down the side of my face sobered me up, but only slightly.  I still had a powerful sensation of someone poking my long thoracic nerve, causing my abdomen to convulse involuntarily.

I held my hand up...slowly.  "Wait, wait," I pleaded.  "May I show you something?"

He appeared to gaze intently at me, though it was hard to tell behind the limousine-tinted aviator glasses.  "What is it?" he demanded.

"A book, here in my pack.  I think you will understand when you see it," I said in a voice verging on fresh paroxysms of laughter.

The generalissimo yanked the day pack from my hand and gave it to a subordinate who had mysteriously appeared at his side, while the pistol never strayed far from the centers of Tim's and my chests.

The subordinate opened the bad, looked inside, then reached in and pulled out the slowly disintegrating copy of The Great Shark Hunt.  He showed it to the boss man, who glanced quickly at it then back at us.  "So what?" he growled like a pit bull on crack.

"Turn it around, please," I said.

The subordinate looked down at the back of the book, then started laughing.  The generalissimo snatched the book, thankfully dropping the ugly end of his pistol down to the ground.  He flipped the book over and stared silently for what seemd like minutes

"Who is this?" he demanded.  At that point, he flipped the back of the book towards Tim and me, and held it out to us.  From our perspective, there on the left was a mean, nasty, armed holdover from Spain's Fascist past, and on the right was Hunter S. Thompson's visage staring at us from the liner notes on the book.  The two of them were posed almost identically.

Tim tried so hard to stifle a guffaw that he blew a week's worth of snot down the front of his face and shirt.  I was on the verge of fainting, working so hard to stifle a fresh wave of hysteria while standing in Madrid's legendary summer heat.

"His name is Hunter Thompson," I managed.  "He is a famous American writer."  A week before, I wouldn't have known who Thompson was, but I figured the "famous" part couldn't hurt and might stroke the generalissimo's ego a bit.

The generalissimo turned the book around again and stared at the image.  After a moment, he tossed the book at the subordinate, who grappled with it then shoved it back in the bag.  He rummaged around a bit and took out my passport.  He opened it and held it up for the Big Guy to see.

The generalissimo grunted and said, "Americano."

After a moment's pause, he looked at us again.  "What are you doing here?"

"We were walking around and saw this castle.  The gate was open, so we came in to look around," Tim said through strands of drying snot - he hadn't moved his hands in several minutes now.

The generalissimo barked something at the subordinate having to do with puerta and abierta.  The subordinate stuffed my passport bach in the bag and tossed it on the ground, then ran off towards the entrance where Tim and I had come in.

The gneralissimo appeared to glance over our shoulders at the subordinate, though it was hard to tell behind the inscrutable eyewear.  After a moment, he holstered his pistol and took the camera from Tim's hands.  He opened the camera and pulled the film out, exposing its entire length, which he threw on the ground.  He motioned me to pick up my bag and waved towards the massive wooden doors.

"Go," he barked.

We didn't stop running till we were back at our tavern.  We drank heavily the rest of that day, and tossed uneasily that night while visions of bats and narcs haunted our dreams.