July 20, 1969
July 20, 2009
(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.)
Summer of '69, hitchhiking around Europe with a boyfriend. We'd just spent a quiet week drifting down the Loire River Valley in France, one cheap (and charming) hotel at a time, and found ourselves in a busy Barcelona packed with young American tourists like us. We located the ticket office for the boats that went to the Balearic Islands off Spain's Mediterranean coast and asked which one nobody went to. "Menorca," they said. "Nobody goes to Menorca."
The steerage section of the overnight ferry to Menorca was crowded with families, soldiers, and chickens, so we passed the time on the deck. A Spanish man our age approached us shyly and asked if we'd speak English with him. Sharing the post-midnight stillness (such as it was on that old ferry), we gradually learned about life under Franco, and by our dawn arrival in Mahon, the island's capital, we'd found out the real reason he wanted to talk: he was hungry for news of the world, something forbidden under Franco. The Spanish media was tightly controlled; our new friend had seen us reading magazines we'd brought from the States or bought in our travels. Would we give them to him?
In appreciation, he invited us to join him and some friends at a café the next morning, July 21, to watch American astronauts land on the moon. The actual touch down was scheduled for the early morning hours, and Spanish television had decided to delay its broadcast of the historic event. We got there early, but the place was more crowded than the ferry had been, all the little tables filled and people standing along the walls and spilling out into the street. Waiters hustled around, bringing everybody what we came to recognize as the Menorcan breakfast: sections of black sausage flavored with fennel, wedges of the bracing "Mahon curado" cheese, bread, and strong coffee.
There was a huge black-and-white television suspended high above the tables and sure enough, suddenly, there was the surface of the moon -- with a man in a bulky spacesuit stepping gingerly onto its surface from an impossibly fragile ladder. We gaped upward with the rest of the awestruck crowd, taking in the sight as if it were magic, making a leap of faith the size of which I haven't experienced since. Like an eclipse of the sun, it left everyone speechless. For us: another American experience that aroused a strange mixture of pride and ambivalence.
Franco is gone, dead since 1975. Decades later, there is a fierce struggle in Spain over the historical memory of that period; over what was true and who should pay for the torture and deaths of so many people, including the great poet Lorca. Because of the efforts of people around the world, and a relative handful of persistent nongovernmental organizations (and the foundations that support them), once-immune leaders and their henchmen have been called to account in country after country, including Liberia, Sudan, and Cambodia. The International Center for Transitional Justice, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are some of the leaders in this movement; "The Reckoning," about the creation of the International Criminal Court, is airing on PBS stations this month.
I'm thinking today about the young man on that ferry, risking arrest for possessing foreign news magazines. I wonder how he fared during those years and whether he's engaged in the continuing global debate about war crimes and justice. I hope so.
-- Kathryn Pyle