Scoundrel Time

Funeral in Barcelona

In November, 1975, my ship, the USS El Paso, made a scheduled port call in Barcelona. I was excited. I’d never been there, and seeing such sights (along with escaping my Midwestern hometown) was a big part of why I’d enlisted. Almost immediately upon our arrival, local authorities contacted our captain and asked for a representative to report the following morning, at 10 am, to Barcelona Cathedral for an official ceremony of some sort. The captain put out a request for volunteers among our crew of around 350. I was the only one who volunteered.Such requests were not uncommon. In various ports, we often pulled Shore Patrol duty, for instance. We hosted visitors, we helped feed orphanages. As a child, I’d been a Boy Scout—an Eagle Scout, in fact—and so I volunteered for everything. I’m still a little like that. In any case, the next morning, I walked up Las Ramblas in my dress blues, with freshly spit-shined shoes. I remember feeling there was something wrong with the city: it was eerily quiet. I met virtually no one; no one returned my gaze.

The author, Michael White, on shore leave in 1975

As I neared the cathedral, I began seeing many Guardia Civil on rooftops with sniper rifles. At that time, the sight of any Guardia Civil—in their malicious, patent-leather tricornio hats—was always a disturbing sight. They were prone to throwing American sailors in jail on any pretext. We knew that. They were known to be trigger-happy, too.

I opened the big wooden door of Barcelona’s great Gothic masterpiece upon a packed throng of top brass in the most archaic, ornate uniforms I will ever see. Grand admirals with long, feathered, bicorn hats; ancient, bespectacled generals with extravagant heaps of gold braid cascading from their shoulders; officers from all over Europe, both breasts plastered with row upon row of heavy medals. Further inside, filling the nave, were many dignitaries and heads of state. I jolted to attention when a couple of officers stopped me and checked my military ID. They motioned me to stand in back, where I doffed my hat and stood at parade rest with scores of other military personnel.

I was like Forrest Gump before there even was a Forrest Gump. I’d been working at KFC the previous year. It took a few minutes for me to gather that this was not just any funeral. Finally, it hit me: this is the funeral of General Franco. I looked around for another American: there wasn’t one. It was a long service and mass with incredibly beautiful music emanating from the choir, the coro, smack in the center of the magnificent edifice. I paid attention, but understood next to nothing. On the altar, I could see the assembled bishops in full vestments, with cassocks and elaborately embroidered mitres. I was transfixed by the sheer magnitude of what I saw. I didn’t take Communion, even though I’m Catholic.

At the end, I was ushered back outside along with the other personnel. I saluted smartly, pivoted, and wandered off in search of an open bar. My Forrest Gump moment was over. Years later, deep in my active alcoholism, this was a story I’d tell sometimes, late at night, as if it were deeply meaningful. As if, when I walked the streets an hour before and an hour after the funeral, I could feel the difference in the Iberian air. As if I could hear the moment when the eggshell cracked, and democracy slipped out.

Later, in sobriety, this matter slipped my mind for decades—like many other episodes from my darker years—its meaning almost entirely drained away.


Last month, I had the pleasure of participating in a big event called the Unamuno Author Series Festival[1], in Madrid. It was an international, bilingual poetry festival housed primarily in the Residencia De Estudiantes, an institution where Lorca, Dali, and Bunuel once lived and worked. The driving force behind the festival was a poet-priest named Spencer Reese, whom I’ve admired for years.

The festival is named for a heroic Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno, the leading Spanish intellectual during his lifetime. Before the festival began, participating scholars led several of us on a day trip to Unamuno’s house-museum, in Salamanca. Unamuno is known for many things, but especially for a riveting clash with Nationalists in 1936, when he was 72 years old. Many of his friends, including Lorca, had already been or would soon be executed.

Unamuno was rector of the University of Salamanca at the time, and at the Columbus Day festivities there on October 12, the politically diverse crowd included Franco’s wife, the Archbishop of Salamanca, and General Millán Astray, Franco’s second-hand man. Unamuno sat quietly as high-ranking Nationalists delivered fiery pro-Fascist speeches, provoking chants of “¡Viva la Muerte! ¡Viva la Muerte!” Then he reached into his pocket and retrieved a letter—a last plea for help—written to him by the wife of a close friend, Pastor Atilano Coco, who was waiting in one of Franco’s prisons to be shot. Unamuno scribbled some notes on the back of Enriqueta Coco’s letter as the speeches and cheers continued. Finally, the white-haired poet stood slowly and began: “You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long . . .” And then he delivered a speech that still chills the blood. After denouncing the Nationalist cry of “¡Viva la Muerte!” as “insensible and necrophilious,” Unamuno went on to make one of the most celebrated remarks in modern Spanish history: “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” (“You will win, but you will not convince”).

It would have been reasonable to expect Unamuno to be shot on the spot. It is shocking, in fact, that he was not. Instead, he was escorted away on the arm of Franco’s wife, to be placed under house arrest by Franco himself. Atilano Coco was shot on December 9, 1936; his body was never found. On December 31, Unamuno died at home—according to popular sentiment, of a broken heart.

At the end of our tour of the Unamuno house that Saturday, the museum director showed us the letter itself—with Unamuno’s faded notes on the back. Something about this encounter with such greatness, such defiance, triggered a flood of memories in me. That day, I told my story about the funeral for the first time in decades, over coffee, to a couple of the writers on the day trip. Back in Madrid, at the festival itself—as fifty-eight poets from around the world read and paneled and lectured all week long—I told the story again at lunch, and then again in a taxi. It felt appropriate, and the people I told it to looked amazed.

After returning to the US, I’ve continued to think about the funeral. I should say here that there were two simultaneous funerals for Franco: one in Madrid, and one in Barcelona. I didn’t know that at the time. (I remember looking around for the casket, which was in Madrid.) I should also say that, on second thought, I don’t think I was really much like Forrest Gump. Young as I was, I’d already had a taste of battle: the Lebanese Civil War had broken out in Beirut the previous April, and my ship had been in action there for six long weeks. We played a pivotal role; we rescued a thousand Americans, trapped in a city being decimated by artillery fire.

Still, I think of that sailor as a wide-eyed innocent, a pupa version of myself. Who was I, I wonder . . . Was I even a liberal yet? I didn’t know much about Franco, who murdered the great poets who worked at the Residencia I stayed in last week, and then shuttered the Residencia itself (it reopened in 1986). I didn’t know that I was an alcoholic already, that my road would lead inexorably down and down through the pit of hell. I didn’t know that I’d find a way out, to sobriety and happiness, and then go to grad school to study literature and to become a poet myself. I didn’t know yet that poets always get the last word.




Author’s note: Just now, in an internet search, I found a Youtube video of the Barcelona funeral. I looked for my own young face in it, but like I said, I was in the back. Here is the link: