Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Memorable April Fish


The snipe (gallinago gallinago)

          Yesterday was April Fool’s Day, and I managed to get by it unscathed though probably not unscathing, to judge from the facial expressions of some of my poor students in the “Evergreen Forum” course.  But the turn of the calendrical leaf did bring to my mind, as it does each year, my own most memorable exposure as an April fool or rather an April fish.   That is the term used in Spain, borrowed I think from the French.

            In 1959 in the vacation between Hilary and Trinity terms—the British equivalent of collegiate “spring break”—I hitchhiked with my good buddy Bob Pearce from northwestern France to central Spain and back.  Bob was a working-class lad from Merseyside.  At Oxford he was reading Modern Languages, specializing in French and Spanish.  Spanish, though at that time rarely studied in England was the only foreign tongue I had had the chance to study in high school, and I could sort of get by in it.  But only sort of, as this tale will demonstrate.  Bob was quite proficient, and of course his Spanish was the real Iberian thing with its effete-sounding lisps.  I don’t know what became of Bob or where he is now.  At the Jesus College gaudy I attended last year no one had word of him.  One of the many follies of youth is the carelessness through which even vibrant friendships can lapse.

            We had little money but lots of youthful bravado.  Franco’s Spain was primitive, exotic, mysterious.  If you know only the contemporary scene of tapas bars and bibulous Brits you can have no idea.  There were not too many roads and not too many vehicles driving on them.  Hitch-hiking was not illegal—it seemed to be the chief mode of transport for army recruits and even some of the policemen with the huge guns and sinister tricorn hats—but people willing to pick up obvious foreigners like us were not numerous.  We had wonderful adventures, but we spent more than one night ride-less, sleeping in the open fields, still pretty chilly in early spring.

            Somewhere in the boondocks of central Spain, between Avila and Madrid, we got picked up by a couple of busloads of fascist boy scouts.  I speak in the most literal and technical sense.  This was a battalion of young, uniformed, male outdoorsmen belonging to the youth group originating in the old Falangist political party.  They were returning from a visit to the Valle de los Caídos, Franco's oddly Stalinesque monument to the dead of the Civil War.  There were several adults with them, including a priest and two young seminarians.  This priest, probably in his forties, was a man of parts.  He had had a parish in Cuba, and claimed to have made a dramatic “escape” only weeks earlier.  I had no idea then what he could be “escaping” from.  To members of my demographic Fidel Castro was a heroic figure pure and simple, not a religious persecutor, but I knew when to keep my mouth shut.
Valle de los Caídos

            The clerical gents invited us to go with them to their bivouac or campgrounds to spend a night or two, and we readily agreed,  As the bus chugged along, spewing great puffs of black smoke, there was much talk of a hunting expedition, as the season had just opened with the new month of April.  Would los ingléses like to participate?  The object of the chase would be the prized gambosino, a word unknown in my small Castilian vocabulary, but defined for me as something like a large, semi-avian, and particularly succulent conejo (rabbit).  It sounded like great fun, but there was one hitch.  Although gambosino season had indeed opened that very day, the head-man (jefe) of the campgrounds was opposed to gambosino hunting on principle, so that our activities would have to be conducted furtively.

            After nightfall eight whispering conspirators, including Bob and me, set off into the semi-desert terrain carrying stout walking staves and a couple of gunny sacks.  We could barely see anything.  Whenever a vehicle’s lights flashed on a distant road we were ordered to hide and dove headlong into the prickly bushes.  There were numerous alleged sightings of the gambosino, though none by me; there was lots of rushing hither and yon, and hoarse, whispered exclamations.  I could hear the hunters clomping about, and the thumping of staves.

            Eventually two guys arrived proudly holding up their gunny sacks, which I could dimly perceive now contained some large objects of substantial weight.  “We got two of them,” said one of the seminarians in a whisper-shout.   He was practically transported with satisfaction.  Dos gambosinos!
The gambosino (cuniculus spurius)

            They handled the next part brilliantly.  We all marched back exultantly to the rustic campgrounds dining building, apparently no longer in fear of the jefe, who of course was non-existent.  A glass of wine was poured for everybody, including the thirteen-year-olds.  We drank a sip or two.  Then with considerable ceremony the two seminarians emptied their gunny sacks.  Out came two small trussed up bedrolls.  It had been a classic snipe-hunt, and we were classic April fools—or rather April fish, pescados de abril.  The room exploded in laughter, good-natured but raucous.  Poor English Bob was mortified.  But even then I didn’t quite get it.  What I thought I shouted out was “I want to see the rabbits”.  But in my confusion I muddled the word for rabbit (conejo).  What I said was “I want to see the *cojones.”  Then they really laughed.

*cojones, testicles