How do we become men when there’s no test to pass?
BY FRANK MINITER ’96
NORWICH RECORD | Spring 2021
The loudspeakers announced death was due in four minutes.
An American grabbed my left arm in the packed plaza in front of Pamplona’s town hall and implored, “How do I get out of here?”
Twenty minutes before he was boastful. Ten minutes before he was nervous. Now he looked likely to wet his pants. I shook my head. Like all of the runners in the encierro, what the Spanish call Pamplona’s “Running of the Bulls,” he was trapped.
We’d been waiting nearly a half hour for the bulls. If you wish to run with the bulls of Pamplona you must pass through the barriers be¬fore the police close them at 7:30 a.m. You must then stand in the street feeling anxiety ferment in your gut until the bulls are released at 8 a.m. Thirty minutes is a long time to ponder disembowelment.
At 7:57 the men, and a few women, in white shirts and pants and red sashes and bandanas, all looked up and jeered as a couple climbed a drainpipe. As they climbed onto an oddly empty balcony the woman’s dress caught on the rail and everyone in the street got a long look at her bright blue panties. Then she tumbled onto the balcony and everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
The light moment flitted away. Stomach acid seeped into my mouth. I wondered how the bulls would get through a packed street that resembled a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert. I looked up at the blue sky and saw onlookers overcrowding tiny steel balconies for six stories above, all hoping to see blood. Below them people perched, legs dangling atop barriers all along the jostling street; they’d been there so long their urine wet the pavement below them.
I stood where the festival had begun two days before with the chupinazo, a street party that explodes when the mayor shoots a rocket at noon. When the rocket goes off people pour water and wine from the balconies on a dancing, singing horde all dressed in white and red. Since the opening ceremony the wine had mixed with urine, vomit, and other things. I shuffled my feet and hoped I wouldn’t slip on the slick stone and fall sprawling under the bulls.
Then 7:58 came and men began diving from the balconies onto the street. A group of Brits began singing and locking arms as they bounced on the balls of their feet, finding courage in each other. Somewhere a pena played, its drums echoing like a far-off avalanche rumbling to the bottom of a Rocky Mountain canyon. Meanwhile, a recurring announcement broadcast in a dozen languages sounded like a conscience: “If you’re knocked down, stay down until the bulls pass ... ”
I glanced left and saw that the American who’d grabbed my arm didn’t understand. He didn’t know that in 1995 another American, Mathew Peter Tassio of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who incidentally had stood right where we were, had been killed because he ignored that advice. Tassio made two fatal mistakes: When the bulls pounded close he sprinted across the street, not with the crowd and the bulls, as you should; as a result, another runner knocked him down. Then he broke the cardinal rule of running with the bulls: He got up in front of a bull. A Spanish fighting bull is a wild animal. It will destroy whatever moves in front of it. Its horns are sharp and curved forward. The lead bull drove a horn into Tassio’s aorta and flung him across the street without even losing its place at the front of the herd. Tassio got to his feet once more before falling dead.
I knew this and other things because Juan Macho, my guide to the encierro, a man who had run over 80 times, had taught me how to run, and survive. With the knowledge came understanding and a deeper appreciation for running with the bulls. Knowing how to run controlled my fear. The American beside me didn’t know what he was supposed to do, and he found himself trapped in madness.
Suddenly 7:59 was on us and medical workers hurried into spots alongside policemen positioned between a fence and a barrier. The American next to me saw the medical teams and caved into himself. This was real. It was happening. There was no escape.
The crowd began to shudder in waves. One such tremor broke the American. He shouted some awful thing and tried to crawl under the heavy wooden fence and away. A Spanish cop kicked him in the head and shoved him back out alongside me. Blood dribbled from a small cut on his forehead.
Meanwhile, runners were losing their nerve, some were running early. The Spanish call those who run before the bulls arrive “valientes,” which ironically translates to “brave ones.” With their departure there was suddenly el¬bow room. I anxiously stretched, looked back to where the bulls would come, and breathed deep as I worked to restrain my fear.
I glanced left and saw that the American’s expression looked like someone in a Goya painting. His eyes were too big; his mouth roved around his suddenly fluid face. He was mad. He had to get out. He dropped onto the ground and rolled under the fence. The cop waiting on the other side clubbed him with his baton and kicked him back into the street. Then the officer bellowed something in the gyrating scene I shall never forget: “You wanted to be a man and run with the bulls; now you must be a man and run with the bulls.”
The Spanish officer’s face looked carved in granite. He stood so straight his spine bent backward. He had the proud bearing of a drill sergeant. He wasn’t to be trifled with. But the American didn’t want to die. Half the runners had already fled toward the arena. Those left were waiting, set like sprinters but all with the expressions of people watching a racecar lose control and come for them.
8:00. Boom! The cannon announcing the bulls were out of the corral and coming prompted more runners to become valientes. We had seconds.
A moving roar echoed closer as the spectators in the balconies sighted the bulls. Six black Spanish fighting bulls and as many steers running to guide them to the bullfighting arena were nearly upon us.
The American went under the fence again. The cop swung his club with calculated viciousness, but the American was too panicked to notice. The officer picked up the American who wouldn’t be a man and tossed him into a brick wall behind the fence. The American fell limp, wetting himself as he slid to the stone street. The bulls came. I ran.
