Pamplona, Spain, summer of 1959. It was hot and dry and a few trees fluttered bits of shade near the center of the plaza, where dancers in white tapped out a lively jota to the drum staccato and the reedy strains of little pipes. Tourists were everywhere, many wearing red neckerchiefs and berets and drinking red wine squirted from leather wine bags.
That’s when I saw him. Unmistakably Ernest Hemingway. Grizzled face beneath a baseball cap. Short beard. Thick chest. He was seated near the end of a long, wooden table with several other people. But he seemed alone, his face turned away from them and toward the dancers.
Apparently no one had noticed him, and as I approached I kept expecting him to rise and be off—my chance gone—or to be enveloped by a flurry of hands with pens and paper. But there he remained, staring off, expressionless. He was hunched forward, cap tilted at an angle, elbows on the table, white hair glistening on his forearms.
I had hitchhiked up from Madrid and spent the night in a city shelter for the poor. I was in Pamplona for the same reason everyone else was—to see the week-long Fiesta of San Fermin, made famous by The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway had written in 1926. And of course there were those scenes from the movie—the bulls running in the streets and the deadly corrida itself.
I asked him for his autograph. Looking up from under his cap brim, he smiled, took my program for the afternoon’s bullfight bill, and quickly signed it. Then, as I was about to thank him and grin a nervous goodbye, he asked if I would like a glass of wine. Maybe I had a poorhouse face or perhaps he was bored with his friends—I don’t know—but I blurted, “Yes,” and sat down opposite the legend.
“What’s your name?” he asked in a relaxed, fatherly manner.
“Is that it?”
“Ronald,” I managed.
“Arias,” I said, loudly pronouncing my name in Spanish—ah-dee-ahs.
He looked me over, sort of sizing me up.
“Where you from?”
“California,” I said. “Los Angeles.”
He kept asking the questions, like an interested reporter—what was I doing in Spain, how was the hitchhiking, what did I think of the fiesta. My voice stopped rising, and after a few swallows of vino rojo I think I mentioned I liked Pamplona and that my family originally came from Mexico.
Much of our conversation is a blur. I remember thinking his curiosity about my 17-year-old innocence may have been his way of recapturing some small spark of youth. Now and then he would squint, tilt his head and smile, amused, as I told him about watching the whores in Barcelona or about being chased out of a shed one rainy night in France by a one-eyed, one-armed drunk.
His expression turned wistful—eyebrows arching—as he described the simple, country fiesta 40 years before, when truckloads of peasants would arrive for the day with their music and their wine bags. He said Pamplona wasn’t the same as when he first knew it. It saddened him to see so many tourists. It was as if he blamed himself for the change. But today he said the music sounded the same and the wine tasted as swell as ever.
We shook hands, but I don’t think he stood up. If he had, I would have remembered the large man everyone says he was. In my mind, I see someone of very human proportions, a warm and curious old man.
Recently I read the Pamplona chapter of The Dangerous Summer, his account of the mid-months of 1959 when he was following two matadors in their mano a mano bullfights around Spain. He mentions meeting a young, pestering American journalist at an outdoor café table—a “square” who was blind to the fiesta, maybe to life. “It was all there and he had been invited to it,” Hemingway writes, “but he could not see it.”
Was this me? I hope not, because I would like to think Papa in his precise, benign way invited me to the party and I’m still here trying my damnedest to see it all. ?