It was a Friday evening in October of 1991 and I was hanging out with some friends at a cevercería in the Plaza de Manuel Becerra in Madrid. I don’t think it’s there anymore; bars are continually reinventing themselves in this country. In any event, some of us were already there having a beer when another from the group came in bearing unexpected news. In the days before the widespread use of a spanking new invention known as the cell phone, messages were delivered orally.
Unfortunately, his arrival augured little positive. It was just the kind of tidings you don’t want to hear when you’ve ordered your first caña and are eyeing a plate of potatoes with aioli sauce. Someone had died. And not just anyone. It turned out that one of our friend’s father. He had just passed away that very morning and we were called upon to show our immediate and unfailing support by rushing to the side of the bereaved in her time of need at a funeral home (called tanatorio, in Spanish).
At first I was puzzled by all the hurry. The body was practically still warm. Just why would we be racing to a wake? As it turned out, we had to act fast, because once a person expires in this country, people don’t waste a lot of time keeping them around. You see, the whole death thing was a first for me in Spain. I was used to the customs back home, where you had to take baked hams over to the family as they grieved and worried about the funeral plans. Days could go by. “They bury him tomorrow?!” I was a little taken aback to learn they planned on lowering him into the grave in about the same time it took to send a box of pajamas by Amazon Prime.
“What’s the hurry?! Is there an early bird special or something like that? Do they get a discount on embalming?”
“That’s the way it always is?”
“Are you kidding me? Don’t you have to wait like five days just to make sure there wasn’t any foul play…?” Growing up in a murder-ridden country made comments like mine come naturally “…what if he is still alive? You’d be surprised how many coffins have scratch marks on the inside on the lids.”
On average, the deceased are either incinerated or interred between 24 and 48 hours max. It’s both tradition and law. I don’t know if it’s a result of the warm climate and fears decay will set in too fast or just a desire to get everything over and done with as soon as possible, but corpses hang around for less time than recycled trash and it’s unnerving.
It’s also disruptive. It means that kith and kin basically have to drop everything and tear off to the funeral parlor if they want to have a fighting chance at paying their last respects before the corpse gets whisked off to eternity. Mourning is brief and intense, but more brief than anything else.
“Well, if that’s the way you do things here, so be it. When in Rome…let’s go see her,” I proposed.
“Do you really want to go?” They asked. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” It’s true I really want to go. I didn’t know her that well, and I had never met the old man at all, but, what the hell, I wanted to be supportive.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“‘Cause it’s in Cartagena, that’s why.”
As a child of the American educational system where world geography gets about the same amount of attention as nutrition does on a box of Froot Loops, that meant nothing to me, but from the look on their faces, it sounded as if you needed an airline ticket to get there. I wasn’t far off. They laid the truth on thick and it involved making it in record time to a province in the southeastern coast of the country called Murcia, a sizable 250 miles away.
“What?! That’s hours away!” Nowadays Spain’s road network rivals the world’s finest, but back in 1992, the situation was decidedly less conducive to swift, and safe, traveling. I think the word “terrifying” best describes it. They consisted of harrowing journeys on narrow two-lane roads which you shared with fleets of bulky 18-wheelers, commandeered by overworked, under-rested and under-fed drivers. There was no way we were going to make it. We might as well have been crossing the vineyards of La Mancha by dogsled.
But let it be known that futility never got in the way of a Spanish road trip. If anything, it often fuelled it. The more hopeless, the better.
“All right. Let’s go bury someone.” I had nothing better to do that weekend. I might as well go to a funeral. It was as good an excuse as any to get out of town to know more about Spain.
We set off with whatever belongings we had on ourselves and tore down the four-lane highway, which offered comfortable travel for all of 40 miles before tapering to the traditional two-lane national roads. Happiness in my world came to screaming halt in a split second. Tense silence reigned in the car as we jockeyed for position along an open route beneath the dying light of late summer La Mancha. Travel times can double and even triple, depending on the density of traffic. Transit volume that day amounted to a full-scale exodus, with trailer trucks topping the list of those fleeing the capital. That meant we weren’t going to reach our destination that night and had to stop on the way in the often overlooked town of Hellín, Albacete. We sacked out in one of those simple and dodgy hotels built for late-night truck drivers, low-budget lovers, and lost language teachers. Got up the next day, floored it down the highway for another two hours to Cartagena and, without the aid of the yet-to-be-created Google Maps, spent another hour or so actually trying to find the cemetery before they lowered the man into the ground.
