A year ago I had eight inches of needle-sharp horn slammed like a blow from a pickax into my inner left thigh. My first thought when I saw the blood pumping out fast and flooding my pants was neither one of terror or panic. It was relief.
"Thank God," I thought, "it happened where he is only an hour away!"
It was a damn fool thing to do in the first place, getting myself hung up like that. I'd gone out with five other Americans to the ranch of Pedro Gandàrias for lunch and a pleasant day. Pedro's finca is about 50 kilometers out of Madrid, near El Escorial. He raises fighting bulls, and when he invited us out he said: "We'll throw a few animals into the ring and have some fun before lunch."
It was said casually, and I replied "fine" casually, but there really is never anything casual where fighting bovines of any age or sex is concerned. You risk your neck every day you stride into an arena. For the last 10 years I've fought very rarely and under the safest conditions, absenting myself hurriedly whenever there was a risk of getting what the toreros call a high colonic from a horn.
As we drove up the dirt driveway we saw that everyone was already down at the little bull ring. It was a dazzling whitewashed white against the green fields, and there were about 30 guests in the stands chatting and drinking manzanilla. We parked and climbed up the steps.
There was a picador on a padded horse in the ring. This was to be a tienta, where the young cows are tested for bravery. It is an important phase of bull raising, because while a bull might get his size from his father, they say his fighting heart comes from mama.
"Just in time!" Pedro called up to us. Then he motioned to the man on the wall and said, "All right, turn in the big one."
The man jerked the rope that went down to the latch on the toril, and the gate clanged open. Into the ring dashed a 2½-year-old heifer, sleek and greenish black and surrounded by a haze of dust.
People unfamiliar with fighting stock have a hard time telling a young fighting bull from a fighting cow; fighting cows have long, sharp horns, virtually no udder and a conformation totally unlike that of a dairy cow. Besides that they are crafty, speedy and can turn like a revolving door.
This cow of Gandàrias' charged the picador hard, nearly spilling the horse as the man shot the small point of the lance into her withers. If she took the pic several times bravely and willingly she would be marked for breeding—if not, the abattoir. This one's back legs were driving her into the padded side of the horse, and she kept hooking into the mattress hard. The cow had probably been caped many times before and tended to head for a man's body instead of going at the cape. Usually at affairs like this one inch or two of horn is sawed off. But for some reason they left the murderous horns intact on this cow.
I went down the steps and was let into the arena. I was handed the small muleta, and I noticed my hands were trembling as I took it. I draped it over the wooden sword and stepped out from behind the burladero. The cow was about 30 feet away, looking lethal and a lot bigger than she had from the stands. She pawed, wagging her wicked horns.
I planted my feet, arched my back and shook the muleta. The wise cow dropped her head and lunged forward. She covered the 30 feet faster than a race horse, her neck stretched out to kill.
I didn't step back and the animal hurtled past me. Its near horn sliced by only a couple of inches away from my leg, and I heard a sharp "olé!" from the spectators. I should have quit when I was ahead, because after that first pass everything was downhill. I suppose I gave it 10 more passes, but I was lousy and the cow was lousy. The cow crowded, hooked, swerved and was generally uncooperative. On the last pass she slammed straight into me and knocked me into the air. Remotely, vaguely, I was aware that the horn seared my left leg, but I was too busy trying to get away from the animal to worry about how deep it might have gone. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how it feels to be gored, because I honestly did not feel the horn, so very sharp was it and so quickly did it happen.
After someone lured the animal away I lurched over to the fence, disgusted with the cow and myself. And then I felt something wet on my left leg. There was a growing dark stain on the upper inside of the pants, and when I looked down I saw that I had one black boot and one shiny red one. I felt a sickening jolt in my stomach, the way you feel when you're all prepared to have an elevator go up and it suddenly goes down.
Pale and wobbly, they led me out behind the ring. The foreman quickly tied a length of rubber tube high up on the leg, and the bleeding—through a hole about the size of a 506 piece—stopped. Then we drove off fast to the nearby town of El Escorial. After 45 minutes we located a doctor, a toothless, colorful old devil. He examined the wound superficially and whistled silently but said, "It's no cornada, just a puntazo, a little puncture."
