Authors: Ruta Sepetys
Flash: just in case.
Suit coat. Tie. Wallet. Passport. Notepad and pen.
A beat pulses through Daniel’s mental checklist. He’s excited, but calms himself with assurance. Ben would only trust him for a minor assignment. There’s no pressure.
Carlitos greets him in the lobby. “You look very nice,
, where is the cowboy belt buckle?” The bellboy pistols his hands.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be back soon. Say, Buttons, can you send word to my parents that I’m with Ben Stahl and will return in a couple hours?”
. I’ll see that they get the message.”
Ben leans against a marble pillar in the lobby. His clothes are fresh but Ben is not. He hasn’t seen his bed.
“Are you okay?” asks Daniel. “You look rough.”
“Fine. You’re starting the day, I’m finishing it. Just waiting for a pack of due backs and then we can leave.”
Lorenza approaches with the package of cigarettes.
Ben drops a large bill onto her tray. “Thanks, toots. Keep the change.” He turns to Daniel. “So, you nervous?”
Daniel opens his mouth to speak but Ben interjects.
“Don’t mess this up, Matheson. I’m taking a chance on you so you better be on the stick. You have your passport?”
“Yes, but why do I need—”
“You’ll see soon enough. Here, take this.” Ben hands Daniel an official press pass from the
. “This is worth more than gold here. But I’ll need it back as soon as you take the picture. Can’t have you running around Madrid with a
pass. You’ll have to wind the roll and give me the film as well.”
If Daniel wasn’t nervous before, he is now. He follows Ben outside. Ben tips the doorman who is holding a prearranged taxi.
“So, sounds like Nick returned the favor in Vallecas, eh?” Ben rubs his index finger across his teeth, brushing them. “I saw him at the club last night. He said you guys were at a dance in Vallecas and some crazy bullfighter wanted to kill you.”
Nick went to a club when they got back? He was practically passed out in the car.
“Nick was drunk,” says Daniel.
Ben nods. “Okay, newsboy. Pop quiz to prepare. Who’s the U.S. ambassador to Spain?”
“Correct. Decent fella. He cares. Who are some of Franco’s guys?”
“Franco’s guys? You mean the Guardia Civil?”
“No, some of his ministers. His minister of information, minister of transportation.”
“Do you know anything about Franco?”
“Sure. He’s been in power since 1939. Devout Catholic.”
Ben rolls his eyes. “So? He also loves fishing and Fanta. Who cares?”
Daniel thinks back to Ana’s captions and things he’s overheard. He begins to recite: “He’s building the Valley of the Fallen and it’s going to cost millions of dollars. Under Franco, there is no longer freedom of religion. Protestant and Jewish religious services are not
allowed outside the home. Nor are their weddings or funerals. It’s a military dictatorship. People in Catalonia and Basque Country are not allowed to speak their native languages. The people are obedient because they’re emotionally exhausted. There’s a tension that exists between history and memory. Some people are desperate to remember but others are desperate to forget.”
Ben nods. “Nice. Anything else?”
Daniel recalls Nick’s offhand commentary and adds, “Franco aims for a ‘Spain of Spaniards’ only. Nick mentioned that some babies being adopted in Spain aren’t really orphans.”
“Whoa, whoa. Nicky told you that?”
Daniel nods. “He said that Franco feels that Republicanism is a heritable disease. So, to rout it out, kids must be raised by Francoists whenever possible.”
Ben’s face is obscured by a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. “Don’t go repeating that on the street. It’s an allegation, a piece of a much bigger story. Look, you didn’t hear this from me and I don’t know where Nick heard it. But yeah, there are whispers of babies disappearing. It began after the war. Children of Republicans were taken as punishment to the parents. But some claim it’s still happening now, that parents are told their baby died when that’s not really the case, that they’re being given or sold to a family that’s deemed more worthy.”
“Are you going to break that story?”
“I’d love to break that story. But right now there is no story. The laws of the dictatorship state that the adoptive parents are the sole parents.”
“What are the birth parents doing about it?”
“Their hands are tied. They can’t challenge authority here. If a doctor or a priest tells you something, you accept it.”
Daniel decides to tell Ben. “On my first day here I took a photo of a nun. She was carrying a dead baby.”
“The nun became upset when she saw me taking pictures.”
“Well, it’s pretty macabre to take pictures of a dead baby, Matheson. It’s not the St. Paddy’s Day parade. She was probably taking the kid to a morgue.”
Daniel thinks on the incident. The nun’s expression wasn’t one of privacy; it was one of fear. Nick repeatedly says that many people in Spain live in fear.
“Say, Ben, if Franco is such a tyrant, why is America doing business with him?”
“Various reasons. But I look at it like this: We’re a chisel. We’re slowly tapping our way into the rock. If we get deep enough, maybe we’ll crack it a bit.”
Daniel thinks of the visual, taking a chisel to Franco. It doesn’t work for him. From the photographs, Franco seems small and fleshy. It would be like chiseling rubber.
The taxi pulls to a stop.
“You ready, cowboy?
“Are we here?”
“We are. Welcome to El Pardo Palace. Get ready to photograph Franco. We’re gonna win you that contest.”
