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Original Issue

A Bit of Spain in a London Town House

It is just a bullfighter's cape that once belonged to a man who followed Spanish bulls while trying to catch up with himself. The cape stands stiffly, as though waiting for Randy Burke's return

Among the motley of memorabilia that clutters my London town house there are many things: a silver-bordered elephant's foot (a left front one, too), a camel saddle from Sidi Slimane, Morocco, and the thousand-year-old skull of a pre-Incan girl from Pachacamac in Peru. There is one other item that stands out even among all these incongruities. It is a bullfighter's cape, the yellow-and-pink working cloth of such stiff material that it stands by itself, forming a cone like a pygmy Indian wigwam.

There is nothing markedly exotic about owning a bullfighter's cape; dozens of touring Anglo-Saxon aficionados have come back from enthusiastic visits to Spain and Mexico with all sorts of tauromachic dust-catchers, including capes. What makes my cape different is the name stenciled in black against the yellow of the inside collar (capes are always thus labeled with their owners' names, presumably for the same reason children's gym pants and shirts are—to keep a fellow performer from making off with the article). My cape bears no name great and famous in bullfighting history, such as Belmonte (although I once held his cape in my hands and marveled at the magic of the name lettered there), or Manolete or Sànchez Mejías. The name so starkly and defiantly stenciled is short and simple, and so un-Iberian as to make all of these great Spanish artists restless in their well-earned graves. It is B-U-R-K-E.

I first met Randy Burke when we lived in Madrid in 1954. He was short, fiftyish and gone a little to seedy plumpness. Randy was a minor executive of a U.S. engineering company with a branch office in Madrid. Exactly what his functions were I never found out, but they apparently were not so onerous as to deny him plenty of time for following the bulls. Randy was a very loyal member of a small group of Anglo-Saxon aficionados who went to every bullfight in sight, good or bad; other members of the group included a sprinkling of diplomats and journalists and the local Anglican vicar, who also wrote and played progressive jazz.

Except for a tendency, which all his compassionate fellow drinkers could easily excuse, to burble in an overly friendly way when he drank too much, Randy seemed a very respectable fellow. He had a quietly suffering wife of about the same age, who often accompanied him to the bullfight but seemed to have no interest whatever in that splendid spectacle. Over drinks back in some fellow aficionado's apartment after the fight, Mrs. Burke would listen with a vaguely sad expression, saying little until Randy had drunk too much, at which time she firmly and patiently led him to the car and drove him home.

That was in Madrid. At the ferias—Sevilla, Pamplona, Màlaga, Valencia—where I would inevitably run into Randy, he was always alone, and wherever we met over drinks he would drink more than his fill and wander quietly off into the streets, presumably reaching his hotel room unassisted.

I temporarily lost track of Randy after we moved to Paris in 1956 but, returning four years later for the great Feria of San Isidro in Madrid, I was told news of him by a mutual friend: Mrs. Burke had died, apparently with the same quiet patience with which she had lived. After that he had quit his job with the engineering company and dedicated himself completely to the bulls; nobody was quite sure, but it was rumored that his wife had left him a small inheritance.

What puzzled me was the mutual friend's report that Randy was drinking more than ever. Despite his affluence and his freedom to follow his chosen way of life, it seemed that his wife's death had affected him profoundly, which was strange, as in life they had appeared to have so little in common. The friend also warned me against Randy's company, on grounds that Randy was so consistently drunk that he had become a bore.

I was able to prove this a week later when, after a poor fight at El Escorial, I ran into Randy in the bar of the Green Frog Restaurant. At first he seemed the same old Burke, a bit too burbling, perhaps, and almost slobbering over us in the alcoholic joy of reunion, but withal not much changed from the half-endearing, half-pitiable fellow I had known before. Over the course of three more brandies at our table, however, I discovered that the mutual friend was indeed correct. Randy had become not only a barside bore, but he had also degenerated into a querulous, vaguely desperate—and therefore quite depressing—drunk. He quarreled about the bulls of the afternoon, which had not been any worse than usual, complained about the drinks and later railed against the excellent Spanish food at the Green Frog. He insisted we ride back to Madrid with him to try out his new MG, but I felt that a ride with Randy driving in the condition he had reached would have been thrice as dangerous as facing a fighting bull. I politely explained that we had driven out with other friends and it would be rude to abandon them. When I held to this course despite his insistence, he was angrily indignant and accused me of not trusting him to drive properly. I was almightily glad to get away from Randy.