Just as we got there, we spotted our friend and the rest of her family advancing towards us in a semi-huddled manner and clutching onto each other as they departed. I guess it wasn’t our day, but, on the other hand, it was markedly better than the one the dead guy was having.
“Now what do we do?” I said out loud. In the middle of Cartagena with no funeral to go to and yesterday’s boxers stiffening by the second as if they were entering a stage of rigor mortis. Just what the hell can a person do in this city under these circumstances? We weren’t invited to the luncheon, that was for sure, so a free meal was out of the question. There had to be something we could do to bide our time before we went all the way back for nothing.
“Come on,” said my friend Pepe, who had grown up in the city. “I want to show you something. You’re never going to believe it.”
“I can’t believe I’m in this city for a funeral I just missed, so I’m ready to believe just about anything at this point.”
The name Cartagena comes from “Cartago Nova” or “New Carthage”. The adjective is relative because the community was founded in 227 BC by Hasdrubal the Fair, brother-in-law of the one-and-only Hannibal, the alpine-crossing, elephant-loving Carthaginian general who shredded the Roman army for much of the Second Punic War, only to drop the ball when it came to finishing off the job. In any event, Cartagena has proven itself ideally suited for harboring ships ever since its founding and it’s still a major port for both Spain and its allies. Currently it’s Spain’s fourth largest in terms of freight traffic and the main naval base in the Mediterranean.
My friend Pepe had decided to take me down to the harbor to show me first hand an American frigate which was docked there. I thought that was cool enough idea. I had grown up on the western end of Long Island Sound, where the only vessel of size worth mentioning was a ferry so wide and bulky it looked like a floating pound cake. It used to take us to a beach on an island, unimaginatively called Island Beach. How’s that for inventiveness. And while I don’t exactly consider myself to be a seafaring individual, a chance to take a peek at a sleek, for-real, American warship certainly did have its appeal.
Pepe was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of sharing the moment with me. My guess is that he either wanted to make up for funeral debacle (After all, I had been hoping to at least see a coffin) or he meant to further fuse the bond in our friendship by showing what our navies had in common. What the hell; I appreciated the effort.
As I looked at the vessel from a distance, I mean a real long way, I regarded its irrefutable naval features –it was gray and had guns. That pretty much summed it up. So, I agreed it was nice and impressive and employed all the right words that one does to convey gratitude, until the well of intelligent observations went dry. Then I suggested we go for a beer, which was always popular with the masses.
As we returned to where the others were, I noticed a large object shaped like a cheap cigar. It was near the dock and mounted on concrete posts to give the effect that it sort of “floated” in the middle of bed of flowers with tiny fountains of water dancing in the air. I enquired and Pepe got to the point.
“Know what this is? It’s a submarine.”
His first comment made me wonder just what it was about my face that suggested I would not easily recognize a sub. On the other hand, not only did people from my country write, finance, produce and release films like “Dumb and Dumber”, we actually made sequels.
“I can see it’s a submarine. Why is it there?”
“It’s the world’s first submarine. And we invented it!”
“Really?” That was not how I recalled my history. The voice of dissent burst out of me. “Says who?”
“The history books.” The Spanish could be so adorably naive. How was I going to break it to him and ensure I had a safe ride back to Madrid?
“Are you serious? Haven’t you people heard of the Turtle?”
“Yes, but that’s an animal. This is a manmade submergible. They’re different.”
“I know they’re different! Why do you keep talking to me as if I dropped out in kindergarten?”
“Why do you confuse military vessels with an amphibian?”
“I’m not. The Turtle is the name of the first submarine. And we invented it.”
“That’s impossible. Besides, who would think of such a ridiculous name for such a great invention?”
“Us?” I was taking a wild guess.
“Well I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong. You’re staring at the first submarine yourself.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Oh, you Americans can be so arrogant.” He was calling me arrogant? How arrogant can you get?!
It is important to recall that this was well before your average citizen possessed the on-the-spot disagreement fixer called Wikipedia. Instead, we were each treated with the power of spending weeks, months and even years comforted by the thought that each of us was right and that no smart-ass was going to whip out a device and call us out in a split second.
As a show of courtesy, I gave up trying to convince him, as if I ever had a chance in the first place, and let him show me the purpose of his admiration. It was impressive enough, I have to admit, and it certainly had all the features of a bona fide submarine. It was called the Peral, and to my knowledge, no one on the planet had ever heard of it. Just what was it all about? And what was behind Pepe’s claim?
To find out, we have to rewind some one hundred years in time.