The bleeding had stopped and the leg really didn't hurt much, and I began to relax, but Solanito, the matador who then was enjoying a great season, looked worried. "There's only one person who knows—go see Giménez Guinea, and quick."
It was fitting that this advice, which probably saved my life, came from a matador, for if the Virgin of the Macarena is the patron saint of toreros, Luis Giménez Guinea is their saviour. The bullfighter's most fervent prayer is, "If I'm to get it, let Giménez Guinea be near by."
We drove back to Madrid in a hurry. They put me in a big drab room which smelled like all the hospital rooms of the world. The orderly took off my pants and cleaned up the leg while we waited for the doctor to come from his house. The wound didn't look so ugly now, and I began to feel pretty silly about dragging Giménez Guinea to the hospital to look at me. After all, he is unqualifiedly the greatest horn-wound specialist in the world, handling over 100 gorings a season. The door banged open and Giménez Guinea stalked in, followed by an assistant wheeling in a tray of instruments.
He is an awesome sight. Tall and broad, he looks like a cross between a scowling Douglas MacArthur and a Sioux chieftain. He has a hawklike crag of a nose, patent-leather un-grayed hair, and at the age of 68 he looks hardly 50.
"What do you have?" he growled without bothering with salutations.
"No cornada, Don Luis," I said. "The other doctor said it was just a puntazo."
"A little puntazo?" he snorted, and I didn't like that snort. "Just a little puntazo, eh? Watch!"
From the table he took a foot-long instrument that had a handle like the ones on the little mirrors dentists use. Deftly he inserted the handle in the mouth of my wound, and with no hesitation, no probing, no guesswork as to which direction the horn had taken, he put eight inches of it into the hole without hitting the sides of the wound.
Then, bending over with his face close to mine, he bellowed as though terribly angry with me: "You don't have a little puntazo—you have a horse-killing cornada!"
For the first time in my life I went into a complete faint, falling back on the bed unconscious.
When I came to I heard him saying a million miles away, "I should be operating on him right now—but I have to go to the bull ring. Get him ready, tetanus antitoxin, penicillin." Then to me, "When did you last eat?"
I told him groggily and he nodded. "You'll be all right—I won't be back for three hours and that will make six hours since your last meal. We will operate then."
Then he was gone. I still don't know whether I fainted because he hit bottom with his nutpick or because he himself seemed so alarmed. He had treated some 2,500 bullfight gorings and had watched the legendary Manolete's life ooze away from a wound that appeared to me to be in the same place as mine and not much deeper.
A great depression settled over me as I waited hour after hour. The pain was building up, and I wanted to get on with the show. I had visions of four or five toreros being gored, and, since Giménez Guinea is the plaza's official doctor, they would come first.
Finally he burst into the room, sweaty and tense, and I was wheeled into the operating room with a smile of relief on my face. "Once Giménez Guinea gets you on the table," say the toreros, "death can never elbow him aside."
I was in the operating room for over an hour, and though I wasn't-conscious to watch the proceedings, this is what went on: Quickly Giménez Guinea snipped away with scissors the ragged tissue surrounding the wound. Next he inserted a gloved finger in the hole for the preliminary exploration. It was a clean goring, only one trajectory and no horn splinters which could fester. Often the horn will stab in several directions, especially when the victim spins on the horn as I had. So I was lucky there, but still it was a very deep wound. The horn had entered at an angle, driving up toward the groin, and though it had bounced off the big femoral artery (an injury there could be quite serious), it had ruptured other vessels and important muscles, including the sartorius, the longest muscle in one's body.
With his scalpel Giménez Guinea opened up the wound five inches so that he could explore the injury completely. After taking care of the blood vessels he cut away the damaged ends of the muscles, removing the jagged ends and leaving behind live muscle to be sutured to live muscle. Then, with the curved needle and its heavy catgut, he began to reconstruct the muscles layer by layer. Finally he administered penicillin and streptomycin, fitted a rubber drain into the wound and closed the incision.