We saw him a couple of times more during that fortnight, at the little bar behind the Number Nine section of the giant Plaza de Toros of Madrid. He seemed subdued, hurt and desperately depressed. My conscience bothered me, and both times I invited him to join us in a drink. Each time he repeated his performance at El Escorial; he would start out in fairly good shape, but after two or three drinks some devil seemed to possess him, and he would become so unpleasant and, indeed, abusive that I fled his presence, grateful for other commitments.

The whole thing puzzled and saddened me. Randy obviously loved Spain, the Spaniards and the Spanish national fiesta, and he had obviously achieved financial independence and with it the freedom to indulge himself in the full enjoyment of that wonderful country and its delightful customs. As I tried to think it out, it occurred to me that the basic problem was loneliness. Randy was indeed desperately lonely, and his comportment, alas, was making him even lonelier. What was worse, there was very little any of us could do about it.

I did not have very long to worry about it, for after two weeks in Madrid that spring we had to return to Paris. We were not to cross the frontier at Hendaye again until early July, when we headed south for that most festive of all the Spanish fiestas, the Feria of San Fermín in Pamplona.

This great week of collective madness, with its running of the bulls and its all-night dancing in the streets, has been more than adequately publicized in both fact and fiction, and it is not my purpose to dwell upon its joys. I will mention only one not quite so well-known fact: that it is almost impossible to find lodging in Pamplona during the feria without careful advance planning. The few hotels are all booked up years in advance and are hard put to accommodate the rich and powerful, plus the toreros who come to fight the bulls. For this reason, the small Pamplona group to which my wife and I belonged had obtained lodging for the past several years in, of all things, a house which served the other 51 weeks of the year as a home for deaf-mute children. The good ladies who ran this charitable institution simply moved the little ones out during San Fermín week, and what they collected from us for the premises, a modest sum by American standards, helped to defray the expense of the home for the rest of the year. It was an admirable arrangement. We had a place to sleep and drink (doing more of the latter than the former), and the knowledge that every peseta paid to our landlady helped a worthwhile cause added to our total enjoyment of the fiesta.

This arrangement had worked very well. But the year before, the Madrid-based unofficial secretary of our group wrote us all that the señora had given up the deaf mutes' residence and moved her charges elsewhere. We had to settle for individual bedrooms in apartments and houses scattered all over Pamplona. The room in a private home assigned to my wife and me was comfortable enough, indeed something of an improvement over the deaf mutes' establishment, but we missed the camaraderie of the central kitchen and dining room, where the group had been accustomed to assemble for solace after each afternoon's bullfight. Quickly, however, we discovered we were not alone. As we left our room to head for a rendezvous with our fellow members at Kutz' Bar in the main plaza, who should emerge from the next room but Randy Burke.

He greeted us with enthusiasm, and there was nothing to do but to invite him to join us. It soon became apparent, on the walk to the bar and even over the second, third and fourth drinks there, that we were dealing with a new Randy. He was clear-eyed, polite and happy. He got through the drinks without once becoming either boring or ugly, chatted gaily about Spain, the bulls, Pamplona, the weather, the beautiful women. He seemed to have some inner secret that gave him confident joy.

We discovered what it was that evening when, upon returning to our rooming house, Randy invited us next door for a nightcap. As we entered his narrow, single room, there stood, in all its resplendent color, a stiffly new bullfighter's cape. Randy reacted to our puzzled stares with delight, and before we could ask questions or examine the cape, he whipped out his wallet and produced a card. It certified that James Randolph Burke, age 58, nationality American, was a paid-up member of the Sindicato de Toreros, or Bullfighters Union, of Spain and was thereby entitled to all the rights and privileges pertaining to said membership, including free medical and surgical treatment in the Bullfighters' Hospital of Madrid, which has the best facilities in the world for the treatment of horn wounds.

It turned out that a bullfighting friend of Randy's in Màlaga had proposed him for membership, and the local branch of the Sindicato, as an innocent gag, had voted unanimously to accept him and issue him the document he now held so proudly in his hand. It seemed at first thought to be indeed a harmless and even kindly gesture on the part of the toreros. But when Randy picked up the new cape from its wigwam position in the corner and, fondly handling it, explained what he planned to do, I was not so sure. The bulls to be faced the following afternoon by three of the top matadors of Spain were from the breeding ranch of Don Eduardo Miura, near Sevilla. A Miura bull had killed El Espartero in the Madrid ring in 1894, and ever since Miuras have been accounting for an undue number of toreros, great and not so great, up to and including the one that ripped into Manolete's groin at Linares in 1947 and thus sent the greatest fighter of his time to his death in a lonely provincial hospital. The Miuras' reputation is thus a fearsome one, and the great matadors fight Miuras only because, if they refuse, the crowds will call them coward. Even so, they fight as few Miuras as possible.