Some felt that the US Government should not be “cozying up” to this “fascist,” as they saw it; that we should not have signed the 1952 Bases Agreement; that we should not be giving aid to Spain; and that, like the Europeans at the time, we should be virtually boycotting Spain economically and politically. (It has since been amply proven in my estimation how wrong this point of view was.)
Our policy at the time was to emphasize that the United States was cooperating with Spain and its government to benefit the people of Spain, as well as our own interests. Our public pronouncements would seldom, if ever, mention Franco himself as head of state or his single-party régime, but would always center on the Spanish people.
, consular officer, U.S. Embassy in Madrid (1956–1958)
Excerpt from “Ambassador Lodge Corrects the Record”
(journal), February 1999
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Daniel follows Ben to a security checkpoint where dozens of military officers stand guard. Their identification and press credentials are checked against a list. Before being allowed through the gate, their bags are thoroughly searched.
A wide cement drive flanked by sculpted gardens carves a straight path to an expansive, two-story blond palace. Dozens of balconied windows line the front of the façade. Small dormers peek out from the gray slate roof, which is capped with over twenty chimneys. Daniel stops to take a photo.
“It used to be a hunting lodge,” says Ben. “Photo will be at the front entrance.”
Shep Van Dorn stands amidst the grouped media. He sees them and approaches. “You brought the kid. Aw, you’re such a softie, Stahl.” Van Dorn reaches for a handshake. “Good to see you, Dan. If Ben uses your photo, make sure he doesn’t run away without giving you photo credit. This is a real opportunity for someone your age.”
Daniel lets the camera hang from his neck momentarily while he puts his hands in his pockets. They’re clammy. He draws a breath. What would Capa do? He would try to get inside the photo. Get as close as possible. Daniel looks at the cluster of photographers and media. He notes the position of the sun. He wants to give Ben a good angle, something different from all the other photographers. But this is journalism, not an art project. Keep it simple. Make sure to get the shot. “Mr. Van Dorn, what’s our working distance?”
“Maybe ten to fifteen feet. You’ll only have time for a few frames before the general steps back inside.”
Daniel looks at the entrance. The red-and-gold flag of Spain hangs over the arched front gate. If he positions himself slightly to the left, he may catch a wider angle of the flag with Franco underneath. But would a profile make a good press shot?
The fortuity is not lost on Daniel. Van Dorn is right. To photograph a country’s leader in front of his palace is an incredible opportunity. He thinks of the photographs he’s seen of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. He will have a photo of a dictator in his portfolio, a leader whose crushing wake he has personally seen evidenced in and around Madrid.
But only if he gets the shot.
A clanging sounds behind the gates.
“Showtime,” says Ben, exhaling a lungful of smoke.
Van Dorn trails the embassy photographer, giving back-seat instruction.
Three men step outside the entrance. Daniel’s chest constricts. He looks quickly to Ben for explanation. “Stay focused!” snaps Ben.
Just over five feet, General Franco is the shortest, dressed not in military uniform, but in a drab brown suit. Ambassador Lodge wears a navy suit and a warm expression. Daniel counts his shots as he presses the shutter. He tries to concentrate, noting the remaining frames on the roll. Over six feet tall, the man standing on the other side of Franco towers over him. The short leader and tall man suddenly turn to face each other. They shake hands. A small breeze billows the bicolor Nationalist flag, exposing the crest in the center.
Daniel presses the shutter. He pulls a breath. He presses the shutter again.
Franco and the ambassador disappear back through the door.
Daniel looks at his camera. His shot will definitely be different from the other photographers’ because the tall man shaking the general’s hand—
It’s his father.
“Surprise,” says Ben. “This is a story in itself. A young photographer captures his father sealing a deal with Franco. Great, right? The photo credit will be Matheson and the name in the caption will be Matheson. Great for your contest entry
your family scrapbook.” Ben reaches out and gives Daniel’s shoulder a swat.
Shep Van Dorn approaches with Daniel’s father in tow.
“Dan, I didn’t expect to see you here,” says his dad.
“It’s all Stahl’s doing,” says Van Dorn.
Ben lights a chaser cigarette, clearly proud of himself. “Thought it would be a special father-son opportunity to capture the signed oil deal. Your kid’s a serious talent, Martin.” Ben turns to Daniel. “You did get the shot, didn’t you?”
“I got several.”
Ben flaps his hand, indicating he wants Daniel’s camera. He hands it to Ben, expecting him to wind and remove the film.
“All right, gentlemen. Let’s get Preston Hollow at El Pardo.” Ben snaps a photo of Daniel and his father, with the palace behind.
“Father-and-son photo. Some journalist. You’re more sentimental than a girl, Stahl,” chides Van Dorn.
“And you’re more bitter than a jilted lover, Shep,” replies Ben with a stare. He winds and removes the film and hands the camera to Daniel. “Well, I suppose you and your pop may want to have a celebratory brunch or head back to the hotel. I myself am headed to sleep.”
But Daniel isn’t thinking about celebrating. He’s unnerved. He knew they were in Madrid for an oil deal. He knew that Spain would be different from Texas. But he didn’t anticipate feeling so conflicted. And right now, he can’t shake the unsettling feeling of seeing his father smiling and clasping the hand of Francisco Franco.