US Author Recalls Madrid’s Carabanchel Prison

January 1964. The cold permeated through the wool sports coat, the cotton shirt, the pullover sweater and the light wool slacks and sox, and I tugged the grey wool blanket more tightly over my shoulders. It would be hours before I could open the single window to the sun’s warmth. Warmth was not a consideration in a high-security lockup that was built by political prisoners for political prisoners.

I had spent the night reading by the light of a single glass bulb until I hunkered into a tightly drawn ball, where I spiraled downward in deep slumber until emerging back home in full color on a hot summer’s evening. I was about to share dinner with my parents and younger brother. Before me was a delicious charbroiled hamburger on a sesame bun with slices of Bermuda onion, summer tomato, and copious condiments. There were also ample servings of buttered corn-on–the-cob and Mother’s delicious potato salad.

In the other place, Moorish Trumpets blared and metal doors slammed against the wall in my corridor. The sound of military boots moved toward my cot. In moments, I felt the pressure of a boot pressing downward against my rump… ‘This could not be happening. I was safe at home.’ When I looked upward, there were green uniforms and a brown wooden paddle, inches above my face.

Some actions occur so rapidly they could never have passed through the brain. A split-second later, the paddle-totting man tottered unsteadily four arm-lengths away, while I stood awaiting what would happen with two uniformed men beside me.

“¡Carajo!” Bristled the guard with the paddle. He took a deep breath and made a point of arranging his jacket “¡Coño! Nights are for sleeping. Don’t read at night, and he took hold of the book, “understand?”

He held Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (originally published in 1932, four years before the Spanish Civil War). The book is about the magnificence of bullfighting and considers the nature of fear and courage. The guard leafed through the book’s photos and nodded to himself. Then he turned to me with a severe expression, “Understand?”

“Sí, señor.” I was now aware that I could be secretly observed.

“Ojo, Jillipollas!” He extended the wooden paddle. Then slowly he turned it over. Small ‘windows’ displayed the cells in my corridor with the number of inmates inside each cell. “Coño, nights are for sleeping!”

The three men turned and left, and moments later, I received breakfast – sweetened coffee in a metal bowl with bread. Periodically, someone would strike my door and yell, “No sleeping!”

I was already conditioned to be wary. Before Carabanchel, I was confined in an eighteen by twelve foot basement cell for three days and nights, beneath the Security Police headquarters. On the outside, this was a beautiful 18th century red brick building, in the Puerta del Sol. Inside, it was tough crime detection and severe law enforcement, while I waited in a dank, smelly basement cell with a teenage drug pusher, two belligerent criminals, five illegal Portuguese laborers and four American-hating Cubans who were in Spain for political activism (The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in Oct/Nov 1962). Cell dialogue was nonexistent, and the twelve of us sat on a cold cement platform, that also served for sleeping on individual grass mats beneath a single wool blankets.

The basement ambience was latent with belligerent hostility, while happy Madrileños above us went about their daily activities. Lavatory facilities were reached with a guard’s escort, when he was available. The teenager cried frequently while I waited in silence for the sudden Cuban aggression that was likely to happen.

The origin of my internment began in early evening when I returned to the apartment building with my German shepherd puppy, an English girlfriend and her older sister. Three men blocked the entrance. I suspected robbers and prepared a response, when one of the men grabbed my arm. I popped his hand off and prepared to fight when the same man smiled and flipped his lapel to show a jagged, yellow and red badge.

“Charles Michael Bennis, you must come with us.” He hesitated, still smiling. “I suggest warm clothing, maybe a sweater and jacket. I’ll wait for you.”

Thirty minutes later, I was inside his Seguridad office with my passport. We were speaking in Spanish about bullfighting, when he asked, “Why are you here?”

“Perhaps you should tell me?”

“I would tell you if I knew. My orders were to detain you. The university provided the address of the first pension, which referred me to the second pension, where I learned of the apartment. The order to detain you came from the justice department in Calatayud. Perhaps, that is the key to why you’re here.”

“I had an automobile accident in the mountains above Calatayud.”

“Were there fatalities? Serious injuries? Are you in the US military”

“No, no, no… I was on the way to Zaragoza for the Festival of Pilar, and the last great bullfights of the year. I study at Complutense in the Faculty of Filosofía y Letras.”

His face grimaced, “We don’t arrest drivers unless they occasion a fatality. Perhaps a small child was killed on the highway, and you’re being blamed for it?’

Then he sent a man to escort me to the dungeon while I experienced chilling fears.

