Rodeo people christen bulls with colorful names. Country singer Tom Russell sang about East Texas Red. Chris LeDoux tells about Dust Devil Rage — there was a man killed by that bull in Jasper, Texas. Tim McGraw sings of a bull named Fu Manchu.
The three bulls that I came to know were Square Head, Freckles, and Sugarplum.
Bill Gresuk was a high school junior when I met him in Encanto in the mid-1960s. Bill had come out west from Pennsylvania to be with his uncle, Jim Lucidi, because he was interested in becoming a bullfighter. The close proximity to Mexico, he thought, would make it easier to break into the bullfighting world.
I was about 30 and had no thoughts of being a professional — I was merely an aficionado, though keenly interested in learning the passes, the ins and outs of the sport. Bill and I both started training at the same time. Bill later left for the interior of Mexico, to seek his dream of becoming a matador.
In the beginning, though we hardly knew the difference between a cape and a piece of red-flannel underwear, we were eager to fight anything that charged.
We trained with more experienced Americans who had gleaned knowledge from expatriated novilleros (bullfighters restricted to fighting bulls less than four years of age) and retired matadors from Mexico. Later, we graduated to lessons from professionals in Mexico. Matador de Toros “El Charro” Gómez was one who gave us a lot of help.
Living in the suburbs of an American city, we’d had little chance to see any type of bovine, let alone a fighting bull (toro bravo), and though our knowledge was meager, we were anxious to test out some of the maneuvers we were taught.
One day, we got fed up with the lack of an animal to cape. We were bored with dry runs, a practice technique where one person would grab a set of horns and imitate the bull’s charge. We wanted to face the real thing.
We came up with an idea, and on a sunny San Diego day, we hopped into my 1961 Triumph TR4 and headed for Bonita, in the foothills of southeastern San Diego, where we knew we would find cattle grazing in the pastures. Down a country road, we spotted a magnificent bull standing on the side of a hill. It was not a fighting-type bull, but this did not deter us. We were so hot to fight, we’d been considering caping cars on the freeway.
We leaped out of the TR4, grabbed the capes, and trudged up the hill. Our plan was to approach the bull from two directions — to corner it. The bull, a Hereford, glared at us as we ascended the steep slope. When we were about 40 yards away, the bull, perhaps startled by our intrusion, fled down the distant slope.
Foiled and panting, we tried cornering a few other bulls with the same results. Bright toreros that we were, we eventually came to the conclusion that this plan wasn’t going to work. We later found out from the literature, and from other bullfighters, that bulls in the field seldom charge if they feel they’re not cornered or trapped. Even bulls of fighting stock will ignore you or flee when confronted in the open. If bulls are in a herd, they most likely will not attack you.
That day, feeling somewhat discouraged and disappointed, we walked back to the car. We intended to call it a day. Driving home, we spotted a sign that read “Sweetwater Rodeo Grounds.” Out of curiosity, we turned up the dirt road that led to a group of rustic buildings and corrals. This turned out to be a small rodeo set up with stalls for releasing bulls and broncs. We alit from the sports car and took a walk to examine the facilities. There wasn’t a soul around, so we felt safe being there, and we ran head-on to a pen with a large, tawny-colored bull. He was kind of ugly, with strange proportions. He pawed the earth and seemed agitated by our presence. Simultaneously, we both had the same thought: Let’s fight this bull.
We contacted the rodeo owner and told him we wanted to put on a bullfight. We especially wanted to face that tawny bull, which we learned was named Square Head. To our surprise, the owner didn’t think we were completely crazy.
We agreed on a date when the rodeo grounds were available, put out publicity, and prepared ourselves for the big day.
We were such greenhorns that we didn’t have the proper garb, so we settled on dark pants and a white shirt. I added a sequined red tie, which I later realized was inappropriate.
When the day arrived, it was beautiful. The sun was shining, and there was hardly a breeze. This was important, because a wind could blow the cape around and make passes unmanageable.
This was in the 1960s, and CDs and cassettes hadn’t been invented yet. I had an old Webcor tape deck with huge rolls of tapes onto which I’d recorded pasodobles such as “El Relicario,” “España Cani,” “Cielo Andaluz,” and “La Virgen de la Macarena.” The rodeo owner hooked up the music to the public-address system, and the mood was set. It made us feel as we were participating in the real thing.
Before we could proceed with the event, Bill and I were called into the office and informed that we would have to sign an agreement with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stated that the bulls would not be harmed. How they knew we were trying to put on a bullfight and how they’d managed to find their way to the location, I don’t know. Sweetwater Rodeo no longer exists, but at that time, it was ten miles southeast of downtown San Diego, in a cozy valley overlooking the Sweetwater Reservoir.
The local people from the villages of Spring Valley and Bonita, having heard about the “bullfight,” began to fill the stands. There were about 30 spectators present, and they were mostly betting on the bull. “Get them, bully!” was one of the shouts heard.