A HEARTBREAKING HEMINGWAY-ESQUE BIRTHDAY
July 8, 1978. 7-8, 78. As eventful birthdays go, none were easier to remember or more harrowing than No. 36.
I was in Pamplona, Spain, channeling one of my favorite writers, the legendary Ernest Hemingway (in lifestyle not skill).
It was a riot. Literally. At 8 a.m. that morning, I took part in the Running of the Bulls for the first time. I had not planned it that way, but a family tragedy changed everything.
The day I landed in Luxembourg, on July 3, after a flight from Cincinnati, I was informed at the my 17-year-old brother, Joey Scheid had died in a car accident in our hometown of Terry, Montana. It was Fourth of July weekend. I attempted to get a flight out, but was informed an air controller’s strike was likely to into effect the next day, the soonest they could get me out. When the strike went into effect, I was told I might have a better chance of getting a flight out of Paris.
Off I went to Paris, with a heavy heart and ebbing optimism that I could make it back in time for Joey’s funeral. My chances were not any better in Paris. I contacted my mother and she urged me to finish my trip and come home when I could get a flight. I headed to Pamplona, resolute that I wasn’t going to do something risky under the circumstances. I arrived on the seventh and spent nearly 24 hours laden with grief and guilt. I turned to alcohol.
On the morning of the eighth, my birthday, I had been up all night. My mission was to find the best viewing spot for the first day of the Running of the Bulls.
The excitement in the air was palpable. Hundreds of thousands pour into the Basque capital for the week-long festival. Minutes before the run started, I impulsively climbed through the corral-like barrier. My world was so dark I needed something to lift me out of the deep sorrow.
I vowed I would only run a short distance then dive under the barrier to avoid going through the bullring tunnel. It was a high-traffic zone and runners would trip and trigger a pileup of bodies. Bulls tried to bulldoze their way through with their horns. It was the last place you wanted to be.
My plan fell part when the tide of humanity swept me into the tunnel. That was longest 10 seconds of my life. Seeing the end of the tunnel had a whole new meaning after that. The bulls and oxen were entering as I was exiting. But my day of recklessness wasn’t over. About 7 p.m. I headed for the plaza outside the bullfight. I wanted to rendezvous with three guys from Duke University that I had met on the train ride from Paris.
As I approached the bullring, all hell was breaking loose. A riot had broken out when police tried to calm down some drunks. Things turned volatile when some hooligans in the crowd started pelting policemen with seat cushions.
The cops in turn, in classic overreaction, started tossing tear gas into the crowd of 10,000. And the riot was on. I pulled out my movie camera and starting shooting footage of the chaos as bullring emptied and the angry fans tossed anything they could find at the police.
This wasn't college kids celebrating spring. This was pure rage, on both sides.
Volleys of live ammunition and rubber bullets were tearing into the crowd. I kept the camera running. I should have listened to people who warned me and fellow Americans to never point a camera at the Guardia Civil, the ruthless military police. I was nearly shot when I realized I knocked over my camera bag and crawled away from a tree to grab my passport and money that spilled out.
After a tense hours-long standoff in the plaza outside the bullring, the now-reinforced police counter-attacked the plaza because cop cars had been overturned and burned.
And where was I when the charge took place? Minutes earlier, I had the bright idea of climbing a metal pole in the middle of the plaza, with the movie camera around my neck. I was working for the Associated Press at the time and this would be big international news. As I reached a point where I could drape myself over a street sign, I didn't even get the camera pulled up when a barrage began of tear gas and rubber bullets. I slid down the pole like it was greased and sprinted like hell, since i was now the closest target to many of the cops.
The crowd scattered, with me at the tail end. As I ran downhill on a sidewalk toward the river, something loud whooshed past my right ear and landed in front of me. Tear gas filled the air. The canister missed my head by inches.
Pamplona soon went pitch black. No streetlights, no lights in the packed bars. Just an occasional police flare rocket that illuminated the famed cobblestoned streets amid sporadic gunfire.
While wandering the streets about 3 a.m. I came around a corner and realized I had walked into a large, very quiet crowd of several hundred people.
In the dim pre-dawn light they were watching a man climbing up the facade of a huge stone building. Then I saw figures in many windows. At that moment I realized it was a police station and the climber was nearing one of the windows where police waited with machine guns. I got the hell out of there. I had enough adventure for one night.
A day later the headlines in the Paris Herald Tribune reported several killed and many injuries in the Pamplona riots. I felt like I had lived out a chapter in a Hemingway book.