Now 58-year-old Randy Burke, the exaltation in his voice barely controlled, was telling me that on the next day he intended to jump into the Pamplona ring with his new cape and pass the most fearsome Miura of the afternoon.

"It is what I have wanted to do all my life," he said. "I want to face a Miura."

We could only assume that he was joking, and we humored him by going along with the joke. But, on awakening the next morning, I remembered the almost mystical sense of mission his voice and countenance had reflected, and I asked my wife: "You don't think he means it, do you?"

She was not sure, so at lunch we told the story to our closest bullfight friend, with whom we were going to sit at the afternoon's corrida. The friend, who knows more about the bulls and the ways of bullfighting than anyone I have ever met, said there was no need to worry, because the police would never let him into the ring with a fighting cape. He reminded me that there is in Spain a rigidly enforced law that no spectator may take into the seats any bullfighting equipment of any kind. I felt reassured.

We were all more comfortable that afternoon when, upon taking our seats, we saw Randy in the first row, as bright and cheerful as a silver five-peseta coin, but without his cape. Our knowledgeable friend arrived and, taking his seat, dampened our feeling of relief a bit with the news that Randy had indeed arrived at the Plaza de Toros with his fighting cape, only to have it taken away by the alert police.

"I think," said the friend, "that even though he doesn't have his cape we had better watch him." The friend said he had warned the police who patrol the callejón, the narrow area between the inside fence of the ring and the first row of seats, that we had a potential jumper in the first row.

By the time the fourth Miura had been dispatched, we were all breathing a little more easily. We had watched Randy off and on throughout the afternoon, and he had maintained his mood of excited eagerness. We could also see the flat-hatted police in the callejón keeping a careful eye on him.

Thus lulled, we were not quite prepared for what happened when the fifth bull, a monster as big as a bus and with horns as wide as the arms of St. Peter's Square, tore into the ring. As the bull charged out, a drunk in the next section of seats threw a seat cushion into the ring and the police who had been keeping Randy under surveillance rushed over to subdue this malefactor. Randy saw his chance and took it. Reaching under his suit jacket, he pulled out and unfolded a large tablecloth clearly bearing the mark of a much-favored restaurant in Pamplona where most of the well-heeled aficionados gathered to lunch before the fights. He stood up, unfurled his tablecloth like some proud banner, gave a huge leap over the wire cable protecting the first row of seats and landed on all fours in the callejón.

When Randy started his maneuver, there was not a policeman within 20 feet of him. But even as he began to rise, my friend and I set up a howl.

"Watch him! Watch him! He's jumping!" we screamed, and three policemen abandoned the cushion-thrower and dashed toward Randy. Even then, it was touch and go. Randy had one leg already over the inside barrier and had attracted the immediate attention of the Miura before the first policeman reached him. As the Miura turned to charge, the police roughly snatched Randy back into the safety of the callejón.

As they carried him, more gently now, around beneath us to head out of the ring and toward the city jail, where such jumpers are generally sentenced to 24 hours to cool off their bullfighting ardor, Randy turned his face toward our seats and gave us such a mysterious look as I shall never forget in all my life. It was part remonstrance, part thankfulness and part triumph.

After the last bull had been dispatched, we made our way through the crowds and sat down at Kutz' Bar for drinks and self-examination. We were as full of mixed feelings as Randy's face had been full of mixed reflections. We knew we had done the right thing by stopping Randy, but still we had a strange feeling of having frustrated some noble purpose. Finally the friend said: "I think we should take a bottle of wine and a chunk of cheese and bread to him at the lock-up."

As soon as we finished our evening meal we bought the bottle and the food and headed for the local càrcel. A desk sergeant received us amiably, but in response to our request, he laughed and said: "Oh, you mean the crazy American who wants to be a bullfighter. No, he is not here. We let him go. He promised that he would never again try to jump in Pamplona. We told him he could jump somewhere else, but not in Pamplona."

We left the wine and the food with the sergeant, and headed out through the town to find Randy. We got on his trail in the third bar we tried, and picked up his scent in three or four other cafés. But, search as we might, we could not find him, and thus could not know whether he was celebrating or drowning his agony.

We found out only when we got back to the rooming house, and then not until we got to our own room. At first we looked in Randy's room. He lay on the bed, dead to the world, but snoring and smiling beatifically. We knew we could not wake him and were not sure we wanted to. Repairing to our own room, we found the great stiff yellow-and-pink cape standing like a sentinel in the middle of the room, the black lettering R. BURKE visible against the yellow side. Attached to the cape was a scrawled note: "Many thanks for saving my life."

One year later Randy lost his life. He suffered a heart attack while swimming near Màlaga and drowned. We brought the cape to Paris, later to New York and then to London. That is how it got to be among the things that clutter up the house.