Later, I told people about the hapless American. The veteran runners who gather at the Bar Txoko after the run shook their heads. Less experienced men laughed, then grew outraged that the cop had beaten him. I pointed out that if the cops allowed people to clamber over the eight-foot-high wooden fence, then people would get hurt in the panic as they pushed and fell over the barrier. Worse, their desperate escape might cause a jam the bulls would have to horn through in the tight streets of Pamplona. People would be trampled. Such an event occurred right before my eyes at the callejon, the gates of the Plaza Del Toros (the bullfighting arena) where the street narrows from something like a two-lane road to a one-lane. Dozens were trampled. Several were gruesomely gored. This is where Hemingway decided to have someone killed in The Sun Also Rises and where many others have met their end.
But all that was beside the point. The American decided to prove his manhood and the Spanish cop was there to make sure he did so with honor. Proving your manhood was once ritualized into coming-of-age feats and ceremonies. For a boy to become a man in the Maasai society he must endure a painful circumcision ceremony in silence, as acknowledging pain brings dishonor. The Cherokee required a boy to sit silently in the forest blindfolded the whole night through listening to every sound and not knowing if man or beast was about. The bravest Cheyenne warriors would rouse a sleeping grizzly and then attempt to outrun Ursus arctos horribilis. Many nations had mandatory military service—some European nations still do. A few cultures, such as the Spartans, had tests of endurance and skill. Others used brandings, body piercing, and other acts of mutilation, during which a juvenile had to remain stoic in order to enter manhood.
Today the transition from boy to man is a subtle shift, marked more by ages than feats. At eighteen we can vote, smoke, and die for our country. At twenty-one we can drink. These are earned merely by living, not doing. Just a few generations ago only the wealthy stayed in school and out of the trades into their teens, but now we pamper youth and grumble that they’re growing up too fast, when what we really mean is they’re exposed to sin too soon, not to manhood—strip clubs, alcohol, and tobacco are considered manly things, but surely don’t make men of boys.
So how do we become men when there’s no test to pass? After all, despite the lack of a rite of passage, being a man is something we try to achieve, at least the best of us. And there’s more to being a man than climbing the Matterhorn, shooting 100 on the sporting clays range, or dropping a bully with a right hook. There’s being a father, a husband, a good brother and citizen. Being a man is being a mensch. Being a man means doing the right thing when nobody’s looking; it means biting the bullet and taking the hit (in life) even when you’re not going to profit—especially when you’re not going to profit. Being a man means suffering in silence, knowing how to keep your mouth shut, but still not being afraid to speak up. It means being the White Knight, Robin Hood, George Washington, and Roland all rolled into one. It means speaking softly, yet carrying a big stick. It means knowing how to say you’re sorry, and mean it. It means keeping your own counsel and knowing when to seek advice—very tricky life-stuff. It means understanding the phrase, “Duty, honor, country.” It means having the know-how to solve a crisis. It means not panicking in an emergency. It means being a hero when no one is looking. It means knowing how to survive, lead, and show others the way.
Being a man means standing your ground when you must, but not seeking glory by harming or dominating others—a man is never a bully. The underlying reason Ahab in Moby Dick is a monster, not a man, is because he holds his wrath higher than the lives of his crew.
Being a man means endeavoring to find the correct path. Hamlet doesn’t become a man until he dies because, left fatherless, he is forced to take the steps to manhood alone and so attempts immature machinations before standing up boldly for justice and then dying as a man of courage and honor. Char¬acters such as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye are tragic because they’re rudderless in adolescence, and so, like Hamlet, tread a rudderless path to manhood. Others, such as Harvey in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, become men more easily because a man takes the time to show them the way.
Being a man means having the moxie to choose your own destiny. Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a man because he controls his emotions and makes the decision to go up against a group of outlaws alone in order to free the damsel in distress. Then he affirms his manhood by not wallowing in his heroism or making the event about him¬self. In fact, Westerns have retained their popularity because cowboys are our white knights, men who stoically follow a masculine code of honor. Today, the American male has no code. We have laws, but legalism is a poor substitute for a code of honor, because legality doesn’t always parallel morality.
The ultimate man is, in sum, that “one thing” Curly referred to as the meaning of life in City Slickers. He is virtue and action forged into something we can comprehend without advanced degrees in a dozen fields. He is an evolving concept characterizing right and wrong in a heroic, comprehensible figure; he is someone to look to and question as we encounter worldly problems.
He is fundamental because, despite the dearth of clear rites of passage today, every male must learn how to be a man as best he can; after all, such knowledge isn’t written in our genetic codes. Training shapes a soldier, a boxer, and a poet, not just courage, intellect, and brawn. Indeed, the American who wouldn’t be a man and run with the bulls failed himself because of his ignorance, as knowledge instills confidence. Through understanding comes self-reliance. That American’s fate in Pamplona could have been mine, but because I understood what was happening thanks to my guide, I steadied myself with the knowledge of what had to be done to survive.
After all, there isn’t one way to be a man. Running with the bulls isn’t necessary for everyone any more than being a cadet at Norwich University is, but having self-confidence is. And that assuredness comes from edification.
New York Times bestselling writer Frank Miniter ’92 is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction. This essay first appeared in The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide: Recovering the Lost Art of Manhood. His recent books include Conquer Anything: A Green Beret’s Guide to Building Your A-Team, written with Greg Stube, and The Ultimate Man’s Guide to the Workplace.