Sunday, January 20, 2008

Behind the Scenes of the Bullfight

Fred Renk’s home, ranch and life demonstrate his dedication to the art of bull fighting. He met with Ed and me in an expansive but dimly lit room of his LaGloria, Texas home. My first thought was this could be a mini-museum dedicated to bull fighting.

Posters advertising bull fights in Mexico and LaGloria wallpapered the room. The fine work of taxidermists – a bull’s head and hoofs – preserved the kill from an event in Mexico years ago. The suit of lights worn by El Texano, Fred’s stepson David Renk – an American bull fighter, rests against a lone chair positioned as ready for a matador to wear it once more. A glass case with focused bulb draws attention to the shimmer of gold –the lights -other capes and coats worn by matadors. As I wandered through the room, Fred frequently narrated a memory associated with the memento.

Fred is a fit man in his 70s now. He told me that he became an aficionado of bull fighting when he went to Mexico as a seminarian and saw his first bull fight. He gave up the notion of entering the Catholic priesthood but never gave up the love of bull fighting. In his book Two Hearts, One
, Fred tells his story and that of son David who lived his Dad’s dream.

There are some months when Fred teaches and trains young people to enter the ring. He doesn't
call this a “sport,” he says it is more like a “ballet of death” in which the matador must always know where his legs are positioned and give a half step toward the animal to encourage its attack.

“There are two things important in bull fighting.” He said, “The matador must stand still when the bull charges with brute force and must have a strong wrist and arm to hold the cape and heavy sword.” He reminded me that matadors risk their lives if they make a simple mistake. “Only men of valor and great stamina enter the ring,” he commented.

I walked with Fred to the field where his cattle grazed. He is a USA breeder of the “bravo bull” – bulls of special blood from the mother’s genetic line and breed to attack without provocation, to kill what is in their path. “A fighting bull can outrun a quarter
horse,” Fred claims. “They have been measured to cover 850 yards in 90 seconds.”

The animals looked gentle in the distance of the dusty range as they clustered under the shade of the sparsely spaced trees. They didn’t look so gentle when corralled in the narrow wooden pen
waiting to enter the bull ring later in the day. These were “clean bulls” – never touched, never before in a ring, never having seen a matador’s cape. Fred ordered a ranch hand to take me on the cat walk above the corral to see these bulls. The confined bull aggressively banged their horns on the walled area and sent shudders through me. I could feel the vibration of their banging in the planks beneath my feet.

I welcomed the solid ground beneath my feet in the matador’s chapel. This private space is tucked under the stands of the arena. Here matadors will offer prayers to Jesus and the Virgin Mary to keep them safe while in the ring.

In the cantina - bar, Matador Longinos Mendoza told me that meditation prepares him to face the bull.

“The first second in the ring with the bull will divulge how it will act,” Mendoza explained. “The first pass of the bull is critical.” Mendoza trained in Mexico to be a matador where he fought for 10 years. “Were you ever gored?” I asked. His answer was three times, each time he finished the fight.

“Stop?” replies a shocked Mendoza when I ask why he continues after being injured. “No, I don’t want to stop. I love it!” Mendoza smiled. “Let me tell you…once you fight, you want to do it all the time.”

And, Mendoza has fought often since beginning this career in the 1970s. When he married an American and came to the US however he found he was in “another world” where he did not know the language and bull fighting was not a lucrative career. He eventually mastered English and became a banker in Houston. We would see him in the ring that afternoon.

At four o’clock, the trumpet sounded and the gates opened. The bull fight began! Olé!

I want to gratefully acknowledge the hospitality extended by

Fred Renk for this behind the scenes introduction to bull fighting on January 13, 2008.

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