Each day, the arresting officer brought me to his office for coffee, and we reviewed why I might have been detained. On the third night, I was with the officer when a telex arrived with instructions to transfer the detained Charles Michael Bennis to Carabanchel, Prisón Provincial de Madrid.

“What have I been charged with?’

My friend grimaced, “You have not been indicted.” He showed me the telex. He seemed as perplexed as I was, but he reasoned, “You will be more comfortable there.”

Then he allowed me to use the telephone, but not to call the US Embassy. It was okay if I had someone else call the embassy, so I called my friend from New York, who said he would take care of it. I was also allowed to invite several friends for a farewell visit. Afterwards, I was again escorted to the basement cell.

The next day, I was processed, photographed, fingerprinted and taken for a farewell visit with two Spanish brothers from Asturias, the American from New York, an American bullfighter / trumpet player and a German- American paratrooper. The English girl with the sea-green eyes stood shyly behind. It was a quiet sendoff. We kept a brave front, with jokes and practical gifts: oranges, cartons of cigarettes, and one book, Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemmingway. The English girl brought a jar of peanut butter, “American food,” she said.

My reliable New York friend had spoken several times with Ambassador Woodward, who remembered me from a cocktail party at his residence, and promised to intervene in my behalf.

Moments later, I entered a transport van with six other men and five women (who would be dropped off first at the woman’s prison). The women humorously tried to proposition the driver into making a nonscheduled stop. It was a fun but hopeless dialogue with the driver negotiating, and the women guaranteeing.

Eventually, the women noticed me. They were naturally inquisitive to know why an American would be going to Carabanchel? I volunteered to be guilty of hitting a fruit truck head-on at a reckless speed, when a woman sadly asked, “There were deaths, no?”

“Not that I know of.”

The women looked strangely at me, until one of them wished that “I would not leave Spain with a bad impressions of their country.” The rest of the women agreed.

Once inside Carabanchel, we men stood naked as we were processed and fumigated. Afterward we dressed beside our possessions, when the man beside me grabbed my oranges. I’m embarrassed to write what I said. However he backed off.

The worst moment occurred when I was alone in the solitary cell – compliments of the kind policeman. I had come to Spain not knowing anyone, yet I had loyal friends that held back their fears and wished me well. I was fortunate to have met Ambassador Woodward, thanks to my parents and our US Senator; however his help might be questionable if I were charged for the roadside death of child. I was considering the possibility that I could be indefinitely confined to Carabanchel Prison.

The cell was approximately seven by eight feet. The bathroom accessories included a sink (no mirror), a toilet bowl attached to the floor without a toilet seat or a water tank (‘flushing’ was achieved by a guard with a water bucket). Other amenities included a military style cot with a wool blanket, and a small window (with a view of a prison wall and a section of the roof) that was only reached by standing on the cot.

Suddenly, I was showered with anxiety and I nervously paced my cell’s perimeter. Panic was about to set in when I dropped to the floor and quickly snapped out military pushups until I crumbled with exhaustion. I knew my survival might hang in the balance of strength and agility, but it was the endorphins that truly quenched the panic.

The days passed slowly. I wrote letters, especially to the English girl with sea-green eyes whom I imagined was on her way back to Liverpool to be with a boyfriend who was famous for being famous. I read for hours, made prison notes and exercised intensively, as I was doing now, when a small, youthful guard opened my cell. He was there to advise me that I had an appointment with the Jefe de los Servicios after lunch.

Quickly, I asked. “What happens there?”

He looked perplexed, “You’re asking me?”

I acknowledged, ‘A disciplinary action might be sanctioned to punish the forcible shoving of a prison guard.’ A sense of hopelessness inched into my mind, yet I quickly escaped into the memory of my beautiful sports car. In Spanish, “Jaguar” has a guttural, onomatopoetic sound that closely resembles the growl of this ferocious animal. In 1963, the E-Type Jaguar was featured in the Spanish media but scant few were in evidence. I owned one. It was the most beautiful gift of my lifetime. The red E-type had a truly exciting design with ferocious performance; it was the icon of 1960s motoring.

In the mountains, I was so inspired by the Jag’s legendary rumbling exhaust and the magnificent cornering abilities that my speed soon greatly exceeded prudent velocity. It was nine p.m. in the dark mountains, the snail-paced traffic had spread out, and I forced the Jag’s powerful engine  to make up for lost time. With exhilarating speeds and loudly squealing tires, I darted through hairpin curves. This magnificent vehicle unbelievably negotiated the mountain roads with racecar proficiency… until I encountered a fruit truck straddling the center of the road. The high-speed collision could have gone two ways: I could have been thrown off the mountain, or I could have been thrown into the mountain. The later occurred.