I spent two days in a groggy, feverish, swirling jumble. By the third day my fever had dropped, and Don Luis strode briskly into the room.
"Por poco la di√±a usted," he said cheerfully, in Madrid slang. "You nearly kicked the bucket. But you're all right now, and 15 days from today you'll walk out of here under your own power."
As I began to feel better in the days that followed I asked questions and heard a lot about horn wounds from him. Even though it made me queasy to hear about other gorings, I found myself asking about the roughest cases Giménez Guinea ever had.
"I suppose the worst was Rafaelito," he answered. "Or, perhaps, The Hyena."
Rafaelito, a banderillero, was gored in the back and five inches of horn protruded from his chest. The horn went through lung, intestines, dislodged the heart from the pericardium and thrust it into the right pleural cavity.
Giménez Guinea removed the heart, sutured it, massaged it to set it beating and placed it again in its normal position. Rafaelito lived two days before succumbing to other injuries. "If it had been the heart alone, I believe we could have saved him," Giménez Guinea said.
Of all his patients who lived, the picador José Martín Alonso (The Hyena) probably suffered the worst goring. In an arena 200 miles south of Madrid a bull caught the man under the jaw, driving the horn up into the frontal lobe of the brain and out through the skull, tearing his right eye loose from its socket as it went. The local doctors agreed that his only chance for survival lay in Giménez Guinea. In spite of the delay and the rough roads they rushed him to the special hospital for bullfighters in Madrid, El Sanatorio de los Toreros, where Giménez Guinea has been chief surgeon for 20 years. The doctor worked six hours repairing the damage, and The Hyena went back to plying his trade as sound of mind and sight as ever.
Many people feel that had Giménez Guinea been in Linares the day Manolete was gored in 1947 the man would still be alive today.
"As luck would have it, I was off on a picnic that afternoon," Giménez Guinea told me. "I went in the fastest car I could get, but it was nine hours after the goring before I could reach him. El pobre—he took great heart when he saw me come in the hospital room. 'I know I'll be all right now, Don Luis,' he said. But I drew his manager, Camarà, aside and said, 'This is hopeless.'
"Manolo asked, 'Aren't you even going to look at the wound, Don Luis?' It was not the femoral as has been said. That is just one artery and can be handled if you catch it quickly. This was worse—the doctors had told me it was in the cluster of veins and arteries in the groin. There was no point in my looking at it in his weakened condition. But he didn't know he was dying at any time. I told him to relax, that he'd be well soon. Then he said, T can't feel anything in my right leg.' I told him to be calm. 'I can't feel anything in my left leg!' I answered, 'You'll be all right, Manolo.' Then he asked, 'Are my eyes open—I can't see!' And he was dead, and I turned and walked out of the room. He was my friend."
A frustrated torero himself, Giménez Guinea tried fighting just once when he was young. It was a cow, and when it knocked him flying he said, "Never again!"
"You have to be crazy to be a torero," he growls, but with great admiration for those who are. The son and brother of doctors, his two passions have always been medicine and the bulls. While he has a lucrative non-cornada practice on the side, he is obviously happiest with his torero patients, even though his combined salaries from the bull ring and the Sanatorio de los Toreros only comes to about $1,000 a year. In spite of the victims and horrors he has witnessed he still is an enthusiast. One day as he was changing my bandages he said fervently and as though the thought had never occurred to him before: "What a beautiful fiesta is la fiesta brava, eh!"
Miracle man that he is, Giménez Guinea doesn't always win. I left the sanatorio on schedule, after a miraculously short time considering the extent of the injuries, and I was very grateful, for I was leaving with my life, my legs and a tremendous admiration for the crusty, dedicated man who'd put me together. But that same day they carried in the novillero Morenito de Cuenca, who had been injured by a young cow on a ranch near El Escorial, just as I had.
"Take me to Don Luis," he had pleaded over and over, "he'll save me!" But though they had him on an operating table within two hours of his goring, he was too far gone.
Sometimes, but only occasionally, death manages to elbow even the great Giménez Guinea aside.