he very first thing that struck me about living in Madrid, Spain was that the newspapers were in Spanish. I did not understand Spanish, so this seemed to me a curious if not alienating choice. I was, after all, a fully grown man, aged eight-and-a-half, although the fully grown man part came from my father, not my mother, who rigorously denied this description of her havoc-making son. I, of course, sided with my father. If I was not fully grown I was certainly full of myself, and this I assumed to be much the same thing.
Newspapers mattered because my father would go out to fetch them early in the morning. He’d come back with two papers, named “Ya” and “Arriba” (both from long ago), and another one called “ABC,” which was something like those loathed London tabloids that contained no baseball scores. ABC did contain gossip, and my mother loved it. How it was that both my creators spoke and read Spanish, I did not know. He was American, she had Polish roots. Maybe they had wayward uncles or cousins who secretly spoke Spanish and had intervened early on, knowing just such a situation might arise. I was not alive to be included in those lessons.
The only saving grace of my father’s early morning newspaper run was that he brought back the international version of “The New York Times,” usually at least two days old, and a few British papers, all at least a day old.
I craved these papers in the real language, English, but also found them to be a stranger version of the ones I’d known in Washington and seen in London. They had, in unpredictable places, wide open and jagged holes, like windows through paper, as if printed to allow readers to also look at passersby or their cat.
I found these holes delightful, a brilliant invention, as if Spain wished to make me curious about things beyond the news itself, or allow me to stare at our Siamese cat, Segreto, who had no interest in the holes even when I showed them to him.
What made the holes even more fantastic was that they were not uniform. It was as if a huge number of people, all handed scissors, had been instructed to cut in a certain place, but without being told their cuts must match. So some holes were larger than others and ate at random into pages. Some days the holes were larger than others. Occasionally a third of the front page was a hole. This, I presumed, was done for train or plane viewing.
I lived rather pleasantly with these holes for a few early days until one morning the scissor people cut into one side of a page whose other side contained my beloved baseball scores. I was, of course, enraged, and demanded explanations from my cat and my mother, who had little to offer. I had to wait until my father came home.
They took baseball! I shouted.
To which he mysteriously replied, “Censorship.”
At first I thought he meant citizenship and assumed there must be some ritual in Spain intended perhaps to make foreigners learn Spanish by cutting out sections of their “home” papers.
My father’s nostrils flared at my endless grown-man naïveté and I could feel a lecture coming. And come it did.
Spain was ruled by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who had seized power after vanquishing leftists and communists in a brutal civil war, anointing himself supreme leader in the fascist style and demanded the suffix “issimo” added to general, which made him not just a general but the mostest of generals. As Mussolini had called himself Il Duce, tantamount to a supreme being (I presumed a tantamount was a horse, or his horse).
In any event, what I was supposed to deduce from this very, very long lecture (both my mother and Segreto left the living room) was that the mostest man could not and would not tolerate any criticism from foreign generals and thus had appointed his legions to examine every incoming alien paper and excise articles a committee located in this magic mountain decided was offensive to the mostest, or to the Spain he ran.
I could not understand why baseball would annoy him, but this remark simply annoyed my father, who pointed out the hole was caused by an article the censors deemed offensive, by chance located on the flipside of BB, beloved baseball.
I, of course, sulked.
I also worried that the scissor people might become more zealous over time, perhaps cutting away all sports and leaving me abandoned. Sports was my refuge. How would I survive? My parents could get all they needed from the mix of Spanish papers and the be-holed foreign press.
This did, over time, make me contemplate the idea behind the holes, the hiding and the suppressing, but though I was grown up, I still remained fascinated more with the scissor people and their night work. I imagined them in vast castle-like rooms, snipping away. I imagined the immensity of the clipping sounds at once. I once even asked my father if the censors had a mostest, a chief, and if I could tour the castle. He walked away.
A few months into our stay came my wake-up comeuppance. No foreign papers arrived for days. My father explained that several countries had “decried” the Franco regime, causing a fuss. So this was censorship: the power to seal yourself off, to close your country to baseball on a whim, to lock down all but friendly kiosks, to print hysterically favorable news about the mostest at home, never mind others.
I finally cared, if only a little, and mostly because the scores were gone. But deep within me arose a thought. What if, at some other time in some other place, some other mostest decided a situation was such that no one could read. Maybe they couldn’t even go out. The mostest would control all but the weather. And no one would say a thing because they had grown used to the holes.
Such was my first moment of mature illumination in Spain. Little did I know the size of the Pandora’s Box I had opened by inquiring into the foreign newspaper holes.
The next illumination would come when I turned to my favorite literature on the planet — because who needed newspapers, holed or otherwise, if I could in truth depend, as I had in Washington, on those marvels of high literature, comic books. Not a single hole to be found in any of them, I beamed, and all was well — until I noticed a little something: the mostest liked it when the Nazis won.
And my awe for strange Spain deepened.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.