Two days before, on the day the “Day of the Jaguar,” the Señora served the expensive delicacy of roast pig for lunch, and afterward her husband, a former Zarzuela singer from Bilbao, and a resident banker in the pension accompanied my to the Hotel Tyrol cafeteria where we took delivery of the Jaguar. The automobile arrived in shining splendor, and the three of us squeezed into the open convertible for the maiden voyage to the pension. Once there, the children had secured parking place, and went upstairs to the pension for cold Basque cider.

In prison, I could rationalize how the accident prevented me from becoming a celebrity playboy. I had an opportunity to experience the drawing power of the E-Type Jaguar when I drove the past Filosofía y Letras with the top down, prior to leaving for Zaragoza. Years later, I learned the wrecked Jaguar was featured on the cover of ABC with reference to a rich American playboy. Without the red Jag, I was just another student, singing in the Tranvia, as we tipped it, side to side, from Argüelles to my faculty.

Today, lunch was salted, desiccated fish with garbanzo stew and an orange. Not bad, really… when the youthful guard returned to take me to the Jefe de los Servicios Penitenciarios de Carabanchel. The door was closed when we arrived. He knocked, “Permiso?”

There was noise of movements. Then the door popped open and I stared disbelievingly into a sea of green uniforms, many with decorations. We stood facing one another, and I silently said, “Oh shit!”

A moment later, the group parted and I stared into the eyes of my friend from the first pension. ‘R’ rose and gave me a big abrazo. “You want to write a book, eh? Welcome to the subject matter!”

Then he became serious. “You must call the Señora. She is sick with worry! You know how distrustful Basques are! The Señora told the Court’s representatives you had returned to America. She figured you did something and she was trying to protect you.”

I started laughing, “That’s it! The arresting officer and I could never understand why I was detained.”

“You think The Senora is responsible?”

“Yes I do. The Jaguar is being rebuilt in the Coventry factory while the British insurance company is assuredly ignoring the trucker’s inflated repairs and loss of wages. Meanwhile, the Judge’s last best hope for resolving the case –el Americano – is on the lam out-of-legal jurisdiction.” I broke out laughing…  “Promise me, you will never tell the Senora!”

“I promise. There’s a rumor the US Embassy is involved.”

“I was a guest in the Ambassador’s home for a cocktail reception, thanks to our US Senator. I’m hopeful Ambassador Woodward might spring my release.”

“Then you will be getting out.” He smiled. “You must know the Señora is coming to visit you this weekend. She would cry if she saw you as I see you now! Worse she would blame me! You must call her and laugh and tease her like always. You do that and I have something for you.”

I called the Señora and she shouted, “Miguilito.” She was insistent, and asked many questions in a strong voice I had never heard before. She wanted to know how badly I missed her cooking? I said she would be furious if I told her the food in prison was better. “Liar,” she shouted, and then she roared with laughter. I knew everything was okay when she began telling me about the children’s activities.

Afterward, ‘R’ handed me 150 Spanish pesetas in prison cardboard money, the equivalent of $2.50 in US currency. I would be allowed into the courtyard, a place accessed only by the sentenced prisoners.

“You must get a haircut and a shave. For the Señora, no?”

I nodded. “When?”

“Now, ” and the same youthful guard motioned for me to follow him.

This was Spain’s notorious prison that housed perceived enemies of the state and heinous criminals during the Franco era. Dark rumors persisted of men being taken from their cell and executed in the middle of the night.

I entered the prison without fear. I was immensely happy to be standing in the sunshine and to breathe fresh air. ‘This is what life is all about,’ I thought as I watched men walking around the perimeter while others gathered in groups of two’s and three’s. Nearby, men were actively involved in handball, which I played in college. I approached the game to watch.

When one of the players missed, the ball bounced my way, and instinctively, I hit the ball back against the wall… The game immediately stopped. The players stood and stared, until the tallest man walked toward me. “Hola, muchachito.” (Little boy)

“Hola chiquitino,” I replied (smaller child)

The handball player roared with laughter. “¡Cojonudo!”

His name was Manuel, and he took me to meet his buddies.

The first man I met was small and slim and he extended his hand to point to a jet plane flying overhead. “From your Air Base in Torrejon. It must be a good to look up and see that. You’re in here, Americano, but your planes control the skies. My daughter is married to one of those.”

