February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

16. Spain: Telefonica

By |2023-07-23T06:07:11+02:00July 23rd, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
From The Magic Carpet by Apollinari Mikhailovich Vasnetsov.

he road to Telefonica began with a seemingly benign afternoon walk. My father, restless on a Saturday in September in Madrid, insisted I detach myself from my 007 sports cars I was making zoom on the floor and join him for a walk. The cars could wait, I loved my father’s company, I went.

We strolled, as was often the case, along tree-lined Calle de Velázquez, which led my father to speak briefly of art and of the darkness at the core of Spain, and of Goya, who possessed a strain of that darkness. He reminded me of the paintings we had seen together on a trip to Amsterdam. I remembered a Goya canvas in which two women who looked like old men grinned over a soup bowl.

But my father’s mind took orders from no one and wandered mercurially, uninterested in the fact that his listener might be too young to understand his wanderings. I was glad for this because it took me to places I had never been before or since.

That day the talk of paintings carried over into history and his view of authoritarianism, how, for example, Franco compared to Mussolini, two men he had grown to know fairly well as a journalist. Franco he disliked but understood as a tool of American foreign policy interests at the height of the Cold War. The huge American air base at Torrejón (which we would later visit), existed thanks to Franco’s communist-hating welcome man, and the same with the naval base at Rota.

My father’s mind wandered mercurially, for which I was glad, as it took me to places I had never been.

History, my father said, was a never-ending chess game in which the same moves were often repeated, notwithstanding the old saying about the dangers of not knowing history and being condemned to suffer the consequences. For him, the consequences were built into politics and geopolitics, and mistakes part of the drama of the human condition.

That day he called my attention to goings-on in a place called Vietnam, in Asia, where more and more American military men and politicians were turning their attention, since the north was in communist hands. The French had tried to stem that country’s north-south nationalist squabble but been routed in the end by the determined communist north, and so they left. De Gaulle had specifically warned Eisenhower, the American president in the 1950s, not to repeat the French error. My father feared the United States would soon do just that, and it would end badly. As with many speculations, he was right.

As we neared the Hotel Velászquez, his favorite, we saw a man in a top hat walking what looked like a poodle dyed blue. We laughed and my father imagined the poodle as a creature from “Kubla Khan,” the magical poem by Coleridge, or something invented by the poet William Blake, who, thanks in part to laudanum, created a surreal universe. At the time, many poets overindulged in laudanum, the cocaine of the era — some because they felt transported, others because they were genuinely in pain most of the time. Could I imagine, he asked me, a time before any medicine, in which pain ruled and much decision-making came from pained states, from people not necessarily in control of their emotions, their sickness and its side effects in charge instead?

Could I imagine a time in which the irrational made perfect sense, as did barbarism, because few breaking mechanisms existed to keep people “normal.” Think, he asked me, of the millennia without telephones, when communication was rumor and often passed down incorrectly.

My head was ablaze in all this, so much so that I tripped over a poorly laid manhole disc beneath which was telephone wiring. I remember because of the Spanish national telephone system label on the top. I stubbed my toe and cursed the existence of telephones.

The walk contained even greater riches involving Don Quixote and the effect of the Moorish occupation on the Spanish national temperament.

I was so taken by what I had heard that when I got home I had no interest in playing with my cars, I simply sat and ruminated over the bits and pieces of what my father had said, those few bits and pieces I understood.

A long preamble exists for a purpose, and this one leads to the dream I dreamed that night, of being transported to a vast port city called Telefonica, over which I flew, and which was draped in cables, like a tree in glowing Christmas lights, and below my flight, in the port itself, the liner “Titanic” was at anchor, its captain a scraggly old woman drinking from a bottle of something that had her intoxicated. She spoke to the crew about their next destination, somewhere among hills where tigers lurked.

All this I saw in the clearest detail, including the dead worshipping at their own graves and chatting about wars to come they’d participate in, carrying blue tubs, some allowed to take their dogs into battle.

The streets of Telefonica were narrow and covered in vines, and the mayor was a man named Panza who sat on a throne and commanded the sky to be more or less high, depending on the weather he wanted. He spoke of conquering Asia, filled as it was with dislodged manholes, his holy mission to set them straight. All this happened in a castle positioned on a bluff above the port. Panza would not listen to advisors who told him history was against making manholes fit correctly by force. They would have to fall into place naturally. But he ignored them and returned to play with his double-decker bus.

My own flight was complicated by the cables, and I cursed them, since it was hard to fly between so much meshwork, and at times I felt the swish of cables on my skin.

Telefonica had a dinosaur or two, but they grazed like sheep in a meadow and I saw them only from a distance, after landing in the crow’s nest of the Titanic.

She spoke to the crew about their next destination, somewhere among hills where tigers lurked.

I surveyed what was around me and told myself I had discovered a new world, and would need to know more. This was when the captain of the Titanic, the brittle old woman, shouted at me to leave the crow’s nest, it was hers, history did not belong to me, and her voice turned louder and more real.

The city vanished.

My mother appeared, announcing it was time to get up and prepare for school. I leapt from bed and ran to my father to tell him what I had seen in Telefonica, but he had already left for work.

So the city remained in a block of ice, like a mammoth, a perfect alternate universe lodged in my head. Most such dream places appear and disappear at the drop of a hat, archived by the mind, but not Telefonica, which sixty years later I still recall vividly and which has recurred many times over the decades, all the more now, as I live life nearly deprived of vision.

But the deprivation does not include Telefonica, where Panza must now reckon with his many errors in judgment. The Titanic has yet to return from the magic hills but I’m certain it will, just as I am certain the one diver who, against all odds, plunges head-first from the top of Telefonica’s highest promontory into the sea, an epic swan dive through the cabled air — that diver, first seen in 1962 but seen again hundreds of times since, is me. I wait only to make contact with the warm sea miles below the membrane of my mind.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.