The next man I met was truly frightening. He was small but mighty with a physique that seemed to have been carved out of stone. He looked at me with limpid brown, unseeing eyes. His mind had gone.

Manuel was distressed when he explained, “This is a great Basque warrior, who expected to be executed. However Franco’s men used him for sport. They put him in a railroad car with another soldier from the North. Only one man could survive. After six combats, with men he fought beside, he came out as you see him now. He is a tragic hero, but he doesn’t know it.”

Our next stop was to the prison barber, where I lathered my whiskers and waited in line for my turn. When the time came, I climbed into the barber’s chair and let Pablo deftly shave my whiskers with a strait razor.

Manuel winked, ”Maybe you should ask Pablo why he is in Carabanchel?”

I ignored Manuel.

“Fíjate, Pablo. Have you forgotten? Tell el Americano why.”

Pablo remained focused on his work.

Manuel volunteered, “Pablo is from a small village. He was a happy man with a childhood sweetheart. They planned to wed. One day, the village tough guy violated Pablo’s girl when she walked home from school. Her face was beaten and bruised, and she sobbed in Pablo’s arms. She begged Pablo to forgive her. She had tried to fight…

“A week later, the tough guy came into the barbershop where Pablo worked. He specifically requested a shave from Pablo. They still talk about it in the village. How Pablo slit the man’s throat, right where the thyroid protrudes. Zzzip the neck was severed and Pablo held the man’s face to watch his own death in the mirror, as the blood spurted everywhere before the dying man’s eyes!”

Pablo was now shaving my neck, and he warned, “Don’t move.”

My Adam’s apple bulged and I had difficulty swallowing.

“Don’t move or I’ll cut you!”

Manuel was laughing at my predicament. Now, everyone was laughing. My Adam’s apple bobbed and bulged until Pablo smacked me on the top of the head “Tranquillo, hombre.”

Afterwards, I met many prisoners who were presented by name and profession before imprisonment. The story of ‘Pablo’s shaving el Americano,’ had everyone in stitches, and the laughter echoed in my mind as I returned to my cell to begin writing.

The following morning, the US Embassy’s first secretary arrived to take me from Carabanchel. I was delighted to be free but I hated to leave behind everything I had written. I walked out a free man but for some time, I would have an inordinate fear of police and captivity.

The US Secretary was inquisitive. “Tell me about it?”

“It was dirty, the food was lousy and I was cold at night. Otherwise, it was okay.”

“Okay? You were inside the most sinister prison in Europe. Any problems you might like to discuss?”

“No problems. I had a single cell.”

“How did you finagle a single cell?”

“The arresting officer arranged for it.”

“Be thankful for that and to Ambassador Woodward. He secured your release by convincing the Calatayud Judge you were from a fine Illinois family.” He studied me with a quiet observation of my mental and emotional state. “You’ve been through an incredible experience.”

“Being locked up in prison without knowing why is the worst part. Otherwise, I was bored, except for the afternoon I spent in the courtyard.”

“You were in the courtyard? You have to be convicted and sentenced before you enter the courtyard. How did you possibly maneuver your way into that unsafe place?”

“I have a friend, whom I sat beside at dinner for two months until I relocated pensions without ever knowing he was Jefe de los Servicios Penitenciarios de Carabanchel. My friend gave me access to the courtyard so I might shave and be presentable when the pension Señora visited me in prison.”

“That man is no friend!”

Chills of recognition rushed through my body, and tears came to my eyes. “He is a very dear friend. I promise you, the courtyard was safe when I was there.”

“You’ve had quite an experience.”

“I’ll never forget it.” Strangely, at that moment, I thought of the women who rode with me in the prison van. They feared I might leave Spain with a bad impression of their country. On the contrary, I would forever hold a place in my heart for Spain and Spaniards.

The windup: Rules of Engagement begins in June of 1964, when in real life I picked up my sports car in London, met a French woman and traveled Europe with my American friend from New York.

Also, The Signs of Destiny (working title) soon to be released is set in Madrid and New York. The story features an English girl with sea-green eyes, and a car crash — featured on the cover of ABC.
. . .
C. Michael Bennis http://www.cmichaelbennis.com/
Rules of Engagement — a passionate summer romance between a Parisian debutante and a University of Colorado graduate ends in heartbreak, until they meet 22 years later for a final chance to reignite an unforgettable love. (Fast-paced, unbridled passion, endearingly naughty characters and the softest sides of true love… with tantalizing rules).

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